An Interview with Barbara Epler and Tom Roberge
The Coffin Factory sat down with Barbara Epler (president and publisher) and Tom Roberge (publicity director) of New Directions in their office overlooking Greenwich Village to talk about independent publishing and finding bold, new experiments in literature from around the world.
The Coffin Factory: Could you characterize New Directions for those readers not familiar with your publishing company?
Barbara Epler: We are a small, independent publisher, and “for profit” which is very unusual for a place that only does literary work. It was founded in 1936 by James Laughlin. He had the idea of “new directions;” he studied with Pound and Gertrude Stein, and he truly believed in the experiment of one-world literature, and the need and purpose of creating a space where literary experiments can be carried out in public. He began by publishing some anthologies, and then quickly became the publisher of Pound and the first publisher of Nabokov, Céline, and Neruda. We have an incredible back list, an incredible wealth of great books. The history of the publisher is this inherent belief that if you just publish very very good books, they’ll find readers. Pound had this great thing, “it takes that marketing edge off,” and at least it used to when JL was still alive and had a lot of money. Really new kinds of writing can take twenty years to catch on, and the people JL published were considered very far out. Then, not too long afterwards, they became the canon, and for many years the secondary rights income helped support New Directions. The theory of the company was that the backlist would pay for the front list. It doesn’t really work that way anymore, but those were great times. When I first started working here, which was in 1984, if the front list broke even everyone got taken out for champagne. It was usually the backlist that preformed incredibly well. But now the problem is that so many rare books are available in the used book market on the Internet. So we re-launch books, we republish titles from our backlist with a new cover and a new introduction by a younger writer usually. It helps. It zips back up the sales but it’s more of a struggle then it was at one point.
The Coffin Factory: Many of the big names on your backlist are published by other publishing houses, too. Are there ways to piggy-back on that? Or when they’re doing something new, if someone is reissuing somebody they might share with you on your backlist, might you take advantage of that opportunity?
Tom Roberge: There is a lot of stuff that’s available in different translations and with different translators all together, from the same author, so it’s hard to capitalize on that exactly. In a very tangential way, you can say, look Borges is in the news again, and try to sell some books that way, but generally none of the other publishers are dying to help us sell our books. Sometimes there are other independent publishers that are happy to help each other, like New York Review of Books—we travel in the same areas and help each other by promoting each others’ books because we are promoting the same authors—but it’s hard to help out somebody else without a direct line of communication and connection. Although with Bolaño, the two big novels that FSG did really helped our backlist.
Barbara Epler: Their marketing efforts were impressive. They did a really good job—and they have a marketing department.
The Coffin Factory: That’s already a big difference. The big publishing companies have huge marketing departments, but The Coffin Factory believes New Directions is a unique and special publishing house because of your sophisticated taste, the kind of work you publish—as you mentioned, allowing experiments a public space. Its mission might be its brand, in that sense. Do you think New Directions has a brand that consumers recognize and gravitate towards, and do you try to cultivate that brand consciously?
Barbara Epler: A lot of our book buyers are writers themselves. They think, “Oh, New Directions.” They know what we are doing, and I think the poetry community, in particular, loves our kind of poetry, but they know what kind of poetry we are. That’s a big community. If we talk about going back to the 60s, when everything we published had the recognizable black and white paperback cover—it was just such a thing. Now I think it exists largely in our own minds and in a Venn diagram of readers who are interested in a certain kind of writing. Or a reader might get hooked on say, Bolaño, and they say, Hey, look here’s Bolaño,” but then they go backwards and say, “Well, I already own Borges, and Nabokov,” and they see how these authors are connected on one list, and they might look for someone else on our list. I think people who are in the literary world do know New Directions in that way, and with younger people it has been really helpful to have Bolaño come along.
Tom Roberge: And, well, I’ve said this phrase many more times than I care to admit, but “monetizing the brand” is very difficult because people who already know about us know about us. Certainly there is the matter of making them aware of what we are publishing. It’s one thing to continue with Bolaño, someone we took on, thinking in that old model, knowing it was going to take some time, hopefully not twenty years, but five or six years, four or five books for them to finally build an audience and a reputation here in the US or among more than a very select group of readers. For those readers it’s just a matter of making them aware we’re publishing more books by this author, but we couldn’t just live on that. We have to get these books into more people’s hands, and to do that you almost have to abandon your brand, or abandon relying on that, in order to say, “Look, this is a good book no matter who is publishing it,” and hope that when readers do pick it up, read it and love it, they’ll get on the internet and look and see there is a series of books by this author or that there are other books very similar to it that New Direction publishes. In this scenario, they have to understand that there is something at work, even if they’re not hearing it directly from us, they can piece together. Hopefully then they’ll understand that this tradition started 75 years ago and that New Directions has always been doing this kind of experimental stuff. And if they’re well-read enough they’ll understand there is a lineage of experimental writers who eventually become classics, and that’s who we’re publishing now: writers who will eventually become classics.
To read the rest of this interview, purchase the issue.