I’d rather jump off a sixth floor: the case of Sexto Piso, independent publisher
It’s no secret Mexico has a problem with its reading habits: UNESCO has recently (2012) shown the average Mexican reads less than three books per year, one of the lowest numbers in developing nations. These poor results have persisted for decades, despite official initiatives to promote this activity in all sectors of society. So how exactly do you plan to open a publishing house under these conditions?
The case of Sexto Piso is a rarity: around 2003, a group of Political Science students in the country’s largest public university –National Autonomous University of Mexico, with its campus in the south of Mexico City– decided to translate and publish their mentor and friend Roberto Calasso, an Italian author and publisher with plenty of experience in his country and other European countries. Calasso not only offered his expertise in matters such as rights acquisitions, but gave them exclusive rights to some of his titles.
Sexto Piso’s founders didn’t have marketing studies or strict business plans when they set up the company. Despite its logo, which shows a man jumping off a sixth floor (a “sexto piso”), becoming publishers wasn’t exactly a leap of faith: they cultivated a selection of mostly foreign and obscure authors and topics, hired more than competent translators and printed high quality editions, catering to the knowledge and interest of a very specific sector: the highly educated middle class of the capital.
Surprisingly, Sexto Piso’s main obstacle wasn’t a low number of readers, disinterest in their obscure or rescued classics, or difficulties in buying rights: they had to fight very hard to get a space in bookstores that were very reluctant to exhibit other titles than their proved formulas. The publishers worked hard for their spaces and began a fast rhythm of editing carefully selected and diverse materials, from Political Science to Philosophy and Science Fiction. Some of their first publications were Morris Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture (“El crepúsculo de la cultura americana”), novels by the somewhat obscure Stanislav Lem and Milorad Pavic, and titles of classic writers that hadn’t been translated to Spanish, such as David Hume, Etienne de La Boétie or George Orwell.
What all these heterogeneous books had in common was their singularity and their dedicated design, the discreet but recognizable covers with their funny falling man logo, a clean typography and acid-free paper that was a luxury in those years, but has become a standard in many local artisanal publishing practices. Within a year, Sexto Piso won the 2004 International Young Publisher of the Year Award, opened an office in Spain (the main market for Spanish language literature) and has become a shift in the paradigm of how and what to publish in one of the most difficult markets for literature, such as Mexico.
The editorial house, now with more than 300 titles divided in six collections ("classics", "narrative", "essay", "actualities", "illustrated" and "kids"), bases its success in the taste of its board members, exercised almost as a curation of a work of art in itself: a solid, perfect catalog that’s been possible against the odds. More than 10 years since its foundation and without having become massive, Sexto Piso has grown steadily in Mexico despite the low levels of readership that all surveys show, and in a permanently stagnant economy.
Another component of their growth is the opening of a section dedicated to illustrated books and graphic novels, a collection called “Sexto Piso ilustrado” (“Sexto Piso illustrated”). One of the first titles and on-going projects is the 2006 adaptation of Marcel Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time volume I, by French comics artist Stéphane Heuet, and translated to Spanish by Conrado Tostado. Heuet’s adaptation of the French classic took many years to complete and proved how a visual adaptation to the form of comics is far from a substitution of the written text, but a rich and demanding narrative with its own merits.
The illustrated collection of the editorial house is not only following the guidelines of some of the finest art and comics publishing houses, such as Fantagraphics or Drawn and Quarterly, but competing with them in the growing market of Spanish-speaking readers in the United States, acquiring rights and signing authors such as Peter Kuper, whose “Diario de Oaxaca” was an astonishing drawn and written diary that offered a personal and intimate insight into one of Mexico’s most brutal political confrontations of recent years, the civil protest led by teachers in the state of Oaxaca, and the repression that followed in 2006.
Sexto Piso’s method of work wasn’t new; Spain’s Anagrama and Siruela, or Argentina’s Amorrortu, among others, have been following an approach of singular titles with attention to design and a particular audience in mind for many years, and with great results. But it’s Sexto Piso’s merit to have defied the very real obstacles of the Mexican editorial industry and perhaps even the commonplace of "a disinterested audience that doesn't read", who, in response, maintains alive and in prosperity one of the country’s most important independent cultural projects.
As part of the third edition of "Celebrating Mexico", a program that shows two-minute short films of various successful Mexican personalities from diverse areas (arts, science, entertainment, gastronomy, sports…), Latin American Discovery Channel and its various networks are presenting, from September 2015 to September 2016, a video-clip of Eduardo Rabasa and Felipe Rosete, two of the founding editors, talking of their company's place is Mexico's editorial landscape and the role of editing and writing, as they show what a common day is like in the workshop press and in their offices. They can be watched during the commercial breaks of the networks regular schedule.
Local TV show Central Once recorded a program centered on the company's main collections, as well as an interview with Eduardo Rabasa. Their great collection of covers and high quality pressings can be seen next to shots of graphic novelists working on their desks. It's on Youtube, in Spanish.