After some aimless browsing, I spotted the Italian publishers' corner, and decided to go investigate. Prepare yourself for much disappointment and learning things you maybe didn't want to know about how Italy works.
Some of you already know that I'm Italian but, almost three years ago, I moved to London to study Creative Writing at university. Of course it's been much, much harder than what it would have been if I could have just stayed home, without leaving my family and boyfriend and especially writing in my native language. So the question I get more often is: why did you change country and switch language, then? And there's two simple answers: one, in Italy there is no such thing as a writing course; and two, the publishing industry in Italy is a honest to God nightmare.
Now, in Italy, pretty much all systems - how to get into politics, get work in theatre companies, get the best treatment in hospital, work in universities / the public sector in general - are warped. The mafia-structure is endemic and so yes, the general rule is that you have to be related to someone, to know someone, if you want to get anywhere. In alternative, you have to pay. Often there are no official ways for a newbie to even apply for consideration (queries, open calls...), and the only way to let someone know you even exist is by recommendation. The same general rule applies to submitting material to publishing houses. At the fair I sat down with a very nice editor from a Sardinian press, who seemed to have taken me in sympathy, and we started chatting about it.
Vanity Press epidemic ) Basically, most smaller presses accept unsolicited submissions, but they also require a 'contribution' by the author who wishes to publish with them. In fact, every time I tell an Italian I've been published, the first thing they ask is: "How much did you have to pay?" Since pretty much every Italian publisher does it, people just assume it's the normal route to go. No one that I've spoken with so far was aware of the term 'vanity presses' and that this isn't the way it should be. (although I should say my new Sardinian friend hurried to specify his press is a serious press and they'd never do that. Kudos to him.).
The big fish's absence ) The big presses, instead - and there's no more than 3 or 4 - don't ask for money, and thank heavens for that. But! It's been repeatedly confirmed that they won't consider your submissions unless they know who you are. If you haven't published with them before, how are they supposed to know you, you'll wonder? But by personal recommendation, of course. You have to know someone in the house who will read your manuscript. Two of them actually say on their website that they don't accept submissions at all. They rely entirely on who their editors know for a supply of manuscripts. But what of submissions sent by agents? Ah. Here's the biggest, nastiest catch of all.
The 'literary agencies' national scam ) Until a few years ago, there were no literary agencies in Italy. At all. They did very well with their personal recommendation system. Until someone realized there was the chance to make large wads of cash off wannabe authors who lacked social capital, and the first agencies were born.
I will have to try very hard to keep objective, because this particular topic makes me very angry.
I read several articles claiming that 'Anglo-American-style' agencies are budding in Italy, but that's a plain lie. These agencies state clearly that their primary function is the evaluation of manuscripts. That means you send them your manuscript with 300 Euros and they'll fill in an evaluation form in which they tell you what they liked/didn't like about the book. Then, you have the option to negotiate expensive rates for them to 'fix' what they didn't like in your book. Then, IF they really like it, they MIGHT submit it to their personal acquaintancies in some publishing houses, and if the manuscript gets picked, you have to pay them a further 10% fee.
ALL the agencies are like this. This is the official literary agency model in Italy. The industry standard. And as these 'agencies' spread, big publishers will begin to ask that you submit through an agent because hey, that's what the Anglo-American market does, right? And Italy's always been an America wannabe. Except as you've noticed, the agency system is just plain wrong.
I can't even wrap my head around just how wrong it is. But then again, that happens with most things going on in my country at the moment. I am saddened to find once again that my best option is to abandon my country and my language if I want to work in a decent environment and have a honest shot at succeeding.