Five Questions with the Trio Behind Open Letter Books

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Just over two years old, Open Letter Books, based at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, have made it their mission to introduce American readers to international authors through foreign translations. OLB, a non-profit organization, publish 12 books a year, in addition to running the online literary website, Three Percent, which aims to achieve “the lofty goal of becoming a destination for readers, editors, and translators interested in finding out about modern and contemporary international literature.”

Comprised of three foreign literature devotees (Nathan Furl, Art and Operations; Chad W. Post, Publisher; and E.J. Van Lanen, Editor), both OLB and Three Percent, like New Directions and Dalkey Archive Press, have made their international authors more accessible and attractive to readers by upping the ante on the production of hardback and paperback books. Each OLB title mirrors the next through strong yet minimal design, originally conceived by graphic designer, Milan Bozic, a friend of Van Laren.

Since the imprint launched, they’ve created a visual aesthetic that corresponds more to the Sub Pop Singles Club of the early-90s than a book-of-the-month club. OLB titles are sold as stand-alone items or in a subscription service model where readers receive, on average, one book a month for five to 10 months, depending on dollar amount spent. This has helped them build a loyal, albeit small readership that trusts the taste of the publisher. Thus far, most of their titles, according to an article on the press in The New York Times, sell no more than 3000 copies. But in our Kindle and iPad post-digital world, it is a respectable number of books sold.

Although I’ve only read a couple of their titles this year, I’ll keep coming back to OLB books in the new year, making their small press one of my Best of 2010 picks. I was fortunate enough to get all three founders to answer my Five Questions about the inception of the press, their design identity, and what it’s like to work on a print endeavor with the University of Rochester.

What immediately struck me about Open Letter Books was its strong yet minimal visual presence. Was there a conscious decision, early on, to make these books objects as well as books? And what were the major influences when it came time to flesh out how the catalog should look and feel?Nathan Furl: Independent of any design, production, and marketing choices, printed books will always be objects, whether you care or not, so it’s really a question of how much attention you pay to those objects you’re making. For us, we knew early on that we’d like to give the books, as well as the larger personality of Open Letter, some sort of cohesive look—a family of materials and an identity that somehow all make sense together and, hopefully, that do a service to the books, the content, and the press as an entity. It’s not an uncommon idea, but I think it’s a great one for smaller publishers, especially, because it takes advantage of their nimbleness in order to achieve something that feels larger than any of the individual parts. As it turned out, successfully creating and agreeing upon that look for our first season was a real challenge. Eventually, we turned to a fantastic designer named Milan Bozic, who was a friend of E.J.’s. Milan built the foundation of our look by designing the covers for our first two seasons. With that difficult piece in place, we’ve been been working hard at it ever since. (I’ve designed a handful of covers, as well as all the interiors, catalogues, posters, etc., which we aim to fit within our larger personality, too. And, over the past season, E.J. has been designing nearly all of our the newest covers.) I should mention, too, that creating a whole visual identity for us isn’t a goal in itself. The point of all this, first and foremost, is to use any tools at our disposal to get English-language readers excited about international literature and to get our books into as many people’s hands as we can.

E.J. Van Lanen: There was definitely a conscious decision to think about the books as objects. There’s something that Dave Eggers said once that I really felt applied to us, and I’m paraphrasing, and misremembering, but when he was asked about the design of the McSweeney’s books, he said that they wanted their books to not only win readers in the bookstores, but to win on people’s bookshelves too–to be irresistible once they’re home. It’s one thing to get there, and it’s something else again to get picked up and read.

So we had this sort of idea from the outset. Our first decision on that front was to do our books paper-over-board, which is pretty common in a lot of book markets around the world, but isn’t so prevalent here, with the idea that this would be a way to stand out from the crowd. And we did; but it didn’t last, unfortunately, because although we were selling the books at paperback prices, people tended to think that the books would be expensive. It’s a hardcover format, and the natural tendency, after years of training by big publishers, is to expect hardcovers to cost thirty dollars. Maybe one day we’ll go back to that format, but I think the designs we have work really well on paperback as well.

For the look, we were really fortunate to work with a great designer, Milan Bozic, who works for HarperCollins, to develop the designs for our first 12 books. We wanted to have a look that would feel coherent from one book to the next, so that eventually our books would have some sort of Open Letter-ish feel to them, but we didn’t want to do something so rigid that we’d get bored with it or be trapped in a format that wasn’t really working or that we didn’t like. We also knew we didn’t want to use any photographs, nor could we afford to pay an illustrator. So, we sent Milan these parameters, which on reflection sound pretty limiting, along with descriptions of the books and a few ideas for images and asked him to see what he could do. Of the first six designs he proposed, I think three or four—The Pets, The Taker, Nobody’s Home—had this bold, sparse, graphical feel to them. And although they’re very different designs, they felt as though they somehow belonged together, I suppose because they all came from Milan and this was a mood he was in at the time. We asked him to continue on in this direction, and after the first 12 books were published, the mold had been set. Milan is far, far too busy for us now, and, frankly we couldn’t afford to pay him what he really deserves, but because the original notion was so strong, and so flexible, we’ve been able to approximate that look, with varying success to be sure, in his absence.

Did the Three Percent website start up at the same time as the book imprint? Both sites seem to compliment each other nicely. Has it lead to more awareness of foreign translations?
Chad Post: The Three Percent website was launched at the same time that Open Letter was announced. When we were putting together the plans for Open Letter—what it would look like, how we would distribute our books, what titles we would publish—we knew that our first book wouldn’t be published for another 18 months . . . which seemed like an eternity at the time. At the same time, I really thought there was a need for a website dedicated exclusively to international literature. A place where readers could find out about untranslated titles and the business of publishing, where they could read reviews of the works that did make their way into English. (For better or worse, a lot of these titles come out from independent and university presses, which tend not to garner as much review attention as the larger, more commercial presses.)

I always viewed Three Percent as the most altruistic part of our organization. Through the blog we’re able to promote titles from other presses, raise awareness about translation issues, and praise specific translators. We wanted this to become a hub for information on translation, which is why it expanded to include the “translation database” and the “Best Translated Book Award.” The site is a nice complement to what we’re doing with Open Letter—with Open Letter we get to publish great books we love and believe in, and with Three Percent we get to engage with the larger cultural issues and promote the art of literary translation.

Has the subscription model worked thus far? Chad Post: So far the subscription model has worked extremely well. It took a little while to get the word out (and there’s still a lot of promotion we could do), but it’s grown rather steadily and really appeals to those readers who live in areas that don’t have a great indie (or chain) store nearby. (Such as, uh, Rochester, NY.) And although we can all get the books via Amazon, or other online retailers, there is something appealing to knowing that each title will be shipped to you as soon as it’s available. You never have to worry about missing anything, and you know that every month you’ll get something interesting in the mail. I also think that it helps that we include a letter or additional materials explaining why we decided to publish a particular book, or how we found it. Hopefully this provides a somewhat interesting context . . .

OLB started publishing poetry this year. Has that changed any of the dynamics internally or was that always a part of the master plan?Chad Post: We actually planned on publishing poetry from the start, but really weren’t sure the best way to go about it. We knew we wanted to do one collection a year, but none of us were big poetry readers, so we weren’t sure where exactly to turn. Thankfully, after years of hedging and debating and trying to figure out what to do, poet and translator Jen Grotz arrived on campus and agreed to serve as our poetry editor. A few months later she had identified three excellent books, which we’ll be publishing over the next few years. So it hasn’t really changed the internal dynamics at all—except that now we actually are fulfilling part of our original plan . . .

Apart from the financial support OLB receives from the university, does living in Rochester improve quality of life? Is it more conducive to editing, designing and publishing great books of literary translation than it would be in New York City? Nathan Furl: I like it. It’s big enough to be interesting but not so big as to be unwieldy, and Rochester can be equal parts East Coast and Midwest, which is fine with me because I grew up in central Illinois. In terms of a home for Open Letter, it’s the perfect place to be because we’re part of and exist thanks to the University of Rochester and the great people here with whom we work closely, everyday. In terms of a place to live and work, I don’t know if living without high rent makes my quality of life better, but I certainly doubt it hurts.

E.J. Van Lanen: The two biggest luxuries that living in Rochester and working at the University of Rochester afford are time and energy. New York City is an exhausting place to live and work in, and everything there seems to take an hour longer than you think it will—no matter how long you’ve lived there nor how many times you’ve experienced the inevitable time suck. Once you’ve eliminated the 45 minute subway commute, the late night cab rides, the crowds everywhere, at all hours, you rediscover how many hours there are in the day and how much more productive you can feel during that time. It’s something you only notice once you’ve moved away.

And that’s not to say I don’t miss all of the so-obvious-they’re-not-worth-mentioning advantages of living in NYC, nor that I wouldn’t like to move back there one day, but if you’re doing what we’re doing, with, essentially, just three people, those extra hours and that extra energy is indispensable. I know Jill Schoolman is doing more or less the same thing as us at Archipelago Books in Brooklyn, without a university at her back, but I have no idea how she does it. In Rochester, we’ve been given the space to do exactly what we want to do, in exactly the way we’d like to do it—we’re surrounded by people who are incredibly supportive of the press-—and I feel like we have the time and energy to take it all on and do it the right way. It’s sort of a dream … well, until the snow starts to fall.