Not a clean break

Not a clean break

Europa Editions UK. In these days, even without a global pandemic, a company with a name like that would have to be of the adventurous type.   

In 2016, following the Brexit referendum, shocked that our bubble had burst and suffering a sort of cognitive dissonance caused by the unpredictability of the  events unfolding—a state that would become all too familiar over subsequent years— I  spent days on social media reading posts and comments and asking myself: do British people really not want us? Who and what do they think we are? Are they afraid? Will they reconsider? We need to keep talking to each other!

These are the kinds of things one might ask a boyfriend to convince him to stay. Instead, now these questions applied to Europa Editions, our UK publishing enterprise.

Founded ten years ago by the Italian publishers, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola (my parents), Europa Editions UK was inspired by the desire to speak, as publishers, in a new language, to reach a new audience of beloved readers. It was born from the idea that books from all over the world, no matter the language they were originally written in, can coexist on the same shelves in bookstores with books written in English.

The idea from the start was to translate and publish the greatest international authors we could in a market where literature in translation accounted for a mere 5% of the total number of books published. The aim was to bring literature in translation out of its niche, far from the stereotype of being limited to a learned few. Our aim was also to push ourselves outward in search of air, to get out of a bubble inside which we felt we could grow no further nor encounter anything that was different. 

Why is it that when we search for a book in translation on Amazon, it is almost always accompanied by recommendations for other titles in translation? An algorithm, devised by humans and employed by online retailers, mechanically agglomerates content according to a logic of affinity that can end up being rather discriminatory. True discovery, finding something new to you, becomes almost impossible. In the same way, when you buy a blue jumper online, ads for jumpers will stalk you for months, as if you didn’t already own a jumper and wouldn’t rather buy, for example, a skirt.

Contrary to this kind of logic, I believe we can read Elena Ferrante in the same spirit as we read Kazuo Ishiguro. These two authors are listed together because they are both literary megabestsellers. But if one buys the book of, say, a less famous Swedish author, the danger is that they would be catapulted by the metadata logic into a world populated only by Swedish authors. And that poses a number of problems. What I mean is literature in translation isn’t a genre. Literature in translation is literature.

So it was on this basis, post-Brexit and pre-COVID, that I decided, with support from my bosses (again, my parents, that is), to be a border-crossing publisher, straddling Italy and the UK, spending half of my time in London, and investing my time in Europa Editions UK. In a move that could have seemed counter-intuitive for a publishing house known for books in translation, I hired Christopher Potter - editor of, amongst others, Annie Proulx, Michael Cunningham, Michel Chabon, and Hilary Mantel - who would dedicate himself to English language authors. This choice seemed in keeping with Europa’s mission to be truly diverse and to cultivate the dialogue we sought by amplifying the English-language side of our list. At this point there were three of us: Christopher Potter, Daniela Petracco, who had been taking care of everything from the very beginning, and me. We stationed ourselves in a small office in Notting Hill, with a small garden—which was very exciting for me as we really don’t really have garden flats in Italy. There we discussed our ambitions and our vision, and we made a commitment to growing our publishing house. 

But “American capitalism pales in comparison with British capitalism”, to quote a friend, a British publisher who was trying to be encouraging; “and I warn you, if you want to grow, to avoid going under you must swim very fast.” In this market, the polarization between the big bestsellers and those books that sell a few hundred, if not tens of copies, is much wider than in Italy. The risk of stagnating editorial strategies is high, and at the same time, the market realities increase the ruthlessness of the competition between publishers for the acquisition of “announced bestsellers”. In a market where Amazon, aided and abetted by the absence of regulations on the price of books, in place in many European countries, has a gigantic share; and where independent bookshops suffer from soaring rents and are forced to limit risk, shelf space in the bookshop chains becomes a highly contested, most precious commodity. 

In this market, we have given away many bottles of limoncello, and I have spoken to the point of exhaustion about what translation means to us, both in practical and idealistic terms, and of how the more difficult a project seems, the more necessary it may be. We have brought authors from all around the world to festivals and to ceremonies for awards we did not win, and we have been moved by the British readers who turned up to listen to a writer from far away.

I often think of the seafarers and merchants who for centuries journeyed back and forth across the world with cargos filled with both treasures and contagion, those who were not interested in colonizing but in exploring and exchanging.  They are the ones who inspire me when it’s pouring rain outside and I’ve finished the sixth video conference of the day, in which I missed some bits but pretended to understand it all. I think of them every time I see a glow of recognition on the face of one of my colleagues, friends, or our readers. We may be different, but we can talk to each other.  We talk because we love books, and we love books because books originate from our desire to communicate with one another.

It was in this market, during the lasting and extreme confusion provoked by the combination of impending Brexit and Covid, with sales channels severely affected by both, and notwithstanding our imminent publication of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, that we finally resolved to apply for the Culture Recovery Fund.

As fate would have it, my father broke his shoulder at the start of his Summer holidays, and so I was able to force him to spend several weeks in August shut in the house with me, compiling pages and pages of financial accounts and projections to apply for the funding. We didn’t hold out much hope of getting it, especially given that, among other things, we needed to convince the British government that a cultural enterprise like Europa Editions was vital for their ecosystem.

Last autumn we received good news: funding had been granted. 

To celebrate, we dive into the recruitment process to find a sales and marketing manager, our precious Carolina Parodi.  Also, we immediately buy a vacuum cleaner for the office. In order for it to stay open, it has to be kept spotless. Daniela encourages us to get a really good one.

The next day the device arrives and I’m as happy as a child on Christmas day. While I take it out of the box Daniela stands up, makes a funny face, and says: “I know I should have told you sooner, but James Dyson is a huge Brexiteer”. Even if then he moved his headquarters to Singapore.

Eva Ferri is the publisher of Europa Editions UK and Edizioni E/O in Italy. After studying Philosophy and Public Policy in Rome and at the London School of Economics, she completed a masters in Philosophy and Jungian Psychoanalysis in Milan. Eva lives between Rome and London.