Three Years Old: the reality of publishing translated fiction

What does the future hold for the publishing of literature in translation? Stefan Tobler from And Other Stories takes us through the independents, small presses, social enterprises and community interest companies using innovative ways to publish work from around the worldOn the 5th October 2010 our first subscriber signed up to help make our first books happen (the four books by Juan Pablo Villalobos, Clemens Meyer, Deborah Levy and Iosi Havilio that were published in late 2011). As the first UK publisher to appeal for subscribers in decades, perhaps centuries, we see that date as our real launch moment and birthday. In other words, And Other Stories is turning three this week!It has been said that the reason to start a publishing house is normally an editorial impulse. There’s the sense that something is missing in the world of books and a company is born. That is true in And Other Stories’ case, and is no doubt true of all the other publishers who publish literature in translation as part of their list.But after the initial impulse – what is the reality for publishers of translated fiction? There is a general feeling in the UK and US that more people are publishing literature in translation and that there is a growing acceptance of it. Is everything sorted now, then? Well, not quite. Our third birthday seems a good moment to talk about the publishing of literature in translation, focusing particularly on our case as it is what I’m qualified to talk about.A number of publishers have been doing great translated books for decades, but it is also a good sign that new presses are springing up, including Peirene Press, Stork Press, Clerkenwell Press, MacLehose Press and ourselves, all in the last six years.Each press that publishes in translation is different, publishing different proportions of translated literature and different kinds of books. Some publish translations occasionally, such as Old Street Publishing’s recent Operation Massacre by Rodolfo Walsh; Harvill Secker does roughly 50% of its list in translation; our list is currently roughly 70% translated, while Peirene Press and Stork Press publish only translated works. Some focus more on crime and popular fiction and some more on literary authors whose writing might take many readers out of their comfort zones. Some find room for both.My sense at the start was that there was no lack of publishing houses bringing out crime in translation (and publishers who could tell their Stieg Larsson copycats from the genuinely interesting French, German, Cuban and Japanese crime writers). What I felt we lacked in the English-speaking world were enough publishers of extraordinary, surprising writing.I knew that to publish the kind of fresh, often foreign, mind-blowing fiction that I and many other people often thought was missing in the English-speaking world, the only sensible option, financially, might be not to have a normal commercial set-up. If the publishing house was not going to tailor its offering to Richard & Judy’s taste, we should plan to do without extra overheads (such as an office) and appeal to like-minded readers for their support.And Other Stories registered as a Community Interest Company or CIC in 2010. It was limited by guarantee, but with not-for-private-profit characteristics.  A social enterprise, in other words. This makes clear at a fundamental level that our aims are different to investor- or shareholder-driven publishing companies where all decisions are ultimately about increasing profits and keeping the investors happy. Of course, in order to be able to continue our work in the long-term, we can’t lose money. The ‘community interest’ mission in our case means publishing works of literary value, re-investing profits in the company in order to pay translators well, and developing and mentoring new talent in the publishing industry, including debut writers and emerging editors and translators. (For at least half of our foreign-language authors we have commissioned great translators’ first book-length translations, giving them a foot in the door.)The not-for-private-profit nature of the company has meant it has been (somewhat!) easier to apply for and receive funding support. In our current credit-crunched decade of austerity in the UK, the Arts Council’s funds have been cut repeatedly by the government. Established organisations find they are no longer regularly funded and must apply to the same National Lottery-funded Grants for the Arts pot that we are applying to. The competition is intense. We received two Grants for the Arts in 2010-2011 and 2012. This year we were recommended for funding by the Arts Council’s application assessor who applauded our work, but in the end the funding did not stretch to cover our project. Of course, we have sent another application in to the Arts Council already. And we are looking to follow the American arts model and appeal for philanthropy and private donors, as well as continuing to apply to other institutes to fund at least some of the translation costs. Thanks to English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme, the translation of Villalobos’ second book Quesadillas was funded and we were able to bring the author to England for a brilliant week of events in Norwich, Bath and London that culminated in a performance to an audience of over 200 people at Rich Mix, East London, that almost had a cow on stage. (Almost!)Not only is funding uncertain these days; sales are too. In 2012, during the crisis that almost led to Waterstones’ demise, orders dried up for publishers. Something similar could happen again. Moreover, fiction at the literary, surprising end of the spectrum does not tend to sell well unless the author has been shortlisted for major prizes or is a public figure. Maybe because it takes a few years for people to work out what the surprising author is doing. We were over the moon that our English author Deborah Levy was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Swimming Home. However, translated works are not eligible for the Man Booker, which does not help sales prospects for most of our brilliant literary authors. (When Down the Rabbit Hole became the first translation to be on the Guardian First Book Award shortlist it helped immensely. It has sold 8,000 copies so far.)With funding and sales uncertain, an area of support that has been invaluable to us from the start is subscriptions. We now have around 700 people subscribing in advance to each of our books. I had seen some American publishers like Open Letter Books and Ugly Duckling Presse offer subscriptions of their books and remembered subscribers’ names at the back of some very, very old library books and it seemed like something we could do and link to a community of readers, writers and translators. To show our genuine gratitude for their up-front support, we thank subscribers by name in the back of the books; send them their books in advance of the retail publication date; invite them to special social and literary events for subscribers; give them free tickets to public events (such as Villalobos’ Rich Mix event) and extra goodies now and then (for example, postcards designed by our authors). It is a club of like-minded people whose broad support allows us to take creative risks and not be reliant on investors’ agendas.Necessity breeds invention and we feel we are part of a wave of innovative publishers of literary translations, including Peirene Press and Berlin-based Frisch & Co who choose to publish fiction that is neither easily definable nor an easy sell: Peirene’s first book in 2010 was Véronique Olmi’s
Beside the Sea – about a struggling mother killing her two children. It was not an immediate bestseller, but it is becoming a real favourite with discerning readers. Frisch & Co’s first books are just out this year and contain real gems: including Carlos Busqued’s debut novel Under This Terrible Sun which I am keen to read, having already heard great things about it from our Argentine author Iosi Havilio and some knowledgeable Buenos Aires booksellers. Peirene Press pioneered direct-to-reader approaches such as pop-up shops and literary salons; we started translators’ reading groups to find great books and set up a subscription model in addition to retail sales; Frisch & Co have looked to make books economically possible by partnering with translators and foreign publishers and only publishing them as ebooks.It is no exaggeration to say that for us, with our kind of new literary fiction, mainly in translation, our subscribers keep us going. They trust us to find new writers for them. The next deadline for new subscribers is our third birthday: 5th October 2013, for anyone who wants to help us publish the Albanian writer Elvira Dones’ novel Sworn Virgin. And that is something we will be celebrating. Stefan-blogger_300x226About the authorStefan Tobler is the publisher at And Other Stories, a young publishing house whose acclaimed books include Swimming Home and Black Vodka by Deborah Levy and Down the Rabbit Hole and Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos. Stefan Tobler is also a literary translator from Portuguese and German.