Interview with New Directions publisher Barbara Epler
The nineteenth floor of an art-deco office building in Chelsea, New York, is home to New Directions, a publishing house specializing in poetry and international fiction. A row of small, modestly furnished offices that haven’t been renovated for some time look out onto the Hudson River. The company treasures are on the other side, in a room that contains a copy of almost all the 1300 books New Directions has published since it was founded in 1936, including the first American editions of Borges, Neruda, Sartre, Carson, Sebald and Bolaño.
Barbara Epler became the publishing house’s editor-in-chief in 1996, its publisher in 2008, and president in 2011. With a cheerful and outgoing demeanor and a deep laugh, she explained how it is possible for an institution that is contractually bound to publish intellectually demanding literature to be doing
When did you start working at New Directions?
I started after college, in 1984. I thought I would be here for a year or two. Then I started editing after a few years at the front desk. By 1993, 1994, I was sort of sous-chef under Griselda Ohannessian, the managing director who ran the company for James Laughlin, our founder.
How has the business of publishing changed since then?
It has changed a lot. JL founded New Directions in 1936 after starting out as a poet, and the people he listened to were Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, and Kenneth Rexroth. He wanted New Directions to be a company where writers could carry out their experiments in public, by publication. JL was always trying to find new writing. People who are now very much part of the canon—Borges, Nabokov, Lorca, Neruda, Dylan Thomas, and Pound, for example—were very radical when he was first publishing them. He was also the first American publisher of Sartre.
For many years, New Directions did not make any money. But JL was from a wealthy steel family, and his aunt and father helped out with the bills. The press did not go into the black until 1947, and then it pretty much broke even until the paperback revolution of the 1960s. Then we suddenly had the classics that people needed to read—and that is when it truly moved into the black.
When I first got here, it was going through some doldrums. In my first editorial meeting, I thought I was funny when I said, “Oh yeah, like my friends say, Old Directions.” My bosses did not think that was funny at all. A couple of other things happened, too. JL had a bipolar illness. Then Prozac came along toward the end of his life and he went from being very stoic and pretty quiet to being, as he put it, “babbulous.” He became much more enthusiastic about things.
He said he babbled. He wrote many, many more letters and many, many more poems. And he felt that things were going much better here. We had a big success with W.G. Sebald: Everybody read W.G. Sebald. They still do. That picked up JL’s spirit. He also fell in love with the work of Anne Carson, one of North America’s best-known poets. He felt re-engaged by some of these authors and cheered up.
When he passed away in 1997, he left a will that stipulated that we could not change in size, as he believed that the death of any literary publishing house is growth. Capitalism says we have to grow, and his response was: No. He left a very clear will that stipulated we should keep the same amount of employees, publish the same amount of books—and publish the same quality of books, which is tough, because he set a very high bar.
How did he define this quality?
He was specific that it should be considered by the response it generates in the review community and by the opinion of fellow writers. Ezra Pound said that truly new literature takes twenty years to catch on, which is a great margin for people like us. So I can say: Hey, maybe people don’t get Yoel Hoffmann yet, but they will. And maybe César Aira’s first books did not sell but if you keep giving people more of his books, they begin to sell.
This is a long view of literature. JL believed in almost horizontal bestsellers. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind has sold more than a million copies. Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha sold more than a million copies. The Tennessee Williams books have sold well over a million copies, too.
What happened after he passed away?
That was in 1997, while Griselda Ohannessian was boss. We just continued going down the road, publishing what we thought were the best things we found. Then Peggy Fox was the boss, and then I was editor-in-chief for a long time and then also the publisher. That was scary because I do not balance my own checkbook. Laurie Callahan was the publicity director, and she did not want to have a website. I kept finding things in her garbage can. I said to her: “No, that is a really important blog.” “These blogs, we do not read them.” “But they exist and people are discussing our books.” And she would not send them books. So I thought we needed a younger publicity director and her to be something like the executive vice president or chief executive officer. My other thought was to maybe hire in a publisher, somebody with a business degree, because none of us have one. But then I thought, No, they will not let me do these kinds of books. So we just decided to do it ourselves—and we have had the three best years ever. We first published Roberto Bolaño about twelve years ago, and like Sebald before him he became the writer everybody was talking about.
It is often a sad thing that when we have built up an author, they go to a larger house. But in that case, Bolaño died before his first book, By Night in Chile, was published, and he left a widow and two children. What ended up happening is that the two big books went to Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and now they have done four and we have done sixteen. In that case, Farrar, Straus and Giroux were really good: They have a very smart marketing person who brilliantly put an author photo of Bolaño aged something like 23 on a website for the book. It was the early days of social media, so that whole James Dean thing got a lot of play. And their marketing muscle was, in the end, good for us, too, even though I was pretty heartbroken about not getting some of his books, especially 2666.
Who owns New Directions now?
It is owned by the New Directions Trust, which JL set up to exist for twenty-one years after his death. In 2018, the shares go to three members of his family: his daughter and two of his grandchildren. They are very supportive of the house. I think as long as we do not run into trouble or need money, they will let us continue along and carry on JL’s legacy.
They are not involved in any way?
They are benevolent overseers, I would say. They have their own interests and, luckily for New Directions, they are people of means. And JL appointed his daughter’s husband, a distinguished professor of Italian Renaissance literature, to the ND board, so there is a family representative. JL’s will says we cannot be sold to another corporation: we cannot become an imprint of another house. We can continue as long as we can continue. So it is a little bit sink-or-swim. Back in the ’80s and ’90s we sometimes did not have enough money to pay royalties. It was painful but the boss at the time could call JL and say, “We are short.” And he would write a check and help.
There are recessions and depressions and in those times it is very hard. The worst time since I have been in charge was in 2008/2009, when we had a very serious recession. Buying a book for, say, $15 is usually like buying flowers or getting a bottle of wine or going out for lunch. But during a recession, everybody remembers they have got books at home. That is really rough. We had to borrow money before, more than once, but I am hoping not to ever have to do it again. It is not an easy business.
That’s true of the situation in Germany, too. At some point I realized that all five publishers I have published with had either gone bankrupt or been sold—all within the past five years.
Yeah, that happens a lot. And it is odd, because there is now Penguin Random House, which is just enormous. And Holtzbrinck owns a huge amount of important publishers like Farrar, Straus and Giroux and Holt. But on other side, there is more competition for us, in a sense: There are a lot more really good small presses. They are devoted to literature and do a lot of literature in translation and are by and large nonprofit, unlike us, which means they can get funding. I’m thinking of excellent publishers like Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Milkweed, Ugly Duckling, Archipelago, Open Letter, and many more. They are independent and are doing an outsize amount of really good books and literature.
Where do they get their funding?
From the NEA – the National Endowment for Arts, for example, or from one of the several private foundations that give to the arts, for better or worse. It tends to come with strings, so you might have to have discussions with board members with agendas of their own. We do not work that way but I do know that it is good for literature that there are all these small houses. And the people who run them are generally young, optimistic, and work like dogs. Some of them, like the guy who runs Ugly Duckling, do not take a salary. He makes his money teaching. What I would say generally, though, is that when you see somebody take off like Knausgaard, Bolaño, Ferrante—they do not come out of the big corporations. They come out of the small houses and then the big houses take the authors for a lot of money, which is just the way of the world, but it can be disheartening.
Do you think authors are less loyal to their publishing houses than they used to be?
If Tennessee Williams had not been loyal, we would not be here. But Sebald, he said to me: Barbara, I want to quit teaching. Random House is giving me half a million dollars. And he said: But you will have my first three books. You are still my publisher. And later he let us have a poetry book. I understand that, and I understand too that Bolaño’s family needs money. He worked his whole life to make that legacy and build that library. So I understand some of it. But some of it I do not. What is that great line from The Rules of the Game: “In this world, there is one awful thing, and that is that everyone has his reasons.”
How many books does New Directions publish?
Thirty-five to forty-five a year.
Does that include republished books?
How many are new books and how many are republished?
There are old books with new covers and then there are books that are simply getting a paperback edition after they have had a cloth edition. So if you add those paperback books and recovers, I would say, out of forty-five books, about twenty-five to thirty are truly new books. And about a third of the list is poetry. The poets remain a backbone. Poetry is easier for us to publish than the fiction because a lot of the fiction is a crapshoot. We know how many books we need to print for Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael Palmer, Rosmarie Waldrop, Susan Howe. We know what their last book sold. And maybe we will do five hundred more this time. So although it does not look very remunerative, the poetry actually a very strong part of the program.
What percentage of your books do you also sell as ebooks?
Well, we were typically slow to get going. A lot of people started ebook programs seven or eight years ago. We were, for one thing, in the recession and most of our classics were not digitized. So we had to get them keyboarded, proofread, formatted. It was very expensive. And unlike some publishers who claimed they already had the rights, we went back to the authors and asked them if we could make an addendum to their contracts, because we did not want to get into a fight.
So: four years ago ebooks were zero percent of our business; the next year it was one percent; two years ago it was three percent; last year it was nine percent. My fear was that it would drive down the sales of the print books. But they are still ninety percent of our business. I think that is true for literature across the board: I do not think that many people read poetry on their Kindle. Our concern was that one would cannibalize the other, but I guess a lot of people either want to have a lot of books on their e-readers, so they just start adding things, or maybe they buy the physical book and then travel with their ebooks.
What do people buy as ebooks?
As I understand it, in America ebooks are very popular in genre writing. Take Fifty Shades of Grey—when you do not want people to know what you are reading, you read an ebook. Business books and nonfiction generally are very big. In our catalogue, the Bolaño books are popular. As are Thomas Merton’s Catholic, spiritual books. Henry Miller is popular as an ebook. F. Scott Fitzgerald, too. Novels are really where we get the money on ebooks. We are still negotiating the rights for some of them—Borges, for example. We prepared ebooks for Tennessee Williams because we think the universities are going to move into teaching with them, though so far that has not happened much.
Do you think reading has changed? Do people read differently?
Not that many Americans really read. There is this statistic that I find fascinating, which is that apparently half of America does not vote and has never voted and half of America has never been in a bookstore. And then some people say reading is like eating your vegetables: you do it because you should, not because you enjoy it. So that is kind of a weird group.
This company and literary people are always dealing with a small audience. It is a group, I would say, of about 150,000 to 200,000 really dedicated readers. When an author really first breaks out, we might capture fifty thousand of them, like we did for Sebald, or a hundred thousand of them for Bolaño… And then people like to give books as gifts, too, like the twenty thousand copies we’ve sold of a Neruda love poems book.
I have a couple of theories about books and one of them is that the younger generation—that is, the ones who read—love translations. They are a fraction of the population, but they are very loyal once they have decided that they like someone. And I also think that print books are retro chic. People like to have them. They find them restful. The people who buy our books tend to keep them, and to have a library at home.
Do you think there is a growing sense of loyalty within that small group of readers?
I could just be whistling in the dark but I think that there is a strong sense of community with readers, reviewers, and booksellers. The independent booksellers that have survived the very difficult onslaught—first of Barnes & Noble, and then of Amazon—are really smart and really into building community. They really do this locavore thing and have events and we find it helps a lot. When I go to Winter Institute, which is a gathering of independent bookstores, the vibe is up. They feel like they can do it. But it really is a lot of work. Their problems are comparable to our problems: you have to do everything at once and cannot neglect anything. For us that means you cannot neglect the press, you cannot neglect events, you cannot neglect new people, you cannot neglect finding the talent, you cannot neglect cultivating the reviewers. Either way you have to make sure the books are beautiful—you have got to redesign things. It is exhausting but I think it is similar to what the bookstores are doing.
And I also think the New York Review of Books is stronger and stronger. I think the New Yorker is stronger and stronger. All these interesting magazines, like Granta, or the Paris Review—they are doing really well.
How many of your books do you sell via Amazon? How many via independent bookstores? How many via the big chains?
We have an unusually high percentage in independent bookstores. I would say it is about thirty percent. And then Amazon is perhaps forty or forty-five percent. And the rest of it is the chains, but they don’t put us on the tables very much. It’s different with the college chains, of course.
Do you sell a lot of books outside the US?
Some. Canada is a pretty big stream of income. And then we sell books around the world but the cost of shipping and distribution makes many of those sales negligible in terms of profitability. The shipping costs to certain areas are very, very high. Anyway, I would say ninety percent of our sales are domestic.
Speaking of loyalty: Have you ever thought of setting up something like a subscription model, or starting a club together with other independent publishers?
Yes, we have thought about it. We have a subscription for the Pamphlet Series—our poetry booklets that do not have a spine—and for the Pearl Series, these little nice books by very good authors. We also think that in the future we will probably at some point sell ebooks and books directly on our website. But the cost of shipping is very difficult to work out. So we do sell out of the office a little bit. We have limited editions signed by Henry Miller and Michaux and Paz, but that is really about it. We are thinking about it, though, and people make noises about finding an alternate way for independents to sell books. When you go on our website and you look up a book, you can go to IndieBound, to Amazon, to iBooks, to Barnes & Noble—by law you are required to list the possibilities.
Are reviews losing their importance?
It is hard to say because sometimes we get very good reviews and it does not move the sales up. I cannot read it. But I do know there are many fewer outlets and fewer pages, so it is harder to get a position in them. If you can get something into the New York Times or the New York Review of Books, there is a sort of a sheep effect—the smaller newspapers and magazines think: Oh, I should have reviewed that. And what we find helps a great deal is prepublication serial rights. If we can get an author into the magazines and give the reader a taste of what Clarice Lispector is like, or César Aira or Bolaño or Enrique Vila-Matas, that helps a lot. It helps a lot to be in the conversation, whether or not it is in the form of a review. But I feel grateful for the amount of reviews we get, considering the amount of books there are and the fact that we cannot afford to advertise.
What about blogs? Are they important?
They are important but I say that as a person who does not really participate in them. I do not know where the attention goes. A while ago Jimmy Kimmel, who has a late-night talk show, tweeted about Jane Unrue, a very interesting American writer whose novels look like poems. They are really strange, interesting books. And the publicity guy comes in. He goes: Look what Jimmy Kimmel said: He said he loved this book and he linked to a rave review in the Boston Globe and he has got 3.85 million followers. And I trot over to watch the sales pattern. You can see it on the computer. He may have tweeted it to 3.85 million people, but only about 3.8 people bought it, and that was it.
I also recently asked a young woman who is starting up a new podcast that Sony has invested in to tell me how it works. She had this interesting theory that one of the teams that does it best in America is a company called Riverhead. They have some good books but they have an outsize amount of sales for them, a lot of which are driven by social media. And she says: You have to do everything three times—hammering in, hammering in, hammering in—again and again in new ways, without repeating yourself. That said, I do not tweet, I do not Facebook. So I do not really know, but we think it is worth doing because we do not want to be left behind, like the dinosaur.
Getting attention has become really complex as there is more and more competition for it. I think it has a lot to do with context. People who follow Kimmel on Twitter expect certain things. So you have to really orchestrate a campaign, which is getting more and more difficult.
It is really wild. It is hard to keep anyone’s attention because you have to do it for every list, eighteen books, three times a year. Things drop between the cracks. With Takashi Hiraide’s The Guest Cat, we put a beautiful pussycat on the cover, a gorgeous kitty head by Tsuguharu Foujita. And it is not an easy book. It is a strange little novel. But it was on NPR’s book blog, which gets thirty or forty thousand visitors. They said, for example, that even dog lovers would “relate.” And then they put it on the main NPR website, which gets a million visitors a day—they must have needed a book for eye candy. And then people must have thought: Oh, look at the kitty cat! It became number seventeen on Amazon and a New York Times bestseller.
I always think of that Henry James line that we work in the dark. You just try things. And you have to really wear yourself out to get anywhere. Sometimes you can do anything and jump through hoops and really know that the author is a genius and, for whatever reason, it still is not working. But sometimes it does.