Category: Publishing

Interview: Melville House Books

Kaitlyn Tiffany for The Verge
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How the scrappiest social media team in publishing is holding the industry’s feet to the fire: Melville House has thoughts on Amazon, Milo Yiannopoulos, and ‘publishing during wartime.’

Dennis Johnson, co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House Books and one of the first book bloggers, is possibly best known for the fight he picked in the spring of 2014.

He was at the front of a group of independent publishers who decided to spar with Amazon over the predatory, escalating fees it was charging small publishers, as well as its covert war on the major publisher Hachette, which it carried out by deliberately delaying shipments and hiking prices. Johnson asked The New York Times how Amazon’s business practices weren’t considered “extortion,” and compared the monolith to the Mafia.

That was a decade after Johnson’s first spat with Amazon, when Melville House’s books were pulled from the site completely until Johnson paid what he referred to as “a bribe.” More recently, he and the team at Melville House have spent plenty of time tweeting and blogging criticisms of Amazon’s new physical bookstores, which they take issue with because they’re run algorithmically and don’t employ booksellers. At the London Book Fair in March, Johnson live tweeted the pitiful traffic to Amazon Publishing’s booth, which some weirdo decided to set up directly across from Melville House’s.

Amazon isn’t the only big kid that the small team spends their days needling online — their tweets work in tandem with the revived MobyLives blog, where everyone on staff takes turns dissecting issues around publishing, politics, and culture. They had words for Marvel after it blamed declining comic book sales on its more diverse roster of superheroes. And for Hachette Australia when it wanted to tattoo a dragon on a real woman’s back to promote the latest Girl with the Dragon Tattoo installment. And for Simon & Schuster when it offered Milo Yiannopoulos a reported $250,000 for a book on free speech.

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Papa the Investor

Andrea di Robilant for the Paris Review
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How Hemingway became a major shareholder in a venerable Italian publishing house.

Ernest Hemingway had a rough time with his Italian publisher, Einaudi, the venerable Turin-based house that still prints a good portion of his titles today. The issue, as is so often the case, was money: Einaudi, Hemingway complained, were communists looking for any excuse to withhold his overdue royalties. After 1947, he’d grown so exasperated that he refused to publish another book with them. So it’s all the more startling to discover that in the spring of 1955, he quietly agreed to convert a large part of his growing credit with the house into company stock, becoming a major shareholder overnight. Hemingway was usually very prudent with his money—and the chronically mismanaged Einaudi was hardly a safe investment. But having a stake in the publication of his own books, he hoped, would make it easier to get his hands on his growing pile of Italian cash.

As an author, Hemingway had gotten a late start in Italy. During the twenties and thirties, when the Anglophone world consecrated him as one of its brightest talents, he was persona non grata in the country. His blacklisting started as early as 1923, when Hemingway, still a young reporter for the Toronto Star, described Mussolini as “the biggest bluff in Europe.” In 1927, he wrote a few sardonic sketches on Fascist Italy for the New Republic. But it was the 1929 publication of A Farewell to Arms, with its antimilitarism and its powerful description of the rout of the Italian Army after Caporetto, that made him an enemy in the eyes of the Mussolini regime—a reputation further sealed by his support for the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War. 

Thus Hemingway’s books were banned in Fascist Italy even as the works of other American writers, such as Sinclair Lewis, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and John Dos Passos, were brought into translation with success and acclaim. But as soon as Mussolini fell, in 1943, publishers scrambled to buy up the translation rights to his novels. The first Italian edition of The Sun Also Rises was published by a little-known company, Jandi Sapi, in the early summer of 1944, only weeks after General Mark Clark’s troops liberated Rome. A Farewell to ArmsFor Whom the Bell Tolls, and To Have and Have Not came out in quick succession with different houses the following year, immediately after the liberation of Northern Italy. The translations were hurried and the first editions sloppy; it was unclear which house owned which rights, if it owned any at all.

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Most Anticipated: The Great 2015 Book Preview

In The Millions
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Over at The Millions, a useful although by no means exhaustive list of books forthcoming in 2015 (including some that have already appeared in Britain but not yet in the US). There are new books by Tom McCarthy, Kazuo Ishiguro, Rachel Kushner, Per Petterson, Joshua Cohen, Nell Zink and Anne Enright to look forward to, among others. And Alejandro Zambra, whose My Documents is forthcoming with Fitzcarraldo Editions in April 2015, gets a mention…

Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell andMarilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.

January:

Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)

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February:

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Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)

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The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)

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March:

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)

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Plastic Words at Raven Row

13 December 2014 to 30 January 2015
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Exciting line-up of events launching next week at Raven Row, including a talk chaired by future Fitzcarraldo Editions author Brian Dillon on 16 December, with Tom McCarthy, McKenzie Wark and Janice Kerbel, on ‘Artists, Writing and Literature’. Another one to look forward to is Helen DeWitt, Chris Kraus and  Jeremy Akerman on 15 January ‘about the forms of publication best suited to writing in an expanded field’. The full programme is available on the Raven Row website.

Organised by John Douglas Millar, David Musgrave, Luke Skrebowski, Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams.

Raven Row plays host for six weeks to a series of public events that mine the contested space between contemporary literature and art.

Taking this space as a starting point, the participants – including leading writers, visual and performance artists – reflect on the possible overlaps, parallels, tangents and interferences between some of today’s most adventurous forms of writing and art making. The variety of formats reflects the diversity of the contributors, spanning readings, performances, panel discussions and publishing experiments.

A companion display entitled Marginalia with artworks by Eleanor Antin, Isidore Isou, John Murphy and Philippe Thomas, curated by Antony Hudek, will be on view during events and upon request.

At each event, the pop-up bookshop Luminous Books will present a selection of titles written by and related to the speakers in Plastic Words. For the final event in the series, Luminous Books will join forces with Publication Studio for its first London appearance.

All events are free. Except for the opening event, reservations are encouraged. Please click on the links to the events for more information.

Interview with Fiona McCrae

In Guernica magazine
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Fiona McCrae, publisher of Graywolf Press (with whom Fitzcarraldo Editions shares Eula Biss’s On Immunity), was interviewed in Guernica earlier this year by Jonathan Lee. A very interesting summary of the indie publishing philosophy, as evidenced by this snippet on discovering Per Petterson: 

Guernica: I saw you speak at an event last night at the offices of the literary journal A Public Space—where, as you know, I work—and you were addressing a crowd of emerging writers. You talked about Graywolf publishing “against the tide”—finding work that other houses might overlook or might not think would work. How much of that is out of necessity, and how much is by design?

Fiona McCrae: I think it’s both. The two drive each other. My nature is much more attracted to against-the-tide books. For example, at Graywolf, if I hear that there is another offer on a manuscript, it generally makes me less interested, not more. I do not feel competitive in that way, so I don’t believe that the fact someone else wants to publish a piece of writing makes that piece of writing good. I think I was overly affected as a child by fairy stories where the bronze casket turns out to be the winner, not the gold. With a Graywolf author like Per Petterson things have happened for him in a wonderfully organic way—he’s become a big name for all the right reasons, from quite modest beginnings. When publishers spend a huge amount of money on a book up front, they start from the position that it has to work, or else, and that can drain the pleasure from the experience and make everyone overly tense, and certain successes are deemed insufficient in some way.

Guernica: You publish a book like Out Stealing Horses with pretty modest expectations of sales, and then when it wins the IMPAC things grow from there, naturally. That’s your preferred route to success.

Fiona McCrae: Yes. I don’t think I’m particularly unusual in the publishing industry in loving those “sleeper” stories. I prefer them to the stories of splashy advances. At Graywolf, I prefer knowing we were the only ones who offered on a book, who saw it might work.

Of course, I don’t mean that everyone we publish would stand no chance at another publishing house. But we like to make the right offer on a book, and to make that offer to an author who really does connect with Graywolf. With Out Stealing Horses, we bought that for a fairly modest advance when a number of publishers over here [in New York] had turned it down. And then unexpected things started to happen.

Guernica: What was the first unexpected thing?

Fiona McCrae: Well, early on Amy Tan phoned up out of the blue to offer a blurb that we hadn’t asked her for. That never happens. And then the book was longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, then shortlisted, and finally, incredibly, it won. And then the same for the IMPAC, which was announced one week before [it appeared] on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. Suddenly everything was happening.

Another example. I remember us publishing Tracy K. Smith’s poetry, and then in 2011 publishing her new collection Life On Mars. We thought she deserved to win something that year, but then the National Book Awards came and went. Nothing. Later in the year I was at the National Book Critics Circle Awards announcements. Nothing. Then I was in London for the London Book Fair in April, out with three friends who’d studied English literature with me at university, and a text came through saying: “Tracy K. Smith has won the Pulitzer Prize.” That was great fun—to see that happen to someone [for whom] you’ve published over three books.

Publishing Kazuo Ishiguro was like that in England. Faber published his first work in an anthology, and then his first two novels before The Remains of the Day, which of course won the Booker Prize.

Guernica: What about those difficult moments where you do well with an author’s book, and then they cash in by leaving for a bigger publishing house?

Fiona McCrae: It happens, of course, but sometimes an author just needs more money than we can offer. There’s no point wringing your hands over that. It’s not our job, as a small non-profit publisher, to come between an author and a big advance. In fact, it goes with the territory at any-sized publishing house. People leave Penguin. People leave Knopf. The nice thing, when authors don’t leave, is that all the books stay under one roof, and the continuity can be very productive. Per Peterson has always remembered that we took him on when others didn’t want to publish him. And after the huge success of Out Stealing Horses, there was no doubt in his mind that he wanted to stay with Graywolf. We paid more for his next book, of course, but he could have got a bigger advance by switching publishers. He chose to stay. And we took on Kevin Barry in a two-book deal, so were able to publish his short-story collection after he too got the front cover of the New York Times Book Review and went on to win the IMPAC.

Rediscovering Elizabeth Harrower

James Wood on the Australian novelist
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Whatever you think about James Wood, he is one of the few people with enough clout that an article on the ‘forgotten’ novelist Elizabeth Harrower will get people interested in reading her. In this instance, the story of her ‘rediscovery’ happens to be a good one:

The Australian novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who is eighty-six and lives in Sydney, has been decidedly opaque about why she withdrew her fifth novel, “In Certain Circles” (Text), some months prior to publication, in 1971. Her mother, to whom she was very close, had died suddenly the year before. Harrower told Susan Wyndham, who interviewed her a few months ago in the Sydney Morning Herald, that she was absolutely “frozen” by the bereavement. She also claims to remember very little about her novel—“That sounds quite interesting, but I don’t think I’ll read it”—and adds that she has been “very good at closing doors and ending things. . . . What was going on in my head or my life at the time? Fortunately, whatever it was I’ve forgotten.” Elsewhere, Harrower has cast doubt on the novel’s quality: “It was well written because once you can write, you can write a good book. But there are a lot of dead novels out in the world that don’t need to be written.”

Harrower deposited the manuscript of “In Certain Circles” in the National Library of Australia and essentially terminated her literary career. She has said that she thinks of her fiction as something abandoned long ago, buried in a cellar. She can’t now be bothered with writing. “I don’t know anybody who knows I’m a writer,” she said in 2012. In 1971, plenty of people knew Harrower was a writer. The novelist Christina Stead, for one, declared that Harrower’s “The Long Prospect” (1958) “has no equal in our writing.” But obscurity is a fast worker, when properly paid: by the early nineteen-nineties, all her novels were out of print. Patrick White, who urged Harrower to keep working, once inscribed a book to her with the injunction “To Elizabeth, luncher and diner extraordinaire. Sad you don’t also WRITE.”

Her work might still be out of print if Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston, a married couple who run the Australian publishing house Text, hadn’t decided to start republishing it in 2012. They began with Harrower’s greatest novel, “The Watch Tower” (1966), the bitter story of two sisters, Laura and Clare, who lose their parents and fall under the sway of Felix Shaw, an abusive and controlling drunk. Over the next two years, Text published the rest of Harrower’s earlier work: “Down in the City” (1957), her first novel, and “The Long Prospect” (1958), her second, both of which she wrote in London; and “The Catherine Wheel” (1960), her third book. “In Certain Circles,” the withdrawn novel, was clearly the publisher’s most precious quarry. Heyward cajoled Harrower into letting him read the manuscript. She had not read any of her own work in forty years, and suspected that she might have to die before it was read again. Heyward thought the novel “extraordinary,” and Harrower agreed to its publication, perhaps figuring that death was a steep penalty for a comprehensive backlist.

Harrower’s writing is witty, desolate, truth-seeking, and complexly polished. Everything (except feeling, which is passionately and directly confessed) is controlled and put under precise formal pressure. Her sentences, which have an unsettling candor, launch a curling assault on the reader, often twisting in unexpected ways. And although her novels can feel somewhat closed, and tend to repeat themselves in theme, her prose is full of variety. She can be bracingly satirical: “The piercing soprano she raised at parties was understood to be her most prized asset, and had won her much applause.” She is generally tart. In “The Catherine Wheel,” a novel narrated by a young Australian woman living in a London bed-sit, a single glance at the room’s furniture tells us much about her self-esteem: “Above it was a mirror, undistorted, except perhaps—I’d already noticed—on the side of flattery.” She can be savagely metaphorical: “She was like a park that had never once removed its Don’t Walk on the Grass signs.” But her wit often teeters on the edge of pain, as it does in that last sentence, which describes Laura and Clare’s vilely haughty mother in “The Watch Tower,” or as it does in this description of pretty, ingenuous Zoe Howard, who will marry disastrously in “In Certain Circles”: “It never mattered what she said to men: they liked her to say anything.” The sentences have an innocent composure, as if Harrower hoped to slip the pain past us: “Yet really, apart from the sense of irretrievable loss, there was nothing wrong at all.” “Really, it turned out to be like every other day, except that she never forgot it.” Zoe Howard, trapped in her painful marriage, standing by a swimming pool on a morning in which she and her husband have managed to effect a brief truce, is described thus: “She shivered and pulled on her towelling coat, prudently absent from past and future.” What pain lies in the coiled coda of that sentence! Sometimes, the reader has to decode Harrower’s careful irony: “He made a sound not like a laugh” (about a histrionic charmer who is feeling sorry for himself). But Harrower’s prose expands, too, to gather in the Australian landscapes: Sydney, the wide harbor, the narrower suburbs (easily dispatched in one novel as “weedy parks named after councillors”), the blue skies and breathing red outback, the “blue and legendary haze” that seems to hover over the whole world.

Harrower was right about “In Certain Circles” being well written, but surely wrong to take its superb style for granted, as if mere literary muscle memory. Like the rest of her work, the novel is severely achieved: the coolly exact prose cannot be distinguished from the ashen exhaustion of its tragic fires. The book suffers from a few structural difficulties (some weirdly compressed transitions, a couple of characters who never quite come into focus) that may have earned Harrower’s anxious scorn in 1971. But “In Certain Circles” also extends and deepens several of her persistent concerns: how easily we submit to cruelty and coercion; the relations between men and women in a frankly misogynist era; the moral imperative to tell the truth, to shatter the china niceties that sustain bourgeois domestic life. The book belongs with her best work, with “The Watch Tower” and “The Long Prospect.”

Interview with Jill Schoolman, founder of Archipelago Books

From BOMB Magazine
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Jill Schoolman founded Archipelago Books ten years ago. She’s published Knausgaard, Cărtărescu, Khoury, Duras, Mukasonga and Tsvetaeva, among others. In this BOMB Magazine interview with Bibi Deitz, she talks about the importance of literary translation:

BD It’s vital to read literature from around the world. For those of us striving to find more international literature, which books would you recommend or deem unmissable?

JS Oh, there are so so many books that I feel close to. For starters, the novels by Céline and Ondaatje and Krasznahorkai and Nabokov, Hrabal, Rulfo, Elias Khoury and Magdalena Tulli; and stories by Jergović, Gombrowicz, Cortázar, Calvino, Sait Faik Abasıyanık, and Borges. Héctor Abad’s Oblivion, Breytenbach’s A Season in Paradise, Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, and Antonio Tabucchi and Josep Pla; the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, José Ángel Valente, Nichita Stănescu, Ingeborg Bachmann, Różewicz, Césaire, Soyinka, Leopardi. More and more I am drawn to books that defy genre, like Ivan Vladislavić’s Portrait with Keys or Railtracks by John Berger and Anne Michaels.

 

Why Writers Should Be Paid

n+1 issue 20

The new issue of n+1 is out. In this issue’s Intellectual Situation, the editors make a compelling case for why writers should be paid: 

FOR A YOUNG WRITER who hopes to produce literature, the greatest difference between now and twenty years ago may be that now she expects to get paid. Twenty years ago, art and commerce appeared to be opposing forces. The more you were paid for your work, the more likely you were to be a hack.

The term of art was “sellout.” Any artist who tried to make money would end up unable to make art. Record producer and guitarist Steve Albini outlined the story of the sellout in the Baffler in 1994. A sympathetic scout would persuade a band to sign a letter of intent, and from that moment forward the terms of the deal would become the most important factor in their work. An incompetent producer would make their songs sound “punchy” and “warm.” (“I want to find the guy who invented compression and tear his liver out,” Albini wrote.) Worse, the band wouldn’t even make money. Their manager, producer, agent, lawyer, and above all label would turn a profit, but the members would probably end up in debt.

Fitz Carraldo Editions