And Other Stories
A 21st century labour of love - Catherine Mansfield talks to Stefan Tobler of And Other Stories
Whenever I've interviewed publishers over the last year or so, we've always met in reassuringly book-ish settings: Christopher MacLehose over a pot of tea in the London Review of Books café; Meike Ziervogel of Peirene Press in a book-lined office in her Archway home; and Rebecca Carter of Harvill Secker in the headquarters of one of the UK's most powerful publishers, Random House.
However, when I meet Stefan Tobler, publisher and founder of And Other Stories, the scene is cyberspace. I feel very 21st century as I embark on my first ever Skype-based interview. As Stefan points out, it's a fitting way of finding out about this unusual new publishing initiative; not only have new technologies played a key role its development, but from the beginning And Other Stories has aimed to give its readers 'something new'.
So, what's it all about? According to its website, And Other Stories is a not-for-profit organisation which publishes 'mindblowing' contemporary fiction, both in translation and originally in English. Unlike most commercial publishers, it is financed by Arts Council Funding and by the contributions of its 'subscribers'; book lovers can subscribe to receive either two or four titles each year. In return, you get to see your name printed in the back of an individually number stamped first edition copy, as well as the warm, fuzzy feeling that comes from supporting a project that gives a voice to daring authors from across the world. As Stefan puts it, 'It's about trying to find books which are really good, even if they are a bit of a risk for the publisher, and sometimes for the readers too'.
And Other Stories began in 2009 when Stefan, a freelance literary translator from German and Portuguese with experience at various NGOs, became frustrated with some of the choices made by commercial publishers. 'I got a sense that there were some really good books which were not finding a publisher in the UK. A lot of those are translations but also UK authors'. He decided to write an article in the journal of the Translators Association asking whether anybody else out there felt that 'something could be started as a labour of love to publish some of these amazing books'.
The response was decisive. Several people contacted Stefan to offer their support. This group of 'co-conspirators' held their first meeting in September 2009, where they thrashed out ideas, brainstorming everything from whether books should be hardback or paperback (they're trade paperback with French flaps) to whether or not translators should be paid (they are). The concept that emerged was a company that would publish challenging, exciting international literature, basing its choices on the opinions of reading groups who would meet to discuss the books they love in various different languages. And Other Stories was born.
The reading groups are a particularly striking feature of the project because of the power they give to the reader. The groups are currently open to anybody keen to get together over a pint to talk about the books which really excite them. These books are shared by the group, and then read and discussed on online forums. The books which make the biggest impact and which seem like the best fit for And Other Stories will make it through to being published. While Stefan and his colleagues of course have the final say, anybody who cares enough has the power to influence what gets published.
And Other Stories became the first UK publisher to embrace the concept of crowd-sourcing through its subscriber-based model and its reading groups, and it is arguably this sense of empowerment that makes the company so special. 'People are involved with the publisher through choosing the books or supporting us as subscribers or coming along to meetings to talk about strategy. We're hopefully making the publisher less of a closed shop, something more approachable where people feel like they're part of it.'
As Stefan explains, the reading groups are also central to And Other Stories' aim to discover 'writing that's fresh, that really excites you as a reader'. Commercial publishing houses are often by necessity driven by preconceptions about what will sell, he argues. 'I think everyone - even translators - are very aware of market necessities and sometimes that way of evaluating books can take over and people don't always suggest books they really love'. This can lead international publishing choices to become quite predictable. As Stefan puts it, 'If a German book hasn't got Nazis or the Stasi in it, it's going to be much harder for it to get noticed'.
The reading groups aim to turn this trend around. 'The idea of the reading group was to encourage people to bring books they really love. It's not primarily about which book should be published and which shouldn't. It's more about finding out about good books - some of those might be good books for us to publish and some might be good books for someone else to publish. It's hopefully just to get a bit of discussion going without immediately thinking about whether this is publishable in the UK, because maybe some things are publishable which people might not expect to be.'
Little by little, the mixture of idealism, passion and blind enthusiasm which has driven And Other Stories from the very beginning has begun to pay off. The company was founded in January 2010 and secured a start-up grant from the National Lottery through Arts Council England in September of that year. Its first four titles - most of which emerged from reading group discussions - were launched in 2011 to popular and critical acclaim. Its first title, Down the Rabbit Hole by Mexican author Juan Pablo Villalobos and translated by Rosalind Harvey was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award (the second translated book ever to make the shortlist). Its other 2011 titles, All the Lights by German author Clemens Meyer (translated by Katy Derbyshire), Open Door by Argentinian newcomer Iosi Havilio (translated by Beth Fowler) and Swimming Home by British writer Deborah Levy have seen rave reviews in publications including the Sunday Times, The Guardian, The Economist and The Independent.
Not only has And Other Stories gained critical success but it seems to have made a real impression on its readers. Stefan tells me that at the launch of Swimming Home at the London Review of Books bookshop, 'somebody who had read our books came up and gave us a set of nice teaspoons for the publishing team as a little thank you!'
Over the last year or so, And Other Stories has powerfully established its own brand, publishing books with a fresh and distinctive design. A core group of permanent staff has emerged: Stefan as Publisher, translator Sophie Lewis (formerly of Dalkey Archive Press) as editor-at-large, project consultant and novelist Bethan Ellis as Associate Editor, and events organiserJimena Gorraez. At the moment they all have day jobs and work on And Other Stories as 'a labour of love'. With the help of the reading groups and subscribers, the company plans to publish 4 or 5 new titles in 2012, including books by Argentinian heavyweight Carlos Gamerro, Russian author Oleg Zaionchkovsky and Swiss writer Christoph Simon. The company now has over 200 subscribers and aims to reach 300 by the end of the year. Reading groups are also thriving, with Swedish and Arabic groups planned for 2012.
And all of this takes place without an office and with a team scattered across the UK and internationally (Sophie is in Rio de Janeiro, Bethan in York, Stefan near London in High Wycombe, and Jimena in London). While Stefan sometimes uses a library on Bloomsbury Square as an office space, it is new technologies such as Skype that have made it possible for the company to grow and thrive. The team uses Skype for meetings and Dropbox for online storage, whilst Twitter, Facebook and online forums help spread the word.
As Stefan puts it, 'In a way, that is the joy of the age we're in. It's very possible to start up a publisher without a big office space or all those overheads. It means that we can really do everything we need to'.
With an exciting list planned for 2012, it's safe to say that this 'can do' attitude and the enthusiasm shown by everyone involved in the project means that And Other Stories will be publishing books to challenge and excite readers for years to come.