Davide Scalmani is the director of the Italian Culture Institute in Belgrade, the only one in Serbia. We were able to meet up with him and ask a few questions on his work and the Serbian publishing world.
Good morning Mr Scalmani. We are aware of the fact that you haven’t been in Belgrade that long, but you have already been able to form an idea on the Serbian publishing industry and to establish contacts with some of the major publishers. Can you give us an overview? Which are the most important players? What kind of books do they specialise in?
First of all, we must remember that the Serbian book market is affected by its population, around 7.5 million, and the general economic conditions of the country. The average monthly income is around 400/500 euros. However, prices for consumer goods are mostly aligned with other European averages, and books follow a similar trend. The Serbian book world is the usual paperback model, with authors receiving advance payments of no more than 1500 euros. Despite the uneasy economic situation, there is strong pool of regular readers who have kept buying books even during harsher moments of the crisis. There are around 400 publishers in Serbia, ranging from small to very small. A first print run is usually around 1500 copies, a bestseller can reach up to 50-60.000. The most sold book in Serbian history is Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, over 100.000 copies. A very good example of industrial success is the Laguna who, also due to an effective management of their distribution network, has grown over 15 years to become one of the biggest publishers in the country. Another very well known name today is Vulkan, born in 2013 from the merging of two other publishers. The name was chosen to symbolise the ‘eruption of ideas’ at the root of the editorial strategic project, featuring a wide-ranging selection of both national and foreign titles, and a focus on the growth of its own bookshop chain. Also worthy of mention is Evro Giunti, particularly strong for children’s books, as is Kreativni Centar. Of course, there are also Geopoetika, Clio, Paideia, strong in fiction and essays both Serbian and in translation. Overall, the Serbian market can definitely be called eclectic, as it is dominated by literary and commercial fiction, the latter mostly for a female readership, though most genres we might be used to are also published. Among the bestsellers, to give you an example, names like Saramago and Coelho coexist with E.L. James.
Here at Booksinitaly we are particularly keen to hear what type of links the Serbian cultural and publishing worlds hold with Italy. Do you think publishers are knowledgeable and up to date in following the development and trends of the Italian book landscape?
It’s hard to talk of ‘Serbian publishers’ as a single entity, as they include a variety of realities and sensibilities. There is some high competence, with small, extremely academic publisher and giant commercial ones. Italy is undoubtedly a significant cultural reference point for both publishers, Serbian literary elites, and the general population, all of whom are interested in exploring what is currently happening in Italy. There is a superficial understanding of the cultural and literary capital that Italy brings from the past, but it becomes more rarefied as it reaches the present. One thing which is worth mentioning is that there is no such thing as a unified, independent chart for book sales, as each book retailer creates their own. For example, Vulkan currently claims Umberto Eco’s Numero Zero as top entry, while for Laguna it doesn’t even feature in the top ten.
How often and how much is Italian translated in Serbia? In your experience, what type of author, movement, genre is the most likely to be sold in Belgrade book shops?
For years, the Serbian market had a large portion dedicated to translation, though of recent the view has changed, with local work climbing the charts: we’ve seen a shift from 20% of total books published to the current 40%. They are not, however, always of the best quality, especially in cases where the publisher is very small and has no links to professional translators, who are usually academics. What would rectify this is an increase in collaborations with foreign publishers, in order to raise the bar once more for the overall quality of the field. In terms of non-fiction publications, psychology and popular science are among the best selling, alongside current affairs and topics of national interest. There is also, and always has been, a strong presence of traditional Italian comics series (e.g. Alan Ford, Tex, Diabolik), still extremely popular and sold through newsagents.
For a more general idea of the reality of translations, some of the names you might find: Umberto Eco, Alessandro Baricco, Niccolò Ammaniti, Italo Calvino, Claudio Magris, Sergio Romano, Antonio Tabucchi, Margaret Mazzantini, Stefano Benni, Melania Mazzucco, Fabio Volo, Federico Moccia, Giulio Leoni. And, of course, the big names of Italian literature.
One could identify two groups of translated works from Italian: canonical authors, from Dante to Petrarch to Machiavelli, and the more contemporary ones. There are some seriously laudable initiatives, such as the complete translated works of Pirandello, currently in progress with Paideia. Fraktura, another Serbian publisher, has published Claudio Magris, and Baricco and Ammaniti are widely translated. Some Italian authors have only been published thanks to the support of the Italian Ministry for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation programmes, to which our Institute reports to in Belgrade. The impression we all have is that with just a little more financial aid, there would be significant and intriguing results for Italian authors over here. It can happen, however, that a local publisher’s motives behind an Italian choice are a little obscure, leading to incoherent catalogues and publication schedules. Once again, all the situation would need is a little more knowledge. Through the Belgrade ICE section, our intent is to strengthen the publishing ties from both sides; as we speak, a delegation of Serbian publishers is visiting Italy, in the hope of future projects and exchanges between the two worlds.
Are Serbian readers interested, on average, in Italian books?
Undoubtedly. The perception that Italy has of the interest in Serbia and the Balkan area overall is very confused and badly informed. Serbian readers are very interested in our books, and they recognise their literary value. Not only that, they are interested in Italy and its contemporary cultural landscape, you can see the interest in keeping close and up to date to what is currently happening over in Italy.
What type of promotion for Italian literature in Serbia is worth mentioning? Is there anything more, or different, that could be done?
To the general public, the most active and engaging moment is the Belgrade Book Fair, taking place during the last week of October, and which just reached its 60th anniversary. The Italian Cultural Institute had an extremely well-received promotional stand this year. As a foreign cultural presence, we are not allowed to directly sell at the event, though we heavily promoted the practice of reading Italian literature and our library resource, open to the public. The Book Fair, I should mention, is the busiest cultural event in the country (180.000 people this past event), and its importance draws multiple publishers and industry professionals from neighbouring countries. It’s a point of reference, almost a compass, for the wider area of Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, and also other parts of Eastern Europe. As a market, it has enormous potential, and increasing the interest in Italian literature would significantly expand our presence in just a couple of years. The Fair sees an extremely high number of book sales. If Italian publishers were present with pitches, be they literary fiction or picture books or young adult fiction, for example, the audience would undoubtedly show a lot interest. The Institute is open to this type of collaboration, and is already seeking out interested partners for the 2016 edition. The promotion initiatives also take place during reader events in bookshops or cultural centres, such as our own, and during award ceremonies. One of the most important for the latter category, in terms of Serbian literature, is the NIN, the most prestigious national prize, awarded in January to the best Serbian-language book. The audience enjoys meeting and mingling with authors at such an event. Additionally, RTS, the national broadcasting company, holds a cultural programme featuring interviews with writers – Mario Vargas Llosa, David Grossman, Amos Oz, Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, Paul Auster, Orhan Pamuk – hosted quite brilliantly by Neda Valčić Lazović, one of the journalists from the culture section of the company. We are working to ensure their trip to Italy to interview an important Italian author, but the financial situation is what it is. Serbia is no exception in its arts-based programming. Though TV and media more in general are frequently used to launch authors and personalities linked to the book world, just like in Italy.
We are aware of the strong collaborative links between your Institute and the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Belgrade. Do you have anything to add on the field in Serbia? How much interest is there in the Italian language?
The Department of Italian Studies of Belgrade is an institution of monumental importance for our language in Serbia, and one of the crucial partners for our Institute. Their students are truly impressive, and only graduate after having achieved excellent proficiency in the Italian language. The teaching staff are a rare source of knowledge and connection to our country, and are personally active in a number of fields, including publishing and translation. Recently, the ambassador Giuseppe Manzo inaugurated the Department of Italian Studies at the University of Kragujevac, the second of its kind in the country, which is a hopeful sign for the growth of Italian as a language of culture and, potentially, of work. We mustn’t forget that Italy is Serbia’s biggest commercial partner, that Italian companies have a large presence in the country with some significant outputs, and knowing Italian can open up a number of avenues otherwise precluded. Italian is also taught in schools, and recognised as a cultural reference. Around 12.000 students each year learn Italian at both primary and secondary school levels, and many others speak it out of personal interest and passion, or because of ties with Italy. We offer language courses at the Institute, too, and they are extremely well attended: over 200 subscriptions for the first term alone, and as of this year, our first children’s course.
Translation by Alex Valente.
11 December 2015