Gabriel Levinson recently founded a new publishing house, ANTIBOOKCLUB, and one of their first two books — surprisingly, I think — is a work of Arabic literature in translation. I asked Levinson why, when — after all — conventional wisdom says that translated literature is more trouble than it’s worth.
ArabLit: What was the impetus behind starting ANTIBOOKCLUB? Why translated literature?
Gabriel Levinson: My entire life revolves around books, it always has, it always will. There isn’t a waking or sleeping moment that I am not reading or thinking about what to read next. Over the years I have had my hand in every aspect of the book world: be it bookselling, editing, writing, design, distribution, etc…so for me, book publishing is the next natural step. This is it, I have finally come home.
There are three publishers in particular that have been profound influences on me as a reader, and of whom I look to as a model of how I am shaping ANTIBOOKCLUB: Barney Rosset (Grove Press/Evergreen Review), James Laughlin (New Directions), and John Martin (Black Sparrow Press). These are three of the most iconic, important and fearless American presses in the history of publishing, and, coincidentally or not, all three of those presses lean heavy on translated literature. I’ve no doubt their catalog opened my world to translated literature but I would be remiss to say that is the only reason.
We are living in an unprecedented time in world history: we are globally-connected to one another at the touch of a button; someone halfway across the world can learn about our books as quick and easy as my neighbor one house over. To not consider translated literature for our catalog would be ignorant…and arrogant for that matter. We are nothing without our readers, and our readers, we believe, can be found in every city around the world. We would be doing a disservice to our readership by limiting our work to English-language writers. And with the same consideration, this is why we are not pigeonholing our output: I will publish the work that gets me excited as a reader, simple as that. You are going to see books of all kinds from us: from translated literature to graphic novels to memoirs and on and on. Book categories are marketing tools, not definitions.
ANTIBOOKCLUB is here, in part, because I believe there is a better way to get books into peoples’ hands. Ebooks and ereaders are not to blame for market upheaval, nor are they the killers of the printed word. Ebooks are a new revenue stream and a new way to get books into peoples’ hands, we should all be rejoicing, not denouncing. Yet there are some out there that would have us believe otherwise, and the media has been quick to share their viewpoints. Personally, I think the problem lies within the industry itself: stop blaming the medium and start making true change from within, beginning with distribution. This antiquated model is done with. The current distribution model in the publishing industry is hurtful to independent presses such as ANTIBOOKCLUB, we are funded entirely out of pocket, we can’t afford to lose a majority percentage of our sales to a distributor, especially when our authors see revenue from book sales (as do we). It is actually killing our potential and in today’s connected world, they are unnecessary. To be fair, distributors themselves are not to blame; it is also the booksellers who insist on sticking with this model. I personally reached out to hundreds and hundreds of bookstores to sell our first title to, and while there were a handful of progressive booksellers who stocked us (of whom I am eternally grateful to), the majority rule was: “If you’re not with a distributor, then we won’t even consider you.” OK, so I get with a distributor and then what? “Oh, we don’t have an account with that distributor.” OK, so you won’t buy my books direct and as an independent press I am limited in the distributors who are willing to take us on…What a stupid, needless struggle!
I have a website where you can buy our titles at the touch of a button and get them mailed direct to you! The numbers don’t add up. However, the reality is what it is and the challenge we face is in raising awareness: just because we have this website with direct sales doesn’t mean people know about it. It is a problem I am still working to solve. Until I can figure this out, I rely on people who read interviews such as this: Please know that when you buy direct from us, you are directly supporting the myriad of skilled individuals it takes to make something as impossible as a book become real. (www.antibookclub.com)
AL: What’s been the biggest challenge of working with translated literature, any aspect of the editing / acquisitions / marketing process?
GL:The biggest challenge, unfortunately, is the risk factor: Before I took on the role of publisher, I was confused as to why only 3% of our books are translated literature, but getting into it was a big wake up call: It costs quite a bit for a book to be translated and even then you don’t know if it’s a book you want to publish until you read it. To put up the money for a manuscript that may or may not be publishable is a daunting task, and when you are as small as us with only two books a year…such a risk is not negligible. But we are determined to find the most exciting literature in the world and even if we cannot release as many translated works as we would like to in these early days, it is our long term goal to remain committed to the global scene.
Editing is an absolute joy, for me it is second only to the thrill of publishing. And editing a translated work isn’t far off from working with the author. Let’s not mince words: translators are authors. There is major trust involved, of course: I trust that the translator is doing right by the original author’s art, and I have that trust because of the power of the manuscript I read in English. And so I work with the translator the same way I would work with the original author. Editing is a collaborative process, and the bonus here is that if the translator and myself are at an impasse regarding a particular edit, we have the privilege of conferring with the original author. All edits are done to best represent not only the manuscript, but the translator and author behind it. We must stay true to the authors’ voice, and I place the apostrophe after the s because with translated literature, the authors’ voice is just that: author and translator, a collective voice deserving all due respect.
How to market translated literature is still a mystery to me, but it is as much a mystery to me as the challenge of marketing any literature in a flooded market. For now, I go back to those who chance upon interviews such as this because, really, in this hybrid jungle there is no easy answer. ANTIBOOKCLUB needs your support. We live and die by our book sales. Please take a chance with us.
AL: How and why did you choose Diesel? What attracted you to the book?
GL: The Diesel came about from working with its translator, William M. Hutchins, on a different project. We are keen on publishing the work of Mahmoud Saeed, it is a travesty that only two of his books are available in English today; he is an important man of letters that the West is largely ignorant of. From that collaboration, William mentioned he had this manuscript and wanted to know if I was interested in taking a look. Naturally, I said yes.
Ah, where to begin with what attracted me to this! When I read it, I had no context, there was no introduction, only the book itself. And it floored me, it was bizarre and urgent and as I had no point of reference to root it in reality, I simply experienced it. It is a deceptively slim read, but the poetry that flows from the text is stunning and dense in a most beautiful way. I asked William to write an introduction (which I’ve made available to read in full if you visit http://www.antibookclub.com) and he rooted it in a sociopolitical context. Considering it was first published in 1994 (ours is the first English-language edition) it is remarkably relevant, at times frighteningly so. Among its many themes, I personally see The Diesel as a call for a cultural and sexual revolution. It is no wonder al-Jazeera dubbed it “the shock novel.”
Gabriel Levinson is the founder and publisher of ANTIBOOKCLUB.