Will Evans of Texas-Based Deep Vellum: "Literature Can, Should, and Does Change the World"
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Deep Vellum Publishing is a not-for-profit literary arts organization that publishes international literature in translation. Based in Texas, Deep Vellum publishes Mexican and Latin American literature to emphasize ties to its neighbors south of the border, but is also committed to publishing a diversity of authors with different styles, viewpoints, lifestyles, cultural backgrounds and genders. It seeks to foster the art and craft of translation, and to promote a more vibrant literary community in the Dallas, Texas community and beyond. Deep Vellum is also an independent bookshop run by co-founder Anne Hollander. Will Evans, founder of Deep Vellum Publishing and the bookshop, earned two Bachelor of Arts degrees from Emory University in History and Russian Language and Culture and a Masters of Arts in Russian Culture at Duke University. He worked in the music industry for five years before becoming a publisher. Evans talks here about his experience running an independent publishing house:
What is your editorial line? What makes you stand out?
Deep Vellum Publishing specializes in translated literature, and our books have a tremendous level of engagement with the world; our authors and our readers are all seeking that something more, something greater than what’s expected, something timeless; we focus on writers and readers who believe literature can, should, and does change the world.
What is the most rewarding aspect of being an independent publisher? What is the most challenging aspect?
To be an independent publisher is to serve as a direct connection between reader and writer, with a closer relationship to both readers and writers than larger publishing houses. Our relationships define us, and what we can offer authors is the chance to be a part of a nurturing publishing house that values them as the great artists they are. Connecting great books with readers and developing audiences for authors: that’s what makes this all worth doing. It’s rewarding to be an indie publisher in the great community of fellow presses out there fighting the good fight: New Directions and City Lights paving the way for so long, with Graywolf and Akashic and Coffee House and Open Letter and Restless and Phoneme…so many great publishers who provide so much inspiration for us as a publishing house, and so many great books we enjoy personally as readers. Together, we must draw attention to the indie publishing community so that readers can identify more strongly with who is publishing their books, to connect with readers they way they already connect with indie film, indie music, local indie businesses. Indie publishing is a real, tangible alternative to the corporate publishing world, and there are readers who are hungry for the different types of literature that we, as interconnected, supportive indie publishers provide.
The challenges of independent publishing originate from the same aspect that we love most: finding an audience for a book is hard. There are a lot of books published every year, there are a lot of great publishers out there, there’s a lot of noise in the world about what to read and where to buy those books, and it’s difficult to cut through to find new ways to contextualize your books and connect with the readers who are out there wanting to read something just like what you’re publishing. When it works, and you make that connection, the reader’s life is changed forever, the author is given the audience in English they deserve, the story and voice resonates, and critics and readers alike marvel in its brilliance. This is the opportunity for extended life as their work is read by more of the world and finds new homes in foreign publishing houses to reach an ever more global audience—that’s when the reward makes up for all the hard work.
How do you connect with your readers?
Connecting with readers is what drives everything we do. Everything. We participate in all the social media channels to have a direct conversation with our readers, we plan ambitious author tours across the country, we host a lot of events in Dallas and around Texas for our authors, partnering with bookstores, festivals, literary organizations, universities, cultural organizations, art shows, farmers markets, community-based nonprofits, and more. We are driven to connect with readers anywhere and everywhere they are at all times.
How important are book fairs for you?
Among the American book fairs, the AWP [The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference & Bookfair] is great for meeting writers and translators and for selling our books in the best indie book marketplace in the country. So many of our readers are in the indie book community and that’s a great way to meet people, to bring translation into the conversation of America’s MFA and creative writing communities, I love going there.
International book fairs have been instrumental to the success of Deep Vellum Publishing. Frankfurt was the first international fair we attended, and it was where we formed the relationships that remain the strongest in the business. The world is in Frankfurt, and our mission is to connect with the world. Frankfurt remains the most important book fair for our business, finding authors through the agents, foreign publishers, industry peers, and cultural organizations who are all exhibiting there.
We’ve also attended London, which was lovely, much smaller than Frankfurt but with exceptional quality among attendees, and allowed us to meet so many of the British publishers we admire the most to connect on future collaborations, and with the British Centre for Literary Translation as part of the London Book Fair, we met the British translators who are of such exceptional quality and who have done so much to further the cause of supporting translators’ rights around the world, while connecting publishers like us with the greatest books imaginable.
We’ve also attended Guadalajara, which is a sentimental favorite of the international fairs we’ve attended. Latin American publishers who are gathered there speak to our heart: we feel a kinship with them, as we are engaged in the same mission to create an engaged, empathetic, and inclusive literary culture.
How important are independent booksellers for your business? Do you see more sales online or through bookshops?
Independent bookstores are absolutely vital to the strength and survival of our publishing house. We never would have gotten this far if it had not been for independent bookstores like Brazos Books in Houston, or Green Apple (now Point Reyes) in San Francisco, Elliott Bay in Seattle, Powells in Portland, Porter Square Books in Cambridge, 57th Street Books in Chicago, Malaprops in Asheville, Foyles in London, and so many more, including our sister bookstore, Deep Vellum Books in Dallas. Without these booksellers and all those who’ve supported us, ever hand-sold a title, ever ordered a book of ours to put on their shelves, then we wouldn’t exist, period. Our books are alive: as vital objects, they need to be in front of readers, they need to be a part of the living, breathing literary world, and indie booksellers make that possible.
What books have helped you to stay afloat?
Sphinx by Anne Garréta, translated by Emma Ramadan, and Tram 83 by Fiston Mwanza Mujila, translated by Roland Glasser, have been our bestselling books by far, both are in their third printings with a fourth on the way. We’ve sold out of the first print runs of Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa (translated by Samantha Schnee), The Art of Flight by Sergio Pitol (translated by George Henson), and One Hundred Twenty-One Days by Michèle Audin (translated by Christiana Hills)—a huge success in our little world. The books we’ve published have sold better than many predicted when we started Deep Vellum years ago, and that’s a testament to the power of literature as community, the hunger readers feel for international literature, and the exceptional quality of writing that remains untranslated out there in the world.
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?
This is hard to decide, because every indie publisher feels like every book they publish should be bigger than it ever gets, because we have such a personal relationship with each book project, with each author, with each translator. We’re most surprised Ricardo Piglia’s Target in the Night, translated by Sergio Waisman, didn’t find a wider readership, considering Piglia is a major influence on many of the Latin American writers who are so widely read these days. It’s dark, brilliantly written and translated; it’s like Pynchon and Arlt had a love child wrapped up in a muslin made of paranoid fiction. This book is special, and will be read for a long time, carrying the legacy of Piglia’s genius. Read this book!
Can you give us an example of an extraordinary cover design that a larger publisher wouldn't have risked?
Deep Vellum’s cover designs are uniformly amazing, thanks to the visionary artistic direction of my lifelong friend Anna Zylicz, who has designed every cover and typeset every Deep Vellum book from day one. From the beginning we wanted to set a cover design aesthetic that didn’t try to compete with the three-dimensional, garish book covers from the commercial publishers. We wanted to be more like our indie publishing peers who mix art and design in clever ways to present their books, but we didn’t want to go so minimal as to feature only text on the cover. At the core of our vision was the work of the Russian avant-garde, rooted in basic shapes and a two-dimensional geometry that grabs the eye as well as reflects the nature of the text each cover represents, while fostering dialogue with each other cover in that publishing season.
Our first season of book covers featured Anne Garréta’s Sphinx, and this is our greatest accomplishment in achieving our book cover vision. Sphinx was praised among the best book covers of the year and this lovely book was even featured in one of Bill Cunningham’s “Street Style” photos for The New York Times ! The trifecta of Sergio Pitol’s The Art of Flight, The Journey, and The Magician of Vienna, reflects the nature of what Pitol was striving for in each of these remarkable books in an original way. These designs are emblematic of what we go for even as we push forward in new creative directions each season, blazing a new trail outside of the covers larger publishers are putting out these days.