How can independent publishers get works of translated literature to readers in an era marked by media saturation and increased dominance by major companies over the book business, all after years of general apathy from consumers toward books in translation? That was the central question at an industry roundtable on "How to Promote Italian Literature in the USA" held by Multipli Forti, the Italian literary fiction festival, at the Italian Cultural Institute in New York on June 6.

The panel, moderated by Roman publisher Minimum Fax's editorial director, Luca Briasco, and Michael Reynolds, the editorial director of Europa Editions, brought together a number of key figures in the translated literature sector: Terrie Akers, Other Press marketing director; Beniamino Ambrosi, foreign rights director and agent at the Cheney Agency; Tynan Kogane, senior editor at New Directions Publishing; Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson Bookstores; and Dan Simon, publisher of Seven Stories Press.

At Seven Stories, Simon said, “We believe in that slow work” of discovering authors and then sticking by them. “Once we fall in love, then we’re kind of stuck.” In terms of how those authors are discovered, New Directions’ Kogane said foreign rights departments at literary agencies, translators coming to them directly, and the recommendations of friends all play a role: “We like to take things from people who we trust,” he said. Akers added that literary scouts also played a big role in recommending potential acquisitions at Other Press.

Ambrosi and McNally, for their part, pointed out that bigger publishers are starting to take more of an interest in publishing works of translation over the past decade. “There are publishers for whom this is a mission, then there’s a more commercial track,” Ambrosi said. “I think [publishing in translation] used to be a smaller pool in the U.S., and the history of it is a little bit random, made up of sporadic successes.” But such surprise bestsellers as Elena Ferrante, Han Kang, and Karl Ove Knausgaard, he said, helped to open up the market: “Every one of these books widens the scope a little bit.” As a result, Ambrosi noted, agents and acquiring editors both have gotten used to seeing these names frequently as comp titles during the acquisition stage.

McNally cited Knopf as one of the Big Five imprints starting to get better at presenting these books for American readers. Still, she said, publishers have a ways to go, at least from a bookseller’s perspective. “If you’re publishing international books, you could really seduce somebody, the way a travel brochure could,” she said.

In terms of discovery, Simon said that the “Amazonification” of the book business has made things more difficult than the sheer number of promotional tools available to publishers today might imply: “You can do everything right, right now, and it might still not work.” He wished, he said, that the commercial houses would go back to publishing commercial books only, calling imprints like Riverhead “unfortunately very good.” He added that he hoped that the bigger houses' attention span for international literature will prove “short, and they’ll move onto something else.”

Kogane's philosophy is a bit different, relying more on longevity than buzzworthiness. "New Directions has always sort of thought about publishing writers' writers, and writers who appeal to other writers," he said. "Publishing so many great mid-century American writers enriched Italian literature through translation. I think we're trying to approach Italian literature in the same way. With a writer like Natalia Ginzburg, I think so many American writers, both young and old, have found some model for what fiction could do in the English language."

How influential a book’s reception in its native market is to publishers’ promotions was a matter of debate. When it comes to countries like France, Italy, and Spain, Simon said, people “love the films, they love the food, they want to visit, they love the landscape, and then it suddenly gets all blurry when it comes to literature.” For books in translation on these books, it’s better to get American blurbers, he said: “I believe in publishing up to people in terms of the quality of the work, and publishing down to them in terms of the marketing. They just want to hear from some movie star or influencer they love…. They want it made American.”

McNally disagreed. “Maybe Dan's thinking nationally and I'm just thinking of New York, but when I find out that something was, say, the biggest book in Norway last year, I find that interesting, exciting, and I think my customers do too.” She added that highlighting a title's country of origin has proven successful in selling books at her stores.

“I have always [organized] the literature section in my stores in terms of countries, and at one point, when the original store was maybe five or six years old, I thought, maybe I'm wrong,” she said. “When I switched the organization to A-Z [by author], [sales] numbers [for international literature] went down by about 30% immediately, so we switched them back. Now, what we've been doing at our stores, more and more, is switching the front tables from [showcasing] fiction and nonfiction to American and international [books], and international book sales have gone up.”

Akers split the difference. Other Press does use press and bestseller placement from native countries on their books, and "sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't." She conceded that, when it came to blurbs, “an American author is more likely to make it on the cover, and foreign press is more likely to go on the back cover.”

Opportunities for promotion of international literature in the U.S. and how they’ve changed over the past two decades was also a point of contention. Kogane and Ayers were mostly upbeat on the situation. Thanks to Ferrante and Knausgaard, Kogane said, publishers are more willing to take chances on translated literature: “success,” he said, “begets success.” Akers pointed to the increasingly “robust community” of publishers of literature in translation in the U.S., calling it “a bit of a ground swell,” although she hedged that by saying that they “need to get past that 3%” market share for translated books.

Simon and McNally were a bit less optimistic about avenues for promotion, despite McNally’s nod to TikTok. That skepticism centered on the diminished influence of bookish publications. “A lot of the things that would move the needle in terms of books, like the New York Times Book Review, are not as important than they used to be,” Simon said.

McNally agreed, and noted that, despite the welcome nature of an increased number of prizes highlighting books in translation—the Booker International Prize and the National Book Award for Translated Literature among them—she wasn’t sure that they were quite making up for what was lost.

“In the last 15 years, we've watched almost every place from which people used to get book news stop providing book news,” McNally said. “So yes, I think they do make a difference, but it also feels like something as simple as, as the tides recede, something else is left on the beach. Back in the day, a cover review in the New York Times [Book Review] would have sold more than the Booker, but a cover review at the Times isn't impactful anymore. So the Booker International is what's still on the beach."