Leading With the Books: On Michael Reynolds and Europa Editions

One of my favorite aspects of observing the world of publishing is this: oftentimes the most influential people—the individuals responsible for some of your favorite books—are the most unassuming. I missed Winter Institute this year, but a colleague of mine told me a story: at a shindig, folks drunk and dancing, he and another bookseller found themselves observing a thin, balding gentleman cutting loose. “Just think,” the bookseller said, “that’s the man who introduced Elena Ferrante to America.”

That man was Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief for the New York office of Europa Editions, one of the world’s foremost independent publishers. And yes, the Neapolitan Quartet may be the publisher’s shining success in the last few years, but they’ve been putting out good books since September 2005. I first encountered them through Steve Erickson’s masterpiece ZEROVILLE, and then followed their work almost by accident: step into any decent bookstore, and you’ll spot their uniformly branded books all over the place. In short, Europa was the first publisher I ever learned to identify by aesthetic alone.

“Having a strong personality and identity is the secret to success,” Reynolds tells me on the phone from New York—but the personal identity of Europa goes beyond the visual and into the mission: their books, compared to other independent publishers specializing in literature-in-translation, aim more toward the “commercial” (please, however, note the use of quotes around that word; I mean, they’re still an indie publisher for chrissakes). “We’re looking at books that have had fairly strong readerships in native markets,” Reynolds says, “to give readers [in America] the opportunity to read something that people have read elsewhere.”

Europa books can seem somewhat challenging, with their foreign authors and occasionally grandiose titles, but basically they put story and character first and are fundamentally accessible, which goes for not only major releases like Ferrante but also more obscure titles like Raphaël Jerusalmy’s SAVING MOZART, a moving World War II story. (Going back to Erickson for a moment: he published a lot of very difficult books before Europa nabbed him at his most accessible and James Franco-ready moment.)

According to Reynolds, “This is a very conscious choice—first of all, because there are a number of publishers that are doing more avant-garde, experimental literature-in-translation,” name-checking Open Letter, Deep Vellum, and New Directions (all Brazos favorites, duh). “We need that as much as anything else. But Europa is more in the business of looking at books that have meant something to readerships in the countries in which they were published.”

Still, though, Reynolds has no interest in chasing down buzzed-about potential international bestsellers, which are often written with blandness adaptable into worldwide success (THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, or something like that). Instead, he wants books that are strongly rooted in place. “Some foreign rights agents complain that a book is too Russian, too French, whatever. But that’s usually just what we’re looking for. Something that’s ‘too French’ sounds like something that’s very rooted in its sense of place, and that’s something we want to facilitate.”

This goes for Europa’s American authors too, which gets at a key distinction: while Europa may be an international publisher, they’re not translation exclusive, which means they’re interested in publishing books strongly rooted in the United States as well. Erickson’s work captures Southern California, for instance, whereas a book like Alexander Maksik’s YOU DESERVE NOTHING, while set in France, still has an American point of view (it tells the story of an American man teaching in an international school). Meanwhile, Maksik’s second novel roots itself in the Pacific Northwest, and another book called TREASURE ISLAND!!! (by Sara Levine) is as Midwestern as anything I’ve ever read. 

These are all books I encountered before I was ever a bookseller. Since then, I have gotten to know Reynolds the way I know many indie publishers: as a guy whose passion projects become Brazos’ passion projects, and who then facilitates our excitement. That sounds convoluted, so take the example of Santiago Gamboa’s book NIGHT PRAYERS, which Europa felt strongly about but wasn’t an obvious hit. Luckily, a few Brazos booksellers felt strongly about it too, selling it all throughout the summer; in response, Reynolds facilitated an interview with Gamboa to help the store’s promotional efforts. Instead of trying to gin up excitement with heavy marketing, Reynolds leaned into the simplest possible thing: the whims of a few booksellers in Houston, worlds away from Gamboa’s Colombia.

Reynolds has been doing this since the beginning. In his early days, “when I’d talk to people about going out to visit bookstores, they’d look at me like, ‘Explain why you’re doing that.’ Ten years later, almost every significant indie publisher is out seeing booksellers, meeting with them, touring their stores, stuff like that.” For Reynolds, it’s the most important part of the job—and a pleasurable part. “It amazed me,” he says, “the first stores we visited in New York City, they told me they’d never had an editor stop by before.”

Now, as other publishers have caught up to this approach, Europa finds itself coming full circle in a way. “Europa Editions was founded immediately after 9/11,” Reynolds says, “which was a time of closure and communication breakdown internationally.” While it was not founded as an explicitly mission-driven publisher—not the way, say, Melville House was—still, the notion of exploring international voices had implicit political importance. “We’ve always led with our books,” Reynolds says, thinking of fiction as something that “develops individual empathy.”

Now, though, Europa finds itself in another global moment of fear and closure and breakdown. “Maybe now,” Reynolds says, “is a time to think more about social empathy and global empathy. That can be achieved if we’re getting the right books out there, and if we frame the publication of those books [in the right way].” So, Reynolds is asking “why”—why is fiction so important right now? “We [can] make it more explicit than ever that these books open up people’s minds to experiences abroad and beyond these stores, and how other people are living, what they’re thinking, what’s important to them.”

In other words, Europa seems ready to make its argument—ready to answer “why” with “because…”

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