Pushing The Boat Out: Art & Business The Fitzcarraldo Way

A proudly independent publishing house celebrates its fifth birthday. Fitzcarraldo founder Jacques Testard talks Bookers, belief and post-Brexit blues; Angus Batey takes notes

To say Fitzcarraldo Editions is a one-off would be putting things mildly. It’s a publishing house that looks – and sometimes acts – like an indie record label. It’s a for-profit business that acknowledges in its concept of itself that the kind of work it trades in – provocative, cutting-edge fiction, often experimental in construction and conception; and acerbic non-fiction, encompassing everything from long-form polemics to irascible essay collections; both strands often written in languages other than English and appearing for the first time in translation – is a tough sell.

It’s a company that seems proudly, even defiantly, to embrace the physical and tangible and analogue in the face of digital’s burgeoning tyranny (the vast majority of the imprint’s sales are of physical books rather than downloadable versions). It’s a producer and promoter of art that often feels intensely, minutely personal; yet the success it has enjoyed over the past year has derived from its staff’s response to a key ingredient of our troubled times’ political turmoil. It has opted – against conventional wisdom over how best to stand out in a crowded market – to give its books a uniform cover design, enhancing collectability while emphasising the spirits that are kindred across its diverse author roster. And when you get Fitzcarraldo’s founder, Jacques Testard, talking about what connects the authors he’s signed to his almost quixotic house, you get a disquisition on celestial geography.

“I guess the catalogue is a galaxy of sorts, and within that galaxy there are groups of books that have closer links to others,” he says, over cafetière-brewed coffee in Fitzcarraldo’s small south London office, generously crediting his notion to a promotional poster produced by an Argentinian publisher. “To give you an example: we published Svetlana Alexievich’s Second Hand Time, a book about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the nostalgia for the Soviet Union in the 90s and the early twenty-first century. Then we also published Kirill Medvedev’s prose, poetry and essays on potentially publishing under Putin in Russia and what that meant. And then Keith Gessen’s novel came along, A Terrible Country, which we published last year. Keith Gessen had translated Kirill Medvedev, and also Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl book. And his novel almost picks up where those two books left off, and takes us through the last, say, ten years of Putinism in Russia. So that’s a way in which connections emerge over time in the catalogue.”

The idea that patterns eventually ease their way to the surface, that dialogues spring up out of unintended and unforeseeable coincidence, feels apt. These are the kinds of ideas that lie coiled at the heart of (at least some of) the titles Testard has been bringing to British bookshops since 2014. The narrator of Pond, Claire-Louise Bennett’s Walden-via-Wicklow meditation on place, mind and identity, could be related to the version of Olga Tokarczuk who drops in from time to time as the authorial voice in the International Man Booker Prize-winning Flights, haunting departure lounges and looking over the shoulders of the dislocated and emotionally (and sometimes physically) dissected.

There are even echoes of both style and content apparently connecting some of Fitzcarraldo’s most recent releases. It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track is a collection of essays ostensibly written as book reviews but each functioning as eagle-eyed career overviews of the musicians the books are about, by British music journalist Ian Penman. Insurrecto is a novel by the Philippines-born, US-resident Gina Apostol, pieced together from different viewpoints and timeframes that tells the entwined stories of the (real) early twentieth century massacre of civilians by American soldiers in Balangiga, the (fictional) disappearance of a director making a film about these terrible events in the 1970s, and the director’s daughter’s travels to the region decades later. It may come as a surprise to find that both books lean hard on Elvis Presley, but both are also linked by elements that delve deep beneath the superficial.

For different reasons and to very different ends, both Penman and Apostol circle their subjects, allowing viewpoints to alter, encouraging not just deeper thought but repeated rethinking. Neither were written for Fitzcarraldo. With the exception of a new introduction and a couple of paragraphs of updated notes, Penman’s essays first appeared in The London Review of Books and City Journal, while Apostol’s novel was published to acclaim in the US last year by Soho Press. Yet both seem to perfectly embody the identity the house has grown into.

The label’s first release was Zone, a 500-page novel by Mathias Enard written as a single sentence, a tumbling-out of the many thoughts leaping around inside the head of a spy taking a train from Milan to Rome. The publisher’s first release in 2019 was Nocilla Lab, the third in an influential trilogy by the Spanish scientist-author Agustín Fernández Mallo, which opens with eighty-odd pages written in a single sentence. Despite the formal conceit, the two books could not be more different, yet the reader will be unable to avoid making the connection. Sure enough, life followed art.

“Agustín Fernández Mallo and Mathias Ernard met in a bar in Spain, at a festival,” Testard says, as if setting up a joke. “One asked the other – and I can’t remember who asked who first – ‘What have you been working on?’ I think Agustín asked Mathias, and Mathias said, ‘Well, I’ve just finished a 500-page book that’s written in one sentence.’ And Agustin said, ‘Oh, I’ve just finished the first section of a novel that’s ninety pages written in one sentence!’ And they became friends.”

Creating a place where authors such as this could feel at home had been Testard’s intention. He set up Fitzcarraldo Editions as an offshoot of The White Review, a literary magazine he co-edited, and which had published quite a bit of work in translation. “I was fortunate to grow up bilingual, and always read in French and English,” he says. “It was just a given that I would do translation when setting up Fitzcarraldo.”

That this niche was one with some – albeit limited – commercial viability was helpful.

“There really is a gap in the market there,” he says. “There are very few publishers in the UK who take risks on literary books in translation, for whatever reason – I think primarily financial ones. That meant that we could pick up very established and excellent authors really quickly for not that much money. Then, obviously, you have to pay for translations and all the rest of it, and that is expensive – but there are grants and things that help you do it if you’re willing to put the work in."

The unexpected downside was that, for a while, the imprint found it became perceived as a home solely for works in translation. Agents were not sending new English writers Testard’s way. That spurred Testard and his small team into finding new ways of both discovering new talent and promoting the imprint.

“It’s meant that for English-language books we’ve had to be more creative in terms of finding authors,” Testard says. “I was fortunate enough, again with The White Review, to have a few writers I’d worked with who had an idea for a book, or were finishing a book, and a few of the debuts we’ve published came out of that. And then we set up a novel prize and an essay prize to try and keep that connection to new authors. Because we have a catalogue that’s centred on authors rather than books, and we’re only publishing a dozen books a year, we’re waiting on second, third and fourth books by authors we’ve already published. But we do buy things from agents on occasion.”

As a result, and despite the tiny team – until earlier this year, when it hired Clare Bogen as publicist (the job having been done previously by a freelance) and publishing assistant Joely Day, Fitzcarraldo’s staff numbered two: Testard and associate publisher Tamara Sampey-Jawad – the house has been able to develop long-term and in-depth relationships with its authors, offering them the kind of direct and personal attention they are unlikely to receive from a larger publisher. Like an indie record label, the imprint expects to lose some of its rising stars to the majors. But so far, they’ve only seen one big name depart: Eula Biss, who was offered “a huge book deal in America,” Testard says, and who very clearly left with the label’s best wishes and heartiest congratulations.

“I’m sure we’ll lose authors at some point,” he says. “I guess what I would like to do – and I’ve tried to do with all of our debut authors – is to show them that although we might not be able to pay huge advances, we’ll do work that others won’t, and we’ll spend as much time on editorial as necessary. There’s one debut author – Patrick Langley, whose debut novel [Arkady] we published last year – where I think I went through eight drafts with him. That’s quite unlikely to happen at a bigger publishing house. We tour our authors as much as they want. If you’re published by a corporate imprint you don’t really have that relationship. I guess the challenge is also to prove to writers who are likely to win prizes in the next few years that we can do what needs to be done if someone does win a prize; and I think we’ve done that, with Flights last year."

Flights, a discursive, fragmentary novel, blending apparently observational, journalistic writing with allegorical history and excursions into studies of anatomy, was the first fruit of a three-book deal with Olga Tokarczuk. The relationship was struck after Fitzcarraldo made a deliberate decision to find a Polish author in the wake of the 2016 EU referendum result, and the spate of violence – both physical and verbal – directed at British-resident eastern Europeans that followed. From what Testard calls “post-Brexit-referendum despair” came the Booker win, and the imprint’s biggest success to date.

“The first thing I did when Olga was announced as the winner was call the printers,” Testard says. “Well, give her a hug, then called the printers.”

There were some compromises that had to be made. Fitzcarraldo’s standard editions come with French flaps – folded-in front and back covers that can be used as bookmarks, like the jacket of a hardback – but the two-week turnaround from the Cornish printer would have presented a problem. “If you win a big prize you’re expected to have 15,000 copies in bookshops within four days,” Testard says.

An alternative, flapless, design had been created when Compass was nominated for the same prize previously. It has a slightly different, narrower, shape, and the elegant house logo does not appear inside its usual bell; title and author’s name are in title case, rather than all capitals. It is, in short, immediately identifiable as a Fitzcarraldo book, but has enough subtle differences to stand out to someone familiar with the rest of the list – or indeed to give a newcomer to the publisher an idea of what else to look for.

“We had the [flapless version] ready to roll out,” he continues. “We wanted to keep the similarity in design, so that people who came to Fitzcarraldo through that mass-market edition would still recognise the other books. The idea is that as soon as you’ve seen one Fitzcarraldo book, you’ll notice the rest of them.”

That design – by another White Review associate, Ray O’Meara, who also created the font (unsurprisingly named Fitzcarraldo) used across the house’s entire output – has not just enabled the quick turnaround for the post-prize reprinting of Flights, but has helped the imprint to establish itself with both readers and booksellers. Yet few were able to see it as likely to deliver such benefits at the outset, with Fitzcarraldo’s initial distributors particularly sceptical.

“When I showed them the design we’d come up with, with blue for fiction and white for essays, they said it was a bit crazy and it wouldn’t work,” he says. “It was placing pressure on booksellers to actually read the books in order to be able to sell them…”

Perish the thought…

“Yeah, exactly,” he smiles. “And that maybe it was fine to do this for the first year, but they strongly recommended we change the design after a year, or whatever. At that point, because I knew how to make a book but I didn’t really know much about selling them, I had a bit of a wobble – but Ray said, ‘It’ll be fine, let’s just do this. If it doesn’t work we can think about it, but it’s gonna work.’ And he was right. I think what happened is that booksellers really got behind the idea and became fans, and do read the books. And because the books look good together they do displays. There’ll be a Fitzcarraldo shelf in most indie bookshops, and in some Waterstones too. So we’ve had almost free marketing out of it, because we don’t have to pay for the displays that other publishers might have to pay for.”

Money may not be a motivation, but it’s certainly a preoccupation.

“It’s a business, and you have to try and do the best by every book and every author,” Testard says. “Last year we turned a very, very small profit, of less than a thousand pounds – but it doesn’t really mean anything, because I could very easily have paid an extra £5,000 in translation fees the day before the accounts closed, and then we wouldn’t have turned a profit. It works at the moment: the balance between ingoings and outgoings is manageable. But because it’s a business that’s so much about investing in the future, we owe a lot of money – in translating fees to come, in advances to come, in printing bills to come, or whatever. And simultaneously we’re owed lots of money, in rights sales and book sales. So it’s really all about managing cash flow, and as long as you have cash in the bank it’s possible to keep going.”

Like some other small imprints – and some record labels’ singles clubs – Fitzcarraldo runs an annual subscription scheme. For £100, subscribers get a year’s worth of books – in 2019, the label will publish 12 titles – and Testard gets some small measure of financial breathing space, with income that may not be received for eighteen months being banked in advance of publication. But he freely admits that it was the two big prize wins – Tokarcuk’s Booker, and the (non-book-specific) award of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature to Alexievich – that have given the company a foundation it can build on with confidence.

"The Nobel Prize for Svetlana Alexievich was huge, because at that point I was only publishing six books a year and still working on my own,” Testard says. “We had the rights, and I was able to sell the rights to that book in America for a six-figure sum – most of which went to the author, but it was still a huge grant, essentially, or a huge cash injection, which meant that I could continue for a few more books per year, and take someone on to work with me for the first time. It was also a validation of the editorial line – a reward for risk-taking, I guess. And then Olga, it was way more significant in terms of sales, but again a validation – that if you publish good books, people will eventually pay attention, and that it is possible to make it work financially.”

It’s an important distinction, and arguably the most significant difference between Testard’s venture and the character in Werner Herzog’s 1982 film he chose to name his company after. The allusion is clear, and easy enough to understand: Testard’s devotion to his chosen art means his path may well involve dragging his literary ship over a mountaintop. But he doesn’t want to be in the situation where art is created regardless of commercial viability; where [spoiler alert] he has to sell the boat after finally staging the opera.

“No!” he laughs. “Absolutely not. And I’m fortunate enough that we don’t have to – it’s a sound business. But, yeah, it is publishing. And if we had a bad year it could all collapse. Or, to take the Fitzcarraldo metaphor, we might not make it to the top of the mountain, or the boat might sink somewhere in the middle of the Amazon.”

Does it still feel like he’s engaged in the difficult task of hauling the damn thing up the slope, though? Despite the Nobel and the Booker, having helped make Tokarczuk at least a moderately bright star in the UK’s literary firmament (the follow-up to Flights, a vivid, one-of-a-kind pastoral introspective murder mystery, Drive Your Plow Over The Bones Of The Dead, was another hit and was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker, and her 1,000-page Book Of Jacob is due next year), and with agents now beginning to send new talent Testard’s way, does it still feel like he’s blasting his way through the trees?

“Yeah, definitely. It’s pretty hard work,” he says. “Though we’re in a good position. We remain a small team and we don’t have the resources that bigger publishers do. We’re publishing a book a month, and we know pretty well what we’ll be publishing up to the summer of 2020.

“On the one hand I guess I’m cautious about the sales potential because, by and large, every book doesn’t sell five figures,” he adds. “But on the other hand, I don’t know what the potential is, because I think we’re still very much in a launch phase. It’s five years since the first book came out: we’’re still a very young publisher. A lot of people don’t know we exist. A lot of people who read books don’t know we exist. And I think it’ll take probably another five years to have an idea of what the potential might be.”

Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track is out now. The 50th Fitzcarraldo title, I Remain In Darkness by Annie Ernaux, and translated by Tanya Leslie, is published on 18 September. The imprint’s fifth birthday party takes place at Lant Street, 59-61 Lant Street, London, SE1 1QN on 25 September To attend, please RSVP to info@fitzcarraldoeditions.com. For information about events, to enter the annual essay or fiction prizes, take out a subscription, and/or buy from the imprint’s catalogue, visit the Fitzcarraldo website

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