Posted on

Nonprofit publishing: an interview with Ian Giles

Credit: Canva

Ian Giles lives in Edinburgh and is a commercial and literary translator of the Scandinavian languages. He is the current Chair of the Swedish-English Literary Translators’ Association (SELTA) and a frequent contributor to Swedish Book Review. Ian’s PhD focused on who published and read translated Scandinavian fiction in the UK during the 20th and early 21st centuries, and the roles of the various agents involved in this process continue to engage him. Ian is also Treasurer of the Scottish Society for Northern Studies, itself a small, charitable publisher.

The following interview took place between Ian Giles (IG) and Cath Jenkins, representing Norvik Press (CJ), over Zoom during July 2021. It has been condensed and edited for clarity.

CJ: Norvik describes itself as a nonprofit publisher. What is the difference between nonprofit and not-for-profit?

IG: Well, I suppose the easy way to distinguish between the two is that nonprofit Norvik Press would very much like to make a profit – and doesn’t! Therein lies the rub: a not-for-profit doesn’t actually need to make a profit, whether it’s because of deep-pocketed benefactors, or because it’s a charitable endeavour. Whereas nonprofit Norvik is operating on a shoestring, with the aim of at least being cost-neutral. It costs money to publish each new thing, so you sort of drip-feed your publications out. Whereas something like Dalkey Archive Press, there’s a regular explosion of titles.

Norvik Press has a longevity to it, which means that you want to ensure that decisions that you make are decisions that you can live with in the long run. When you’ve got smaller, newer publishers, for instance, whether they’re nonprofit or not-for-profit, when they’re in startup mode (and we all have a startup mode at some point, when I started as a translator I was more like a startup than I am now!), they can do what they want, they don’t know whether they’ll still be doing this in thirty years’ time. And so the decisions they make now aren’t made with an eye towards the long-term, and I think that’s a problem.

I went to an interesting conference earlier this year, about translating minority literatures, at the University of Nottingham. The keynote was Ondřej Vimr, and he did a very interesting lecture about how these days in publishing – as in all areas of work life, but especially in publishing – everything happens quicker. We know that everything happens quicker, ask Norvik Press how long it took to publish a book in 1988…! Where people would have taken a risk before, because they had time to figure out whether they could take the risk, now they just turn it down, because you can’t afford to take a risk. And so I think the Norvik ‘grown-up’ approach is nice. There can come a maturity, with the limitation of means, that can lead to probably better-than-average decisions, because you have your binding principles of ‘can’t go bust’. And indeed, in a way, it helps that Norvik has, and has had, a paid assistant for a long time in one shape or another because it often focuses minds, that there’s a need to pay someone’s salary, however modest that is. Whereas if you or I were just our own imprint, digging into our own pocket, ultimately we can be like ‘Well, I can eat nothing but cereal for six months!’, or ‘What does it matter if I stick it all on a credit card!’ And it does make a difference.

Norvik Press has a longevity to it, which means that you want to ensure that decisions that you make are decisions that you can live with in the long run

CJ: In terms of the general direction of nonprofit publishing, do you see focusing the mind as something that might help us prepare for the future?

IG: I mean it’s always that. Sometimes I’m very cynical about this. I think if you’re at the rock-face of the industry, all the words blend into one and sometimes I go, ‘Why do we translate anything?!’ In a world of infinite possibilities, the likelihood is that something you translate from Language A into English has probably been written in English already, or someone is having the idea right now, nothing’s ever original. And so, to move beyond that, you have to be less cynical, but you also need to identify what is worthwhile, about the thing you’re translating. Publishing is an incredibly subjective, taste-based industry. Often, as a thought exercise, I try to think ‘What other industries are there in which this is the case?’, possibly restaurants and food, but you know, the role of an acquiring editor is incredibly important and ultimately we’re not saying that acquiring editors are somehow much, much smarter or somehow much, much more erudite than your average citizen. We’re really saying that through circumstances, they’re a taste-maker. With small publishers, what you can end up with is strokes of genius because on the one hand, they might read something and they might have great taste and they might go ‘This is the book that we must have’. But just as love can feel like love, but sometimes it is not love, I think equally you can go ‘This is the book, we must have this book!’, and then it just takes a second person to say, ‘It’s okay…’ and the purse-strings are not loosened. I think stuff coming out at the end good, is more important than it just coming out.

CJ: Yes, I agree it needs to be that mixture of passion and prudence.

IG: This is where publishing is weird again, isn’t it. Because everybody believes in the power of literature. Even if you find the book for you but you go ‘No, our list is full for the year’, or you check the piggybank and there is no chance, well then you’re not too upset. If another publisher comes along and goes, ‘Well, I’ll do that. It looks great’, you say, ‘Well, isn’t that nice that it all worked out’.

CJ: Yes! And adding to the weirdness: Brexit. Do you have any thoughts on the way that post-Brexit funding for publishing is going?

IG: It’s difficult. I was just having a look before we spoke at the article I wrote on small presses and funding in general [State Dependence: How ARE Britain’s Small Presses Translating Norwegian Literature Anyway?]. On the domestic front, it’s not a great time to be looking for money for the written word, especially if the written word has got something to do with abroad! The pandemic hasn’t helped, on the basis that money in the arts needs to be diverted elsewhere to more pressing things. Publishing has, on balance, got off pretty lightly really. In the context of what we do in Norway, interacting with the Nordics, things could be worse, because ultimately English is an important bridge language. But the ties between the Nordic countries and the UK are very strong, and not everyone is in the EU in the Nordics of course.

More generally, there’s a lot of stuff disappearing through the cracks in the funding world and the problem is that if you’re a small publisher that needs to apply for money to do everything, now the money isn’t there. Anybody who works in any industry where you rely on grant funding, always knows in the back of their mind that this is not a long-term guaranteed source of income and could go away at any time. But normally you hope that there will be a whisper of when that’s coming. I think Brexit has been, on the admin front, actually worse than people imagined, and the pandemic has added to that, because there’s a lot of personal lobbying that goes on in the publishing world that simply hasn’t been able to happen for the last eighteen months.

CJ: Yes, indeed, personal relationships are so important in small press publishing – relationships with embassies, in-person meetings, in-person conferences. As a nonprofit publisher, we’ve really missed these the past year. Particularly going to bookshops and handing out our catalogue, meeting booksellers face-to-face who are so supportive of presses like us… you can still build relationships over social media – we’ve been trying to do that – but nothing really replaces in-person recommendations and conversations.

IG: I think you’re right, I think it’s people. People do/say/buy things because their friends tell them to, I mean peer pressure is real, and one of the interesting realisations from my research is the discovery that in the world of publishing in particular, people mostly do things because their friends tell them to. Because if you were to examine most things that happen in publishing books, and to say ‘What’s the business case for this?’, well, there isn’t one. You tend to do what your friends tell you to do slightly more if they tell you in-person, and it feels like a genuine interaction with a friend, than you do online.

Since March last year I have been attempting to pitch a couple of books that I’ve got ready to go, and I don’t want to cold-pitch to people with a lecture on a slide deck; I want to slide into someone’s DMs in real life, with a glass of wine, and say ‘I was reading this really great book that I actually have translated, I’m not saying you should publish it, but I liked it. Why don’t you read it’. It’s the same with your relationship with booksellers, you don’t turn up and say ‘I need you to take twenty-five copies of Chitambo or I’m leaving’, what you say is ‘It might not be easy to sell this to everybody, but actually it’s really good. Try it’.

CJ: Yes, it’s all about genuine interactions for nonprofits! I suppose something that attempts to replicate that for the peri-pandemic era is the subscription model, where a press interacts with readers as supporters – on Patreon, for example – and in return readers receive hand-picked books.

IG: I think that’s the way everyone’s going, you can see the bandwagon, whether you jump on it or not, and it’s quite a good bandwagon, so if I weren’t on it, I would probably jump on. The great thing with say a subscription club, if you’ve got someone taking Norvik’s three titles for the year or whatever it is, if it’s at a pretty reasonable cost and they enjoy the book, then they tell other people about it, they buy copies to give as gifts. So I think it’s where small presses on a shoestring can set themselves apart. The key thing is to maintain some degree of humanity, a human touch. People should feel like they’re interacting with a knowledgeable friend.

CJ: I think the key word for me really is ‘human’. My favourite thing about our new website is that we have our Get to know us section, which we didn’t have before. So now it’s possible for you to go to our website and see our faces. I look awful in my photo! But, you know, these are the faces of the people who make Norvik Press happen, and readers can really get to know us.

IG: Yes, it’s to Norvik Press’s credit there that I think there’s an appeal to the fact that there are real people behind it, with other things on the go, beyond what you do for Norvik.

CJ: I think backstories are so important and fit really well with the whole publishing endeavour – storytelling!

IG: I think so, Norvik’s backstory is always very pleasing. There are books that simply should be available, and Norvik makes that happen, it is quite laudable. The Lagerlöf in English project was worthwhile, it was high time these were retranslated and reintroduced. But similarly publishing something like Vigdis Hjorth’s A House in Norway, it’s completely the opposite end, it’s a contemporary novel by a contemporary Norwegian writer. And that’s what people would use the word ‘curate’ for these days… and that’s what Norvik does, it curates a cool mix. The only comparison I’d make is to Archipelago Books – they also always seem to somehow have their finger on a pulse you didn’t know existed, or that you needed!

that’s what Norvik does, it curates a cool mix

CJ: Thank you so much Ian, this has been such an informative and inspiring conversation – it’s reminded me why we do what we do, really, and why we put up with the challenges of being a nonprofit, because there’s also the rewards – being able to do something that we’re passionate about.

IG: Honestly, I’m really pleased that Swedish Book Review, Norvik Press and Scandinavica all live on. If you had asked me three or four years ago, would all of these things still exist, I would not have been certain. It all boils down to funding and lots of hard work.

CJ: Definitely. Well, we have made it through what a pandemic has thrown at us so far, so hopefully we’ll be able to survive after this!