Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, the husband-and-wife team behind Edizioni E/O, a leading publisher of Italian fiction since 1979, are also the founders of Europa Editions, which has offices in New York and London and publishes foreign literature in English translation. Since Europa launched in 2005, it has released translations of books by more than 120 authors from 30 different countries, bringing high-quality international fiction to American and British audiences. (Europa’s New York office is directed by Kent Carroll and the London office is headed up by Daniela Petracco.) The house is dedicated to the Ferris’ belief that literature “can help people to understand and respect each other.” Among Europa’s successes is The Elegance of the Hedgehog by French author Muriel Barbery, which has sold more than one million copies in English and made the New York Times bestseller list. In 2014, Europa’s reclusive Italian author Elena Ferrante captivated American reviewers and readers alike with Those Who Stay and Those Who Leave, the third of her Neapolitan Novels. According to Sandra, Ferrante has just delivered the fourth installment in the series, which is scheduled to appear in English in fall 2015. Here the talented couple talk about publishing and how they divide the work, and the spoils.
Whose idea was it to start Europa?
Sandro Ferri: It was my idea. It was political. Following 9/11, I kept thinking it would be a good idea to draw America into closer proximity with the rest of the world.
Sandra Ozzola Ferri: I immediately liked Sandro’s idea. It was time for us to grow as a company, and, instead of staying in Italy, stealing authors from other publishers, and being stolen from, it seemed more interesting to come to the U.S. and address an area that was neglected: translated fiction.
Who does what at Europa?
Sandro: We have no individual titles. We’re both publishers, and for us being publishers means doing whatever is needed, performing whatever role our profession calls for.
Sandra: Sandro is always reading, and he reads all kinds of things. But he doesn’t intellectualize too much. He is a good businessman: courageous but cautious, creative but with a sense of reality. And he does the math. This is why I trust him and believe in his ventures.
Sandro: Sandra is much more determined than I am. When she believes in something, she really follows through on it. She is also more perceptive. I wouldn’t have founded these publishing houses without her.
Sandra, are you the one who discovered Elena Ferrante?
Sandra: Yes, Sandro and I know the author personally; no one else has met her. The manuscript of Ferrante’s first novel, Troubling Love, came to us through a friend. I had no idea that a writer could describe a mother-daughter relationship in such a violent and physical way. I was immediately impressed by the strength of the story. And I could appreciate why the author didn’t want to reveal her identity. I am very proud to be publishing Ferrante. I have always had faith in her books and I have always believed that she could enjoy a wide readership even without appearing in public. And I think I was right.
The critics and the media have fallen in love with Ferrante, but are American readers buying her novels?
Sandro: We have printed 25,000 copies of Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The first book in the series (My Brilliant Friend) has sold 60,000 copies to date, and our first printing was 8,000.
What’s been Europa’s biggest seller to date?
Sandro: Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. She is also a good friend of ours. We acquired Hedgehog for Italy but forgot to acquire it for the U.S. Fortunately, Sandra, who is always very focused on the things she likes, remembered to make an offer! And we did so just in time. Big offers had started arriving from big publishers. I also think that Barbery didn’t go for the big money because we went to visit her and we really hit it off. We usually have to be very fast and determined in order to acquire a book, because it is hard for us to compete with the financial resources of big publishers. For example, I acquired The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold for Italy after reading the first 100 pages in one night. I love doing that kind of thing.
Are you still publishing the Tonga imprint of Edizioni, which Sebold was running?
Sandro: We have stopped publishing with Tonga, which set out to publish edgy American authors, both debut and more experienced writers. But Tonga went a long way toward showing booksellers and reviewers that we could successfully publish American authors (under Edizioni) as well as authors from abroad.
How many books does Edizioni publish compared to Europa?
Sandro: Edizioni E/O publishes around 60 books a year, so twice what Europa Editions publishes. The proportion of sales is about the same. The Italian market is smaller than the American one, but the markets for “literary” works in the two countries are similar in size.
What prompted the launch of the Europa World Noir imprint last year?
Sandro: Although we’ve been publishing crime fiction since we opened for business in the U.S., we wanted a way of drawing more attention to those deserving authors. For us, a good crime story penetrates deeply into human souls, describes unknown and less frequently encountered milieus, depicts great characters in much the same way as literary fiction does. We’re trying to establish a solid list of international noir authors... to make sure American readers discover them. Every year, to support this effort, we organize International Crime Month together with independent publishers Akashic Books, Grove Atlantic, and Melville House. The success of this event keeps growing.
Are you planning to expand into other markets?
Sandro: We have been struggling for many years to publish in Arabic. We’ve tried distribution and co-editions with Arab publishers but the results have been disappointing. However, we have published some very good contemporary Arab novels in Italian, and we’ll soon try publishing some of them in English.
What has surprised you most about the American market?
Sandro: The vitality of independent bookstores, their ability to be real centers for the promotion of books and the cultural life of the country—without receiving federal or state support as happens in France. Also the fact that we have found a pretty big audience of readers who are curious about and open to translated fiction and new things in general. This goes against the cliché—or is it prejudice?—that American readers are indifferent to what is happening in the rest of the world.
Sandra: We have also been surprised by the general quality and the independence of American reviewers compared to Italian ones.
Was there a writer that got away?
Sandra: Milan Kundera. We worked with him early in his career but then missed out on publishing him.
What would you be if you had not become publishers?
Sandro: I wanted to be an economist helping the poor, or a jazz musician.
Sandra: The mother of a large family!
And who will succeed you?
Sandra: Our daughter, Eva, just completed a master’s degree at the London School of Economics. She says she would like to work with Greenpeace or be a philosopher and a psychoanalyst, but whenever she reads Ferrante, she wants to be a publisher.
Carrie Tuhy is a writer and world explorer.