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European Lit Published with Passion, Promoted with Wine

With a focused list of short translations, UK’s Peirene Press has quickly developed a cult following among London’s smart set.

By Amanda DeMarco

Meike Ziervogel

LONDON: Peirene Press is doing something right. In fact, they’re doing a lot right, which is why the Arts Council of England awarded them with £19,878 ($32,568) earlier this week, as well as why the Independent Publisher’s Guild honored them with the Newcomer of the Year Award this March. Peirene founder and publisher Meike Ziervogel was thrilled to receive the affirmation of her peers, as she related in an interview with Publishing Perspectives: “What was really nice about the [IPG] prize was that they gave it for the right reasons. So they congratulated us on our beautiful books but also on our modern marketing strategy.”

A targeted identity and a personal voice

One important part of that “modern marketing strategy” is a well-focused identity. Peirene publishes three works of contemporary European literature annually, all of them 200 pages or less. Each year has a theme (2010: year of the female narrative; 2011: year of the man; 2012: year of the small epic) that unites all of the books.

A second important element is community-building. For Peirene, that means a balance of online and face-to-face contact. Ziervogel’s formula for successful social media is expressing a distinctive personality: “Every now and again you advertise some news, but in between what really makes or breaks any Facebook presence or Twitter presence is the personal voice behind it.” It’s not enough to announce a publication or event; people need to be drawn by the entertainment factor and develop a relationship with the press.

Similarly, the annual themes are a tool for developing Peirene’s personal voice by “trying to reinforce to the reader that there is somebody behind this operation who thinks things through…It’s really enforcing that trust that we’re hoping to build.” Each book also contains a personal statement by Ziervogel about why she chose to publish it, which has been very popular with sales representatives.

“An incredibly intimate way of doing things”

Peirene invests heavily in face-to-face community building. Ziervogel sets up shop at markets and fairs. They offer coffee mornings. But the events that have garnered Peirene the most attention and praise are Ziervogel’s salons.

Held in her home, the salons are no ordinary book event. “It’s an incredibly intimate way of doing things,” said Ziervogel. The salons start with some mixing of the writers, publishing professionals, readers, members of the press, and artists who attend. Next comes 45 minutes to an hour with a Peirene author, usually in discussion with a journalist.

“I don’t like a lot of reading events. I find them boring,” explained Ziervogel; the salons are an author event, but they’re also an opportunity for networking, relaxing, talking, and enjoying great food and drink: “They’re now funded by the Wine Society so the wine is just excellent. Everybody gets really well fed and we have more wine…a core of around 15 people usually stays on until two or three o’clock in the morning and we have whiskey.” If you’re thinking, “Where can I sign up?” you’re not alone.

Going Digital

If Peirene has rapidly exceeded all expectations for a small literary publisher, some of its strategies have required adjustment, particularly the marketing aspects. “I come from the text side, I’m excited about texts, that’s the driving passion behind this publishing house,” related Ziervogel. “I couldn’t say that the way I’m doing it now is the way I imagined doing it three years ago.”

Before founding Peirene, she had never blogged or used Twitter and she wasn’t on Facebook. “Facebook is quite difficult for publishers, and it took me a long time to get my head around it.” Social media and some of the face-to-face community building, like selling at markets, developed organically as Ziervogel tried out new strategies to see what worked. What’s next for Peirene? They’ll soon be working with Faber Factory on e-book distribution.

It’s All About the Books

It would be a mistake to discuss Peirene’s success in creating a focused identity and devoted reading community without talking about the books. Ziervogel’s goal is for readers to trust her selections and to read her books simply because they’re published by Peirene. Which they would be well-advised to do because the books are very, very good. Readability is a serious consideration for Ziervogel: “I always make sure in every single book, that every single sentence reads like a page-turner.”

Literary translations may not have a great reputation for being readable page-turners, but Ziervogel sees that as a problem that begins with publishers, who burden translations with lowered expectations even before they’re published. “I’m not satisfied when people say that in the UK there’s only a small number of people who read translated fiction. Well, when we go to the market and sell directly, what we’ve learned is if you say to people, ‘Try it, don’t worry,’ they try it and they come back for more”

A regular contributor to Publishing Perspectives, Amanda DeMarco also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.

SURVEY: How Long Should an Author Read at an Event?

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