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Publishing against the Grain

By Ilan Stavans

I became a publisher out of sheer frustration. The reason is closely tied to my self-definition as an immigrant. I moved from Mexico to the United States in the mid-‘80s seeking intellectual freedom. I dreamed of becoming an essayist and wanted to be right at the epicenter of culture. Almost from the very beginning of my career, my work was embraced by mainstream publishers. Thus, my concern here isn’t about the difficulty of finding outlets. Instead, it is about the narrowing of the culture I chose to be a part of. The type of literature released by American publishers has become frighteningly homogenized. It is about us, us, us: the exceptionalism of the United States. The rest of the world seems to have been forgotten. I won’t delve into the common jeremiad about the minuscule fraction of books published in the United States each year that are in translation—we’ve heard it a thousand times. The problem is that publishers and readers have become passive and complacent. To riff on Mark Twain’s quip about the weather: Complaints aren’t enough. Can we do something about it? 

I’m not invoking the weather for humorous purposes alone. It might seem as challenging to change the weather as it is to restructure the American literary diet. But how else should I focus my attention? I didn’t immigrate to sit still. My duty is to leave, for the next generation—and for the next wave of immigrants—a less parochial, more encompassing menu. Otherwise I would feel a traitor, or asleep at the wheel.

In a Quixotic tantrum, I started Restless Books, a digital publishing venture, to do my part to make sure America doesn’t become an island. Small publishers like Restless are minnows in comparison to the handful of conglomerates that decide what, when, and how we read. But what defines us is our free spirit, our non-acquiescent, critical thinking.

Needless to say, readers don’t buy books by publisher. Content is—and will always be—the priority. However, aesthetic trends cannot be ignored. A novel like Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep, about Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side, originally published in 1934, was ahead of its time. After receiving admiring reviews, one of them by Mary McCarthy, it came and went without fanfare. It wasn’t until the sixties that it was rediscovered, championed as one of the most significant literary novels of the twentieth century. In other words, moods come and go. Cass Canfield, Jr., my first editor, who worked at Harper, used to tell me that publishing is a business that, more than any other, is guided by instinct. My objective with Restless is to feel the temperature and register the mood of our time.

With the plethora of media today, reading could be seen as under threat. It isn’t, really. People read—people will always read—because there is no better way to marry our thirst for knowledge and our boundless imagination. Reading is the most individualistic, the most personal of all forms of entertainment. One starves for different kinds of thought, for doors to different realities. In what way do people in other corners of the planet satisfy that hunger?

When we started out, I sought scouts in strategic countries where knowledgeable readers, as well as people in the trade, would recommend the most significant works worthy of translating into English. I created partnerships with small literary houses in different parts of the globe devoted to recognizing unique voices.

In less than six months, Restless has released nine books, including a collection by Chinese poet Xiao Hai, the novel Between Clay and Dust from Pakistani author Musharraf Ali Farooqi, a collection of protest posters by the cooperative Dignidad Rebelde, and the science-fiction novel Nest of Worlds by Polish author Marek S. Huberath. Yet to come are such books as Cuban dissident Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s photographic take on a post-utopian Havana, a trilingual collection of poetry (Zapotec, Spanish, and English) by the legendary indigenous poet Víctor Terán, an autobiographical meditation by Jazz master Paquito D’Rivera, a graphic novel from Tehran and another one from Mexico, and a series by women travel writers that includes work by Edith Wharton. There are also children’s books coming.  My hope is to publish not titles, but authors. I’ve learned that lesson from James Laughlin at New Directions. It won’t be an easy task, but it will be worthwhile.

The concept of the book has changed dramatically under our noses. E-books now constitute the fastest growing segment of the publishing business. According to the Association of American Publishers, they accounted for nearly 23% of sales in 2012, up from just 1% in 2008. Indeed, adult e-books are set to overtake adult paperbacks as the highest volume product for American publishers. At this pace, e-books might become the number-one category for U.S. publishers. Yet e-book sales, it seems, are beginning to plateau. This, in my view, serves as a caution against any claim that the transition from print to digital will be complete. Just as theater didn’t perish with the advent of cinema, and, likewise, cinema retained its power in spite of the rise of TV, print will not be completely erased by digital books—at least not in the near future. The two will continue to coexist, each carving its own niche and supporting the other.

Restless is exclusively digital because, as a small boutique publisher, it needs to be focused. That need translates to calibrating its options and selecting its playing field. The majority of digital titles today appear along with, and as companions to, the print editions. The small number of publishers exclusively dedicated to e-books generally produce how-to manuals or concentrate on reprints. I want Restless to be at the forefront of literature: bringing out the most incisive international work in this affordable format; I want the company to set trends, to open up new vistas; I want it to exploit this publishing niche and push it to new terrain.

I became a publisher because I am fed up with the grandiloquence of the American corporate publishing that makes us so uncosmopolitan. Books must make money. But they cannot be published only to make money. People are drawn to them because they are eager to be exposed to stories. What makes us human, what makes us global is the curiosity to know if others are like us, if we aren’t alone.

American readers have been alone for too long.

Published Feb 28, 2014   Copyright 2014 Ilan Stavans

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