By Amanda DeMarco
BERLIN: And Other Stories is a small UK-based publisher of (mostly translated) literary fiction that has been making big waves since its founding in 2010. There are two reasons AOS has gotten so much attention: its unusual editorial methods, and its remarkable success.
When And Other Stories looks for books to translate, it uses foreign-language reading groups, who make recommendations and cull out weaker candidates, editorial crowd-sourcing if you will. They also provide invaluable information in an industry notoriously devoid of market research, and build a network of enthusiastic, engaged supporters.
Evidence that the system works is in the fantastic choices And Other Stories has made. The eight books they’ve published in the past two years have far outstripped the expectations anyone would have for a small, new publisher — they’ve been lauded, reviewed in major venues and nominated and selected for awards (including Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, currently long-listed for the Booker Prize and Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award).
So when translator Katy Derbyshire got in contact with me about starting a German-language reading group in Berlin, I was thrilled to take part. We just finished our first cycle of three books, which was both a lot of fun and a great learning experience. A look back:
Selecting books for the group is a bit more complicated than just finding great reads. Some restrictions arise from the economies of translation funding. The governments of Switzerland and Austria offer complete funding for translations, while Germany only offers partial support. What this means is that while length is not a (financial) consideration for Swiss and Austrian titles, a very long German book, and the thousands of pounds a quality translation of it would cost, present a large burden for indie And Other Stories. We did select one longish German book this round, but not without reservations.
The reading group system itself also creates restrictions. Because it takes months, from beginning to end, for books to be selected and discussed, “hot” titles (whose rights are likely to be bought quickly) are not good candidates. Overlooked gems are less likely to be snapped up mid-process.
That said, it’s our passions, and lots of helpful recommendations, that are the determining factor in selecting the books.
And Other Stories creates a web-page for each of the books it’s considering, with an English-language summary and a sample translation from each book (for fans who want to follow along, but can’t read the particular language the books are written in). That means there’s a considerable amount of work involved in creating the materials.
Once that initial labor is done, for the most part an And Other Stories reading group functions just like any normal book group, except that after the typical conversation, we talk about how the book might work as a translation, and how it would fit in And Other Stories’ list. And those considerations make the whole experience feel a little different.
Our Berlin group is mostly made up of translators, with some students in the mix. We hold our meetings after-hours in Dialogue Bookshop, an English-language shop that’s become a mainstay of Berlin literary life. (It’s tempting to fantasize about seeing one of the books we read on the shelves there in English one day.) For our first round, we met once a month for three months, to discuss three German books that, though all literary and well-received, were stylistically about as different as it gets.
As were our opinions on them: the same title one participant thought was “important literature” “had no redeeming qualities” to another. One reader “just loved” a book that another reader “couldn’t take seriously.” Though contention in a book group can be unpleasant, luckily ours was a harmonious discord — translators are good listeners, and everyone was interested in hearing why their fellow group members didn’t agree with them. Perhaps most reassuringly, by the end of the meetings, people’s opinions tended to become more moderate, not more entrenched.
At the end of each meeting, to give ourselves a point of reference for the next time, everyone rates the book on a scale of 1 to 10. Each book and each meeting was so different, our opinions on them so varied, I think we were all a little flabbergasted at the last meeting when we realized that the average score for each of the books was the same — between 6 and 6.5. That’s right, in terms of their quality, our net perception of them was almost perfectly constant.
Tastemakers and Context
It’s Sharmaine Lovegrove, owner of Dialogue Books, who puts her finger on how our group’s opinions could be simultaneously conflicted yet homogenous: “It shows you how much people normally rely on tastemakers.”
It sounds funny to me at first: these books have all already been published, they’ve been reviewed, won awards, and have settled into their places in the world of German literary culture. And the members of the group are all leading active literary lives, absorbing that culture. So why does it feel like we’re beating new paths? Don’t we have tastemakers we (consciously or not) fall back on?
Well, yes but no. When you imagine a book in a new context, old assessments lose significance. Even if the majority of our discussions could have happened in any book group, the framework of And Other Stories’ project pushes the books into a new space and forces new assessments — potentially chaotic, conflicting ones.
Also, there’s a particular violence about discussing German books in English. If we were discussing in German, I would probably find myself using words, or perhaps even whole phrases I had come across in reviews of the book and that had gotten stuck in my consciousness. But in English it’s a clean break.
I can’t say I was surprised that none of the books in the first round got our endorsement — we were planning on doing a second round from the beginning. Besides, having very high standards doesn’t just mean finding fabulous books, it means reading and thinking seriously about lots of ultimately not-the-right books.
Of course, the reading groups are the beginning, not the end, of And Other Stories’ editorial process. According to Publisher Stefan Tobler, “Our approach is about opening doors to people with great knowledge and expertise — but not turning it into a voting system where most votes wins. To keep the publisher’s identity and quality control, we need to listen to opinions but use our own heads too.”
Amanda DeMarco is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives; she also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.