Monday, 23 November 2009

A Publishing Thing Is Happening

Earlier this year, the translator Stefan Tobler wrote a piece for the British translation journal In Other Words, presenting a few ideas for a translator-led non-profit publishing venture. Since then, interest has snowballed and we'll be meeting up in London this week to see how far things have come, discuss possible books, etc. Here's an extract from the original article - and see Stefan's blog for details of the meeting. I must admit I'm rather excited.

If you're interested in finding out more (or indeed a spot of busking), get in touch with Stefan Tobler.

Supply + Demand + Magic

‘In the British Isles, it must be said, Archimboldi remained a decidedly marginal writer.’ from 2666 by Roberto Bolaño, and Natasha Wimmer (p. 38, Picador 2009 edition)

Would you agree that a lot of the best contemporary fiction gets passed over in favour of reasonably good books that present publishers with less of a risk?

A commercial publisher has to balance its books, whether it is one of the ‘big boys’ with shareholders or an independent. Sales figures are naturally the driving concern (survival concern), and the sales and marketing people have a larger say than ever in determining publishers’ book choices. Editors and freelance translators are often left to deal with the choices. [...]

My hunch is that translated fiction will, with some wonderful exceptions, become tamer than it already is. Of course, while people might agree that it’s difficult for publishers to take risks, it’s harder to agree on which great authors should be published. It is pretty clear, though, that they aren’t always the most financially viable ones. As Serpent’s Tail’s Pete Ayrton said, ‘Avant-garde fiction thrives where writers do not expect to live off their writing’ (Peter Ayrton in Boyd Tonkin's article ‘The best of times, the worst of times’ (The Independent, 9th January 2009). [...]

Perhaps volunteer-led, or co-op, or non-profit publishing could work on next to nothing? The printing is not the main cost: you can print quality hardbacks in very low print runs for around £3 a copy. People’s time and office overheads are much larger expenses.

Translators, editors, designers, and other publishing folk could meet up to share their great unpublished foreign books, and talk about the best ways to publish them here. Everyone would be able to get on with their task from their own computer/home/heated public library. And there would be plenty of opportunities to be involved: accounting, reading, editing, translating, selling and marketing, fundraising, advising on business or on the editorial committee, party-throwing, web or book design, etc . . . People in publishing could develop projects they have ownership of. Of course, a publisher relying on friendly co-operation would need to be very well organized, with everyone’s tasks and responsibilities absolutely clear, and there would need to be careful budgeting – dare we say it, a business plan. But all possible, and most of it someone or other’s idea of fun.

Of course, many small publishers work in effect as non-profits, and are real heroes of the publishing world. In particular, small poetry presses work like this, as labours of love, and some fiction publishing too, although less in the UK than elsewhere perhaps. Some presses, such as Dalkey Archive and Open Letter in the US, both linked to universities, are non-profits. The two founders of a small Czech publisher, Větrné Mlýny (meaning, appropriately enough: windmills), used to catch a train to Berlin whenever money was short, where busking Simon and Garfunkel songs brought in the Deutschmarks to publish the next book. [...]

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