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Publisher Focus:

Allessandro Gallenzi, Publisher of Alma Books, talks to NBG

The Backstory

Allessandro Gallenzi and his wife Elisabetta founded Alma in 2005, four years after founding Hesperus Press and amidst great challenges facing publishers: the closure of many high-street chains and independent stores, the emergence of Amazon as a dominant force, and the pressure of e-books. Despite the unfavourable climate, their aim to continue the work they had begun at Hesperus flourished into an ambitious list of classics, fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. Now they have carved out their niche in the market: their business has grown from turning over £250,000 and publishing twenty-five books to a company turning over around £1M and publishing between seventy and eighty titles a year.

The List
Classic literature is close to the pair’s hearts: ‘It’s what we read the most.’ Apart from creating beautiful editions that their readers can treasure, the team at Alma also go to great efforts to provide more, such as extra material about the authors’ lives and works, as well as illustrations, reader resources and – of course – high quality translations.

How does Alma consistently produce quality fiction and non-fiction? Its trick is in remaining a company small enough to continue to work closely with its authors and translators, but large enough for success. ‘Small is beautiful’ for businesses, according to Allessandro, but Alma has also seen some huge successes – most recently Jane Hawking’s memoir Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, which has been turned into an Oscar-nominated film and has sold more than 75,000 copies so far. Commercially their classics list has also seen steady success, with their new and stylishly designed translations of Mikhail Bulgakov’s work and their F. Scott Fitzgerald series, which sprang from the runaway success of last year’s publication of The Great Gatsby.

Alma has plenty of exciting upcoming titles, too: there is a trilogy by a young Jamaican author called Roland Watson-Grant, which centres around a dysfunctional family living in a swamp near New Orleans; and there is also a travelogue-cum-biography of Mary Wollstonecraft by non-fiction writer Bee Rowlatt, who recounts the life of the mother of Mary Shelley and therefore the ‘grandmother’ of Frankenstein.

Alma is particularly dedicated to work in translation. Alma acquires new titles through its trusted network of contacts with reliable knowledge and taste for specific literatures. Whenever possible the proposed text is read and appraised in the original – Italian, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian can be read in the office. A select panel of experienced translators is not only regularly called upon for translations, but is also very much involved in the editorial process. Its small size means that Alma can take a hands-on, personal approach to working with its translators and authors, achieving a higher standard of focused, committed work.

Promoting translated fiction is very much part of Alma’s ethos, and as a passionate prize-winning translator himself, Allessandro advocates translation as an ‘essential part of a healthy, outward- and forwardlooking society.’

The Future
Alma’s outlook for the future is realistic, yet positive. Right now, the economic climate and the availability of free e-books of classic texts pose considerable problems for publishing. Yet the popularity of translated fiction is gradually increasing, and Allessandro is confident that in terms of sales and critical success translated titles are just as rewarding as English titles; publishers need only publicise them with the same drive and enthusiasm as the rest of their list, instead of continuing the self-fulfilling prophecy that translated fiction doesn’t sell. With over sixty percent of their list devoted to translations, Alma is a driving force behind the ‘quiet revolution’ that is getting more foreign titles published in English and into bookshops.

Interview with Georgina Edwards