“We exist to do the difficult things of publishing,” Eric Lane of Dedalus on life running “the most literary publishing house in Europe.”
By Daniel Kalder
CAMBRIDGESHIRE, UK: I first encountered Dedalus Books’ esoteric literary catalogue in the old Science Fiction Bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was a strange place: upstairs they sold Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and French editions of Watchmen, while in the basement a Zen gnome peddled an eclectic mix of Star Trek novelizations, HP Lovecraft books and Philip K Dick’s Gnostic writings. Iain Banks shopped there regularly. In the darkest corner of the shop there were lots of books by a single publisher: Dedalus. All of them had weird, evocative titles: The Book of Nights, The Arabian Nightmare, The Golem, The Saragossa Manuscript. The books were often described as classics, but they weren’t on any canon I had studied. Intrigued, my 19-year-old self bought The Architect of Ruins by Herbert Rosendorfer, a novel about four men in an Armageddon shelter, amusing themselves by telling stories as they await the end of the world. The Zen gnome nodded approvingly. “That is an excellent book,” he said. Later I would discover that Rosendorfer is one of the most important German authors of the 20th century, albeit barely translated into English. No surprise there, then.
I didn’t know it at the time but what had captured my attention was a “new” genre, described by Dedalus as “distorted reality,” “. . . where the bizarre, the unusual, the grotesque and the surreal meld in a kind of intellectual fiction which is very European.” Interviewed via email, publisher Eric Lane explains the origins of the concept: “The credit for the Dedalus genre must go to (novelist and scholar of Islam) Robert Irwin. He recommended the line of books we are now well-known for: Huysmans, Meyrink and Potocki. Our list was inspired above all by Jan Potocki’s The Saragossa Manuscript and indeed we have a French literary fantasy list which we describe as distorted reality… Our editorial policy emerged in 1985 and we have followed it ever since. We are constantly looking to broaden into new areas but only if they connect back to the core distorted reality brief.”
Robert Irwin is today one of Dedalus’ eight unpaid directors, complementing a paid staff of only two. His The Arabian Nightmare was on Dedalus’ initial list of just three books released in 1983. Since then it has sold 30 000 copies in English, while rights have been sold to over 30 countries around world. Other authors have followed in his wake, discovered by Dedalus and then sold internationally: David Marsden’s scandalous Memoirs of a Gnostic Dwarf has been sold to over twenty countries; multiple prize winning author Andrew Crumey also got his start with Dedalus with Music in a Foreign Language and his subsequent books have since been published worldwide. Meanwhile Dedalus continue to publish several unique lines of translated fiction: European classics, which tend to the decadent/grotesque side of things; anthologies of fantasy from France, Finland, and the Flemish speaking part of Belgium; and “concept” books such as the Dedalus Book of Absinthe or the Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides. Unsurprisingly, this is not the most lucrative business model.
“Being unique is not always a good thing, just as being committed to Europe isn’t an easy strategy to follow for a UK publisher,” says Lane. “We have just bought the twelfth novel by Sylvie Germain despite each novel we publish from her selling less than the one before. We have also bought a 270,000 (word) French novel Where Tigers are at Home by Jean-Marie Blas de Robies . . . Some European classics have done well, while others have failed to find their market. Living European authors and our European Literary Fantasy Series have been challenging but we remain committed to them. These are not sensible commercial decisions but they are culturally the correct decisions.”
This commitment to quality over profit has brought Dedalus many accolades, says Lane: “Many European publishers have told us that we are most literary publisher to be found in the eight halls of the Frankfurt Book Fair. A French publisher (Phebus) said we were the French publisher of the fringe and more French than any French publisher he knew. He also said a list like ours would be impossible to put together for a small publisher in France.”
On the other hand, with a list like that it is impossible to survive on sales alone. In 2008, the year of the company’s 25th anniversary, the global economic crisis saw the market for foreign rights sales collapse, which hit Dedalus hard. Worse still, the Arts Council of England suddenly withdrew its support, making Dedalus the only one of 14 Arts Council subsidized publishers to receive this treatment: ” . . . we lost our funding without any assessment of our performance or without any comparison with other ACE funded publishers being made,” insists Lane. He threatened to sue ACE and mustered as much support as he could via contacts and appeals on the Dedalus website. Eventually a “fairy godmother” intervened:
“The chief executive of Informa Plc, David Gilbertson, discussed our plight with his colleagues and Jeremy North, the M.D of Routledge Books gave us two years of sponsorship. We were sponsored under their corporate responsibility program. We visited their premises a few times and various people there gave us advice and support. We got a payment each month for £2,500. The only thing we had to do in return was to send Routledge a monthly invoice. Their funding of Dedalus was pure altruism.”
But as 2010 approached, Dedalus once again faced a funding crisis. Lane made an appeal for patrons, and even came up with innovative publisher-in-residence idea that would have seen him relocate the firm to a university and receive funding in exchange for teaching students about publishing.
‘We tried a lot of different things which excited interest but no money. Bizarrely when we had given up trying another Fairy Godmother appeared from nowhere and got us a grant from a Swiss foundation for £12,500. Sometimes it seems that come what may Dedalus is destined to survive — or perhaps we are more fortunate than most in attracting the attention of benefactors.”
Finally, in 2010 Arts Council funding was reinstated following a reassessment by Nick McDowell. Dedalus then transferred from the Cambridge office of the council to the London office, where he says, relations are greatly improved. “We now have a very charming ACE officer, Nicola Smythe, who likes our list and who is very helpful. I hope the funding we have been given for 2010/2011 (£26,900) and 2011/2012 (£25,088 sterling) is not the end of our ACE funding. We believe we offer the taxpayer good value for its investment and offer a benefit to the creative economy and the cultural standing of the UK way in excess of the sums of money we get. To stop our funding would not make economic success, especially as it is so low.”
Lane is cautiously optimistic about the future. The firm is dipping its toe into digitization — four e-books have been released and he has plans to digitize Dedalus’ backlist. Meanwhile foreign rights sales are “improving”:
“It is too early to tell whether we can return to selling £45,000 of rights a year. In 2009/2010 we sold only £8,000. As we publish the European novel written in English, it is essential to get foreign rights income to make up for modest home sales for many books.”
Sometimes this succeeds spectacularly, as when Andy Oakes’ detective novel Dragon’s Eye, which sold just 2,000 copies in the UK, made over £100,000 in foreign sales. Lane is also confident that another recent Dedalus signing will eventually take off. Andrew Killeen has thus far written two novels set in the world of the Arabian Nights. Says Lane: “I think Andrew Killeen’s novels in time will go worldwide but at the moment he has very modest sales. We do however work on a 5/6 year time frame and a lot of our original fiction is successful in this timescale.”
Back from the brink, Lane intends to pursue Dedalus’ mission with renewed ruthlessness, and has just started a new line of African fiction in translation, publishing The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersao. The average print run may have recently been reduced from 2,000 copies to 1,500 but Lane remains undaunted. “We exist to do the difficult things of publishing,” he says, adding: “If a small literary publisher cannot be an alternative to commercial publishing what publishers can?”
Daniel Kalder’s most recent book is Strange Telescopes, published by Overlook/Faber. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com