Continuing a series of interviews with women in the PublisHer network, Emma House and Florence Garnett talk to the mother and daughter team of Sandra Ozzola and Eva Ferri (Edizioni E/O and Europa Editions UK)
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. She lives in Rome and London.
Sandra Ozzola is the president and co-founder of Europa Editions and Edizioni E/O. Born in Northern Italy in 1949, she studied languages and literature at high school and university, where she majored in Slavic languages. She moved to Rome in 1969 to continue her studies. In 1979, she and Sandro Ferri founded the Rome-based publishing house Edizioni E/O, where she is now editorial director and manager. In 2005, she and Sandro Ferri founded Europa Editions.
Sandra, you founded Edizioni E/O back in 1979. What was the inspiration behind starting the company? Why did you choose publishing as a career and why set up your own business? Was it common in Italy then to launch a new independent publishing company? What challenges did you face launching the company?
When you set up Europa Editions in 2005, what lessons had you learnt from establishing Edizioni E/O that you found were particularly helpful? Why did you choose this business model above all others to bring literature in translation to the UK and US markets?
In my studies I was always focused on languages and literature, especially Slavic literatures (Russian, Czech etc.) and French. When I was very young, I was a translator. In 1979 my partner Sandro suggested that we should do something together and that we could set up a publishing house. I accepted with enthusiasm. I had always dreamt of working independently, without bosses or working hours, and of doing something pragmatic but in a creative industry.
Together, we faced what was then a real challenge. The world was still divided into two worlds, East and West, and not many readers in Italy were familiar with the work of authors from Eastern European countries. We knew that many of those books were important. We gambled on the idea that there might be readers who would want to read these books in Italian, if translations were made available. I think we can say that the gamble paid off. We now publish books from all over the world.
In founding Europa Editions, we followed the same line of thought. In English-speaking countries, publishers showed little interest for literature in translation, which made up a ridiculously tiny share of the overall market. We thought that beautiful European, African, Asian, South American books would be loved by US and UK readers if only they were made available. In general, we were proved correct. We followed the same principles that we had followed at E/O - quality, independence, keeping the size of the company small without limiting our ambitions or the number of projects. We tried to be courageous; but just as importantly, to have fun.
Eva, when did you join the family business, and what attracted you to both work in publishing and join the family business?
There was never a moment in which I formally joined the family business. I was probably drooling on finished copies of our books at the age of one. Some of my first memories are of my parents bringing books home. Certainly from about the age of six - child labour! - I was helping them with mailouts. From the age of 12, I was going with my parents to book fairs and hand selling books. At 18, I started working my way through the slush pile. Aged 20 I worked in the US office for a little while, and so on.
There was a time, around 2014, just after I had completed my masters, when I knew that I had to decide if I was going to work in publishing full-time. I have always had a fierce love of books and publishing, but it took me a while to confirm to myself that this could become my life's work. I knew I was in a privileged position and did not want to act irresponsibly, doing it "just because". My parents have always encouraged me to makes my choices freely. I admire what they (and the rest of the team) have done, and in Italy it is pretty common to join the family business, but I wouldn't have wanted it to be automatic. I am an only child. I needed time to understand that I could be both respectful of my parents' approach and, at the same time, have the freedom to do my own thing. In the end, of course, I chose to join.
Both: The aim of Europa Editions was to bring fresh international voices to the American and British markets, and this appears to be reflected in your international workforce. What are the challenges to international publishing and seeking new writers from all over the word?
Ferri: I think in terms of our list, it is a matter of maintaining a balance between the various international voices, exploring new territories and new genres, avoiding publishing the same book over and over again, and avoiding the label "niche publisher". Our aim is to be constantly innovating so that we can speak to as many people as possible. It is important to us that our workforce reflects this open approach. We are very proud of the fact that we have such a diverse team in both the US and in the UK, with our staff coming from many different countries and all kinds of backgrounds.
I believe that there are few other publishers - if any - that have similar structures in place. Most of our editorial staff speak several languages. That is generally not true elsewhere, and should be a matter of concern, though obviously it does gives us a strategic advantage!
Sandra: One of your many notable writers is Elena Ferrante. What is the back story to becoming her publisher?
The first book by Ferrante that came my way was Troubling Love, sent to me by a mutual friend. It's a book of great intellectual depth, bold, but also difficult and at times disturbing. It was 1990. I was convinced I was holding in my hands a novel by one of the greatest writers I had ever read. And 30 years later I still think that. The fact that Elena didn't want to appear in public did not cause me the slightest concern. I thought it was a legitimate request, and perfectly understandable to me given the uncompromising way in which she treated themes and characters. I have acted as her point of contact with the world for all this time. Messenger, ambassador, and friend.
In Italy, Ferrante was loved by readers and critics from the start, even if some critics were obsessed about her identity. But for me it was not enough. I had this desire to see her where, in my opinion, she belonged. And she got there, possibly defying all of our expectations. Now her work is read and loved all over the world. I am so happy about that.
Sandra: Europa prides itself on having very high editorial standards. Does being a publisher of international fiction present any editorial challenges?
Many. To name one, it is important to keep the bar very high when it comes to the quality of the translations. We work with many excellent translators, turning books written in a vast number of languages into two languages. Translators have been crucial to our success.
Both: With three Ferris at the helm of Europa Editions, how do you find working together professionally and as a family unit?
Ozzola: I think it is inspiring to see how different our editorial tastes are, but also how we complement each other. We all acquire books, and I think it would be fairly easy to work out which books have been acquired by whom. We also read in different languages - apart from Italian, of course. I predominantly read in French, Sandro reads in English, French and Spanish, and Eva reads in English, all of which gives us access to different kinds of books.
In terms of our family unit, in Rome Eva and I shared a desk for a couple of years, and only recently has she moved to her own office. It was nice to work so closely together, as if learning by a process of osmosis, but I do have more space now.
Ferri: I must admit that we, "The Ferris", love each other, are very respectful of each other's strengths and weaknesses and freedom, and are equipped with a good sense of humour. This always helps us navigate any family dramas, which obviously occur all the time. I'd be very worried if there were no dramas.
Eva: What have you learned from working with your parents, and are there things that you hope to change and develop at Europa? How different is working in Italy to working in the UK publishing industry?
The single most important thing I have learned from my parents is about independence and having the freedom to be truly free to explore both the political landscapes and aesthetic ones. Sandro and Sandra lead by example, and I am always impressed by how steady they have been in defence of their values and vision.
Of course, having learned the independence lesson so well, at Europa I am doing things independently - also from them. This has meant that in the past few years I have had to do a lot to listening, adjusting any pre-conceived ideas I may have had, to try to meet the needs of the UK market while ensuring that we retain our identity. It is hard work, more than I expected it to be. I have come to understand that the two publishing industries really are radically different, which is in itself a very big topic and perhaps not one we have the space to explore here. A real advantage of working for both companies is that I get to see which practices work well for one country and not the other - sometimes a better practice can be adopted by both countries. It is good fun to try to experiment.
For now, my aim in the UK is, broadly speaking, to establish our presence as an international publisher but also as a UK publisher, and to raise awareness about what we do and more importantly, why we do it.
Both: Do you have role models in publishing whom you admire and who have inspired you (or any people from outside publishing who have inspired you)?
Ozzola: I think for me it has always been the French publisher Gallimard, for the great quality of their list, for the loyalty of their authors, for the way in which their authors develop over time, and the feeling that they too are part of the publishing house.
Ferri: Those who are brilliant at doing their jobs but also human. I admire anyone who challenges conformity. There are a number of people in the UK who do this and to whom I feel grateful. In particular, Jamie Byng (Canongate), Clare Conville (agent) and Stephen Page (Faber), who have been really supportive of our vision. Each of them has been extraordinarily sensitive to the strange nature of our project, which has certainly helped me feel less isolated.
In Italy, from the very early days when I was interrogating myself about being the "heir" of Edizioni E/O, Antonio Sellerio (also a second-generation publisher) has been a crucial figure for me. I will never forget his one-liner, wise tips murmured at book fairs, in the midst of the chaos.
Both: what is your experience of being a female working in the publishing industry and running your own companies? Both from personal experiences and from what you observe in Italy and in the UK? Do you think you have had different experiences from each other?
Ozzola: For me, running my own company, there has been no real struggle internally. I have never felt disadvantaged or crushed because I was a woman. Outside, yes. The publishing house has, for many years, been "Sandro Ferri's publishing house". Or, from those who are a little more generous: "Sandro Ferri and his wife's publishing house".
In order to be recognised at all, I started adding "Ferri" to my email address. Later, when I tried to get rid of it (because it did not feel right), it was hard. There are still those who call me Sandra Ferri.
Ferri: It is a fact that all over the world that there are many more women working in publishing than men. And yet if you look at senior level positions, the situation is reversed.
In Italy, when we talk about CEOs and managing directors, the situation is discouraging. If I had to sit in a room with a group of publishers of medium or big companies, I'd likely be the only female. I have also been at the receiving end of all sorts of patronising conversations. Once, a very prominent publisher, when I introduced myself to him, asked me: "So, Miss, do you really read books?" Another time, a man I did not know who was introducing me to an audience of 300 people congratulated me on my pregnancy, which "would ensure the company's future". Only I wasn't pregnant.
In the UK I would say the picture is a bit better, though not much. Some things simply cannot be said to or about a woman, which is obviously good, even if one sometimes feels that people are terrified of how they should behave for fear of being accused of not being politically correct. But more importantly, there are more women at senior level positions, if still a minority.
I think it's true that what men say always seems to carry more weight, and that women in positions of power sadly need to be much braver if they don't want their decisions to be compromised.
Eva: You have seen there is a movement in the UK to encourage more women into senior leadership positions in publishing. Is this something you support and see changes happening?
I'm not sure I know enough about the movement and recent changes, but I do know that while being a woman in the UK has its challenges, so does being a foreigner. I feel there are certain publishing discourses in the UK that I'm not included in, not because I'm a woman but because I'm foreign.
But, yes, to answer your question, of course I fully support it. And this is not only because I want to see more women in leadership positions tout-court, but because so many women are brilliant, and they deserve it.