Livia Stoia

About Livia Stoia

Presenting your thoughts to the world.

Livia Stoia is a passionate literary agent. She first entered the book industry back in 1999, working as Rights Manager for several years. In 2003 she decided to start the literary agency that now holds her name – Livia Stoia Literary Agency, which gradually became one of the most important regional agencies in Eastern Europe. Since 2020 Livia also owns and runs Ilustrata Agency, a Barcelona-based agency founded in 1991, selling rights in Spain, Portugal, Latin America, but also in other territories. Every year, Livia and her team attends the most important international book fairs (Frankfurt, London, Bologna, Guadalajara), but also the local book fairs, like the ones in Madrid, Barcelona, Prague, Warsaw, Belgrade, Bucharest or Zagreb. Apart from her passion for reading and discovering new voices in the world’s literature, Livia is a sports aficionada and a woman truly devoted to her family.
Interview with Livia Stoia for Book Industry

What does a literary agency manager’s working day look like?

I start my day by reading my e-mails and prioritizing them. I reply to the most urgent ones, I forward some to my colleagues, and I plan the less urgent but more time-consuming replies. I prepare the meetings scheduled for that day and I try getting through my to-do list. These are my current tasks. On a general perspective, I keep track of the agency’s financial situation, I follow the agency’s image and business development strategy.

I read the industry-related magazines and keep myself up-to-date with the world news.

On top of all that, I read manuscripts, I try to find the most suitable publishing houses for them, I share the new titles with the wonderful people working in this field and in my own team.

You said in an interview that you founded the agency because you wanted to see certain books by foreign authors published in Romanian, books that did not match Humanitas Publishing House, where you had worked as Rights Manager before. Do you remember the first book that you sold through the agency?

The agency’s first contract was signed with Trei Publishing House and it was for Petra Hammesfahr’s book Der Stille Herr Genardy . I was very happy when I signed it, but it had been more than two years before we managed to cover the costs of the agency and even some more before it became profitable.

How did you start building the agency’s portfolio?

First I contacted a few publishing houses from Spain, Germany, Italy, whose catalogues I liked a lot; some accepted instantly for me to represent them, others wanted to meet me face to face first, so I set up meetings at the Frankfurt Book Fair. That happened in 2003. I remember that the representative of a publishing house from Spain, with whom I had at the time a meeting at her stand, said she would think about it and write back to me. We met a little bit later at the restroom, where she softly told me that she agreed to give me the exclusive representation for Romania.

By the end of 2003 I had already set collaborations with a few publishing houses, but I also needed Anglo-Saxon literature, which sold best, so I started writing extensively to UK publishing houses in the morning and US publishers in the evening. Many of them responded very well, so I decided to apply for a UK visa and meet them at the London Book Fair. That was happening in the spring of 2004. At the fair I met with the roughly 25 new clients with whom I had set up meetings, while Tudor, my husband, directly approached other British and American clients at their stands. By May 2004 I had managed to sign representation contracts with about 20 clients and, also that month, at the Warsaw Book Fair, I signed another contract with a German agency, which organised picture book co-editions and had offices in Stuttgart, Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava and Moscow. They had an impressive list of representation, and I was so happy that they agreed to sign with me on the spot. In this way I doubled the number of exclusive clients in my portfolio and I could offer Romanian publishing houses children’s and adult literature and picture books from pretty much every major Western country. Further on, the agency’s portfolio grew each time I took part in major book fairs, and in 2007, at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, we brought on board a number of publishing houses specialised in illustrated children’s books, a field that would take off in Romania too in the following years.

You opened the agency (first under the name Sun Agency) in 2003, just seven years after the drafting of the Romanian copyright law. I imagine that the role of a literary agent was not well established at that time and that there were publishers who looked at you with scepticism when you proposed them to buy translation rights. What were your first interactions with Romanian publishers like? How did you overcome the difficulties?

I had developed a passion for this domain and had a few friends in the field. I thought that was enough to start a profitable business. But my friends working in publishing houses didn’t really flock to buy titles from me. They acted nicely, accepted to receive my suggestions, but, guess what, they didn’t really respond afterwards. I started visiting them at the office and managed to gather more consistent interest, but I felt I needed more to convince them to sign contracts as well. In a meeting with an important publisher, the director told me: ‘the big agents have already split the market’; in other words, there was no place for me in this business. I was left with a bitter taste after some meetings. But it passed quickly, once I sat down at my desk and started sending out more and more title recommendations and, in parallel, I continued to stay in contact with big Western companies in order to persuade them to join the agency’s portfolio. It had been months before I filled my first ring binder with contracts, and yet the number of publishing houses I was working with in Romania, about 13 in 2004, was not enough to develop a business. Tudor used to kind of upset me when he kept telling me that. I had come from Humanitas from the position of a “buyer”, I had been taught to ask for and to have accepted long periods of time for the manuscripts’ review. I knew that publishing houses expected agents to give them as much time as possible before they decided whether to publish something or not. When I realised that I had to radically change the way I worked if I wanted to broaden my range of clients, the number of offers increased.

An important step in this direction was to ask for a stand at Bookfest, a step which had never been done before in Romania, as the literary agencies did not have stands at fairs. I was also compelled to do so because I represented many Western rights owners who published picture books and I had an agreement with them to exhibit the books. They really had to be seen during meetings. I then had many meetings with publishers, not only with those who were already my clients, but with many others, new to me, and that gave me the courage to approach others too after the fair. The client list grew considerably and I also changed the strategy for promoting titles. If by then I had only done targeted promotion and only prioritized one publishing house for a particular title, from that fair onwards I started to present a book to all the publishing houses that published that genre. The method has never been much appreciated by publishers, and I understood them, as I said, up to a point. As time went by, they understood, or at least I like to think that they did, that beyond the noble goal of bringing foreign books to Romania, which we all like to talk about in the industry, selling copyright is after all a business, just like selling books.

Since 2005, I have also started to conclude co-edition contracts on picture books, as well as providing production services to specialised printing houses in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The co-editions brought me new clients who had collections of illustrated books for adults and children, and so the agency’s revenues grew at a faster pace than before.

At the same time, I continued selling translation rights for non-illustrated books, but here too things started to happen at a faster pace than before 2005, because I was now working with many more publishing houses and had even gained some reputation by specialising in co-editions, which is a different field from the classic textbook copyrights-selling business. Besides, I was in my own element when negotiating with co-publishing partners: the language was different, and the people involved a bit more direct, I didn’t have to read between the lines, they meant what they said.

Co-editions brought me a lot of exposure on the market and that also resulted in the expansion of the business across all the book genres I had in my portfolio. Working with picture books forced me not only to participate with a stand at Bookfest and Gaudeamus, but also to open an office downtown and hire my first assistant.

However, at the beginning of 2007, I still wasn’t able to cover all my monthly expenses, I was still taking money from home for that some months. So when the landlord of the apartment where I had my office doubled the rent, I decided to move the office to my new home, in the attic. I was very nervous that, over time, I would lose the interest of publishers in meeting at the agency; I don’t know why I thought that, if they would walk through the privacy of my living room to get to the agency’s office in the attic, automatically my credibility in the market would begin to decline. This fear followed me for a long time, but so did the words of a fellow colleague who had once told me: “be careful with this fear of embarrassment, I knew someone who went crazy because of it”. I was to find out not only that it was not at all embarrassing to have clients see your courtyard, living room, kitchen, icons and family pictures, your dog and kittens, to know what you eat for lunch, but that some of them were actually starting to like me more and to come more often. I had to build up the courage and accept that publishers can appreciate you for who you are, that I don’t have to shy away from revealing some of my personal life. The big surprise was that the business grew immediately, and a few months after I moved the office into the attic at home, the agency became profitable.

Still, even though my anxieties had greatly diminished in intensity, they followed me for a while, until the day when one of my colleagues, while struggling to persuade on the phone a major publisher at the time to visit us, found herself being asked, “but do also you have books at the agency?”. From that moment on I lost all trace of shyness and embarrassment about my weaknesses, about the personal life pieces I was forced to reveal to publishers when they came to the agency. I knew that no matter how well I did my job, some would like me faster, and with others it would take me a long time before I am able to do business. I had many battle to win in the Romanian publishing world. And I still do.

You started selling foreign rights in the Romanian book market, then expanded to the former Yugoslavia, then all over Eastern Europe and for some years now you have been working in Spain, Portugal and Latin America, as well as in other territories, including Asia, via co-agents. Are there different tools and working methods for these markets?

Each book market we have expanded into has reacted differently and I have more to tell you about that.

The post-2008 financial crisis caught me flying high. The business was going very well, I had 3 literary agents, I was getting very high commissions mostly from co-editions and I kept going for a while, because in copyright the cash cycle closes later. I was doing well until 2009, but gradually, although many publishing houses didn’t think the crisis would reach us, sales started to drop, I was having trouble covering my monthly costs more and more often and I got scared. I was talking a lot to Tudor, my life and business partner, and he came up with the wonderful idea of asking the rights owners in my portfolio to agree to let me represent them in more territories, to expand the business to other countries. Said and done. I started with Serbia, becoming a co-agent there as well for a number of publishing houses and agencies I was already representing in Romania. Serbian publishers accepted me right away, I started very quickly to sell co-edition for picture books. I remember the first one, Le Petit Prince Pop-Up from Gallimard Jeunesse, for which I signed a contract with Mono i Manana (now Vulkan). The business in Serbia grew gradually, but not spectacularly, as the country had not yet recovered from the previous crisis; but it was enough to cover the gap left in my income from the business in Romania.

After Serbia we expanded to the other countries of the former Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Soon, publishers in the region started to consider me a local agent, especially since I visited them every year, attended book fairs in Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana and had meetings with most publishers who published translations. I met amazing people and made many friends in the book industry in the region, and those markets are now among my favourites. The many relationships I developed there, which attracted many contracts, made pretty much all the rights owners I represented in Romania confidently grant me exclusive representation in the former Yugoslavia.

After them came Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Hungary, Russia, the Baltic States, Bulgaria and Albania. The biggest markets were the hardest to conquer. I invested a lot of time and effort going to Poland regularly for two years and had dozens of meetings with Polish publishers before starting the business there. Many rights owners I already represented in Romania and the former Yugoslavia were already on the market, selling directly or through other agencies, obviously many of them didn’t need me. The Polish book market, number two in Eastern Europe after Russia, was even back then already quite mature. There were very strong local and regional agencies covering Poland and large publishing groups that already had a profitable business there. It was hard to enter the market, but from the moment I signed my first contract, things went in the right direction.

I also had trouble starting the business in the Czech Republic, the Czechs had different tastes, we had to adapt; in order to have the titles the market demanded we had to add new rights owners to the portfolio, who were not easily convinced that they needed an agent. It took a few years before a significant increase in turnover was felt in the Czech Republic.

In Hungary, publishing houses don’t really want to meet you at their book fair; that’s just for book sale, there is no place for agents. The book stands are quite crowded and unfriendly, there’s no room to sit down with someone quietly for a chat. But publishers were open to working with us from the beginning, even if we hadn’t met in person with some of them. When we had titles that suited them, they came back on their own with good offers, signed quickly and the partnership went great.

We started working with the Baltic states after attending the Vilnius Book Fair, which is rather an atmosphere fair. The cultural events organised around books attract a sea of cool people and have a certain intimacy that makes you feel like at a café-concert.

There’s also a lot to tell about (very) small book markets, such as those in Albania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, North Macedonia, with kind-hearted publishers struggling to keep their business going. We are working hard to get them affordable contract terms which allow them to publish new titles.

I have started to think since 2017 about expanding the business to the Western market. In 2018 we bought 51% of the shares of the Barcelona-based Ilustrata Agency and the remaining 49% in 2020, before the pandemic broke out. Since 2018 I have been meeting regularly with Spanish publishers from Madrid and Barcelona, for a while online only, but I need another couple of years to bring the Spanish business up to the level of the Eastern European one.

There is a big difference between the behaviour of Spanish publishers compared to those in the other countries where we operate. The Spanish book market is dominated by large publishing groups that have bought dozens of publishing houses over the years, each with its own publishing programme and specific audience. You can spend whole days in meetings at just one publishing group’s headquarters. To visit only the big groups, you need at least a week of meetings in Madrid, and another week in Barcelona. If you also want to meet independent publishing houses, you need another two weeks in the same cities, and a few more to visit publishing houses scattered all over Spain.

And then add to all those the annual visits to the Guadalajara Book Fair, the most important in Latin America, where the majority of relevant publishers from Spanish-speaking countries participate.

The major Spanish publishing houses also have distribution in Latin American countries and North America. They publish for the entire Spanish-speaking population of the world. Therefore, readers in Spain have different tastes from those in Mexico, from those in Colombia, Chile, etc., and from Spanish readers in the United States. This makes the process of acquiring titles much more complex. Consequently, as an agent I have had to adjust my sales expectations for the Spanish-language market. The sales plan we built in 2018 had to be significantly adjusted in 2019 and radically in 2020 and 2021, pandemic years in which Spain and all Latin American countries were massively affected, far more than all the other countries in which we operate.

With the acquisition of Ilustrata Agency, we also entered the Portuguese book market. I travelled to Lisbon before the pandemic to visit some publishing groups. At the beginning of 2020 it was a book market that was slowly recovering from the crisis, but the pandemic set it back dramatically. During the pandemic, Portuguese publishing houses did not, like those in many other countries, benefit from online sales, as the method was hardly developed there. All this led to a dramatic drop in book sales in Portugal, after which it seems that some publishing houses will never recover.

Since 2018 we are also active on the Brazilian market and you would think that Portuguese publishing houses are distributing books there as well. Well, no, they are completely different markets with distinct interests and tastes.

By buying Ilustrata, we now also benefit from a team of co-agents, who help us also sell rights in France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Turkey and Asia.

A huge surprise for us is now South Korea, with whom we have signed several contracts in the last year.

Have you noticed any specific feature of the Romanian book market compared to those of our neighbouring countries or to those you work with in general?

Yes, several. I will mention three good features and one not so good.

Romanian publishers are able to make a book fair look better than “abroad” and this has been happening for about three years (excluding the pandemic year), since they have allocated the new hall at Romexpo. I attend the big Eastern European book fairs every year and I can say that Bookfest and Gaudeamus look much better, the organisation and design of the stands being, in my opinion, at Western book fair level.

Romanian publishers are very competitive and manage to quickly publish wonderful translations, in excellent graphic conditions, of the best-selling titles at the time.

Romanian publishers are very technologically advanced, and this helps them adapt almost in real time to any change.

And among the bad habits I will mention, sadly, only one. Many Romanian publishers are rarely honest and transparent, as we have seen in other markets. When we receive sales reports, they are, in many cases, far from reality. Apart from that, some of them never report the sales, although this is stated in all copyright contracts.

I think every publisher’s dream is for half of the list of titles they published to be bestsellers and the rest to be long sellers. What is a literary agent’s dream?

To be able to represent as many bestselling and long selling authors as possible, to sell their books in as many territories as possible, and to receive actual annual sales reports.

You have participated in many international book fairs over the years. Do you have a favourite?

Yes, the Belgrade fair. From an organisational point of view, it is still far from what other fairs offer, but the meetings with Serbian publishers are more heart-warming than anywhere else, the people are sincere and straightforward and all this makes me come back there every year. So far (except for the pandemic years), since we expanded our operations to Serbia, I have never missed a fair, where I always feel at home.

As fairs involve full days of meetings every half hour, running from stand to stand, and possibly other more or less formal events towards the evening, one spark of unexpectedness is enough to turn everything upside down. Do you have any funny or almost tragic memories that still send shivers down your spine?

I was in Frankfurt at a meeting with a publisher in France who publishes big, heavy illustrated books. I made a wrong move and her entire bookshelf fell on her head. I froze, sweated from head to toe, and promised her on the spot that I would sell the rights to all the books that landed on her head. She roared with laughter and took away all my embarrassment.

I have another funny memory: the first meeting the morning after a night spent in a Frankfurt salsa club. I was with a Bulgarian publisher, to whom I had to introduce a fiction author. I could barely keep my eyes open and decided on the spot to try something else, suggesting we have a more informal meeting. He was relieved that I gave him a 30-minute break, I reassured myself that I wouldn’t embarrass myself, and we both continued talking about the world and life. Business wasn’t affected at all in the future, I’d say it was quite the opposite.

What are the greatest rewards of running a literary agency?

Being able to sell the rights of a local author in the Western market.

Receiving books published with the agency’s contribution from various countries where we have sold the rights.

Receiving praise for my team.

Closing deals on the spot during meetings at book fairs.

Getting exclusive worldwide representation for bestselling authors.

What about the biggest challenges?

Being able to sell the rights of a local author in the Western market.

Motivating my team in times of crisis.

As in any business, but perhaps even more so when it is B2B, one of the key elements of a literary agency’s relationship with its clients, with publishing houses, is trust. How is this trust built and, more importantly, how is it maintained?

Throughout my life I’ve had various mentors who have helped shape me immensely. In Iași and Cluj I learned how the world is made and how to put yourself in other people’s shoes; in Sibiu that I must always finish what I have started; at Humanitas that in copyright you need strictness and speed and that the most successful authors are those who write simply. Added to this is a predisposition towards competitiveness and for doing things well. The publishers probably started to trust me and the team when I managed to combine all these things optimally.

What about the partners an agency represents? How do you build a relationship based on trust?

All of the above and more are needed: to be informed and to keep them up to date about the realities of the markets you represent them in, to give them regular feedback from the market for their titles. To deliver what you promised you would do for their authors and to be honest with yourself and them if you fail.

To the question “what does Romanian literature lack in to get out into the world”, some are quick to answer: a literary agent. Without really knowing what the work of an agent actually presupposes. Since the early years of your agency, you have also been interested in the export of Romanian authors, managing to sell some titles in the territories where you worked. How did you come to collaborate with names like Neagu Djuvara or Gabriela Adameșteanu and what does it mean to sell translation rights for a Romanian book?

I was either recommended by friends and collaborators or approached directly by the authors themselves. For years I have invested time and money in promoting Romanian authors and we have never covered those costs. But, because we have managed to place some authors in a few countries, I want to continue.

Coming back to what I was saying above, what does Romanian literature lack in to be more often translated abroad?

I would say it’s just money.

For a foreign publishing house to decide to translate a book by a Romanian author, it must allocate a promotion budget to that author, without which it cannot sell the published edition. This budget must be much higher than for a foreign author from the West if you publish a Romanian author, or one from another Eastern European country, who writes in a minor language. So much so that it covers the costs of promotion in all the international press in the West, both mainstream and specialized, the costs of promotional tours in that country, the costs of the author’s participation in television, radio and podcasts, the costs of distributing the translated book throughout the network of offline and online bookshops and, obviously, the costs of translation and the editorial costs.

In addition, the author himself has to provide the English translation of the manuscript, because only that will be read and evaluated by foreign publishers at first, before they make the decision to publish.

When do you think the books of an author, in whatever language he/she writes, become exportable?

When he/she brings something new to the international book market. This is the case for very talented and very erudite authors who manage to capture intimately the realities of their country and demonstrate a deep psychological knowledge of the people they come from. Authors who know how to bring something original from their country to their writing can be successful on the international market.

That is why I would advise Romanian authors not to follow foreign recipes.

Today most of the work of a literary agent is done online, from email conversations to sending electronic manuscripts and receiving sales reports in Excel. Do you remember what the world of copyright looked like in Romania before DropBox, Microsoft Office and the Internet?

In 1999, when I entered the industry by working at Humanitas, publishing houses were using the Internet, but more as a curiosity; they were already working with email, and soon after we started keeping records in Excel. However, there was still a lot of paper work, everything was printed and filed; paper was the basic medium in all departments of a publishing house.

In 2003-2004, after I opened the agency, I was still printing out the “important” emails and filing them in the title file, a reason for continued sarcasm from my husband. I was also storing documents electronically, but that just doubled my record keeping. I understood the benefits of technology, but I still had more trust in physical media.

I also remember preparing a few folders of printed presentations for fair meetings, organised by domains. Now it’s enough to organize my PDFs and presentations in a folder in Dropbox, which I access from a mini-tablet, even from my phone during meetings. But even now, I make sure that I have at least a few physical books with me at every meeting, because I’ve always had success with that. Most publishers still only make the purchase decision if they see the book in physical format as well.

What would you recommend to a student or someone interested in a career in a literary agency? What should they learn, what should they do?

They should be extremely patient, because a lot of their time will be spent on routine activities to complete sales from meetings they had months before.

They should have to have the courage to speak in a foreign language, usually English, to people all over the world; and be aware that they are all people, just like us.

They should have self-control, because emotions play their part in this business, but in no way should they affect the relationship with a client.

They should learn to put themselves in the other person’s shoes, be they author, editor, translator, colleague.

Dozens of books (most of them in digital format) flash before your eyes every day. Do you still have time for pleasure reading? What’s the best (outside the agency) book you’ve read recently?

I make my own time. If I were to think about whether I have time first, with how much I have on my plate, I wouldn’t do what I enjoy.

At night, in bed, or on the beach by the sea, I like to read real, physical, paper books. When I run and when I cook I listen to audio books, and the rest of the time I read on my phone or, less often now, on Kindle. I have a ton of manuscripts to get through, and I don’t dwell on the inconvenience of the blue pixel.

Of the last few pleasure books I’ve read in physical format, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet , Lucia Berlin’s, Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women , Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning , Hallgrímur Helgason’s The Woman at 1000°C come quickly to mind. Of the recent audiobooks, I really, really liked What I Talk About When I Talk About Running Running by Haruki Murakami, which I “read” twice on my runs.

Interview realized by Oana Vasile. Translated into English by Cristina Suverjanu.