Instinct, Energy, and Luck: An Indie-Publisher Roundtable on Literature in Translation

Jeremiah Chamberlin

To put the books across, I think it’s a matter of trying everything you can think of and of having the sort of dedicated staff you need: It can be Crazy Town as far as how hard everyone here has to work. But it is immensely satisfying when you do find an audience for a great writer.

Reynolds: For Europa, it has been very much about branding. I gather there are more highfalutin words for this process—creating a personality, an identity, etc., that readers, retail partners, and members of the reviewing community learn to distinguish and trust over time—but I guess in the end it is just plain old branding. I like to think of what we do as being a conversation with these various players, meaning that I think of our publishing program as being a dialogue with readers. In the editorial choices we make and the way we go about publishing we are opening a conversation with an affirmation along the lines of: “This is what we think is important, interesting, significant, and entertaining. Take a look! What do you think?” We demarcate this conversation in a variety of ways: uniform design, acquisitions that fall within a certain range on the broad spectrum between experimental/densely literary and commercial, a way of approaching translation, etc. If we remain consistent with these aspects then we create an identity that can potentially ferry new, unknown, and foreign writers into the market.

In the end, I think it’s all about the books. This is a mantra I repeat to myself often. I don’t think publishers of our kind are in a position to make a success out of a really crappy book. The big guys and gals can do that; they have the marketing and leverage not only to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear but also to fill that purse with gold. We can’t. We have to have good books, quality books that fit into the brand/identity/personality/conversation we have established with readers and retailers. What I’m sure we’ve all experienced, almost on a daily basis, is the opposite: failing to reach an audience with what we consider to be a really great book, one that sits perfectly on our list. You can do everything possible for a book and it still doesn’t work.

I’d like to talk a bit about the work of “outreach.” Obviously, this kind of activity fits more squarely into the mission of a nonprofit or a press connected with a university in the way Open Letter is. But I think it is also something that all presses should engage in. We have lost the ability to talk about books in meaningful ways. Most people are unable to go much further than a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, or appraise a work of literature with more than “I hated it” or “I loved it.” As a culture—I mean outside of our very limited clique—we have become critically illiterate; we no longer know how to understand, let alone express, the social, political, cultural, historical significance of a book. For that matter, we are almost incapable of expressing its significance for us even on a personal level. It may just be the way of the world—I think many people are conversant on the social and cultural significance of Breaking Bad, for example—and I should get over it. At the same time, I think a more critically literate readership would not only be important for the culture but would also mean that presses like ours would sell more books. Thus, perhaps efforts to grow this kind of critical literacy should be calculated more explicitly as part of our marketing budget. We are, after all, not simply trying to “break into the market” but also attempting to shape that market.

Let’s talk about a “critically literate readership,” the decline of which people often attribute, at least in part, to the shuttering of book pages in newspapers and decreased coverage for literature in periodicals. But at the same time, as the editor in chief of Fiction Writers Review, I also know that there are a number of venues out there for thoughtful discussion of books. So where are people having the sorts of conversations about books that you wished more readers were aware of? Or what avenues for outreach would you either direct people toward to widen those conversations or propose creating, if you’re not already engaged in doing so?
Reynolds: I think you’re opening up a can of worms with this one. The conversation is long, deep, and broad. I’m going to try to condense some of my thoughts into morsels.

I like Fiction Writers Review and I respect what you’re doing there. In many ways it corresponds to exactly the kind of conversation about books that I suggested in my earlier answer we lack. But the context does not. This is not really because FWR and like-minded venues are doing something wrong, but rather because the media of mass culture are not behind you. Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I imagine that the readers of FWR belong to a specific demographic and in many ways represent a cultural elite; and, perhaps even more poignantly, are mostly writers, who may or may not be real readers—a whole other can of worms. There is, as a result, an insularity to that kind of conversation that is unhelpful for the larger goal of making books and discussion about books relevant to “the masses.”

Consider the sheer number and the production quality of television programs about sports, movies, celebrities, TV, and the immense creativity that goes into developing and duplicating formats on these subjects. These programs cater to and shape the opinions and the conversations of many millions of people. As far as I know, there is currently no TV format dealing with books. Do we need one? Christ, I don’t know. I haven’t owned a TV for thirty-five years. But I do find the idea of using the means of mass culture to diffuse a vocabulary for talking about books appealing.

To be honest, the place where I see the kind of conversation about books that I desire happening most often is in the good old-fashioned book group. Book-group members, if you exclude New York, mostly don’t work in publishing and are not connected to the book industry at all. They are not academics. They are working people, housewives, the elderly, etc., who seek a congenial “third place” connected to their passion for reading and for talking. If the label and the formalities of running a book group fell away, this kind of atmosphere, and this kind of conversation, is my ideal. This “third place/great good place” idea that, frankly, I first heard about only a few years ago at Winter Institute, has crystallized a lot of my thinking on these questions. When I imagine “conversation about books” I don’t think of a lecture hall, an online magazine, publishing parties, or the pages of the New York Times; I think of a pub. Specifically I think of the pub on the corner of my street where I sometimes stop for a beer on my way home. If, in that context, in cities and towns across the country, in addition to talking about the merits of a sports player or a celebrity, patrons were also hotly debating the merits of a recent novel and pulling apart what was innovative about it and what had been rehashed from the literary tradition, I would feel that we had gone a long way to becoming “critically literate” as a culture.

Fostering this dialogue cannot be simply a question of preaching to the choir or making privileged people more privileged. As such, in my opinion, the organizations we must entrust to foster the ability to appreciate, place, understand, and talk about books are: public schools, libraries, community and continuing-education systems, universities. Other noninstitutional organizations whose efforts I feel run in this direction are in-school initiatives like Girls Write Now and writers and poets in the schools; failed experiments like Book Night, and more successful ones like One City, One Book; college “freshman reads” programs; etc.