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BookSeller: "“Ferrante’s success has changed the perception of Europa Editions. My job now is to really push the whole list so that people who come to us by Ferrante stay with us."

Date: Sep 28 2015

Four years after it was first published in the UK, My Brilliant Friend by Italian novelist Elena Ferrante broke into the UK Official Top 50 last week, and is currently celebrating its second week there (at number 50).

It’s a sweet moment of success for publisher Europa Editions and for Daniela Petracco, who runs the publisher’s London operations. The indie was founded by Italian publishers Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri in Rome, with a New York office opening 10 years ago; Petracco joined from Andrew Nurnberg Associates to launch a UK base in 2011. My Brilliant Friend, the opening novel in Ferrante’s quartet about Elena and Lila, two girls from a working-class district of Naples, was Petracco’s first big book.

She says: “I knew the work of Elena Ferrante very well. It was what first drew me to Europa Editions, and my boss and all my colleagues in Rome and New York had very high hopes.” But My Brilliant Friend was published “to a resounding silence” from reviewers. It was also a difficult retail climate. “Everyone was open to stocking Ferrante, but in tiny numbers,” remembers Petracco four years on.

Review coverage emerged gradually: a favourable piece in the TLS in early 2012; more coverage when book two, The Story of a New Name, came out; but the turning point was a piece by James Wood in the New Yorker in 2013—“it projected Ferrante onto the radar of a certain calibre of English-language readers,” Petracco says. Meanwhile, she herself was pressing the books on everyone: “I learned you have to be patient. It’s about being in the right place at the right time—but to do that, you have to be in a lot of places a lot of the time.”

Last year Ferrante developed cult status, with word circulating among those in the know; now she has become mainstream. Nielsen BookScan puts UK sales at over 90,000 units, and Europa hopes that figure could double by the end of 2015 as readers of My Brilliant Friend progress to the other novels. Among retail successes, W H Smith has this week included My Brilliant Friend in its book chart display.

Petracco says Ferrante stands out “because her books work on so many levels: they are amazing page-turners, the stories grab you and draw you in; they are also coming-of-age novels, state-of-the-nation novels, feminist tracts, books about mental health and illness . . . there is so much in there. They can also be read in a spirit of memoir—they are about a writer called Elena—and I think they are miles more fun than [Karl Ove] Knausgaard!”

The author’s concealed identity (Ferrante is a pen name and she refuses to make any public appearances—Petracco has never met her) is a PR disadvantage, though journalists can use it as a story angle. In the absence of an author, Petracco has scheduled events with translator Ann Goldstein and critics who are Ferrante fans (Polly Samson and Rosie Goldsmith at Waterstones Piccadilly on 1st October, Joanna Biggs and Alex Clark at the London Review Bookshop the following day).

Now, Petracco says, her job is to bring readers to other Europa titles. In the UK, the indie brings out 20–25 fiction titles a year, most of them in translation, including from Italian, French, Spanish and German, all in paperback and with colourful cover designs. Authors include the Italian noir crime writer Massimo Carlotto and the darkly comic German novelist Alina Bronsky. Petracco says: “Ferrante’s success has changed the perception of Europa Editions. My job now is to really push the whole list so that people who come to us by Ferrante stay with us. That’s definitely happening in the US; there are bookshops where customers ask: ‘What’s new from Europa?’”