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“Obscurer, Obscurer”: Independent Publisher Wakefield Press on Translating Forgotten Classics

Bookwitty By Bookwitty Published on February 9, 2017
This article was updated on September 17, 2017
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Editor Marc Lowenthal

Marc Lowenthal is an acquisitions editor at The MIT Press during the week, and director of Wakefield Press, an independent American publisher devoted to the translation of overlooked books, during the weekend. We asked Lowenthal a few questions about Wakefield's editorial line, recent publications, and the challenges of running an independent publishing house.

What is your editorial line? What makes you stand out?

Wakefield Press is focused on publishing literary texts in translation. It’s not for me to say whether we stand out or not, but in this particular segment of indie publishing (which is where it feels like most of the action in this domain of literary translation is happening: trade houses invest in what can sell significant quantities of copies—or they invest enough money in a small enough number of translations to make them sell in such quantities—and academic publishers such as the University of Nebraska Press, whose translation program I used to follow closely, appear to have stopped doing translation altogether), broadly speaking, to my mind breaks down into two channels: contemporary writing in translation (represented by the likes of Open Letter, New Vessel) and “historical” (“dead author,” you could say) writing in translation (which would be more like Hesperus Press, Twisted Spoon, or Atlas Press). We are more the latter. Obviously, nothing’s that neat, and publishers like New Directions and Archipelago Press are devoted to both channels. (And we ourselves are now starting to see a few living authors enter our list.) I see ourselves, like Twisted Spoon, Atlas (and not like Hesperus), with a particular focus on what has traditionally in the past not been translated and represented in English. Atlas Press declares an allegiance to the “anti-tradition,” which is a nice way of putting it. So, despite some obvious well-known authors in English like Georges Perec and Balzac on our list, the overall tenor of what I’d like to think defines Wakefield is a devotion to the more obscure corners of the literary tradition, and in the case of better-known authors, the more obscure corners of their oeuvre.

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My first publishing job was with Exact Change back in the 1990s, which is run by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang, who used to comprise, shortly before I started working for them, two-thirds of the band Galaxie 500. I mention this because I remember one of them describing, by way of illustrating what their music represented in the music scene at the time, how fans at their shows would yell out—in contrast to the usual cries for things to be “louder”—“softer, softer.” (My memory is lousy, though, so probably an anecdote needing to be verified.) If Wakefield was to ever want to lay claim to any such standing out, then, maybe it would be our one day being able to say that our readership was known for crying out: “obscurer, obscurer.” I think we have a readership who likes this element in some of our list. And I like to think about the paths modernity didn’t take: partly realized through our growing list of lesser-known (to a few completely unknown) authors (in English) who had influenced Walter Benjamin and Gershom Sholem (a focus for one of our translators, W. C. Bamberger): what if Salomo Friedlaender/Mynona’s concept of “creative indifference,” which had influenced Benjamin, had been introduced into English a century ago? Why is Borges a staple grand master, and Marcel Schwob still little known? What might have happened to science fiction in the US if Paul Scheerbart had been available in English a century ago and H. G. Wells had written in German?

I’ve been inspired by Hedi El Kholti at Semiotext(e) (with whom I work at my day job) with this sort of thinking: one of the more interesting, growing segments of Semio’s output is a list that could be broadly described as “gay studies,” but a lot of it is a sort of queer theory that could be seen as rooted in the heady aftermath of May ’68, and that describes some of the more radical paths that hadn’t been taken. I’m obviously all for gay marriage, the right for anyone to serve in the military who wants to, etc., but family and military make up a very conservative framework, so my experience of reading someone like Guy Hocquenghem (one of the first authors they brought out in translation in their Interventions series) for the first time (or the attention William E. Jones on their list brings to figures like Fred Halsted or Boyd McDonald) in that context is sort of the experience I hope Wakefield will be able to bring to readers of modernity and literary history.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being an independent publisher?

Doing what you like, finances permitting. If I want to do a book and the finances are such that the book can be expected to lose money or break even at best, I can still go ahead with it. Not something, for obvious reasons, that I can do at my other publishing job. Nor, for equally obvious reasons since it gives me a paycheck I rely on, would I want it to be a possibility.

What is the most challenging aspect?

My partner and I both work full-time day jobs in the academic publishing arena, without which Wakefield Press wouldn’t exist. It is challenging working what has come to amount to two full-time jobs (Wakefield has unintentionally grown from its initial 3 books a year to 10 books a year). I love my day job, which is rewarding and a job I believe in, and Wakefield is a true labor of love, but it is a challenge not to burn out. Or not to get frustrated at getting less attention and publicity than some of our colleague publishers for lack of time, money, and personnel. We do, however, get reviews, as well as the occasional award and grant, so I try not to gripe. There are no financial rewards to be had, though (financial penalties, really), in running an indie press: it’s all about love and recognition, so it’s a challenge finding the fuel for that.

How do you connect with your readers?

I’m not really sure. I get email, we’re on Facebook, my partner sends out the occasional tweet, and we have good distribution into the market through D.A.P. But I’m a technophobic fuddy-duddy with a serious dislike of social media, phones, whatever it is that publicity departments rely on these days, and just generally connecting with people. If Judy (my partner) and I are ever able to afford a publicist one day, then this will be a question for them.

How important are book fairs for you?

Not very, mainly because we can’t afford to go to most of them. We’re now doing the Brooklyn Book Fair, since we can drive to that and it is affordable, with the sort of audience that includes readers of the sort of books we publish, but otherwise our distributor attends fairs and brings our books to those: the New York Art Book Fair, College Art Association, etc. They are primarily an art book distributor, though, so art venues are the emphasis with them. When AWP was in Boston, we did that. I do enjoy them when we do them, as it is nice to actually see and talk to the people who are interested in what you publish; but you don’t make money at fairs, you lose it in the name of promotion, and I’d rather channel money into producing the books.

How important are independent booksellers for your business? Do you see more sales online or through bookshops?

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Very important. I haven’t spent a lot of time with the data, but I suspect the balance between online sales and bookstores is much more balanced than your typical trade house or academic publisher, where Amazon just continues to gobble up more and more of the pie every year. And while we do get decent representation from the chains (and museum stores, who are customers for D.A.P. in a way they probably aren’t for most other distributors), the indie bookstores are always what will keep me going with Wakefield: the book buyers in those accounts know and love books, and when they see something they like, they support it. Green Apple, Seminary Coop, Book Soup, McNally Jackson, Politics & Prose, Type Books, etc.: venues where they don’t just stock your books, but even display them (without, as they do in chain and Amazon tradition, demanding a fee for doing so, but instead because they love the book and know their customers will). It’s a little ray of hope in these times to see the indie bookstore growing again.

And I should mention that indie bookstores are capable of selling high quantities of a book: the first year that our little Georges Perec book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris, came out, it saw sales of anywhere from 75 to 300 copies in individual stores. I think the dearly departed St. Marks Books alone sold several hundred copies as a counter book.

What books have helped you to stay afloat?

Well, we stay afloat because we both work day jobs, so for us it is more a question of what books have sold well for us. And given that a lot of our books are little $12.95 or $13.95 paperbacks (with extra costs of French flaps and heavier stock paper not helping us on the net revenue margins), even a book that sells well for us only amounts to something like a month’s rent if we sell through the entire print run. All that couching aside, our Georges Perec continues to be a consistently strong seller for us, which isn’t surprising given his stature as an author these days, but it also sees some course adoptions, and the range of the sort of courses that use it points to the sort of difficult-to-categorize quality I like in books: information science, composition, urban studies…

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Less expected is another of our earlier titles: The Young Girl’s Handbook of Good Manners for Use in Educational Establishments has, contrary to typical book sales patterns, seen sales growth since it first came out. It is a strikingly filthy book, and its humor is certainly not to everyone’s taste (my mother remains unhappy about its existence), but I believe a chain of lingerie/sex-shops took it on, which has helped it see continued sales. And then there was a noticeable spike in sales a year or two ago, which had me puzzled until I broadened my Googling to discover someone had posted a photo of a page from the book to a porn blog/Instagram/Tumblr, and started making the rounds that way. I’m happy if one of our Facebook posts gets 20 “likes”: each one of those porn posting(s) seemed to have hundreds of likings and shares. So: that helped. And I’ll refrain from going off topic to think about what a book publisher might be able to learn (especially in regards to the ongoing dilemmas of open access, ebooks, etc.) from the porn industry (which I’m guessing is entirely an online industry at this point, though I would like to think that it has a contingent still devoted to the print/analog medium).

If you were to name one book you've published that you expected to be wildly popular but never quite caught, which would it be?

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I remain disappointed that most of our books over the past few years haven’t gotten more attention than they received, but particularly so with the two books we brought out in 2015 by Gabrielle Wittkop: her prose style and subject matter is so over the top in its decadent, morbid, gorgeously baroque relish, and her first book to be translated into English (The Necrophiliac from ECW Press) got a good amount of attention and has already become something of a cult classic in English, that I just felt like her time had finally (posthumously) come. Good reviews in Harper’s Magazine from Joshua Cohen, in The Millions from Matt Seidel, one of them made the short list for the three percent Best Translated Book Award, but sales have been and continue to be minimal.

On the other hand, one of the two books, Exemplary Departures, is now seeing its way into Danish translation, which is a result of our English edition, so it’s important to remember that doing all this stuff has an impact, even if it isn’t always discernible in sales, and even if it is only for “the few, the happy few” (and our most devoted readers know who they are).

Can you give us an example of an extraordinary cover design that a larger publisher wouldn't have risked?

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We’ve had the opportunity to utilize some very nice artworks on our jackets lately (Bette Burgoyne for our Paul Willems book, Nicole Duennebier on our Wittkop jackets, Herbert Pfostl on our Léon Bloy jackets, David Connearn with our forthcoming Francis Ponge book, Allan Kausch for our forthcoming Gisèle Prassinos book), but that is cover image, not cover design, and something large publishers do all the time. Since I put together the covers—again, not because I’m an awesome designer (or even a designer, really), but because that is what finances require—this isn’t a question for me to properly answer. But I guess I can say that the cover to our soon-to-be-released (it’s running late) The Arthritic Grasshopper by Gisèle Prassinos could have met with objections if I had brought it to our sales and marketing teams at my day job: with all such discussions revolving around a book’s metadata and what is visible when a cover is reduced to an Amazon thumbnail, my decision to emphasize the word “The” in the title over any other word on the jacket would probably have been rejected…


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