Interview by Brittany Hazelwood
NEW YORK: “We are not peddling literature in translation as if it were a medicine that could cure all ills,” says Michael Reynolds, Editor-in-chief of Europa Editions. “We believe in reading, in literature, and we feel there is a lot of good work out there . . . our job as publishers is to find it and publish it so that American readers can know what is being read, appreciated and talked about in other parts of the world.”
Founded in 2005, Europa has emerged as one of the premier publishers of translated fiction in the United States, first coming to the attention of readers after the surprise success of its 2008 translation of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which started with a print run of 15,000 and has gone on to sell and extraordinary 800,000 copies so far.
“It’s been,” says Reynolds, “like riding a wave.”
The surfing analogy comes perhaps a little too naturally to Reynolds, who was born in Australia. But like his list, he’s both eclectic and extremely international, having emigrated in his 20s, living on and off in the United States before settling in Italy. There, while running a literary festival in Rome, Reynolds heard the owners of the publishing house Edizioni EO were interested in launching a new publishing house in the U.S. He landed the gig.
In the intervening six years, Europa has published 115 titles — typically doing 20 books a year, a little more than half of which are in translation. The staff has grown to three, including Reynolds, publisher Kent Carroll, publicist Julia Haav, while the production, sales and marketing managers support Europa from Rome.
The publisher is continuing to expand operations as well. In August, Europa launched a new imprint, Tonga Books, in which prominent writers pick the titles. The first selections were made by Alice Sebold and include Alexander Maksik’s You Deserve Nothing, which has already won high praise from critics, and Ian Holding’s Of Beasts and Beings. In November, Europa will open a London office, with plans to launch a first full season — 15 books selected from the most successful US publications — in the UK in January. The director of the UK operation will be announced just prior the Frankfurt Book Fair.
We recently spoke with Reynolds, who now lives in New York, about Europa’s unique market position and plans for the future. Be warned: Reynolds issues some tall orders to emerging editors and publishers in the world of literary translation that have kept Europa strong throughout the years.
PP: How would you characterize Europa’s publishing philosophy?
It’s an extension of the original idea of Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola. They started publishing authors from Eastern Europe in Italy about 35 years ago, when very few other publishers were doing so. Europa Editions is an extension of this same idea. Six years ago when the company was founded there were so few non-anglophone authors being published in America. It struck us as a shame that readers had no access to these authors, and, at the same time, it presented itself as a business opportunity.
How have you developed such an avid fan base in such a short time?
We publish for readers. The kinds of books we acquire, the way we package them, the way that we do outreach and try to create a dialogue with our readers, as opposed to publishing for critical acclaim or academic acceptance; we have our readers in mind at every stage of the process. We have been rewarded for this approach by their enthusiasm. Booksellers, too, are a very important part of that. We give them books that they can feel passionate about, that they can be proud to display, and most importantly that they can sell.
How would you describe your readers?
I would probably put them into two groups. There are those who are curious to read something from another country because it is from another country, and then there is a larger group of readers who don’t really care where a book comes from or what language it was written in. They are interested in an entertaining read, food for thought, quality fiction, a strong story — more or less the same things they look for when they chose any book, by an international author or otherwise. There are many publishers doing work in translation that are really good at reaching the first group of readers, but perhaps less expert in reaching the second group.
What goes into Europa’s cover designs and makes them so distinct?
To do something different. To do something that stands out. We got a lot of pressure from our first distributor and at times also from bookstores, to change the cover design, to bring it more in line with American standard cover designs (if there is such a thing). But we resisted and I think now that we have had a few successes, we’ve shown that even very distinctive cover designs can work.
One designer, Emanuele Ragnisco, does all of our covers. He has creative control over the covers. We are relying on a single sensibility, a single creative mind. So, you have a uniform aesthetic. It’s important for us that our books look nice and feel good in addition to being quality content. More than ever, today a book needs to be a desirable object as well as being a great read.
One recent title I enjoyed was your 100th, The Hottest Dishes of Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky, translated by Tim Mohr. How did Bronsky fall onto your radar?
Thanks to the Editor’s Trip sponsored by the German Book Office New York in conjunction with the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Goethe Institut. It was an unusual experience, because the trip was organized to expose us to the crime fiction scene in Germany. And I think all of the editors on the trip had acquired crime fiction in the past. Most of our appointments were with foreign rights people who were hoping to interest us in works of crime fiction. But the very first meeting that we had there — and I am sure Riky Stock [Director of the German Book Office] was devastated — was with a German critic who basically told us that there was no interesting crime fiction currently being published in Germany and that we were all wasting our time. Turns out that was not completely true.
But this initial meeting prompted me to ask the foreign rights managers we were meeting with what else, in addition to the crime fiction they had come to the meeting to pitch. And Iris Brandt from Kiepenheuer & Witsch mentioned that there was this wonderful debut author named Alina Bronsky coming up next season. When I got back to our Rome office I wrote her asking for more information, she sent me a copy of Broken Glass Park, Alina’s debut novel, we read it and acquired it through its US agent, Markus Hoffman. I think we may actually have acquired Broken Glass Park before it was published in Germany, which is unusual for us. We generally acquire things that have an already established sales record or critical response in their country of origin. But Alina’s voice is so compelling that we took a chance on her. She’s an extraordinarily talented young author.
If a publisher wanted to approach you, what should she keep in mind when submitting to Europa Editions? What are you looking for?
Just send us your best. That is really what we are interested in. I think that we have been able to establish a reputation for successfully publishing books in translation in the US because we have been very selective. We’ve concentrated on established authors who have an established readership in their native countries. In this way, we feel that we are bringing something meaningful from country X into the American market. We’re interested in really strong stories, strong voices. We’re not particularly interested in very experimental fiction or very commercial fiction; we are sort of in the middle of that spectrum.
As a translator yourself of Italian and German, how has that informed your editorial role?
It has been really important. In fact, that is principally why I decided to do some translations, because I thought it would make me better at editing works in translation. I understand, perhaps, the challenges of a translator a bit better than an editor who has no experience translating, and maybe have a sense for certain fixes that might work in a given situation. Also, going back to the question of acquisition, I think one of the most important elements in our success over the years is the fact that we read in-house and in numerous languages. I don’t think we have ever acquired a book without having read it, in its entirety. We are not relying on sample translations or a reader’s reports. This is important in the acquisitions process but also as you plan how to market and promote a book. Translating has helped with this. It’s deepened my appreciation of language and narrative styles in different languages.
What advice would you offer an Editor that is seeking to acquire a foreign title for the first time, who may or may not speak the language of origin?
Learn the language. Go back to school. I tend to think that this is a real problem, the obstacle, in the world of publishing vis-à-vis literature in translation. So few publishers and so few editors are able to read a work in its original language. I don’t necessarily mean to say that an editor’s instincts are not good enough to judge a book or where it’s going or the style or the voice, etc., based on reading 20 or 30 pages in translation. Very often editors are making similar judgments even when a manuscript is not in translation. But an editor’s job nowadays is not simply to find a good book, it also involves knowing how to position that book and how to market it and pitch it to other people in the company. That work is a lot easier if you have a full and complete understanding of a book.
Have you found that attending international book fairs has been helpful in discovering new literature?
I don’t go to a lot of fairs, but I think that they are helpful. Europa Editions is in an unusual position, because we have an office in Europe. Half of Europa’s staff is in Europe, so we have daily contact with publishers and editors there and we see them often. I don’t think we suffer from a lack of contact with people. But increasingly, and ironically, fairs have become occasions for people to shut out all of the noise of email, phone calls, etc, and actually talk with people about books, which can be really helpful.
What are you reading now?
Not for work? I’m in the middle of Justine by Lawrence Durrell. I’m also reading Otherwise Known as the Human Condition by Geoff Dyer. I got to read a few things that were not work related over the summer, which was nice. I read A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle by Nabokov.
Which titles will be coming out from Europe this Fall?
We have a really interesting fall this year. We have two books being launched with this new imprint, Tonga Books. We have two new books from authors that have been successful with us in the past; Beryl Bainbridge’s Girl in the Polka-dot Dress is coming out as well. It’s an exciting fall.
Europa Editions will be attending the Frankfurt Book Fair and will be represented by Sandro Ferri, Gianluca Catalano and others. You can find them at the Edizioni EO booth, H5.1 a929.
DISCUSS: What Do You Look for in a Translation? Edification or Entertainment?