Earlier in the year the MA Creative Writing students were excited to have Deborah Levy come and speak about her novel Swimming Home and her career as a writer. It was an inspirational dialogue and one of the things that stood out was the story of how Swimming Home came to be published, not as a part of a contract with a major company, but through the independent publisher And Other Stories. We spoke to Rosamund Hutchinson who passed our questions on to Sophie Lewis, Editor at Large, to provide some more background to how the publisher started up and their plans for the future.
Sophie says that "And Other Stories began with an article written by Stefan Tobler for the translators’ journal In Other Words. Disappointed by risk-averse publishers’ refusals to commission some of the most exciting, daring literary writing, Stefan asked if there couldn’t be another way to do things. If the sales department’s views and overheads were such an obstacle, why not have a light-footed publisher, supported by readers, that could then afford and intend to take risks? The response to his article was enthusiastic and led to meetings which led to plotting, a name, a logo, and in 2010 we began publishing as And Other Stories".
And Other Stories still have no central office. Now with more staff they are scattered around the UK, one of us is in New York and another – Sophie – in Rio de Janeiro. They keep overheads low and instead nurture communities: overlapping rings of keen people who variously subscribe to the books, take part in multilingual reading groups or more informally send the publisher recommendations. Sophie says, "We publish a fair proportion of translated books – these normally being seen as risky ventures in themselves, but also because Stefan and I are translators and can use our experience and contacts to find great literature from beyond the Anglophone world. But we don't limit ourselves to non-English books, or indeed limit ourselves at all, except in selecting fiction that is excellent and in some way challenging".
What are the editorial objectives or mission statement for yourselves as publishers?
We are a literary publishing house that works on the principle that great new books will be heard about and read thanks to the combined intelligence of a number of people: editors, readers, translators, critics, literary promoters and academics. We hope we can host such collaborations.
And Other Stories has been set up as a Community Interest Company (CIC). This means we are a not-for-private-profit company. What gives us a ‘CIC’? We make our decisions based on what we think is good writing and a good way of working. This sets us apart from shareholder-driven publishing companies where all decisions are ultimately about increasing profits.
How many titles do you publish annually and how do you choose what to publish?
We’re currently publishing six new titles per year (and some second editions) but with a few authors bringing exciting backlist titles with them and increasingly with more recommendations than we know what to do with, I suspect this is set to increase, though we will remain at a relatively boutique level.
We choose our books in different ways. Our reading groups are a key system for investigating recommendations. They read limited numbers of books that we already have some reason to be interested in, they make sample translations and we keep records of their discussions. A number of reading group favourites have now made it into our list. Other books come to us through agents, publishers, translators, literary spies overseas, the authors themselves: a rich unholy mixture.
What/who do you see as your primary market?
Our books sell all around the English-speaking world. We have recently set up our New York outpost in order to better provide for readers in North America. So geographically, our readers are widespread and various and that’s to be expected since it reflects the books we publish.
Our subscribers tend to be people involved in books, whether professionally or not. They also tend to be community-spirited people with a sense of responsibility to society and to the communities of others. Again, this is a function of the concerns of the publisher. It is likely that our readers more broadly will tend to be like this too – but the success of our mass-market editions of Swimming Home, Down the Rabbit Hole and Lightning Rods would suggest that in fact our books have very broad appeal. We don’t feel the need to aim for any particular niche.
What are the main challenges and opportunities you see at the moment for independent publishers?
As you’d expect, questions about what you should own when you purchase a book, ie whether you have a printed item, a digital item, both or various limited rights to both, are not close to being resolved. In the meantime, we have to make our contracts and our campaigns as flexible and savvy as they can be, while we don’t yet know which way things will go. Indies don’t have the finance behind them that bigger corporates do. However, we are light enough to stay afloat through some remarkable sea changes. That’s certainly the plan at And Other Stories, and we are not alone in thinking this way. The advantages for indies are that they can be flexible, they can move with or ahead of the market, affecting how it develops, not just reacting to it.
What books are you most proud of having published?
Swimming Home by Deborah Levy is a perfect example of author and publisher coming together in a deal that was all about considered risk cemented by trust. I am very proud that we were able to give Levy the individual attention she would not have had from a larger outfit and that our work paid off.
The Islands by Carlos Gamerro taught me that – as it seems Argentines already know – the Falklands War is by no means over. This book is essential reading. The hacker is our 21st century detective: the character with a licence to gatecrash and recount every story.
What have you published most recently, and what do you have coming out soon?
Captain of the Steppe by Oleg Pavlov. A brilliantly twisted exposé of the soldier’s life on the fringes of the old Soviet empire. This one is the first in a trilogy, the next of which is being translated right now. Pavlov is one of Russia’s star writers, with the most recent Solzyenitsyn Prize to his name among other awards. Not since the Irish Famine have potatoes been such a focus for crisis.
Soon you’ll see the first copies of All Dogs are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão. This is our first Brazilian book and a complete one-off. Souza Leão wrote this fierce, highly-charged account of life as an inmate in a Rio de Janeiro mental asylum from personal experience. Highly articulate, he describes the manifestations of his bipolar disorder – the two famous poets who accompany him and are his only friends, his sexual obsessions, the new cult he founds – just as he describes the behaviour of the other inmates, moments from his past, the blue toy dog he used to have, which has been reanimated by his blue medication. You have to read it.
Thanks very much to Sophie Lewis, Editor at Large, And Other Stories and Rosamund Hutchinson for arranging the interview.
You can find out more about And Other Stories here:
Follow them on twitter or facebook