Olive, lemon, and almond trees fill valleys between the rocky, wind-blown mountains of western Sicily. Fichi d’india (prickly pear cactuses) line the road from Palermo, where a group of book editors from the U.S. were traveling to Sciacca, a town of 40,000 founded by the Greeks in the fifth century B.C.E.

There, they participated—along with hundreds of attendees from throughout Sicily—in an annual literary and film festival run by Letterando and the Sciacca Film Fest, and organized by the Italian Trade Agency (ITA), in cooperation with Sicily’s regional government, the Sicily Film Commission, the regional tourist office, and the Sciacca mayor’s office.

The event is the centerpiece of a plan by Italy’s Ministry for Economic Development (MSE) and the ITA to give more international exposure to small- and medium-sized publishers in the country’s south. The program, called Voices from the South, is intended to increase sales of translation rights to U.S. houses and boost exports by introducing American editors to Italian publishers and taking them to regional book festivals.

In addition to Sicily, the regions included in the agency’s purview are Apulia, Calabria, and Campania. Similar festivals will be held in the latter three regions in the coming months.

Italy is the world’s sixth-largest importer of U.S. books and magazines, with sales totaling $90 million. Yet there is a great disparity between the number of American titles that Italian publishers acquired in 2013 (2,500) and the number they sold to U.S. publishers that year (168). Voices from the South is seen as one way to address the imbalance and put smaller publishers on more even footing with their larger competitors.

The American editors in the group were selected because of their general interest in foreign-language books and included Valerie Merians (co-owner, Melville House); Philip Rappaport (director of publishing partnerships, Open Road); Jenna Johnson (senior editor, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); Michael Wise (cofounder, New Vessel); and Ines ter Horst (foreign rights manager, University of Chicago Press).

The festival took place September 5–11 at the Chiesa Maria Dell’Itra and on the grounds of the Badia Grande, a 14th-century convent. A large oak door opened onto a sprawling open-air courtyard, where publishers displayed their books on tables beneath a tent. Along the side, festival attendees followed a breezeway to a palazzo hidden from the village by 10-ft.-high walls, but open to the nighttime stars. There, about 500 attendees watched a series of four short films based on the work of famous Sicilian authors (see “A Journey Through Literary Sicily in Film,” p. 22).

Adjacent to the square, in a newly renovated building, a dozen Italian publishers met with their American counterparts to introduce their lists and explore translation opportunities. The panel was moderated by Eleonora Lombardo, a journalist in Sicily with Corrierre della Sera, one of Italy’s largest newspapers. Panel members included Elena Phillips, head of ITA’s publishing task force in the U.S., and Leopoldo Sposato, responsible for ITA’s worldwide publishing program, which is based in Rome. The American editors rotated in to introduce themselves and talk about U.S. publishing needs.

More than anything, the conference offered both American and Italian publishers ways to understand each other’s interests and begin a dialogue. Rappaport of Open Road said he wants to bring to life as e-books great titles published 25–50 years ago. The publisher has already released English editions of Italian titles such as Oriana Fallaci’s A Letter to a Child Never Born; in the fall, it will publish a previously untranslated work by popular Sicilian crime novelist Andrea Camilleri.

“I understand how Camilleri and art books are interesting for American audiences,” Lombardo said. “But what about other Sicilian writers?”

“I can’t say generally why a book on Sicily would be of interest to American audiences,” Rappaport noted, “but great writing is great writing, and a good book is a good book no matter where you are.”

Johnson from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt said that she is more interested in fiction than nonfiction, and that she looks to foreign publishers to suggest interesting titles. HMH publishes Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, and while Johnson hasn’t personally acquired Italian titles for the house, her recent acquisitions include Young-Ha Kim’s I Have the Right to Destroy, translated from the Korean.

Noting the need for Italian publishers to promote books that have commercial potential, Phillips pointed to Marco Malvaldi—author of a series of mysteries that the ITA promoted during this year’s BEA—as a case study for success. Europa Editions is releasing English translations of the books in the series, which have broad appeal, Phillips says, because the books take place in a small bar in a countryside village. “This kind of bar can be found in nearly every town in the world.”

Ter Horst pointed to popular early-20th-century author Luigi Pirandello as an example of a writer published by University of Chicago Press, noting that, of the 600 books in translation released by the publisher, 100 were written in Italian.

Merians said Melville House publishes lots of Italians, including early-20th-century novelist Italo Svevo, as well as Carlo Benini, author of Collusion, about the Bush administration; Melville has also released several Italian cookbooks. She says it helps if publishers submit sample translations and plot summaries.

Wise from New Vessel, a two-year-old publishing house whose list includes both new and previously out-of-print titles, said his biggest book last year was the novel Cocaine by Pitigrilli, a controversial dark comedy about a newspaper reporter that was originally released in Italy in 1921; the English translation is by Eric Mosbacher. Wise is seeking contemporary Italian fiction and literary nonfiction, as well as forgotten classics.

Sellerio Editore, Camilleri’s publisher, is Sicily’s most widely recognized publishing house, though there are at least a dozen others.

Based in Palermo, Edizioni Caracol (www.edizionicaracol.it) is focused on increasing public awareness of culture, art, and architecture—especially in Sicily. The house’s Monica Craparo discussed an elaborately illustrated book called [em]Le eruzioni dell’Etna nell’opera di Orazio Silvestri[/em] (The Eruptions of Aetna and the Works of Orazio Silvestri), by a 19th-century geologist from Florence.

Vincenzo Graffeo of Melqart Communication (www.melqartcommunication.it), based in Sciacca, presented La notte in cui Pessoa incontrò Filippo Bentivegna (The Night Pessoa Met Filippo Bentivegna), a novel by Vincenzo Catanzaro. The book, about “an imaginary meeting between the great Portuguese writer [Pessoa] and an unknown, illiterate sculptor,” was a finalist in literature at Sicily’s Kaos Literary Festival.

The editors from Aulino Editore (www.aulinoeditore.it) presented a book about a boxer during the 1920s. Giuseppe Curreri alias Johnny Dundee: Le orginine siciliane del grande pugile (Giuseppe Curreri, Alias Johnny Dundee: The Origins of the Great Sicilian Fighter) is a biography of a young man who was born in Sciacca and raised in America, who became a super lightweight champion.

Armando Siciliano, owner of Armando Siciliano Editore (www.armandosicilianoeditore.it), founded in Messina in 1986, introduced the American editors to a novel by Michele Barbera titled Il testamento di Vantò (The Testament of Vantò), about an eccentric smalltown scholar, which also won a prize earlier this year at the Kaos Literary Festival. The publisher’s list includes novels, poetry, and books on music. One nonfiction book—Vite anNegate (Drowned Lives) by Roberto Rapisarda—explores the plight of African immigrants who landed on the Sicilian island of Lampedusa during the last seven years.

Ugo Magno, an editor at Mesogea (www.gem.me.it), based in Messina, presented a selection of fiction, nonfiction, and children’s books, including La banda dei Giufà (The Tales of Giufà) by Carlo Carzan and Lucia Scuderi—a series of illustrated children’s tales about a folkloric character named Giufà, a kind of village idiot.

Bonfirraro Editore (www.bonfirraroeditore.it), based in Enna, was, according to its catalogue, “founded 30 years ago and dedicated to discovering new talented writers celebrating the Sicilian cultural identity.” Owner Salvo Bonfirraro presented several of books from the publisher’s list of 150 titles, including Luigi Manzatto’s Innocenza Rubata. Storie segrete di una monacazione (Stolen Innocence: Secret Stories of Taking the Veil), about women entering convents.

Founded in 2003 as a free experimental newspaper in the city of Marsala, Navarra Editore (www.navarraeditore.it) is now a book publisher “dedicated to social and cultural phenomena, with particular attention to emerging authors.” Its list includes Camicette bianche: Oltre l’8 marzo (White Blouses: On March 8) by Ester Rizzo, about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City.

Last but not least, Aperatura a Strappo (aperturaastrappo.blogspot.it), an experimental publisher, presented its oral history titles, meant to be read aloud and sold almost exclusively in public spaces—such as the piazzas found in so many Italian towns, like the one where the Sciacca Film Fest took place.

Below, more on books from Sicily.

A Journey Through Literary Sicily in Film

Earlier this year, Felice Cavallaro, a highly regarded journalist from the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera, launched the Road of Writers—a project to rediscover and celebrate Sicily’s great writers.