There’s definitely a thing about birds and publishing houses. Not just in the UK, but all around the world.
Off the top of my head, I could name dozens of publishers who have gone for birds for their logo. Perhaps for obvious reasons - wings can look like book pages, and the ability to fly evokes what we do when we read – many publishers have chosen a feathered creature.
Forty years ago, when they founded Edizioni E/O (Europa UK’s Italian sister house), my parents picked the stork. There is no particular love for birds in my household as far as I can tell, but the stork is a migrating bird which, in the collective imagination, carries something in its beak (usually a newborn). The stork migrates from east to west, and that’s precisely what E/O stands for, est/ovest (east/west), because, at the time the name of company was chosen, it focused on bringing the very best of Eastern European literature westward, to Italy.
This bird with its elegant long legs seemed made to grace a book spine. And that’s exactly where you find it on our Italian editions, while the front cover carries only the company’s full name.
Our stork grew restless and ambitious, and eventually, following the dictates of its nature, migrated again, further west, from Italy to New York, where we established Europa US, and then flew back east to the UK, landing on the front cover of our English editions. As a matter of fact, our stork keeps migrating every which way: altogether we publish authors from around 70 countries, motivated by the deeply rooted belief that literature can and must travel far.
The reason I’m telling the story of our stork is that there’s also a thing about publishers’ logos appearing – or not – on book covers. Apart from a few exceptions (notably Penguin and Faber), few UK publishers persist in this practice. There are several sensible reasons for this – to leave enough space for quotes, to stress the author’s importance, to ensure a tidy look, and, ultimately, to convey that every book is unique and should be published to reflect this.
Also, most imprints have over time lost their original identity, adopting an approach which is both more general and more eclectic. So, books are often purposely aesthetically undistinguishable from one another, and branding is an insider game, something that happens within the trade, as a way to communicate publishing and acquisition strategies to fellow publishing professionals.
It would seem that a logo on the front cover is a privilege accorded only to prestigious publishers with a long history: because unless a publisher is renowned among readers, what is the point of having a logo that only a few would be able to recognize?
Europa is (fairly) new in town, quite small, and not so well known outside trade circles. As such, we are often asked the - legitimate - question of why we insist on flouting our stork (often found at the bottom of our front cover with the full name of the company below), which is, in the opinion of many, an unforgivable waste of space. While factoring in all the reasons above, our argument for keeping the logo ends up going the opposite way.
Why should publishers with a limpid vision of what they want to achieve with their list, of what informs their acquisitions, of the aesthetic and values they are founded on, and of their driving motivation, not be able to include a logo to guide booksellers and readers alike?
Europa is a UK company founded by and staffed with cosmopolitan people. In continental Europe, where some of us are from, all publishers, from the biggest corporate conglomerates to the tiniest independent houses, from academic to trade to children’s publishers, put their logos on book jackets. It’s always been a straightforward way to communicate to readers that behind every single book there is a unifying editorial vision (in Italy we call it “il progetto”, the project). A way to tell readers that just as every author and every book is unique, every publisher is also unique and follow its own taste and ethos. All tools that can help readers make informed choices.
In Italy, one can often overhear readers saying things like “I can’t wait to head to the bookshop for the Adelphi promo”, or, “I just adore Sellerio”, and, “I think Feltrinelli have the best books”. The same is true of readers in France, Germany, Spain and in other countries. When browsing in a bookshop, the publishing house becomes one of the basic criteria for their purchases. The fact that, in addition to having their logo on the cover, publishers almost invariably adopt a coherent overall design policy, makes this process even more radical. In Italian bookshops, books are frequently grouped by publisher, not just on display tables, but on the shelves too. Vertical displays of a publishers’ backlist often provide readers with an overview, a sense of how a list is curated, and ultimately why it exists. Seeing a whole wall covered with titles by a single publisher or imprint focuses attention on “the project”, helping readers discover new authors.
Protecting and nurturing one’s own identity is, we believe, the principal route to creating fruitful encounters with the audience. Encounters that don’t last just for the arch of one read, but that develop into a long-lasting relationship built on mutual trust. Penguin’s history is emblematic in this respect. It’s the history of a brand which, originated in the UK, is now famous everywhere. Penguin’s waddling bird has become the international epitome of editorial quality and success. Their mass market editions were the first to make books affordable, as well as immediately recognisable, and have been instrumental in bringing about the democratisation or reading. I’m not saying every publisher can achieve such a result, but it’s certainly an inspiring story. While our stork is a vagabond, it wants to dwell on our book jackets. I hope its peaceful sit-in will open up a conversation on this subject.
Lastly, I can’t help adding that, as I write, Amazon keeps smiling at us from every single parcel delivered to our door.
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.