a good news story about publishing

You become, in these times in particular, accustomed to tale after tale of collapse in literary publishing (or even journalism — here’s another piece about US newspapers crossing a final threshold). But the NYT has a story about a company called Europa Editions which, as it says, has succeeded by publishing ‘roster of translated literary novels written mainly by Europeans, relying heavily on independent-bookstore sales, without an e-book or vampire in sight’. (Not that there’s anything wrong with vampires — or e-books, for that matter.)

If the story’s accurate (and there is a whiff of an editor desperately seeking a positive angle), it’s worth thinking about how and why Europa Editions has done so well.

Europa Editions was the brainchild of Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, the founders of Edizioni E/O, a Rome-based publisher that releases many works in translation in Italy. “I have a universal, global feeling that everywhere people should read and could read books from different countries,” Mr. Ferri said in a telephone interview. “Even if up to now, only 3 percent of the American books are books in translation, I think that this is not a reason that it should always be like that.”

Emulating many European publishers, the company releases books only in the trade paperback format. It developed a distinctive look for all its titles, with French flaps, a consistent font on the book spines and a logo of a stork that appears with the publisher’s name on the front of each volume.

Europa’s first title, “The Days of Abandonment,” an Italian novel by Elena Ferrante, was published in 2005. The book garnered positive reviews and immediately took off at independent booksellers. Other titles — including “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam, an English writer; “Dog Day,” a mystery by the Spanish writer Alicia Giménez-Bartlett; and “Cooking With Fernet Branca” by James Hamilton-Paterson, an English writer living in Austria — helped earn Europa a loyal following among booksellers and readers. Some books sell only a few thousand copies, but book buyers like the brand identity.

“We have a lot of faith in their editorial sensibility,” said Sarah McNally, owner of the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan.

Mr. Carroll said the company rarely spent more than $10,000 on advances. He is the only full-time staff member in New York, with a part-time freelance assistant and two interns. []

Some larger publishers are starting to envy Europa’s selection and its frankly retro publishing model. Mr. Carroll “finds things, picks things up for a little bit of money and makes a lot out of them,” said Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “Most of publishing was once that way. It wasn’t about big money so much. He’s sort of preserving the old values of it’s-all-about-the-book and connecting the book with readers.”

In other words, recognising that literary fiction is going to be a niche and then exploiting the possibilities of that niche. There’s an obvious analogy with art house film. Once you accept that certain movies aren’t going to compete with Batman, you can target the audience that does exist — and that audience can be quite large. Not coindicentally, the alternative film circuit also depends on foreign movies that can be presented to an English-speaking market.

Clearly, there’s limits to this. As the comments about buying low and selling high suggest, Europa’s success seems to rest, to a certain extent, on being first. Still, the article does suggest that there’s more of a future for literary fiction than is sometimes thought.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I really like the idea of styling the brand. It’s a kind of retro look, immaculate and has a kind of 1930’s or 50’s feel in the hand. First editions of “The Days of Abandonment,” are being ferreted away in safe places as we speak.

  2. Editors are always desperately seeking an angle—though not always a positive one. Nonetheless, the article about Europa Editions is, for the most part, accurate. I know: midst all the apocalyptic publishing stories circulating these days, it’s hard to believe.

    And you are right: our success does depend to a large part on being first in, and on making good, informed decisions. We keep an office in Rome—in the editorial offices of our founding house, Edizioni EO. Where European literature is concerned, this allows us to be better informed and to be quicker when we read or hear about something we might like.

    Thanks for the post. Personally, I was really pleased at this mention. Overland is one of my favorite literary mags.

    All best
    Michael Reynolds
    Editor in Chief
    Europa Editions

  3. Thanks, Michael.
    Two questions, though. Are you guys worried about the decline of the literary infrastructure? I’m thinking specifically about the much publicised axing of the review pages from US newspapers. Will that impact on the market for literary fiction?
    Secondly, what kind of relationship do you see between the sort of books you do and the academy? One of the sources of angst about literary publishing here relates to the decline of Australian literature as a tertiary subject. Do your sales depend at all on an academic interest in serious contemporary writing?

  4. Jeff–
    we’ve had a good run with traditional review venues—mostly due to Kent Carroll’s good work, and the inherent interest that any half-way decent reviewer has in something new and of quality. Not having an advertising budget to speak of these first years, reviews have represented our major marketing tool. So, yes, in addition to concern for friends and acquaintances who are losing their jobs, I’m also concerned that the ongoing infrastructural collapse will mean fewer channels through which we can let readers know about our books. That said, there is such a variety of small magazines—literary, cultural and general interest—that do great book coverage; and, above all, there is enormous internet activity around books. We need to be flexible and open to alternative ways of getting news out about our books and to getting them covered. After all, these channels are not going to be “alternative” for very much longer.
    I’m actually much more concerned about the effect on the supply of information/news that the collapse of the newspapers represents. For all their faults, I think newspapers are (were) the best place to get a well-rounded idea of what is happening in the world at any given time.
    We don’t sell to the academy. I’m not sure our particular case is really indicative of much. There are lots and lots of university presses in America that do sell to the academy, and do great work with translated fiction. We publish books that very often have been snobbed by the academy even in their native country because of their commercial success. That’s not to say we publish rubbish. But a book’s success in its native country is, for us (and not for the academy) one indicator of its worth. Certainly not the only one; but not to be ignored. Only occassionally have our books in translation appealed to an academic niche. And when they haven’t, it hasn’t represented a significant portion of their overall sales.
    The relationship between a small press like ours and the academy was closer in the past. Our gradual estrangement has to do with changes on both sides: greater insularity and less dynamism in the academy; the omnipresence of agents and book fairs, and the increased accessibility to information about writers, writing and national literatures, influencing more and more the way publishers operate.


  5. Ta Michael. Completely agree about the impact of the decline of newspapers on the distribution of news. As for the academy, the relationship between a magazine like Overland and the Australian universities is probably pretty similar — much closer in the past than now.

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