„Traditional publishers must rethink their role from gatekeepers to curators of content“ Interview with Ana Nicolau, General Manager at Nemira Publishing House

© Cătălina Flămînzeanu

Ana Nicolau is the General Manager of Nemira Publishing House, one of Romania ‘s largest publishing houses and the youngest general manager of a major publishing house in the country. We wanted to know what are the challenges of being an editor in a world of new technology and what it takes to thrive on the Romanian market. Ana talks about the close collaboration with authors and the very unique set of skills a good editor needs in order to reach a greater audience and publish the best titles.

Emanuela Ignățoiu-Sora (E.I.S.): How was it like to grow up in a publishing house?

Ana Nicolau (A.N.): Growing up I couldn’t tell the difference between my life as an editor’s daughter and the lives of my friends. My father and mother worked a lot to establish the business, but so did the rest of the parents in other fields, and I was raised by my grandmother on my father’s side. The writers, translators and artists that he worked with were somehow part of our daily life, as many had over time become his friends and used to visit us at home where they would show me the same attention you would They any five year old. It’s true that I had a larger library than many of my friends, but then again I only started to notice that years later. As a child, this was all a given and I made no comparison between my life and others’. I think the first time I was impressed by the importance of my father’s work was when I was about 11 years old and one of my friends was passionately reading a book every break we got in class. She loved it so she came and recommended it to me. It turns out that book was Dune by Frank Herbert and it had been published by my father at Nemira.

You studied at Oxford and you pay attention to the British publishing market. Which are the most important differences between the publishing market in UK and in Romania?

Well, the most obvious one is the size of the market. The UK market is estimated at £4.5bn (€5.15bn), while the Romanian publishing market is said to be at €100 million. The British market has been a free market since the beginning and modern publishing practices have started to evolve since the middle of the XIXth century. In Romania publishing has been a state sector until very recently, the beginning of the ‘90s, when private publishing houses started appearing and the private publishing industry started to develop its mechanisms. There can be few comparisons between the two markets when it comes to their tradition and practices. Many of the market segments that play an important role in the UK (such as the academic and educational markets) are still poorly developed in Romania, and some key actors that exists on the British market (like the wholesalers that play an important role as intermediaries between publishers and distributers) do not exist in our industry scheme.

Name the three most important skills for a good editor.

In my opinion, the best editors have a natural excessive curiosity, know how to temper their ego and are financial savvy.

What makes you different from other editors?

I must be one of the only editors on our market that wanted to be a programmer and finished by going to law school only to get bored and apply to med school by the 4th year of college. Other than that, it’s difficult to say.

Being an editor: is it a job or a calling?

It can be a calling, in the sense that the first prerequisite is to be passionate about books. But then again, being an editor doesn’t mean you’ll just be reading books all day (that’s a myth many have when they go into publishing). There is a lot of hard work behind every book that you publish and you have to be willing to go behind the curtain and see a manuscript through all the work it needs to become an actual book and end up in the reader’s hands. And that means that you have to cultivate a set of skills that are very different from the basic editing skills and a good knowledge of literature and grammar. You must learn to work together with your authors, which in my opinion is probably the best part of the job (but also the most challenging), with your translators and other editors, with the sales and marketing teams. The image of the lonely editor working on the manuscript is very far from the reality of the job.

How much is intuition and how much is sheer rationale behind selecting or, rather, rejecting books from publication

We call it intuition, but I think it’s rather the ability to see certain patterns in the market combined with a very good knowledge of who your readers are and what they will want to read next. I think that the books we pick are somewhere at a crossroads between the literary taste of the editor, the publishing lines of the company and previous sales records. And there’s another factor there, the risks you are willing to take publishing a book that might not be a success in sales, but in which you truly believe.

What is your favourite book you published so far at Nemira?

I think it’s probably When breath becomes air by Paul Kalanithi. It was a very emotional read for me and I could not stop talking about it for a long time after. I knew I had to publish it even though it’s completely different from anything that we had done until that point.

If you had a magic wand and could publish any writer at Nemira, who she/he would be?

I think any publisher has a wishlist of authors and books that he/she dreams he/she will publish one day. But we can’t really talk about it if we ever want that to happen. If I had to name one, it would probably be Nikos Kazantzakis, he’s one of my favorite writers.

In 2016, Nemira celebrated 25 years of existence, Can you tell us the story of how the publishing house was founded?

Nemira was founded by my father, Valentin Nicolau, in 1991, after the fall of the communist regime. At that time our family was extremely poor and my parents and I were living in a one bedroom apartment from one day to another. He had the idea of publishing books (which were high in demand after the revolution) so he could earn money and save the newspaper he was publishing back then. He decided to start with Sven Hassel and got in touch with his estate. The only problem was that he had no money for the rights advance, so he started going from one bank to another in order to get a VigRx Plus loan but nobody would give him one as he had nothing to guarantee it with. One day he finally met a banker willing to see him and discuss his project, so my father invited him home for the meeting. My mother still remembers how they had to borrow money so they could have coffee to serve. When he came to our apartment, he was shocked to see how poor we were and to this day I don’t know what my father told him to get him to agree to the loan. But he did agree, so my father could pay the advance to publish the book. He sold the first print run in a week and the rest is history as they say.

Last year, you launched Nemi- books for children, and the Vorpal collection (Romanian poetry collection). What are the plans for the 2017?

This fall we plan to launch of a new collection dedicated to Romanian fiction. We’re now working on that and plan to publish in October.

How do you assess the recent changes in the publishing field (I am thinking mainly at the impact of the new technologies)?

The publishing world has changed a lot in the past decade or so. Traditionally, publishers played the role of gate keepers to the industry. If you couldn’t convince a publisher to take on your book, it wouldn’t get publish. Now with the advent of self-publishing, many writers can circumvent traditional channels and become their own publishers. This means that traditional publishers must rethink their role from gatekeepers to curators of content and come to terms with the new technological reality.

According to an article published by Forbes in 2016, the only chance for traditional publishing houses (in comparison to Amazon, for instance) is to create bonds with its readers. Do you agree?

Amazon as a company doesn’t have to create bonds with their customers. The authors and their readers already do that on the platform that Amazon provides through the review system. But it’s true that when faced with this avalanche of new books, the only way to stand out is through branding and by creating close communities of readers around your books.

I would like to suggest an imagination exercise: we are in 2067(50 years from now). Which is the legacy left by Ana Nicolau for the publishing market?

I think I’m too young yet to be concerned with my legacy. Usual readers will remember authors and books, get attached to a certain publisher or imprint, but they will most probably never hear the editor’s name or connect it to the books we publish. If I’ve learned something with the passing of my father is that nature and business have a way of occupying a void. And if I’m not here, many of the books that I publish would probably be published by another editor. I am content with the joy that publishing brings to me, personally, with being able to see the happiness of my authors when they see their book for the first time out of the printer, or with the impression that one of our books has left on a reader. I strive to do justice by our books and authors, and I do not worry too much about my legacy. My only thought is that I would like to leave the publishing house to my children one day, as I have inherited it from my father.


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