By Will Evans
Deep Vellum is a startup, nonprofit publishing house specializing in translated literature that I founded in 2013 in Dallas, Texas, with plans to publish 10-15 books a year. We’ve just wrapped our inaugural list of books — the first came out in December 2014. We have six more on the way in our second season, and six more planned for our third season in spring 2016. Though still new at this, I have already signed over 30 books — award-winning, groundbreaking titles from five continents by a mix of men and women authors — and I have signed these 30-plus books from literary agents and foreign publishers’ rights teams, large and small, with equal success and enthusiasm from everybody involved.
Starting a translation publishing house is a bit different than other startup publishing endeavors in that I exclusively buy English-language rights from foreign rights holders. And because there are relatively few publishing houses that publish any translations at all in the English-language world, I was able to launch with an ambitious vision to sign the highest caliber literary books that would fill a void in our readership, building bridges between cultures, enriching our understanding of the literary styles and forms of expression from around the world, and telling the story of the human experience in ways that expand our own understanding of literature and narrative storytelling.
I owe everything I’ve learned about buying rights in this short time to two main factors: 1) Chad Post, of Open Letter Books, who, with his own publishing endeavors and Three Percent, inspired me to start my own publishing house in Dallas and then provided me the apprenticeship to teach me how to start and run it, providing introductions to everybody I’ve needed to meet along the way; and 2) the Frankfurt Book Fair, where I’ve been able to meet the publishing world in person.
The summer I spent apprenticing in Rochester with Chad Post was invaluable, but the world of publishing opened up to me when Chad couldn’t attend the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2012. He asked me to go for him and take his meetings as part of that year’s inaugural CLMP (Community of Literary Magazines and Presses) booth. CLMP provided, and continues to provide, booth space for independent presses, giving us the incentive and opportunity to travel to the world’s largest book fair and get into the game of meeting the world to buy and sell their rights.
I was a complete novice in Frankfurt that year, a new face with no publishing experience to speak of, but armed with the dream of starting a publishing house of my own in a year or more’s time. But with Chad’s introductions, I had no trouble arranging meetings — everyone was overjoyed to meet me — and to technically meet with two American translation publishers at once, since I reported everything back to Chad. In Frankfurt, I was able to see for the first time how the international publishing industry was laid out, how the relationships worked, how the information flowed, how the rights to publish the world’s books were discussed, negotiated and confirmed. Through Chad, through CLMP, in Frankfurt, I met with so many literary agents, publishers and cultural organizations of the world, and became, for the first time, a part of the international publishing industry.
My very first meeting of my very first Frankfurt was with one of the legendary rights directors in the entire industry — Petra Hardt of Suhrkamp. That first meeting with Petra was possibly the most important aspect of my education as an acquiring editor. Petra used that first meeting to get to know me and construct a profile of me as a reader, thinker and publisher simultaneously to be able to match the right book with the right publisher — something that Petra is universally known for throughout the industry.
That same first Frankfurt Book Fair, I met with agents from Schavelzon, who pitched me a Ricardo Piglia novel that took two full years for me to come around to signing. Those Frankfurt meetings for me are about introductions not only to the agents and rights directors, but also to the books and authors themselves. I am always seeking the right context in which to publish a title — sometimes that comes courtesy of reviews or academic interest, or a geographic diversity that rounds out a list of titles. When these forces comes together to the point that I can envision a readership and a long-term marketing context, then I will sign a book. But every single meeting with every single rights director in Frankfurt is time well-spent. The same goes for the London, Guadalajara and other international book fairs, where publishers like me — especially those like me lonely in Dallas, Texas — are able to get an idea of what’s going on in the world, and I can figure out how to be a part of literature’s global conversation.
The most important aspect of buying rights isn’t only about money changing hands, but about making a declaration of intent to an author and their team that I am committed to introducing and contextualizing a book and its author to the English-reading world for the long haul. As a small and new publisher, I know I can’t compete for space in the sales figures the first month of publication. What I can offer is a nimble agility to try new things to move books months and years after they are published. This is part of the reason why I try to sign books for terms as long as I can, because in ten years’ time, I will still be working to sell this first list of books, and I’ll use the new books I have coming out then to do that. Rights are the glue that hold our entire publishing enterprise in place: these deals are sacrosanct — rights provide the foundation for me to become a part of the larger publishing community, develop a backlist along the way that more authors and foreign rights directors will want to be a part of for years to come.