Press on the Press
"Found in Translation: Archipelago Books"
The L Magazine, April 13-26, 2005
Carol Cooper: Did your previous position at Seven Stories Press somehow inspire you to come up with the business model for Archipelago Books or did the whole concept have a much earlier genesis?
Jill Schoolman: Yes, Seven Stories was a great inspiration. Perhaps even more than providing a business model, its spirit rubbed off on me, and my years with them gave me an understanding of the importance of a supportive community around a press. But above all else, being able to see how much can be accomplished by a handful of passionate people with a shared vision gave me the confidence to create Archipelago Books. One major difference is that we decided to set ourselves up as a non-profit organization. This makes a lot of sense for the sort of books we are publishing.
CC: Do you find the economics of running a high-quality indie publishing house become more viable once it's set up as a non-profit corporation? Why?
JS: Our non-profit structure does allow us to take more chances than a for-profit press; we are able to commit to a smaller book that we believe in that might not appeal a large readership. I must say, however, that keeping an independent press afloat— be it for-profit or non— is a Sisyphusian struggle. Grants and contributions are not easy to come by, and the success of a book seems to be determined by a mysterious alchemy of forces at work beyond good writing and hard work... timing, the book falling into the hands of certain key people, a bookseller believing in a book, combined with other less tangible biblio-forces.
CC: Thus far what is the percentage split between private and public contributions? In your first year, how did you go about soliciting donations?
JS: At this point, the scale is leaning a bit toward private contributions, although it is certainly a good mix of both. Besides the New York State Council for the Arts and private foundations, much of our support comes from the Ministries of Culture and translation funds from abroad. This year we've tried out a variety of methods to stir interest: we've had fundraising parties, an auction (which went very well), and have been reaching out to a variety of organizations around the country. We've partnered with the International Institute of Modern Letters, who is also devoted to world literature. We'll be launching a translation series with the IIML this spring called Rainmaker Translations, along with New Directions and a few other houses.
CC: What is the average print run for each new title and ideally how many titles would you like to release each year?
JS: Our print runs range from 1500 to 6000. We are committed to keeping all of our books in print, so our first printings reflect this mentality rather than the increasingly prevalent concept among larger houses and even bookstores that a book needs to prove itself, or carve out an audience, within the first few months of life. Ezra Pound believed that it took about 20 years for a great work of literature to get noticed. Of course, we are not tied to the twenty-year plan, but we do wholeheartedly believe in every book we publish and that books, like people, have their own rhythms and paths. We want to give our books a bit of breathing room, the time and space they need to be discovered.
CC: Do translators and career academics approach you directly with suggestions for potential English-language first editions of important foreign books, or are there other ways in which you seek out or commission new titles?
JS: It's a two-way street. We approach translators with our ideas and they approach us with theirs. One thing that is vital to us is matching up the right translator with the right work. I truly believe that if there isn't an almost uncanny connection between the two, the translation won't be able to rise above a certain point. The deeper the connection the more likely it will be that the gap between languages will be wondrously bridged. We seek out translators and academics that are at heart poets.
CC: Thus far Archipelago has published poems, story collections, essays, memoirs and novels from various time-periods and nations. From a marketing standpoint, do you ever think you may need to narrow your focus, or is the ongoing lack of genre, regional and temporal limitations a part of the "brand identity" of Archipelago's catalog?
JS: I feel what connects our list is a certain sensibility rather than time or geography or genre. We are drawn to the region where poetry meets prose, where visual art meets language, where politics and humanism meet philosophy and dream. Style is as important as soul, but one cannot survive without the other. It's true, we are equally passionate about undiscovered classics as we are about unique voices of our time with stories to tell. I don't think it will be necessary to narrow our focus, our vision—although difficult to articulate— is clear.
CC: Who is your readership? Do you have any figures in this area?
JS: I wish I knew the answer to that. I hope that our books are attracting serious readers, humanists, thinkers, dreamers, devotees of classics, young people simply wanting to know what the rest of the world is thinking and writing about, academics, mothers, writers, translators, vagabonds... What I'm trying to say is I don't know.
CC: What is your opinion on reading in America and the bleakness of NEA assessments? Are you a pessimist? Will things ever change or improve?
JS: Well, I'm stubbornly optimistic. I truly believe that there is a new wave of interest in world literature right now. Perhaps, at least in part, in response to the fact that the menacing leaders of this country are doing everything conceivable to alienate us from the rest of the world, to brainwash us into complacency. I think many people feel a visceral need for real contact with the outside world, to connect with other voices and ways of thinking, to gain a more profound understanding of our place in history and of other literary traditions, to discover, and to escape.
CC: Your books are physically beautiful—they look and feel like upscale museum and art gallery catalogs. Do you think of your publishing company as primarily serving a collector's market, a specialty academic market, both, or another consumer niche altogether?
JS: Thanks. The physical book does matter to us. We hope that the books themselves will invite readers into them. But no, I don't believe that collectors are our primary audience. Perhaps to a certain extent we're nostalgic for the old days, but I feel that the quality of paper and the design of a book are almost as crucial as its content. So few trade publishers seem to care about the art of making lovely books. We are fortunate to be working with David Bullen, one of the best book designers around. The Stinehour Press up in Vermont is doing all of our printing. They are true craftsman. Perhaps a book that feels good in the hand (or at least won't fall apart in the hand) will appeal not only to collectors but to readers as well.
CC: I find there to be a surprising similarity in tone between such disparate works as Miljenko Jergovic's Sarajevo Marlboro, Jean Giono's The Serpent of Stars, and The Mountain Poems of Meng Hao-jan which transcends cultural and linguistic difference. They share an altered quality of awareness that is highly seductive. These books fairly crackle with energetic lucidity—as if their respective authors observe their world with a sharper set of five senses than the rest of us. Do you look for that quality as an editor?
JS: That's interesting. Yes, to a certain extent, I am drawn to this heightened perception, to a vision of a writer that fathoms humanity with all five senses and a sixth sense of his or her own, to wisdom that at once looks outward and inward. The voices and senses of reality of the three books you mentioned couldn't be further from each other, but there is a certain fierce humanism (or love, if you'll forgive the four-letter word) that flows through each.
CC: Julio Cortázar's semi-autobiographical The Diary of Andres Fava (originally written in 1950 but never published until after the author's death), is a wonderfully urbane, cosmopolitan find. What about it most convinced you it would be a perfect addition to the Archipelago line?
JS: It is truly outrageous that there are still works of Cortázar that haven't been translated into English, not to mention some deeply brilliant works that have fallen out of print. We were overjoyed to learn of the existence of The Diary of Andres Fava. It is Cortázar at his most irreverent and playful, as well as his most exploratory and honest. The book lets us in on Cortázar's own intimate reflections on literature, music, friendship, love... he talks a bit about the act of writing. It's full of bold jabs and devilish statements. In some ways, it feels like a late-night rap session with Cortázar— he lets down his guard and we have the impossible pleasure of watching this lovable genius think and feel out loud. I was easily convinced that it would be perfect for our list. It would be perfect for any literary house, actually.
CC: Which of your titles already in print has inspired the biggest or strongest reader response thus far? Did you anticipate this reaction?
JS: I think that Gombrowicz's Bacacay has inspired the strongest response so far. Giddy readers have been waving it around and it's been well reviewed in places like Bookforum, The Nation, The Washington Post, and the Toronto Globe and Mail. We were certainly hoping the book would get noticed. It's a major work by a great European force, and the timing was right— this year marked his 100th birthday. Quite a few born-again Gombrowiczians came out of the woodwork. Alastair Reid fell in love with the book and told everyone he spoke with about it for weeks. It came as a delightful surprise.
CC: What is your dream, in terms of Archipelago?
JS: My dream is that our books will open people's minds and spirits, might break a few stereotypes, will excite people & that our books might change people's lives, if only a little bit.