Three independent publishing houses best known for their fiction in translation are upping their nonfiction game. For two of those publishers, Transit Books of Oakland, Calif., and Dallas, Tex.–based Deep Vellum Books, the nonfiction programs are almost, if not entirely, new. For Europa Editions, which is less of a stranger to nonfiction but is without any dedicated program, an upcoming series marks something of a new direction.
Europa, headquartered in New York City and Rome, was founded by the owners of the Italian press Edizioni E/O, and while it specializes in the publication of European and other international literary fiction, primarily in translation, it is also known for its international nonfiction and crime fiction. Its new series, the Passenger, is unique for the press.
The series, whose entries are something of a cross between a traditional book and a high-quality journal or magazine, is published in partnership with a different Italian press, Iperborea. “The guys from Iperborea came to E/O, and they knew about Europa and the position we’ve been able to acquire in the English-language markets,” Europa editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds said. “They approached us when they started to think that the Passenger probably had a wider audience than just an Italian readership, and we recognized immediately that this was something that was not only appealing and exciting, but something good could really work within the parameters of our business.”
Iperborea specializes in Northern European literary fiction, but in 2018 decided to “expand [its] horizons” into a form many at the press hold in great esteem: long-form journalism. Series coeditor Tomaso Biancardi, the son of Iperborea founder Emilia Lodigiani, said, “We were all fans of English-language journalism, and we all liked to travel the world.” But he and his colleagues realized that “what we wanted, what we were looking for, didn’t exist—a way to discover a country that is more than a travel guide, and different from a travel guide: something that tells you what a country is debating at the moment, and the issues of a country.”
The Passenger readers will find none of the typical travel guide sections on where to eat or what sights to see. Consider the books, rather, more like a literary vacation—the kind you can take without braving a long flight in the time of Covid-19. The guide to Greece (each book is simply titled with the name of the series and then the region explored within, e.g., The Passenger: Greece) includes such pieces as a history of the Greek taverna and a personal essay on surviving the country’s government debt crisis; the Japanese issue hosts a feature on the greatest sumo wrestler of all time and an essay on why the Japanese are so obsessed with the blues. Among the writers included in the two books are Banana Yoshimoto, Ian Buruma, Brian Phillips, and Ersi Sotiropoulos.
Europa will publish the Greece and Japan volumes in English later this month. (Because of the pandemic, the original May pub date was pushed back, and titles on Brazil and Turkey initially planned for release this fall have been delayed.) The English- and Italian-language editions are, Biancardi said, almost exactly the same, with the biggest differences being updated statistics or graphics in certain sections. Each English-language edition, Reynolds added, will have a 7,000-copy first printing, with copies distributed roughly equally between the North American and international English-language markets. If the Italian-language editions are any indication, the English-language versions will find an audience for Europa: Biancardi said that the Greece and Japan volumes sold more than 30,000 copies combined in Italy alone.
Going forward, Reynolds said, the two publishers plan to collaborate more directly throughout the publishing process, and Europa has great hopes for the series in the U.S.—even if they’re a little bit worried about the timing. “What I think is really challenging for the Passenger at the moment is that they are publications that need to be held, that need to be seen, that need to be touched,” Reynolds said. “I think the challenge we have at the moment is that, with so many bricks-and-mortar stores not fully operational or not open or struggling to open, that makes it difficult. But we’re in it for the long haul.”
In September, a month after Europa debuts the Passenger series, Transit will introduce its own new line of nonfiction titles called Undelivered Lectures, a series of book-length essays exploring an eclectic series of topics. The publisher is best known for publishing literary translations, including Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniac, which was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize, and The Other Man by Jon Fosse, translated from the Norwegian by Damian Searls.
Copublisher Adam Levy, who runs the press with his wife, Ashley Nelson Levy, said the company has published nonfiction in the past, but it was just a small portion of the list. “Our biggest book was Axiomatic by Maria Tumarkin, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in 2019, and we have done False Calm by María Sonia Cristoff, an Argentinian writer, which is about the ghost towns of Patagonia,” said Levy.
Levy said the new series goes to the heart of the publisher’s mission. “These are books that are adventurous with form and cross boundaries, insofar as the books also play with genre,” he said. “They are not the type of books commercial publishers would necessarily want to do, but ones that have an exceptional literary and cultural value.”
The first title in the Undelivered Lectures series is the aptly titled Lecture by Mary Cappello, a literary meditation on the art of the lecture that, according to Levy, intends “to give new life to knowledge’s dramatic form.” The second title, Stranger Faces by Namwali Serpell, is a collection of essays about the mythology of the face; it received a starred review from PW. The series will begin with two books per year, each with print runs of 5,000 copies.
The next two books in the series are already being prepped, although no pub date has been announced: a book on migration by the Mexican writer Mariana Oliver and a book-length essay by Kanishk Tharoor on citizenship and concepts of statehood. In addition, Levy said, Transit just signed Preti Taneja, for a book about art and trauma. “Unlike most of our previous books, many of which were published elsewhere first or were translations, these new titles in the Undelivered Lecture series are being developed originally and exclusively for us,” Levy said, “so they are taking somewhat longer to produce.”
For its first foray into nonfiction, Deep Vellum Books is also turning to lectures: in October it will publish Dispatches from the Republic of Letters, a collection of acceptance speeches and lectures from winners of the prestigious Neustadt Prize, which is presented by the University of Oklahoma and is often viewed as a bellwether for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Among the 25 writers included in the anthology are Elizabeth Bishop, Czesław Miłosz, and Orhan Pamuk. This title will appear under the publisher’s flagship imprint, which has focused almost exclusively on literary translations since its inception in 2013.
A second nonfiction title, I See You Big German, a book-length essay celebrating the life and 21-year career of Dallas Mavericks basketball star player Dirk Nowitzki, will appear in November as the inaugural title for Deep Vellum’s new La Reunion imprint, which will focus on nonfiction books about Texas. Deep Vellum plans to publish two titles under the La Reunion imprint in its inaugural year, although the other title has not been announced, and three to five nonfiction books per year thereafter. (The projected print run for both Dispatches and Big German is 5,000 copies.) Publisher Will Evans said he drew inspiration to start La Reunion from the nonfiction being published by the University of Texas Press and Minneapolis indie houses Milkweed Editions, Graywolf Press, and Coffee House Press.
“There is a wonderful market for nonfiction, and adding it to our list is a more accurate way of representing the literary landscape,” Evans said. “All along, our goal has been to bring the world into conversation through literature. Through our translations, we are bringing the world to Dallas, and, in this nonfiction, we will be bringing Dallas to the world.”