Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Publisher Spotlight: Europa Editions Interview with Editor-in-Chief Michael Reynolds

1. When did Europa Editions start? What's the company's background? What's its mission? How has it changed or grown over the years? 

Europa Editions was founded in 2005 by the owner-publishers of Italian indie publisher, Edizioni EO. The project was to take advantage of Edizioni EO’s decades-long experience in publishing 
international literature to bring deserving works by international authors to the American market. From the outset, Europa has published authors from all over the world, including the US. While the majority of our titles (about two-thirds) are by authors who do not write in English, many of them are by English, Australian and American authors. This decision to publish mostly works in translation but not only works in translation positioned us rather uniquely, and has contributed to our success in creating a distinct brand. 
From the outset, we have also been committed to bringing certain positive aspects more readily associated with the European publishing model to the US market. To wit: distinctive cover design and packaging; the creation of a brand via which readers can over time identify the kinds of things we publish and learn to trust our tastes and choices; a degree of care and attention shown the translation and editing of translations that is uncommon in the US.  
  I don’t think we have wavered significantly from our original mission. We now publish a few more English-language titles a year than we did in our first few years. That is particularly true this year, as we are launching a new imprint, TONGA BOOKS, which will publish only English-language authors, the majority of whom will be American authors. But the increased number of English-language titles does not really represent a change from our original plans. We set out to find quality works of fiction and non-, where ever those works originated, without exclusion based on language or “foreignness,” and to publish them in quality paperback editions. That’s pretty much what we’re still doing.
  In terms of its visibility and stability, the company has changed considerably over the years. Two years ago we struck a distribution and sales agreement with Penguin USA (and Penguin Canada). The sales and distribution team at Penguin has been brilliant. They seemed to understand what we were about right from the start. They offer us invaluable support on all levels and we are blessed with an extraordinarily professional and passionate paperback sales team.
  Shortly after joining forces with Penguin we published a novel that turned out to be a hit. We have close to 1 million copies of The Elegance of the Hedgehog in print. There is much to say about how and why this book became a success, but the one important thing to note in this context is that it was a book whose success grew very organically, essentially as a result of readers talking to other readers about a book they loved. It’s the kind of publishing story that I feel very lucky to have been a part of.
  The success of this book has meant a lot to us. We are a young small publisher and having a book spend two years on the NYT bestseller list and delight so many US readers so early in our history has been a surprising and inspiring development. We are now able to look a little more into the future and make decisions accordingly.
  In addition to TONGA, the other recent development is the creation of Europa UK. We have been distributing in the UK and Ireland since we began, but we have never really had a physical presence there. Beginning in January 2012, we will have a Europa UK office in London. This office will be responsible for publicity and promotion of our UK titles and will work closely with out New York and Rome offices.
  I am optimistic about the future for Europa and for independent publishers in general.  

2. What kinds of books does Europa Editions publish?Europa publishes a fairly broad range of fiction and nonfiction; what are some of the specific categories that readers can look out for?

We publish mostly fiction. We have published some non-fiction, either because the book in question was so compelling that we felt we couldn’t not publish it, or because one of our fiction authors has turned his or her hand to non-fiction and the result was compelling and publishable. But 90% of our production is fiction. 

We have an international crime series. The series bears the logo, “World Noir” on the cover. This has been an important series for us. In recent decades the noir, or crime novel has played an important role in Europe. Beyond its role as literary entertainment, the noir novel, or certain kinds of noir novels, has tended to fill the void left by the disappearance of real investigative reporting in Europe. Readers look to crime novels to get a sense of what is really happening behind the news bites that fill their TV sets, newspapers, and Web sites. Noir of this kind thus serves two purposes: literary entertainment on one hand (and, it is important to note that without this, without these books being excellently crafted works of genre fiction, their other goal would not be so effectively met), and, on the other hand, a kind of social, political and economic analysis.

These are the kinds of crime novels we’ve been publishing. Authors like Jean-Claude Izzo, Massimo Carlotto, Caryl Férey, Gene Kerrigan are training their gaze on certain socio-political situations and getting to the bottom of why they are the way they are. They are doing so using all the tricks of great crime fiction. They are masters of the genre who also feel the necessity to speak the truth about what is happening in the world today and how it is happening.

TONGA books, as I mentioned, is going to be focusing on English-language authors, most of whom will be American. The imprint will be curated by a special guest editor. The first books published under the TONGA imprint were selected, acquired and edited by the author Alice Sebold. TONGA will focus on edgier, riskier material that we would generally do otherwise. There is so much great talent out there, and much of it is being shunned by the big publishing houses, either because it doesn’t fit a certain mold, it’s difficult to find titles to compare with it, or it’s just to damn racy! That’s the kind of work TONGA is particularly interested in. Not experimental in form so much as provocative in its subject matter. The first book out with TONGA is a wonderful debut novel by the author Alexander Maksik. The book is called You Deserve Nothing. It is a riveting and timely examination of the schism between our public and our private selves, between desire and action. It is a book about morality, power, and idealism. And it’s very good!

As for our general fiction line, I think Europa occupies a sort of middle ground, at times and with certain titles leaning more in one direction, at other times in the other. We generally do not publish works of fiction that are experimental for experimentation’s sake, or so “literary” that they estrange the common reader. This is particularly important to us when it comes to our translated fiction. For a very long time translated literature was relegated to a niche. It was considered “difficult,” dense, and obscure. Of course there is much that fits that description perfectly. And some of it is good. But Europa’s goal has been to alert readers that there is also a great deal of very good accessible fiction being written in Europe. 

On the other hand, we don’t publish work that is so “accessible” or commercial as to be devoid of any literary value. 

We want readers to enjoy what they’re reading, to be moved by it, to be swept away by it, and at times to be provoked by it. All of these things are best done when a story is well told and characters are well developed. That’s what readers can expect from a Europa Editions book: a well-told story, settings that stir the imaginations, strong characters, and if translated, a first-rate translation.   

3. What's your favorite Europa book? Is there something particularly special to you personally, or a book that comes with an unusual or particularly memorable story? 
One of the advantages of working at a small independent publisher is that you are personally involved with the vast majority of titles published. You are also largely free of the obligation to publish lots of things that you’re not absolutely passionate about. I wouldn’t say I love every book that we have published, but I love many of them, and choosing a favorite is difficult.

Before reading Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy I was no expert in noir, and not even a fan of noir. The books in that series, however, are so full of color and sights and smells, so warm, so full of humanity and passion. And the crime plot is so well done... I loved all three novels in that series.

I think the Russian-born author Alina Bronsky is amazingly talented. She doesn’t take herself or her fame too seriously, but is serious about writing. This is a great mix! And I expect we’ll see a lot of extraordinary novels from her in the future. Her new book, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, is definitely one of my favorite Europa titles.

The Companion, by Lorcan Roche is another. This novel didn’t get the attention it deserved in the US, which was heartbreaking for me, because frankly it’s one of the most unusual, compelling, stylish, hilarious, and moving contemporary novels I’ve read in several years.

I am a great fan of Amélie Nothomb and feel honored to be her US editor. There’s not one particular title that I could pull out and say “read this before anything else!”—though Hygiene and the Assassin ranks among my favorite Europa books. You have to enter her world, read everything she’s done, join the dialog that she is opening with her readers. She and her books are utterly fascinating.
Then there’s The Worst Intentions, by Alessandro Piperno, The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante, The Art of Losing, by Rebecca Connell... The list goes on. 

4. Europa Editions books have a very distinctive look; you can always pick them off the shelf on visuals alone. How and why did the company settle on those striking, colorful spines? What does the bird represent? 
Our books are all designed by a single designer, Emanuele Ragnisco. A lot of thought went into the original design template and it goes back to the question of brand identity. We feel we’re doing something quite distinctive, and we wanted our look to be distinctive as well; we wanted readers to be able to recognize a Europe book; we wanted those readers who have grown to appreciate our titles and our tastes to be able to identify future titles. In addition to that, we would like to think that reading a Europa book is not only a pleasure for the mind but also one for the senses. We wanted our books to be beautiful, to be pleasing to feel and hold. Now more than ever, reading a book (a real, physical book) should be a tactile experience as well as an intellectual exercise. These are the factors we consider when designing our books.

When Sandro and Sandra Ferri, the founders of Europa Editions, first began publishing in Italy they began with literature from Eastern Europe. At that time, there was very little of this literature being published in Italy and they considered that to be a great shame given the wealth of literary talent in that part of the world. They were the first to publish many of the century’s great Eastern European writers in Italian.

The bird on the spines of Europa Editions books is a stork. The same bird, two of them, adorn the spines of Edizioni EO titles. The stork’s migratory pattern in Europe is from east to west and then south. This mapped on to what they were doing with writers from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Russia, etc. Bringing them first west and then south, to Rome, where Edizioni EO has its offices. 

5. Tell us a little about Europa's Arabic imprint, Sharq/Gharb. Why did Europa start it? What are Europa's goals? Is there a success story you'd like to share? 
Sharq/Gharb is not actually a Europa imprint, but a new publishing house, founded once again by Sandro and Sandra, publishing titles in Arabic.

There are some publishers that follow the market; they look at what the market wants or is currently doing, and try to meet demand or replicate a pre-existing successes. There are other publishers, to my mind more courageous, who look at a market and ask themselves, “What is missing?” This has always been Sandro and Sandra’s approach. They create something new and create a market for that new thing rather than following a trend. They first began by bringing Eastern European authors to Italian readers. They followed up in Italy by being among the first Italian publishers to publish and promote the kind of crime or noir novel I spoke about earlier and which we have had the pleasure to publish with Europa.

Europa, in essence, is an extension of what they have always done. The situation for international fiction in the US is pretty dire. They looked at that gaping lack in what was available to American readers and said, “Let’s fill it.” Sharq/Gharb is yet a further extension of the same idea. However dire the situation is for the translation of foreign authors into English, it is much worse for foreign authors being translated into Arabic. Sharq/Gharb addresses this lacunae.

The imprint is publishing only a few titles a year. The publishing and distribution infrastructure being what it is in the Arab-speaking world, any more than that would pose very real problems. But it has proved to be a discreet success.

Ideally, in a few years, there would be a more fluid exchange between books published by Edizioni EO, Sharq/Gharb, and Europa Editions. This might assist a greater and perhaps more imaginative dialog between cultures and countries, because the dialog would be facilitated and prompted by literature. 

6. Can you give our readers a little sneak preview of some of the books out now and coming next year that you're particularly excited about?
We are still programming for 2012, but there are already two titles that I’m very, very excited about. The first is the second novel by Alessandro Piperno, whose Worst Intentions I mentioned above as one of my favorite Europa publications. Alessandro had a tough act to follow, for his first book was not only a masterpiece but an incredibly successful book in Italy and Europe, and did very well for us in the US. He hasn’t disappointed. His second novel shows him to be a born writer with exceptional talents and great deal to say.

I’m also very excited about a very slim book called Lovers by a French author, Daniel Arsand. I found this book to be exquisite. It is a love story, as the title suggests, and in my opinion ranks among the greatest short novels about love and passion, works like Duras’s The Lover, Durrell’s Justine, or Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.

Mr. Reynolds, thank you so much for all of this great information and for being willing to participate in the series! I've learned so much about Europa Editions! 

More in my Publisher Spotlight series on Europa Editions:

Week One:
Week Two:


Zibilee said...

This was such a great and thorough introduction to Europa! I liked this: "That’s what readers can expect from a Europa Editions book: a well-told story, settings that stir the imaginations, strong characters, and if translated, a first-rate translation." I also liked that they strive to make their covers unique and that they are focusing on such great material that is not focused on by any of the other publishing houses. I have to admit that a few of these titles and descriptions really caught my eye, and I am going to have to be looking for that stork! Great post, Marie, and thanks!

Kathleen said...

Really nice interview Marie. I was particularly interested to learn that they use the same graphic designer for their cover. I also liked hearing about how they set out to define their brand. They have a distinct place in the market.

Vasilly said...

Great interview! I own several of their titles and I haven't been disappointed with any of their books yet.