This is the eleventh in Entropy’s small press interview series, where we ask editors about their origins, their mission, and what it’s like to run a press. Find the other interviews from this series in our small press database here and under the Resources tab at the top of the page.
Submissions Guidelines: “We don’t have any formal guidelines: if you’re a translator and you have a project that you feel would fit into our list, feel free to drop me a line. Apologies in advance if I am slow to reply…”
Interview with Editor Marc Lowenthal
How did Wakefield Press start?
Wakefield Press is basically my partner, Judy Feldmann, and myself. I’ve been in publishing for a while, so my first decade in the business set the stage in practical terms. I credit my years working at Exact Change, a small publisher (so small, I was their only employee) devoted to historical avant-garde literature and translation, which I think helped break me out of my shell and pointed me to what I wanted to do myself down the road. They also encouraged me when I got it into my head to try my hand at translating and developing book projects, which was a vote of confidence that went a long way for me. My years as a grad student in Buffalo also fed directly into what later on became my urge to start Wakefield. That city was wonderful for me, and undoubtedly continues to be a fruitful environment: it has a thriving literary scene, with focal points offered by the poetics program and the media study departments at SUNY, Buffalo, as well as places like Hallwalls (not to mention its numerous watering holes and excellent populace); it also offers such “rustbelt” opportunities as affordable living conditions (you’re not going to make money publishing books) and a general atmosphere that (to my mind) encourages one to try things one might not entertain in another, more aggressive environment. I had also grown quickly fatigued with pitching projects to other publishers, and just putting out what I wanted to put out without having to convince anyone else to agree was a basic psychological starting point.
And finally, already being in publishing had brought me into contact with friends and colleagues who helped with things I was less versed in (such as design). And, also important, I was putting aside some money over a number of years toward eventual printing costs, almost without being quite conscious of it.
I first tried to start up Wakefield Press on my own around 2002 (after I had been laid off in that second-to-last economic downturn): the first book was to have been a volume of writings by Hans Bellmer, but the project didn’t work out for reasons I won’t go into (Atlas Press took over the contract and ended up doing the book in a somewhat different form); I lost some money in that process, but saved up again and made a second go at it around 2009 with some friends helping out, including Judy. D.A.P. agreeing to distribute us (they knew who I was since they also distribute Exact Change, but they deserve recognition for the way they take chances on unknown independent entities like ourselves) was what crystallized everything. Our first few titles came out in 2010.
Tell us a bit about Wakefield Press. What are your influences, your aesthetic, your mission?
Wakefield’s roots perhaps offer a bit of a different picture from other translation publishers these days in that it is a “selfish” operation of sorts. No mission (I hate missions), just doing what interests me. Which is the thing that essentially keeps it going, because at the end of the day, the whole operation is a very effective means toward losing money. I’ll quote Thomas Wilson (long-time director of Harvard University Press until 1967), who stated the goal of academic publishing as being “the publication of the maximum number of good books this side of bankruptcy.” A good part of the foundation to some of our other publishing colleagues is as much focused on fund-raising, promotional efforts, and outreach as it is in such things as acquiring, editing, and publishing, and all of that even seems by necessity to precede the actual books; with Wakefield, it has pretty much been the reverse.
Influences for Wakefield have been other translation publishers I’ve admired: the programs of venerable entities like New Directions, Grove Press, and City Lights, and then the subsequent 1980s–90s that saw series like the Eridanos Library, or publishers like Atlas Press and Twisted Spoon get into gear: which is to say, translation programs that displayed a personality and coherency to their overall lists. So despite my dilettantish summation of Wakefield’s direction, the basic goal to our list is similar: for readers to be able to come to our books with a general level of trust wherein if they like one book we’ve put out, they’re likely to take an interest in anything else we put out. I think we have a personality that one can grasp pretty quickly. Not that I’m sure I know what that personality is, other than it is rooted in my own roots, French literature and Surrealism, which form the trunk from which a lot of my literary interests have branched over the years.
Actually, if there were anything of a stated mission behind the books we acquire, it would be to avoid ever having to compete against another publisher for a title. If someone else wants to publish a book I’m interested in, that’s fine by me. I can’t afford to engage in that sort of competitive scenario, and my general interest is to explore writers and books that have fallen through the cracks over the last couple of centuries. This has given me a predilection for the deceased—perhaps partly because I’m not much of a people person, but it’s a preference that was just recently reinforced through negotiating for a novel by Patrick Modiano this year (a novel no one had wanted to do some years ago when the translator had been shopping it around, I might add). I’m pleased he’s won the Nobel Prize as I’m very fond of his work, but once the news hit, Wakefield Press was pretty much tossed aside as far as that project was concerned: understandable, of course (and I can’t say I would relish the need to come up with the funds to print 10,000 copies of something that may or may not sell); but I have enough stress in my life to not want to wrangle with that sort of thing, and would rather focus on poor souls like Mynona or Jean-Pierre Martinet who never got their due over anyone in the midst of getting their due.
Can you give us a preview of what’s current and/or forthcoming from your catalog, as well as what you’re hoping to publish in the future?
We’re announcing four titles for spring 2015, which will make that our biggest season to date, and I expect we’ll have even more titles than that for next fall. Two French Catholics from the Decadent era: Léon Bloy’s Disagreeable Tales, which has incredibly never been translated into English in all these years: a few of the thirty stories have appeared in anthologies here and there, but unlike Barbey d’Aurevilly’s Diaboliques or Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s Cruel Tales, the book as a whole has never received a full translation. I find his humor and invective to be quite savage and worth checking out. The other is the better-known Joris-Karl Huysmans, who—even after the many volumes published or reprinted by Dedalus Press—has a few books yet to be discovered in English, so we’re bringing out A Dilemma: more a product of Huysmans’s bourgeois-loathing Naturalist phase, but in fact written after his Decadent handbook, À rebours. And then The Trumpets of Jericho, a novella by one of my favorite artist-authors, Unica Zürn: a very unsettling, hypnotic narrative stitched through with anagrams, obsessions, and fairy-tale nightmares. The disturbing tenor of her prose and poetry arises from (among other things) her unusual overlapping of Oulipian process and a Surrealist sensibility, which results in a (paradoxically) very controlled automatic writing. And then a bit of an unusual project for us: a brilliant translation of Giambattista Marino’s The Massacre of the Innocents. While I don’t plan to make publishing Baroque Italian epic poems a habit, I found the text to be so over the top (page after page of rhymed and elegant accounts of babies being torn to pieces: the sort of sacred horror you’d expect from Georges Bataille if he had been a seventeenth-century poet) and the translation (which maintains the poet’s ottava rima) so accomplished, that I felt compelled to take the project on.
Beyond that, I intend to continue bringing out authors I love who have received insufficient attention in English over the past century: Marcel Schwob, Pierre Mac Orlan, Paul Scheerbart, etc.; we have a number of projects by women surrealists in the works that will ultimately form a body of books (Unica Zürn being the first, to be followed by Gisele Prassinos, and a few others that are lined up); we have two books by Gabrielle Wittkop, who has been undergoing something of a rediscovery in France through the efforts of Éditions Verticales, slated for next fall (her only book in English to date is her first one, the beautiful, disturbing, and unforgettable The Necrophiliac, from the Canadian ECW Press): she boasts a very ornate, “gamy” style and some very morbid interests (she saw herself as the heir to the Marquis de Sade, but to my mind makes for a more natural fit with the French fin-de-siècle, despite being German-born and writing 70 or 80 years after that body of authors). I’m also interested in developing a number of projects around some under-translated Belgian authors. We’ll be bringing out a collection of tales by Paul Willems next year, and the collected writings of the Belgian Dadaist Clément Pansaers a little further down the road by way of a couple first steps in that direction.
What about small/independent press publishing is particularly exciting to you right now?
I’m not that excitable a fellow, all in all, but right now, the resurgence of small and independent bookstores over the last couple of years is my main source of optimism. My whole life in publishing has been overshadowed by the aggressive strategies and dominance of Barnes & Noble and Amazon (I never thought I’d see the day when B&N would come up against its own Goliath), so the recent recovery in the independent arena is heartening to see, and reflective of a sort of community-building that seems essential to any movement forward in the publishing world. And Wakefield Press is particularly dependent on the hand selling and support that we’ve been lucky enough to find among independent bookstores: no online algorithm can do what a number of book buyers and booksellers have been doing for our list these last few years.
How do you cope? There’s been a lot of conversation lately about charging reading fees, printing costs, rising book costs, who should pay for what, etc. Do you have any opinions on this, and would you be willing to share any insights about the numbers at Wakefield Press?
This is growing into a concern on the Wakefield front, mainly because we work day jobs to earn our bread. Our friend Dave, who has been helping us out on the publicity front, works two other jobs, and Judy does freelance work when she isn’t at work. I work in academic publishing for my day (and paying) job; Wakefield has become my night job and weekend job, which has come to evoke my grad school days in that I never really feel like I have any time off. Coping with costs means that Judy and I don’t pay ourselves anything for Wakefield work, and I try to have half of our books be translations of works in the public domain, which helps control the amount we need to pay out for rights. Given that that still adds up to an enterprise that has yet to break even (to do that, we would really need to stop putting out any new books for a year or two), everything really depends on the day job; if either of us ever loses that, Wakefield would probably have to go on hiatus.
Our books are actually selling better than I had expected they would when we started out, so I can’t complain on that front. We could improve our margins if we raised the prices of the books, but my sense is that we’re already at the limit of what people would be willing to pay for them. What that amounts to, though, is that for a few of our books, we actually lose money on every copy we sell (though not as much as on the copies we don’t sell, of course). We receive the occasional grant—from the French Book Office, for instance, who are really great at providing assistance: they’ve helped cover the costs of acquiring foreign rights for a few of our titles, and the Swiss Helvetia helped us out on our Hugo Ball book. In general, that sort of grant tends to come about when you’re able to demonstrate that you’re going to lose money in doing a book, so the assistance is more to help you break even. The larger grants to be found (NEA, etc.) are really for non-profit entities: Wakefield is in the peculiar but probably not uncommon publishing scenario of being a for-profit entity that makes no profit, so what I should probably be doing is turning ourselves into a non-profit and starting some serious fund-raising and larger grant applications, which seems to be the only way to make such an operation viable these days. I just don’t have the time, though; and the idea of chasing after money and having a board of directors to answer to would hamper my initial urge in starting Wakefield Press in the first place. The other way to do it is to find an umbrella organization to house you that can make everything possible: Open Letter Books with the University of Rochester and its translation program, for example, or Dalkey Archive with the University of Illinois. Or to get an individual to help fund the whole operation, which is a nice arrangement if you can get it, but also tends to mean everything can potentially stop on a dime (as did Lapis Press some years ago, another publisher I used to admire).
But by way of addressing the question, Dalkey Archive’s John O’Brien made a stink last month with his article lamenting how the French (for one absurd example, given the degree to which their book department invests in a range of English translations) don’t do enough for publishers like himself; again, this has primarily to do with the realm of translation, but pertinent in that the scenario he was calling for in his squib is one that basically mirrors that of a vanity press. In his case, he’s not looking to publish individuals who are willing to cover all the costs of their book, but entire countries. I won’t get into how I see that has played out in Dalkey Archive’s overall program, and I think the general (and appropriate) reaction to that article was that it was just John O’Brien being John O’Brien, but I’m flagging his “argument” because I have heard it crop up in the academic publishing arena as well, albeit in slightly different, or piecemeal terms, without anyone coming out and saying that these ideas and their variants all amount to what vanity publishing offers. If publishers start moving too far in that direction, then I think they’re flirting with irrelevancy and Amazon has won.
Which isn’t to say I have any answers to the financial concerns (and academic publishing has a whole different set of factors, with relationships to academic institutions and libraries, and what seems to be a slowly growing movement for libraries to take over academic publishing, which I don’t think bodes well). But I could point out that the Thomas Wilson quote above dates back to the 1960s: there have been major upheavals for good and bad since then in the publishing arena, but I don’t think the fundamental financial futility of it all has ever been anything new. My own willfully eccentric and selfish solution is to not think about it, continue on my way, and just put aside a portion of my salary toward this very perverse sort of anti-investment that Wakefield represents to me. Not to be too pretentious about it, but if you decide to be an independent publisher, it’s like deciding to be a samurai or a dandy: you’re in for a miserable end, but it’s one you’ll be able to face with honor. Provided you stick to your code: I prefer codes to enthusiasm and mission statements.
How do you go about discovering the manuscripts you publish – A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer, for example, which was written in 1920 by the wildly prolific Pierre Mac Orlan and not translated into English until your edition last year?
I read a lot in French, which is why our list is somewhat French-heavy. And I follow the lists of certain French publishers whose curatorial sensibilities are to my liking (Editions Allia, Editions Finitude, etc.), who have pointed me to some different areas for exploration; but my happiest discoveries tend to be in the stacks of very good academic libraries. I came across Mac Orlan’s handbook in Harvard’s Widener Library back when I had access to it, and I started going through his work in general a few years ago as a result, which has an incredible variety of treasures in it. I’m more at the mercy of others if I’m not able to access a text in French or French translation (which is how I originally read Paul Scheerbart, for example), but over the last couple of years, more and more translators have started getting in touch with proposals and projects. Though keeping up with my email on the Wakefield front (or failing to) has starting becoming a source of stress I hadn’t figured on when we started out…