Europa Editions Finds Success Translating Literary Novels
It does not sound like a recipe for publishing success: a roster of translated literary novels written mainly by Europeans, relying heavily on independent-bookstore sales, without an e-book or vampire in sight.
But that is the formula that has fueled Europa Editions, a small publisher founded by a husband-and-wife team from Italy five years ago. As large New York publishing houses have laid off staff, suffered drastically reduced book sales and struggled to adjust to a digital future, Europa turned its first profit last year and is enjoying a modest but growing following.
The company, which operates out of a pair of tiny offices near Union Square in Manhattan, also has its first best seller with “The Elegance of the Hedgehog,” a French novel by Muriel Barbery narrated by a secretly intellectual concierge in a fashionable Parisian apartment building and a precocious preteen girl who lives there with her wealthy family. Filled with philosophical ruminations and copious references to literature, art, film and music, the book is in many ways as much of a surprise hit as its publisher.
The novel, released in the United States in September, has spent six weeks on the New York Times trade paperback fiction best-seller list, as of last Sunday. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of sales, it has sold 71,000 copies.
That might seem minor, compared with the blockbuster sales of a single title from the “Twilight” series by Stephenie Meyer, but for Europa, it is proof that the company can do more than fulfill an earnest cultural mission.
“We don’t want to be in that small-press translation ghetto,” said Kent Carroll, Europa’s publisher and a veteran of independent publishing who worked at Grove Press for 11 years. He was a co-founder of Carroll & Graf, the publisher, now defunct, that rereleased out-of-print gems and introduced writers like Beryl Bainbridge to American readers. “Our ambitions are large,” he said.
Europa Editions was the brainchild of Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, the founders of Edizioni E/O, a Rome-based publisher that releases many works in translation in Italy. “I have a universal, global feeling that everywhere people should read and could read books from different countries,” Mr. Ferri said in a telephone interview. “Even if up to now, only 3 percent of the American books are books in translation, I think that this is not a reason that it should always be like that.”
Emulating many European publishers, the company releases books only in the trade paperback format. It developed a distinctive look for all its titles, with French flaps, a consistent font on the book spines and a logo of a stork that appears with the publisher’s name on the front of each volume.
Europa’s first title, “The Days of Abandonment,” an Italian novel by Elena Ferrante, was published in 2005. The book garnered positive reviews and immediately took off at independent booksellers. Other titles — including “Old Filth” by Jane Gardam, an English writer; “Dog Day,” a mystery by the Spanish writer Alicia Giménez-Bartlett; and “Cooking With Fernet Branca” by James Hamilton-Paterson, an English writer living in Austria — helped earn Europa a loyal following among booksellers and readers. Some books sell only a few thousand copies, but book buyers like the brand identity.
“We have a lot of faith in their editorial sensibility,” said Sarah McNally, owner of the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan.
Mr. Carroll said the company rarely spent more than $10,000 on advances. He is the only full-time staff member in New York, with a part-time freelance assistant and two interns.
“Hedgehog,” a novel that had been a sensation in France and that Edizioni had already translated into Italian, had also proved popular in Germany and South Korea. Mr. Carroll, in turn, was determined to make the novel an American best seller. He blitzed booksellers and reviewers with postcards, galleys, letters and phone calls months before the book was published, reminding them of the novel’s international track record. Sales representatives from Penguin Books USA, which distributed the book, also pushed it heavily.
American booksellers were captivated by the voices of both Renée, the concierge, and Paloma, the girl, and recommended the book to customers. Readers began telling their friends.
“Now everybody’s buying it because everybody’s buying it,” said Mark LaFramboise, a buyer at Politics and Prose in Washington. “Hedgehog,” he said, is “one of the hottest books in the store.”
Some larger publishers are starting to envy Europa’s selection and its frankly retro publishing model. Mr. Carroll “finds things, picks things up for a little bit of money and makes a lot out of them,” said Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “Most of publishing was once that way. It wasn’t about big money so much. He’s sort of preserving the old values of it’s-all-about-the-book and connecting the book with readers.”