How to Launch a Publishing House [Charco Press]
It’s Charco Press month! After stepping away from these “monthly themes” for a minute (or, well, actually, a full month), I’m excited to get back to this, and have a bunch of posts planned out for November. If all goes according to plan (spoiler: HA!) I’d like to post a couple interviews with Charco Press translators, a special podcast episode with the founders, and a few posts covering the five Charco titles to be released in the U.S. in the near future. (Four come out in November, and one—see below—comes out in February 2020.)
But where to start? Do you already know who Charco is?
This points to one of the (very) minor problems of the social media filter bubble. Charco’s titles have been floating through my Twitter timeline since at least May 2018, with bookseller after critic after translator after friend heaping praise on their titles, so I just naturally assume everyone’s heard of them and knows what they’re about. (Even though they have yet to officially distribute a title in the U.S.) This is a pretty stupid assumption to make. I mean, shit, I work on a campus where I regularly run into people who have worked at the same university for decades and have never ever heard of Open Letter. If you’re not in the industry, you probably don’t know who they are.
So, I’m going to try and take this post to actually introduce them. But doing that in a straightforward way seems maybe patronizing to the great booksellers and readers—both here and especially abroad—who already know of Charco and their books. Instead, I want to play out a sort of backward-looking thought experiment: What are the qualities in how Charco is “entering the North American market” that brought them to my awareness so long ago, and with a preexisting aura of being both cool and important?
They’re not the first press to enter the scene with a lot of hype and pre-pub momentum (see Deep Vellum, see Transit, see Archipelago back in the mid-2000s), and definitely won’t be the last. But thinking about what they’ve done/are doing right now might be interesting—possibly even helpful to nascent, or soon-to-be-founded, presses. Here are nine reasons why I think Charco is going to take off here in the States.
Have a Great Press Name
From the Charco website:
Charco means ‘puddle’ in Spanish. It is also a colloquialism used in some Latin American countries to refer to the Atlantic Ocean. Therefore, cruzar el charco means ‘crossing the puddle’ and is a way of referring to when someone is going overseas, or travelling between continents.
This is all fine. It’s perfect for a mission statement, and great as a way of explaining what your unusual (to English-speaking ears at least) name means. But it overlooks how fun of a word it is to say. Charco. Char-ko. Charko. That has decidedly good mouthfeel.
Personally, I suck at names. Everything I come up with is either number based (Two Month Review . . . ) or the equivalent of the Big Bird problem (e.g., Big Bird isn’t a name, it’s just a descriptor, since Big Bird is just a “big” “bird”), like with the Best Translated Book Award. If it weren’t for Nate Furl and E.J. van Lanen, Open Letter probably would’ve been named Translated Books.
Charco. Charko. This is cool.
When I was at Dalkey Archive Press, there was always an anxiety around the press’s name. Sure, people would frequently call and ask if they had reached Darkly Archive Press. Or some paper would write Dakley. There are so many ways to mess this word, this, Dalkey, up. And no one inherently knew what it was. Which can be a problem for a nonprofit organization that does more than simply produce works of fiction and nonfiction, but for a book publishing company? The catchier and more (mis)rememberable possible, the better.
What do any of these names really signify? Like, if you weren’t in the book world you a) wouldn’t be reading this post, and b) you wouldn’t necessarily have any associations (of covers, titles, authors, or reputation) to tie to these names. It’s impossible to do this, but pretend you’re hearing these presses for the first time and try and guess what sorts of books they’d publish. (My free-association imagined responses are in italics.)
Melville House (Old, sleepy, American)
New Directions (Methadone)
Deep Vellum (Coffee)
Coffee House (Also coffee)
Transit (Boats, especially cruise ships)
Graywolf (What color are wolves?)
New Vessel (What’s the obsession with transportation?)
Charco (Do I know what this means?)
Dorothy (We’re not in Kansas)
Be in England, but in Scotland
You know who treats indie/small/unique/internationally-focused publishers well? The UK. You can publish obscure works in translation for two years and be shortlisted for the biggest awards in the country. The newspapers? They actually care about the outsiders. The presses on the fringes. It’s so much less corporate.
Part of this has to do with England’s size. The fact that their train system works. (Don’t even, Brits. You have no idea what a truly dysfunctional railway is like.) The British snootiness that I love to make fun of when I’m tipsy is actually an advantage when it comes to appreciating culture. There’s a sense of pride that favors intellectual innovation, whereas America is solely focused on money and financial gain and sales. It’s wicked bizarre to present the belief that a country with a monarchy for Christ’s sake is closer to a meritocracy than America, but, well, there we are.
But do you really want to live in London and be part of the London Publishing Scene? Hmm. Given London rents, rat-based plagues, gross class designations, Ladies and Lords, inefficient spelling choices, and . . . well, I suppose most of those things are limited to just London, per se, but still, you don’t want to be overshadowed if you’re launching a new press. You want to be part of a big scene, yet separate. Like, in Edinburgh.
I have about a million and one reasons to dislike Edinburgh (actually, it’s just two, but they’re very emotionally impactful), but I don’t! It’s a cool place where I would love to live. Especially if I were a book publisher who’s main market was England. (Post-Brexit, it’s not the United Kingdom anymore, right? “United’ just feels so wrong to speak aloud.)
This is huge. Look at the covers sprinkled throughout this post. This a unified (yeah, intentional callback one paragraph later) design that’s not too restrictive (see: Archipelago and to a lesser extent, NYRB and Europa), but immediately identifiable. This aesthetic could play for a number of years, since it’s so anti-this moment.
Which brings up an interesting question: Is it better to make a name for yourself by going against the grain (design-wise), rather than chasing the “trend of the moment”? And is there a point when your “grain destroying” look is either adopted by others or deemed no longer “cutting edge” in a way that’s valuable and “cool”? What do you do then?
Both Dalkey Archive and Open Letter operated—at different points in their history—under two contradictory cover ideas: that everything should look like a series (so that bookstores would give us a special shelf for our beautiful, matching books), and that every title needs to be treated differently. There is a danger in having the same spines for every title; my memory is awful and it’s very easy for me to forget which books I already own when all the titles in a series look identical. But I also think that there’s something to a publisher having a brand. It makes sense to me from a mathematical perspective: Every author’s book stands alone, but if you have any sort of community who has a touch of brand loyalty—to the publisher or the author’s past books or the translator or the cover aesthetic—it’s that much easier to generate interest in your books. There are already some likely readers ready to help spread the word.
Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, translated from the Spanish by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff
The first Charco book I read was Die, My Love by Ariana Harwicz, a deliciously jagged, brutal book. It’s like the flipside of Ducks, Newburyport. Instead of being long, sympathetic, and exacting, Die, My Love is a very short, very direct novella that drifts off into the irreal on occasion while depicting the life of a mom going wrong. It’s a book about a mother and wife who is trapped in both roles, and rebels. Whose narrative is a firehose of raw truth that is also sometimes aware of its status as fiction—like in the sections in which the narrator assumes the perspective of her lover.
But let’s start with the opening chapter:
I lay back in the grass among fallen trees and the sun on my palm felt like a knife I could use to bleed myself dry with one swift cut to the jugular. Behind me, against the backdrop of a house somewhere between dilapidated and homely, I could hear the voices of my son and my husband. Both of them naked. Both of them splashing around in the blue paddling pool, the water thirty-five degrees. It was the Sunday before a bank holiday. I was a few steps away, hidden in the underbrush. Spying on them. How could a weak, perverse woman like me, someone who dreams of a knife in her hand, be the mother of those two individuals? What was I going to do? I burrowed deeper into the ground, hiding my body. I wasn’t going to kill them.
Hell-ooooo Charco. That’s a bold beginning.
A normal woman from a normal family, but an eccentric, a deviant, the mother of one child and with another, though who knows at this point, on its way. I slowly slide a hand into my knickers. And to think I’m the person in charge of my son’s education.
If there’s one criticism I have of this book, it’s that the translated language could be sharper. I love the narrator’s voice, but feel like it could be ratcheted up into unforgettable. “The mother of one child and with another, though who knows at this point” is an example of where the prose pauses in a way that neither develops the character, nor adds anything to the overall flow of the narrator’s way of thinking about the world. Again, that’s not to say that it’s bad, but I can see a version of this book that is even more lit.
The baby appears to have shat himself and I’ve got to go and buy his cake. I bet other mothers would bake one themselves. Six months, apparently it’s not that same as five or seven.
This is a stupid game to play, but “Six months. Apparently not the same as five. Or seven.” is an editorial suggestion I would make, with the hope that the translator would come up with a third version that’s spot-on and related to a deeper reading of how the character thinks and talks.
Whenever I look at him I think of my husband behind me, about to ejaculate on my back, but instead turning me over suddenly and coming inside me. If this hadn’t happened, if I’d closed my legs, if I’d grabbed his dick, I wouldn’t have to go to the bakery for a cream cake or chocolate cake and candles, half a year already.
I know how this sounds, but I truly love mom narratives right now. Maybe because I have a twenty-month old? But also because I have a fifteen-year-old who, on Friday had a total breakdown about the “unfairness of the world” and not getting the attention and drama roles she deserves, which, well, sounds very familiar . . . It is uncomfortable to see your own flaws in your child. On the one hand, it makes it easier to explain where one’s thinking has gone awry—”There are things you can control, things you can’t! Live in the now and do your best”—and on the other it seems like proof that you, as a parent, performed poorly. Passing on your neuroses to the next generation is so bad.
We’re one of those couples who merchandise the word ‘love’, who use it even when they despise each other. I never want to see you again, my love. I’m coming, I say, and I’m a fraud of a country woman with a red polka-dot skirt and split ends. I’ll have a blonde beer, I say in my foreign accent. I’m a woman who’s let herself go, has a mouth full of cavities and no longer reads. Read, you idiot, I tell myself, read one full sentence from start to finish.
This goes back to my comment about the “six months” line above. The self-critique about not being able to read a full sentence makes me feel like the more fragmentary the prose is, the better.
So many healthy and beautiful women in the area, and he ended up falling for me. A nutcase. A foreigner. Someone beyond repair. Muggy out today, isn’t it? Seems it’ll last a while, he says. I take long swigs from the bottle, breathing through my nose and wishing, quite simply, that I were dead.
Buy this book. Shit does get crazier. But rather than try and explain the minutia of it, let’s use this as a case study for other “tips for successfully launching a press.”
Have Crazy, Strong Comp Artists
There is exactly one reason why this was the first Charco book I read.
The language of Die, My Love cuts like a scalpel even as it attains a kind of cinematic splendour, evoking the likes of John Cassavetes, David Lynch, Lars von Trier and John Ford. In a text that explores the destabilising effects of passion and its absence, immersed in the psyche of a female protagonist always on the verge of madness, in the tradition of Sylvia Plath and Clarice Lispector,
I’m sure Plath and Lispector will attract a large group of readers, but Lynch + von Trier? That’s so particular. And so bold. All of those names together? (Putting aside my knee-jerk reaction against Lispector, Sebald, Murakami comparisons.) I need to see what’s behind this cover.
And Harwicz doesn’t disappoint. This book is fierce and unsettling. And part of a trilogy, which I’m also a sucker for.
Sphinx. Such Small Hands. Zone. Death in Spring. A big first book can do wonders for your list. Die, My Love came out in the UK on September 7, 2017, one of (the?) first books that Charco did. And it was named to the Man Booker International Longlist. (Again, England seems so much closer to a meritocracy to me than America does. Everything feels like a foregone conclusion here.)
So hard to define, yet so easy to recognize. It would be amazing to create a giant Venn Diagram depicting the editorial overlap of independent presses. It would be easy (?) to do subjectively—gigantic circles for New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Graywolf, NYRB all overlapping to various degrees—and much more fascinating to create an infographic out of a few quantifiable things: number of authors in common, books presses have simultaneously bid on, shared readers . . . Actually, maybe shared readers is the only bit of data you need . . . How many Action Books readers read Open Letter vs. the number of Action Books readers reading Ugly Duckling titles?
Venn Diagrams are the new (old?) Word Cloud.
Fireflies by Luis Sagasti, translated from the Spanish by Fionn Petch
This book doesn’t come out until February 2020, which I didn’t realize until I was fully sucked in, having finished the first chapter (what Volodine fans might call a “narract”?) about haiku, Vonnegut, Joseph Beuys, The Little Prince, Tartars, stars, myths. This book is going to get a lot of (deserved) love next year. It’s about everything and nothing; it’s an essay posing as fiction posing as an essay. It’s very fun.
It’s also a book that overlaps with Rodrigo Fresán and Juan Ignacio Boido. And Italo Calvino. Also Europeana by Patrick Ouredník. If only you could create a Venn Diagram of books that overlap . . . A way of generating book recommendations that’s visually interesting and hopefully useful in encouraging readers to branch out and explore new voices.
But what quantifiable aspects of a book should be used to define the overlap between Book X and Book Y?
The genre and sub-sub-sub genre of the books in question? This sounds logical, although it could also create a sort of echo chamber, whereas I’d like to think that attentive, curious readers will appreciate the best of the best of every possible sub-genre. It’s not just the narrative conventions found in a particular sub-genre that interest readers, but the quality of the writing itself. (One hopes.)
What about the overlap in sentence length and structure? Some sort of algorithm-driven computer analysis that can assess the underlying patterns in texts and match them up. . . . Just typing that out made me feel like Ray Kurzweil had magic vitamin-ed his way into my brain. I love data, I love using it to visualize information and think about the world from a new perspective. But the value of a reading experience isn’t quantifiable in the same way a baseball game is. Partially because no book stands apart from its audience—a book only exists in the mind of its readers—and partially because a great work of literary art transcends its particulars. Plot, characterization, style, rhythm, pacing, dialogue, are all things you can excel at in your writing, but there’s something about truly great literature that these categories don’t quite capture.
“If you like X, you’ll love Y” is basically what I’m talking about, although I think this is much too limited. It’s like the most basic of Venn Diagrams.
Why not, “if you like X, Y, Z, C, Blue, and the number 27, you’ll love Y”?
Oh shit. This is how Target and Amazon create their algorithms to figure out we’re pregnant before we know we are. I feel the temptation to be evil . . . I mean, let’s make some recommendations!
Die, My Love is for people who like Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, Esther Tusquets’s Stranded, Ducks, Newburyport, Kristen Hirsh, parenting, the opioid epidemic, and understanding why someone breaks.
Fireflies is for anyone who likes The Nocilla Trilogy, Pynchon, Deleuze & Guattari, NPR, IDM, mosaics, and strong black coffee.
To be serious for a second: Fireflies is a book that builds its metaphysics in an exciting and super-fun way. I love books that embrace the idea of pattern from the outset, structure and meaning entwined and playing off one another . . . It’s a proof of concept sort of novella. Can you weave together X number of interesting anecdotes and observations in a way that replicates the philosophical ideas about chance and connection that are portrayed in the story?
Again, this is the sort of book I’m a total sucker for. I know at least a dozen other people who are going to go crazy over this . . . which brings us to
Caroline Casey + Annie McDermott + Danny Hahn
“Hire the right people” is the sort of statement you could build a TED Talk around, and is totally a thing when you need to get a handful of people invested in your books. All the good bookstores in America will order Charco’s list the second they see that Caroline Casey (formerly of Coffee House) is doing their marketing.
Annie McDermott is credited as the editor for several Charco books, and her growing reputation as a translator only adds to the allure of a press like this.
Having Danny Hahn, one of the most important and interesting and talented and brilliant and level-headed spokespeople for international literature ever, translate one of your first books goes a long way.
Having people like like Caroline, Annie, and Danny on board sends an incredibly powerful signal to the rest of the book community. This is something that all new presses strive to achieve—get as many trust-inspiring people on your team as possible right at the outset—although it might also be true that we realize which translators (or editors, or employees) are the superstars only after we’ve become successful. (For example, when Emma Ramadan translated Sphinx, she wasn’t yet a superstar. But in retrospect, having her work on one of Deep Vellum’s first titles seems like such an obviously brilliant decision.)
Several Books at Once
Both in the UK, and in the U.S., Charco employed an “all at once” sort of strategy. Instead of dropping a book at a time, one month after another, all the new titles came out around the same time.
I don’t know how I feel about this, but I think it worked?
It’s a strategy that New Directions (and others) have employed with varying degrees of success, but usually with regard to a particular author. I’m thinking of the four Clarice Lispector novels that came out at the same time—with interlocking covers—and the way NYRB reissued their Henry Green titles in batches.
Although I like the idea of waiting a month or more to get the next book from a press I respect, there is something compelling about dropping 4+ titles at once, making it seem like your books are everywhere, then making people wait three more months for the next title. Create demand!
Slow Roll Out . . .
. . . which sounds like a contradiction to the point above, but is really just about how Charco did the UK for a solid minute, building up respect and sales and readership, and then came to the U.S. And Other Stories did a similar thing years ago, and Fitzcarraldo more recently—all for good reason.
It’s so smart to start building your press in a receptive, supportive community, and then expand outward. I think about this a lot when I think about Transit launching in the Bay Area. Adam and Ashley were surrounded by a number of amazing bookstores that are very supportive of international literature. The fact that the Center for the Art of Translation has been in the area for twenty-five years also makes a difference in terms of cultivating a receptive community. I don’t think you can overstate the importance of having supportive people in your vicinity when you’re doing creative work like this. It’s one thing to get praised on Twitter, another to walk into your neighborhood bookstore and talk with a bookseller who’s writing up a staff pick on one of your recent titles.
That sort of positive community situation—which Deep Vellum, BOA Editions, all the Minneapolis presses, and several others have cultivated—seems even more likely to develop in the UK than in our vast country. And once you have a strong home base, you’re in a much better position to launch your books into the wider world.
I feel like I’ve been waiting for these Charco books for ages. And I’m excited to read more of them and highlight their press throughout the month. If you’re looking for a new press to fall in love with, definitely go to your local bookstore, order all of these, and give them a try.