Continuing her series of interviews with women in the PublisHers network, Emma House talks to Ana Nicolau, general manager of Romanian publisher Nemira
Ana Nicolau was born and raised in Bucharest, Romania. She received her bachelor's degree in French and European law at the Sorbonne in 2010, and a second bachelor's degree in Romanian law from the University of Bucharest in 2011. Pursuing a path in publishing, she concluded an MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes University in 2014.
In 2011 Nicolau started working full time at Nemira Publishing House as a copyright manager, representing the company internationally. In the following years she became more involved in the editorial process, and was promoted in 2014 to editorial director. In 2015 she became the general manager of Nemira, and a member of the Board of AER (the Romanian Publishers Association). In 2016 she relaunched the children books imprint Nemi, and in 2018 a new science fiction, fantasy & thriller imprint, Armada, followed in early 2021 by the debut of a non-fiction imprint, Orion, and the start of Nemira's audiobook programme. In 2021 she founded a second business in partnership with her brother, Radu Nicolau, which will be the first audiobook platform on the Romanian market - Echo, which made its debut in August 2021.
You studied law at university, but decided to go into publishing. What was your motivation to pursue a career in publishing?
I don't think I ever imagined myself a lawyer or a judge when I went into law school. I was more enticed by the prospect of doing something different from the publishing business I had grown up into and striking up on my own.
When I was two years old my father, Valentin Nicolau, founded Nemira. Books, writers, editors, and artists were always part of my universe. I started interning there when I was 12 years old. The summer after college my father needed somebody to cover for the copyright assistant who had left abruptly. It was my first time working in the editorial department, and I was mesmerised by the number of book proposals I was getting from agents and foreign publishers. Before that summer I never really understood the ties publishers have to this wonderful international book community.
That's why I decided to take some time and seriously consider the possibility that maybe after all my place was in publishing and with the family business. I went to my first Frankfurt Book Fair book fair four months after that, and I fell in love completely with the rights community and the energy there.
You moved up through the ranks in Nemira and became its general manager in 2015. Who or what has inspired and motivated you in your career?
I consider both my parents to have had a great influence on me in different ways. My father instilled in me a love for books and knowledge. I always admired his passion, his determination, his courage, and fairness. My mother has a heart of gold and a kindness that I can never praise enough. I consider myself lucky to have had the chance to work side by side and learn from both. It's a rare gift to be able to work with your parents. You get to know them as adults, as co-workers and as managers. Of course, family dynamics in a shared business are challenging, but ultimately it has been really rewarding.
When I started in 2011, I tried to learn as much as I could about all aspects of the publishing business. I did rights for a long time, but quickly became involved in the editorial selection and in the production process. Being a family-run company and a relatively small one at that (around 40 employees at that time) it was easy for me to get to know everybody and learn about their work. Over time, I wanted to understand more about the industry and how other publishers worked, so I joined the MA in Publishing at Oxford Brookes in 2013. I kept working long distance and tried to apply as much as I could of the lessons I learned there. Both my parents were obviously very excited at the prospect of having another Nicolau in charge of the family business, so I got a lot of support from them.
What challenges have you faced in your publishing journey - either personally or professionally?
I think the greatest challenge was my father's abrupt passing in 2015. I was 26 years old at that time, still fresh in the publishing business and faced with taking over a company in a tumultuous market and continuing my father's legacy. The support of my mother and my colleagues was invaluable. I had to learn a lot, quickly, and I believe I succeeded not only in maintaining my father's legacy but in growing and consolidating our business in the past six years.
Another great moment of doubt was the beginning of last year, when the pandemic hit. I felt acutely the responsibility to provide for my employees despite the uncertainty of the market, and setting a course in the middle of the storm was truly terrifying. But the great advantages of running a small to medium sized company is that you can be agile and respond quickly to changes in the market. That's what we did - we transformed our editorial plan, which is usually set in stone, into an ever-fluctuating plan. We published books that had a good potential to sell online while the bookshops were closed. We quickly rescheduled more brick-and-mortar titles for when the bookshops opened. But we never stopped publishing new titles, which turned out to be the right move, and many bookshop owners later thanked us, since they were eager to get new books to sell.
The last six years have seen great growth with new imprints in various genres for Nemira. What is the publishing scene and reading culture like in Romania, and where does Nemira fit in and contribute?
The Romanian publishing scene is very dynamic and diverse. The trade market is estimated at around EUR 80 mil. a year, and ebook sales are only 1-2% of that. With a population of 19 million, the average per capita expenditure for books is only EUR 4, one of the lowest in Europe according to the Federation of European Publishers (FEP). There are no government-endorsed programmes to encourage reading, which is a very sore point for publishers, and library funds for book purchases are at the lowest point in history probably (another sore point).
Some publishers - such as Nemira, Humanitas, Trei, or Curtea Veche - have a relatively long history on the market, having been around since the '90s or '00, but there are also young publishers like Black Button Books or Signatura that are very dynamic. A large part of trade is concentrated in the hands of several bookshop chains like Cărturești or Diverta (which recently filed for bankruptcy after the pandemic crisis last year). More and more sales are done online through retailers like elefant.ro or libris.ro. Pre-pandemic book fairs were an important part of the publishing scene in Bucharest, marking the two strong publishing seasons in May and October.
As for Nemira: we started out as a genre publisher in science fiction and fantasy, and quickly grew into a general publisher. We've always been the proud publishers of classic authors like Frank Herbert or Ursula K Le Guin, while also publishing modern classics like Stephen King, George RR Martin, Amor Towles, Jhumpa Lahiri or Min Jin Lee, and finding new voices that speak to younger generations and write across genres like Matt Haig or Naomi Novik. We've also made it into our mission to promote new generations of young Romanian writers. But above all our main goal is always to offer the pleasure of reading to our readers and develop a strong bond with them.
You have since launched an audiobook platform; can you tell me a little bit more about this?
Echo is the first audiobook platform in Romania, and is a joint project with my brother, Radu Nicolau. We've combined my experience in publishing with his love of tech to give birth to a second business in our family.
Echo aims to bring readers' beloved authors from a wide range of genres, read by some of the best actors or by professional readers, all in an easy-to-use and intuitive app (powered by Beat Technology). This would not have been possible without the great support of our fellow local publishers like Curtea Veche, Trei, Publica, Niculescu, Humanitas and many others who believed in this dream of ours. We are also very grateful for the backing of Cărturești, the leading retail chain in Romania (winner of Bookshop of the Year at the London Book Fair International Excellence Awards 2021), which is our strategic partner.
A novelty of the platform is that it is not based on an unlimited subscription like most European audio platforms. Fair remuneration for authors and publishers was at the basis of our project, which features a credit-based subscription system that benefits rights holders while also being very attractive and offering a premium service to users. Our listeners can choose between three types of subscriptions that give them a certain number of credits to use every month in our app. Books are priced in credits. The feedback so far has been extremely positive.
What comes next for you and Nemira? What hopes do you have for your career, your publishing company, and the Romanian Publishing industry?
It's hard to talk about hopes for my career without also talking about my personal life. Running a family business is different from just working as a publisher in somebody else's company. I guess my greatest hope is that I will not be the last generation of Nicolaus to care for Nemira and our books, that I'm just at the beginning or at the middle of a story. That in the coming decades my children or my brother's children will grow up in this world and will come to love it like I did.
One thing is for sure: this very long-term approach to business makes me a better manager, more concerned with the impact of my actions (or inactions) in the future. This is one of the reasons why I take my role in the Romanian Publishers Associations very seriously and strive to affect change in our industry. Traditionally, Romanian publishers have been very divided and have had a hard time working together toward a common goal, but I feel that a second generation of publishers that are now inheriting the business from their parents are slowly turning that around.
What are you most proud of in your career?
My father taught me never to shy away from a crisis. In March last year when things felt as they were crumbling around us, when we weren't sure what the next day might bring, my team and I were looking to the future. That's when Echo started, when we saw the potential in building a local Romanian audiobook platform. We've learned so much from this experience. We had to switch from thinking as a publisher to a developer's point of view, we spent hundreds of hours negotiating with other publishers who were used to seeing us as the competition rather than a partner, and there were times when I wasn't sure if we could pull it off. Launching a new business is never easy, more so in these times, and doing that while running a publishing house through a pandemic is almost insane. But again, the specific dynamics of a family business, the support of my mother and sister-in-law (who joined Nemira in January 2020) and the wonderful team that we've built over the years have made this possible.
What is the publishing industry like in Romania for women, especially female leaders, and entrepreneurs like yourself? How do you see this in the global context?
When I took over the company after my father's sudden death, I was in my mid-20s, fresh out of a publishing MA and had little experience. Most of my competitors where males in their 50s or 60s who had seen some decades in publishing, and most of them had started off from scratch and were self-taught. Everybody thought I would sell the business at the beginning, of course. I don't know if it was my age that made them think that, or the fact that I was a woman, but almost nobody thought I would succeed. There were only a few women publishers back then, and a few famous editors.
I feel this has changed over the last seven years, and I've certainly tried to help with that. Nemira's management team is exclusively female. 80% of my editorial team is female and you can see that in the selection of the books we publish.
The most important literary agency in Romania - Simona Kessler Literary Agency - is run by Simona and a team of strong-willed women. New publishers have driven the feminist debate - like Black Button Books or Hecate. Female readers outnumber male readers, and it's about time the publishing scene reflected that too.
To put it in the global context: the Me Too movement never had a lot of force here. There were never any public scandals or outings like the ones that happened in France and elsewhere.
Are there any programmes or support schemes for women in publishing? Again, especially to reach leadership roles.
No, not really. I've tried to implement that in my company, but there's nothing official in the industry. You've given me something to think about. I think the main challenge for women in publishing now is children. I've seen many women who have tried to do both - have a career as an editor and have a family - being forced to take a step back to focus on their families. It's an impossible choice - do I spend time with my children and care for their education or do I put in the hours at work to progress at the company? Nobody should have to decide between the two, but it's a reality for a lot of my peers.
Do you have any advice for women looking to succeed in leadership positions in publishing?
I think that the best advice would be to find a supporting partner. And a publisher where you like the culture and the people you work with so you can grow there. Also - don't get boxed in. Try different positions in a publishing house. A lot of people think they want to work in editorial, but they might have a good brain for sales or marketing.