As many of my blog followers will know, a few weeks back I was thrilled to be contacted by Lisa Topi of the Italian publishing house, TOPIPITTORI, about translating my interview with Leonard Marcus for their website. Through our email exchange and discovering the international focus of this publishing house, I thought it would be rewarding to interview their founder, Paolo Canton.
[JM] Where are you from/have you lived?
[PC] I was born in Milan, Italy. I have always lived there. I tried to move to London and to New York, but either the place or the time were wrong.
[JM] Can you tell us a little about your journey to becoming part of the Topipittori publishing team?
[PC] My father was a printer. As a present for my seventh birthday a family friend gave me a small printing machine, a perfect working replica of a letterpress press. And I started to publish tiny books. I studied economics, wrote a dissertation on the publishing industry and started to work for various publishers. My first full time job was at Franco Maria Ricci Editore who, at that time, had an office in NYC for FMR magazine, and I worked there. In 1997 I started my own venture, partnering with Giovanna Zoboli, a writer who eventually accepted to marry me. Calamus is a communication company, working mainly for financial institutions and design companies. As we worked a lot with illustrators, the natural evolution was starting to think about picture books. And that we started to do in 2004.
[JM] What is the mission statement for Topipittori?
[PC] Should we have one? Probably our mission statement is «Never have a mission statement». As we are a very small company, we have to be flexible, ready to innovate and we have the feeling that having a formal mission statement could, in a way, be a burden. The only thing which remains constant in our activity is the fact that we publish books for children, trying to give the due respect to their intelligence.
[JM] What are some the benefits of being a small publisher?
[PC] Not having a mission statement. Ok, that was a bad joke, forget about it. I think the main point is the fact that everybody in the company is involved in all aspects of the business, from creation to editing, from production to promotion, from relations with booksellers and the press to accounting and finance. It is a good way to know quite instantly how the decisions you make influence the activities of the company. And it is fun. And I think this is something bigger publishers miss: specialization on the job pays, but at the price of losing the big picture.
[JM] How do you go about forging your international collaborations?
[PC] Mostly showing our books to other publishers all over the world. We go to bookfairs (Bologna is to us the most important), travel to interesting countries in order to meet local publishers, use the Internet to contact those we can’t reach otherwise. I think it is particularly important to freely share books and projects and let other publishers know what you do and how you do it. This is the way you can convince someone to invest in a book you’ve created and published. Or, at least, this is the way we are usually convinced to do so and we infer it is the same for others. Of course, we have someone who is in charge of foreign rights (Lisa Topi) and a chief-editor + art director (Giovanna Zoboli) who perform the usual tasks of their craft, but ideally we would love to trade not only rights in exchange for money, but compatible ideas and ways too.
[JM] What is more important to you: character, plot, or world?
[PC] The book. The book itself. This powerful and delicate precision engine which combines the efforts of so many professional and material inputs, making them converge to create marvel, astonishment, magic, warmth.
[JM] Whom might we know that you publish? And whom would you like to introduce to us? (illustrations of their books)
You might already know Beatrice Alemagna, who is one of our best-selling author-illustrator. “Che cos’è un bambino” has been reprinted eight times since 2008 and has been sold worldwide (English edition by Tate to come out in a few days) in more than 100.000 copies; “I cinque malfatti” is also an international best seller.
And, of course, John Alcorn, the celebrated graphic designer of the 1960s and 1970s. We re-published his “Books!” in 2012, 50 years after it first appeared in the Us (English rights sold to Ammo).
I am sure you will appreciate to be introduced to Joanna Concejo, a Polish illustrator living in Paris, who published her first book with us in 2008 and published four more since then; Guido Scarabottolo, one of the greatest Italian illustrators of our times; Simone Rea, an eclectic illustrator from Rome.
[JM] What book do you wish you’d published?
[PC] Quintessential masterpieces like “Little blue and little yellow” by Leo Lionni; “Where the wild things are” and “The Juniper tree”, both by Maurice Sendak; “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown; “Macao et Cosmage” by Edy Legrand. Books which made a revolution and had a lasting impact on the very idea of picture books (although you won’t call “The juniper tree” a picture book).
[JM] Assuming you attend the Bologna international Book Fair, what is your favorite part of this?
[PC] After 15 years of BCBF, both Giovanna and I think the best part of it is when it’s over, you pack your things, jump in your car, start the engine and drive back to Milan. That’s the time to draw a balance, to evaluate how things evolved from the previous edition, to share gossips, to complain about this or that, to rejoice for your success and to regret the failures. Bologna is only four days long, but it is so intense and hectic that you go through it in a state of quasi-unconsciousness. The day after is an operational climax, with thing to do by the thousands. The trip back home, in the car, is the first intimate moment in days, when pressure subsides and things start to emerge from chaos.
[JM] What would you like aspiring authors and illustrators to know about the publication process?
[PC] They should know every part of it in tiny details. A picture book is a collective work, and is a masterpiece of cultural and industrial mechanics. It is very difficult to write or illustrate a picture book not knowing at least by approximation what the other actors in the process will do and how they will do it. This is why in 2010 I accepted to teach courses oriented to give a holistic, integrated view of the publication process, from creation to diffusion. In order to make it hands-on, the students do produce a small book composing typography by hand and printing it on a flatbed letterpress machine. Only by knowing the process in detail they can understand the importance of all the subjects contributing to it and may avoid a narcissistic approach to the very difficult job waiting for them.
Five Fun Ones to Finish? [JM] What’s your favorite park in the world?
[PC] Giovanna’s family is from a mountainous area of Italy, between Bologna and Florence. There is a regional park there that we explore walking, snowshoeing and mountain-biking. It’s called Parco del Frignano: http://www.parcofrignano.it/sezione_immagini/galleria_foto/
[JM] Cats or dogs?
[PC] Giovanna and I love cats. There where times when we had three of them. We have none right now.
[JM] Fact that most people don’t know about you?
[PC] I have the high honour of having been made Chevalier dans l’Ordre de Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture in 2011 because of the achievements of Topipittori in disseminating the children’s books culture in the world.
[JM] Bravo, Paolo. This is a wonderful honor! First paid job after high school?
[PC] Well, it was during high school. I wanted a motorcycle but my father refused to buy me one. So I took a 20-hours-per-week job as a bookseller, which turned into full time in the summer months. It took me one whole year to buy the motocycle. But I did not quit the job: I still had to pay the maintenance.
[JM] I am a biker, so now I want to know what you bought because my first motorcycle was a GILERA?! Go to snack/drink to sustain your creative juices?
I’d rather go swimming.
Paolo, thank you so much for sharing about Topipittori and your own personal journey. I hope that this is the first of many interviews with smaller, but no less important publishing houses. I wish you continued success with all your publications.