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Europa Knows: It’s a Branding Thing

posted April 29, 2009

Posted by Erin Brown in book design books publishing world literature

One last thing about Europa Editionsand I won’t be the first to mention itis that they’ve done a terrific job of creating brand identity. First off, the name Europa is well-chosen, I think. It carries a certain sophistication and seems to lend the allure of travel to their books. Somehow, it makes literature in translation seem a bit sexy.

But the most distinguishing thing about Europa is the books themselveswhich is to say that you can spot one from a mile away. All of their titles are released in trade paperback (common among many European publishers) with handsome French flaps, which give the books a sleek and elegant feel. And every cover bears Europa’s signature stork logo. Many of their covers feature bold images that are cut out against brightly colored backgrounds.

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A recent discussion on The Book Design Review suggests that there is little consensus about the cover designs themselves. While some who commented appreciated the spareness and eyecatching images on many of the covers, others found them boring and somehow dated looking. In spite of people’s aesthetic differences on this point, however, there seems to be no dispute about the fact that Europa’s books are immediately recognizable.

“They attract me because I know they’re Europa titles,” one commenter confessed. That pretty much says it all.

Europa’s “Retro” Model

posted April 24, 2009

Posted by Erin Brown in books publishing world literature

In light of all that has happened in publishing in recent decades, it seems that the essence of the “retro” publishing model at Europa Editions is its focus on the quality of the text itself—language, characters, and story—and a staunch belief in the inherent salability of good literature.


Some hallmarks of Europa’s retro style:

  • A decorated industry veteran at the helm. Europa is headed by Kent Carroll, who served for 12 years as editor-in-chief at the legendary Grove Press (which had transformed the American literary consciousness during the 1950s and 1960s with authors like Samuel Beckett, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs) before establishing his own highly esteemed company, Carroll & Graf.
  • A commitment to building their readership from the ground up. Whereas the “new” (post-conglomerate takeover) publishing model is predicated on the expectation that a book should have a built-in market of thousands before it’s even released, Europa is committed to capturing the attention of reviewers and winning the respect and loyalty of independent booksellers.
  • Low overhead. In the wake of the conglomerate takeovers, many publishers—who used to behave like college professors—came down with a kind of corporate fever. Midtown offices got big and glitzy, salaries and expense accounts followed suit. At Europa Mr. Carroll is the only full-time employee. He operates out of a modest office in Union Square, New York, with one freelance assistant and a couple of unpaid interns.
  • Maximizing value. Another feature of the “new” publishing era is the practice of paying exorbitant advances to authors whose books are expected to sell big. A great many of these books do not reap the returns, and publishers lose out in the deal. By all comparisons, translation rights are cheap, even for some of the most acclaimed international authors. The less Europa has to spend on acquiring rights to foreign works that have already proven successful in their original languages, the more they can invest in publicity and marketing in the United States.

Next time I’ll look at another thing Europa’s doing right—not necessarily retro, just good business sense.

What Happened to Publishing: A Brief Retrospective

posted April 17, 2009

Posted by Erin Brown in publishing world literature

One of the intriguing things about Europa Editions is what the New York Times has called its “frankly retro publishing model.”

But before we can appreciate how bold it is to be “retro” in publishing these days, let’s remember what happened to the industry, especially in the United States, during the 1980s and 1990s. Those were the days of infamy, when the independent institutions of New York publishing—Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper & Row, Penguin, and others—were being swallowed up by massive international media conglomerates such as Bertelsmann, CBS, and News Corporation.


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Suddenly book publishers, who were accustomed to seeing profit margins between 3 and 4 percent, were expected to contend with their conglomerates’ film, cable television, and other media subsidiaries, which typically saw gains of between 12 and 15 percent. Under this enormous pressure to increase their margins, and with financial and marketing people now weighing in heavily on publishing decisions, editors became consumed by the hunt for the next blockbuster book (think Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus). Meanwhile, they could no longer “afford” to publish a title that was projected to sell fewer than 15,000 – 20,000 copies, regardless of its literary merit. In effect, the business of printing books, which had long been guided by a cultural mission to make literature and ideas available to the general public, was surrendered to the great, equalizing jaws of the market.

Publishing veteran André Schiffrin explains how market theory transformed the industry in “The Corporatization of Publishing” (The Nation, June 3, 1996) and at greater length in his memoir, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2000).

So how does Europa reconcile its seemingly lofty cultural mission (to foster through literature the dialogue between nations and cultures) with the equally formidable task of turning literature in translation into a viable business venture in the United States? Looks like I’m still honing in on the answers . . .

Do Americans Read Literature in Translation?

posted April 6, 2009

Posted by Erin Brown in books world literature

Literature in translation has long been regarded as a remote and economically challenging niche in American publishing. There is a common perception, both in the United States and abroad, that American readers simply cannot be bothered with books that don’t originate in English.

Horace Engdahl, a Swedish literary historian and critic, who presides over the Nobel Prize jury, caused quite an uproar last fall when he remarked to the Associated Press that American authors were not in real contention for the most prestigious international award in literature. “The US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature . . . That ignorance is restraining.” Indeed, the Nobel Prize has not gone to an American author since Toni Morrison received it in 1993.

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A week after Engdahl’s inflammatory comments, the 2008 Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio. Le Clézio’s books, it so happens, are not widely available in translation in the United States. The Prospector (1993), a translation of Le Clézio’s Le Chercheur d’or (Gallimard, 1985), is published by David R. Godine, Inc., a small, independent press in Boston whose recently launched series, Verba Mundi, features some of the most prominent names in world literature. (Other publishers of recent Le Clézio translations include the University of Chicago Press, The University of Nebraska Press, and Curbstone Press.)

Is it only the so-called provincialism of American readers that’s to blame for the stunted growth of literature in translation in the United States? Champions of the neglected genre point out that the lack of multilingualism among American editors (by comparison to their European counterparts) makes it hard for them to judge with confidence which foreign language works have promise. Others note that translated works are seldom backed by vigorous marketing efforts—such that lackluster sales become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Next week I will revisit the question of “focused, long-range editorial vision,” the principle upon which Europa Editions is founded.

Hooray for Europa Editions

posted March 27, 2009

Posted by Erin Brown in books publishing

As Thomas Riggs & Company prepares to launch its own publishing imprint, we on the ground floor take heart and inspiration from the remarkable success of Europa Editions. Recently profiled in The New York Times, Europa Editions was founded in 2005 as the English-language imprint of Rome-based edizioni e/o, one of the most prestigious independent publishers in Europe.

Edizioni e/o began in 1980, when husband and wife founders Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri wagered that there was a market in Italy for literary works in translation from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other parts of Eastern Europe. Met with a barrage of skepticism, Ferri and Ferri nonetheless insisted that what was lacking in Italy then “was not so much a keen readership, but publishers who were willing to commit to a focused, long-range editorial vision.”

The couple forged ahead with their project and found that Italian readers were receptive to literature that offered a window into Eastern European experiences and perspectives. Over the years edizioni e/o expanded steadily, building an impressive international catalog of fiction titles and a reputation for their discerning literary taste.

Ferri and Ferri took another big gamble in 2005, betting that with Europa Editions they could cultivate American enthusiasm for works in translation from across the Atlantic. From the publication that year of their first translated title, Days of Abandonment, by the acclaimed Italian author Elena Ferrante, Europa has continued to build its literary status and its readership. The company reached profitability in 2008, scoring its first bestseller with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a French novel by Muriel Barbery.

So what is the key to Europa’s success?  Is there really a growing U.S. market for literature in translation?  I’ll have to do some more reading…