I Want You To Start Your Own Publishing House

By Will Evans

A modest proposal: If translation is the act that allows dialogue to take place between individuals, then translated literature is the means by which entire cultures engage each other. I started Deep Vellum Publishing as an arts and education nonprofit organization with the mission to enhance the open exchange of ideas among cultures through translation, and to connect the world’s greatest un-translated literature with readers in original English translations. Not too radical, right?

But Deep Vellum was founded in Dallas, Texas, and Dallas has presented me with more challenges than I had anticipated. In Dallas, I fight a war on two fronts; every day, not only do I find myself defending translations (which I was expecting), but I also find myself defending the value of literature itself as a necessary ingredient in a city’s arts culture.

The attack is threefold. First comes the inevitable leading question, “Why should I read something that wasn’t written in English?” This query is itself a more insidious version of the second (and more common) refrain: “I don’t read translations.” But then I am still surprised by the third statement I often hear in Dallas. After asking how Deep Vellum is allowed to be an arts organization—a question that takes me aback—people utter a follow-up proclamation that actually left me speechless the first time I heard it: “Literature is not the arts.”

Why read anything not written in English? I don’t read translations. Literature is not the arts.

We, as a culture, have a problem with the way we value literature. This leads to a problem in how we value world literature, in how we value translation, in how we ignore translation’s invaluable contribution to our entire society.

This problem won’t solve itself, and it’s on each of us to do something about it. Here’s how.

The Why

Why translation, you may ask? Well, for starters, America’s low numbers of published and read translations is leading to an increasingly myopic and parochial American literary culture, a problem noted by a member of the Swedish Academy some years ago in describing why an American would not win the Nobel Prize in Literature anytime soon. History check: the last American who won the prize was Toni Morrison, in 1993.

The sheer international diversity of Nobel winners alone should indicate that American readers are missing out on a world of literature—literally.

There is a desperate need for more translations of world literature into English, and an infinite amount of discussion around that need if you know where to look. Some call it the “Three Percent Problem,” which has become the catchall phrase to describe the lack of translations published each year in America (the term has gained a wider international audience as the name of the blog of the translation publisher Open Letter Books). “Three percent” refers to the share of translated work in publishing in a given year, but in reality, it’s a generous estimate. If you look at original translations of literature in general, as opposed to academic and scientific works, cookbooks, re-translations of the classics, and the like the number is much lower, and is never more than 0.5% of everything published in America each year.

Literary translation is a contentious philosophical matter, as translator-eminence Edith Grossman notes in her fantastic Why Translation Matters. Translation is the only interpretive art that must constantly defend the right of its own existence, she writes. Translation enriches our culture through the addition of outside arguments, styles, forms, and ideas. Translation is an act of bravery, of the utmost importance, yet it remains an act that needs to be defended from attacks on its merits. So who then to take up the banner of translation and proclaim at the top of one’s voice its importance in our society, if not me, if not us?

In addition to being a philosophical problem, literary translation is also a contentious business matter. There are thousands of good to all-time-great books published in the world every year in every language imaginable, but only a couple hundred of those ever get published in English, and that’s in a good year. Any book published in any language other than English in 2013 that might ever actually get translated into English and published has a better chance of appearing in bookstores in 2023 than in 2014. The publishing gap is usually due to lag times in the long process of translation or to American publishers’ unwillingness to take risks on undiscovered foreign authors. A case in point: the translation of László Krasznahorkai’s Sátántangó that took translator George Szirtes actual decades to finish, finally appearing in English in 2012, twenty-seven years after it was originally published in Hungary. Most publishers would rather see an author develop an audience abroad (preferably in huge numbers), or a particular style that demarcates the author as a unique literary voice. It’s an awful process for foreign writers to try to crack the English-language market, there are only so many publishers who publish any translations at all, and there are precious few who will publish beyond the confines of the most commercial or the most highbrow of world literature. Those authors caught in-between are stuck in a cycle that does not favor their talents.

The Numbers

For a long time, nobody even kept track of how many translations are published in English each year. Furthermore, nobody distinguished new voices in translation of literary fiction, non-fiction, or poetry from re-translations of Dostoevsky and Homer, and from translations of graphic novels, cookbooks, or academic works. But that changed in 2008, when Open Letter Books began to keep a tally of every new work of literature translated into English each year (including literary fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry) in their downloadable Translation Database.

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The Translation Database provides an unbelievably useful source of information for those of us who are obsessed with world literature to find out who and what is being published, from where, and by whom. In 2013, 500 titles were recorded in the Translation Database for the first time (the numbers have been ticking upwards over the past five years). The leading translated languages have been the same for the last several years: French, German, Spanish in the top three (making up 40% of all translations in the list each year), followed by Italian, Russian, Japanese, and Swedish in the next few spots.

The Translation Database also exposes the low numbers of translations published from the world’s minority languages (languages spoken by a minority of a given population), including only one translation each from Tamil, Yiddish, Urdu, Serbian, Afrikaans, Croatian, and Latvian in 2013. Persian, Romanian, and Hungarian each had four titles translated in 2013. There has been an encouraging uptick in Arabic-original literature translated in the last few years (eighteen titles in 2013). But even so, eighteen titles include works as diverse as rediscovered nineteenth-century novels and contemporary Arab Spring-influenced writing, and are hardly representative of a language that covers a region of more than a dozen countries with millennia of literary history. There is still so much work to be done.

The quality and quantity of non-English literature is clearly not the problem.

The Translation Database keeps track of publishers too, which paints another interesting picture. The Dalkey Archive Press, for example, publishes far more translations than any other publisher (forty-two in 2013, thirty-one in 2012), showing the power that one publisher can have with strong backing. Dalkey’s ten- volume Library of Korean Literature, sponsored by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, helped catapult the number of Korean titles in English from three in 2012 to thirteen in 2013. Other publishers of note in the translation space include AmazonCrossing (twenty-four translations in 2013); Europa Editions and Seagull Books (each with sixteen in 2013); Penguin, Archipelago Books, Open Letter, and Pushkin Press (each with ten); FSG (nine); Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Lontar (an Indonesian cultural foundation), New Directions, Other Press, and Yale University Press (all with eight).

More than 500 works in translation is amazing. It’s also amazing that the numbers are trending upwards, with more and more small publishers with creative business models that eschew the traditional publishing establishment (like Frisch & Co., Restless Books, Phoneme Media, Readux Books) popping up. All of them specialize in translations, or at least publishing a lot of world literature in translation (and for the sake of convenience, when I say “world literature,” I mean literature written in a language other than English).

The quality and quantity of non-English literature is clearly not the problem. The problem that all publishers of translations, and especially we smaller independent publishers have is how to get translations in front of readers. Only by solving it can we can change the dialogue around translations and get the English-language world actually reading the translations we publish.

For too long, publishing has treated readers as passive recipients of information. The status quo has been changing recently—as the ongoing digital revolution given publishers encouragement to engage with their readers directly. The same digital revolution that has lowered the barrier of entry to start a publishing house has granted readers an increasingly powerful voice in determining what is published and how it is marketed. For example, one of my favorite publishers, And Other Stories, seeks input on submissions and ideas from circles of readers by hosting a book club-like discussion that takes place in multiple locations across the globe.

There is a real value today in treating readers not merely as consumers but as agents of cultural change, who now have the chance to become deeply invested in your publishing mission as a business as well as a philosophical enterprise. It is in the best interest of every independent publisher to cultivate an engaged readership that will make a lasting impact on our culture in the long run.

The Path

But Will, you might say. I can’t just start a publishing house overnight! How would one even go about starting such a thing these days?

Good question! For starters, cultivate a love of world literature. If you’re anything like me (you handsome devil), you’ve always loved world literature. I’ve always been the guy who goes to used bookstores and scans spines for foreign names, preferably from Eastern Europe. As a result, I’ve built a healthy library of books from New Directions, FSG, and Northwestern University Press (and bless them for publishing all that Eastern European literature!).

When I was a young and immature freshman in college, I discovered a deep intellectual underpinning to this love of world literature. I took a course that changed my life forever: 19th Century Russian Literature in Translation. I had never studied Russian literature before at any level, and that decision changed my life forever, and led me to seek out a career in letters.

My mind was bursting with ideas. But then it dawned on me: I actually had no idea how to start a publishing house.

It wasn’t until graduate school, however, that I became interested in translation. My undergraduate professors all advised me not to translate: there was no money in it; it was hard, thankless, all-consuming work; it was meant only for an elite class of language-holders who could shape the minds of English readers on how the Russians thought (or, rather, wrote). But in graduate school, Carol Apollonio empowered me to get into translation myself when I asked her why so many works of contemporary Russian literature weren’t being published in English.

Thanks to her, I started to learn more about the politics of translation: who chooses what is published and why. As I translated a novel for the first time, I felt a sense of accomplishment that connected my passionate love of Russian literature from undergraduate days with a desire to get more people reading Russian literature, and to make a broad impact in our culture.

The author with Mikhail Shishkin. Image credit: Will Evans

The author with Mikhail Shishkin. Image credit: Will Evans

Translating gave me a new sense of fulfillment, but soon, translation was not enough. Around the same time I learned I’d be moving to Dallas and making a new life there, I started reading the Three Percent blog, cultivated by Chad Post. Chad has done more than most these days to open the doors into what publishing actually is, and he advocates vocally for more publishers to start up and to publish translations. Coupling this love of world literature and translation with Chad’s appeal for more publishers, I started brainstorming. Could it be possible to start a publishing house in Dallas, a city that has no independent bookstores (yet!), no literary publishing houses, and no real book culture to speak of?

The conditions were surprisingly favorable and I relish a challenge: I love to create something where it has not existed before. And rather than worry about direct competition from peer publishers (shout-outs to all the terrific publishers in New York and Minneapolis!) I could have the entire Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex to myself. In an area of 7.5 million people, the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the country, with no publishers, no book culture, I envisioned a publishing house of global proportions that connected various existing arts organizations and provided literature as the missing ingredient in an otherwise-vibrant arts scene. I envisioned leading literary events with authors and translators from all over the world flying in and out of town with ease—after all, DFW International Airport is effectively equidistant from New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. A veritable gateway to the world.

My mind was bursting with ideas. But then it dawned on me: I actually had no idea how to start a publishing house. Where could I go for help, and how could I start it up?

There’s the classic path, of course, for those who want to live in New York. The options for classes, internships, and literary programs are endless, starting with the Columbia University publishers’ course, which is a summer of intensive classes and networking sessions that provides your best entry into the New York publishing establishment.

But if you choose to live somewhere outside of New York, like, say, in Dallas, (or Atlanta, or Pittsburgh, or Missoula, or anywhere), you’re going to have to get a bit more creative. You’re going to have to create something out of nothing. And you’re going to have to do a lot more than just publish books—you’re going to have to work constantly to build the book culture you want to see in the world.

To get yourself there, to learn enough to even think about what publishing is (it is a concrete word for a nebulous thing), you need an apprenticeship, and a mentor.

There is a difference between an internship and an apprenticeship. For most, if not all, New York publishers—even my favorite independent shops like New Directions, Archipelago Books, and Ugly Duckling Presse—demand for internships (unpaid, typically) is so high that it’s hard to find the right guidance. Look to publishers outside of New York’s noise for help. An apprenticeship should teach you enough of the layers of insider business that you’ll have the foundation to come up with your own business plan. That means firming up your big idea into a mission with tangible blueprints for how get start-up capital, figure out a growth plan (keywords: marketing, distribution, sales), and develop your editorial vision (the fun part).

A mentor, then, is someone willing to give you an apprenticeship. Stumped on how to find a mentor? Reach out to your influences and influencers. Reach out to your college’s alumni network. Reach out to friends from home and your grown-up life. Hit up everybody you’ve ever known who has even a tangential relationship to publishing. Or you can do what I did, and reach out to your favorite publisher who advocates for people to go out and start their own publishing house, and ask them to teach you how the hell to do it. Chad Post was gracious enough to open his mind to me, sharing his business acumen in a way that made me feel like it was possible to do this.

The “Big Three” independent nonprofit publishers in Minneapolis (Graywolf Press, Coffee House Books, Milkweed Editions), for example, offer great real-world business models that have helped me start to strategize Deep Vellum’s future growth from start-up to established partner in the arts culture of my community. I encourage you to look for models and individuals that inspire you, and don’t waste your time with ones that don’t.

The How

If you want to start publishing outside of New York and if you’ve never worked in publishing before, know that you’re crazy— but good crazy. You will likely need to work constantly to build a more vibrant book culture in your city in general, not just in publishing. Whatever that means and whatever it takes, do it. Constantly. Host literary events, open a bookstore, start your own lending library, start a book club or two, write unsolicited reviews of current works in translation and submit them to any newspaper, weekly, and magazine based in your city. Learn more languages. Reach out to people who may never have read a book in translation other than the Bible (you realize it’s translated, right?). Start a bookstore. Or patronize one unceasingly. Build a community. And read all the books. If not, you’ll be publishing into the void, and nobody wants that: not you, not your authors, not your translators, and certainly not your readers, who don’t even know you exist yet but have been waiting for you to change their lives.

Decide if you want to be a nonprofit arts organization or a for-profit publishing house. Both have their merits. There are very, very few literary arts organizations in Texas, and I frequently run into people who tell me that literature is not the arts. So I decided to set up as a nonprofit because it would more easily allow me to bring literature and translation into a larger discussion of the arts.

The decision was also a practical one. As someone brand new to the book business, living far removed from the New York publishing establishment, and aware of the state of flux that publishing is in, I did not think I could honestly look a potential investor in the eye and promise any type of profitable return. But the proposition of value changed immediately once I embraced becoming a nonprofit. The community became my investment partner, and the most important thing to do was to come up with a mission that reflected the cultural value I knew translated literature could bring.

When it comes time to set up your business, and you know if you want to be a nonprofit or a for-profit, you need to register your business with your state’s Secretary of State office, apply for a tax ID number, and apply for your 501(c)(3) IRS tax-exempt status. Remember that even if you are a nonprofit, like Deep Vellum, you are still a business, and you need to go through the rigors of filling out all the necessary paperwork. In most states, there are volunteer organizations of lawyers and accountants who can help you form your business. When I set up Deep Vellum, I joined an organization called Texas Accountants and Lawyers for the Arts that paired me with a Dallas attorney who helped me through the business incorporation process. However, rather than applying for my own 501(c)(3) status right away (it is an intensive application process with a required annual audit), I decided to work with a fiscal sponsor, a nationally recognized literary nonprofit named The Writer’s Garret, under whose 501(c)(3) umbrella Deep Vellum could begin to fundraise as I established myself in a new city and learned how to navigate its arts terrain.

Deep Vellum 8.12 digitalSetting up the business is only half the battle; carving out your editorial niche is the other. I knew I had to come up with an editorial vision that separated Deep Vellum from peer publishers. I agonized over this. What could separate me from Archipelago, or Graywolf, or Open Letter? But those were the wrong questions. I realized I needed to be asking what is it about me and my ideas that is unique, that could differentiate my publishing house from theirs?

I concentrated on diversity—a value that I pursue in reading and in life. What does diversity mean in publishing? Diversity of nations, surely, but I had to take it further: Diversity in languages. In race. In gender. In sexual orientation. In experimental literatures. Declaring what matters to you most from the start is crucial. First step? I vowed not to only publish books from Western European men. (You wouldn’t think publishing equal numbers of men and women would be revolutionary, but judging by the numbers of what gets translated and published, it very much is.) But then what? Being based in Dallas, I considered it especially important to develop a strong tie to Mexican and Latin American literatures. I eventually came to include a list of titles from Central American countries that are grossly underrepresented in world literature. Finally, given my background, I could not ignore Russian literature. With such a mission, I believe Deep Vellum can open a window into contemporary literature that brokers a greater level of understanding between cultures.

In the End

This essay is an appeal to everyone who has ever asked themselves why certain books are or aren’t translated and published in English. To everyone who works in publishing in New York with such great experience and understanding of the industry, but who wants something more than to work in a corporate chain of command forever, I hope this inspires you. You can use the invaluable experience you have gained to build something where there once was nothing. This essay is for the avid readers with maybe a bit of business sense but a passionate belief in the power of literature as a vital part of the arts community. You have the power to get involved in publishing and make a lasting difference. It is for the book lovers willing to fight to keep American literary culture exciting, willing to jump into the publishing fire, and get the world reading.

I want you to start your own publishing house. And if you don’t want to start your own business, I understand. But then I want you to translate something awesome that has never been translated before, and I want you to tell the world about it, get everybody to read it. But email me first if it’s really good.

Will VDH smallWill Evans is the Publisher and Executive Director for Deep Vellum Publishing, a not-for-profit publishing house based in Dallas, Texas, with the mission to publish the highest quality works of world literature in English translation and to promote translation as a vital part of our literary culture. He graduated from Emory University in 2005 with degrees in Russian and History, worked in the music business in Los Angeles and Austin, and received a Master’s degree in Russian Culture from Duke University in 2012. He started Deep Vellum in 2013 to help conquer the “three percent problem” and to provide a much-needed outlet for the world’s great untranslated literature in English. The first Deep Vellum titles will be published in fall 2014. Find Deep Vellum on Twitter and Facebook.