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Paper Quijotes: a publishing house is born

In a market dominated by two major publishing houses, they are like Don Quixote fighting against the windmills. Publishers such as Las Afueras, Firmamento, Tránsito, and Barbarie, with less than five years of experience, are clear proof that there is still room for many alternatives, other points of view, and different kinds of literature in our country, and that, why not, it is never too late when the book is good. Small, without resources, and without backing, they row against all odds. But is it still possible to break into the saturated world of Spanish publishing?

Barbarie, newly landed in the publishing ocean,  takes its first steps with its debut novel that just launched on the market, 259 jumps, an immortal one by the Argentinian Alicia Kozameht. Although it has its own support network, this “micro-publishing company”, with only one employee, was born with the desire to “show brave readers -that are willing to dialogue and dissent with others- books of great literary quality and enunciated by voices that inhabit the margins”, says its editor, Sonia López. “We call ourselves Barbarie, on the one hand, to highlight the rejection with which we have named the other, the barbarian or ‘the one who barely babbles our language’. And, on the other, to reaffirm our identity as the subaltern, the outsider. It is time to get closer to the other, to the different one, and to learn to live with the realities that affect others,” she shares.

Barbarie Editora is conceived as a project that “goes beyond a company that publishes books”, it is presented with the intention of rescuing texts by unpublished, out-of-catalog, forgotten, or invisible women writers, as well as “an opportunity for new voices that provide new prisms from which to reflect on our times”.

 Tránsito publishing house shares the interest in publishing women writers. Sol Salama, its editor, founded it in 2018 during a complicated personal moment. “I needed to devote myself to something that demanded a lot of attention and passion, and that is how Tránsito was born, which began by publishing La azotea, by Fernanda Trías“, shares its director, who at the time was going through a difficult bereavement.

From writers to publishers

From the beginning, and over the last four years, Tránsito has “sought to publish women and to find stories that make visible issues that concern us all and that are very much swept under the carpet, or that have historically been narrated from a male perspective, such as mental health, abortion or sexuality,” says the editor.

María Alcantarilla and Javier Vela, who are writers by profession, knew the sector from the inside when in 2020 they began the process of setting up the publishing house Firmamento, which finally began its work in the spring of 2021. “María and I, we are both essentially writers,” says Vela. When the pandemic arrived, we found enough time to mature a project that we had been dreaming about for years, and that consumes, in fact, a good part of our creative strength”.

They were driven by their enthusiasm to recover this craft. “We are attracted by books that offer unorthodox perspectives from which to observe reality, this does not mean that we are looking for extravagant or supposedly “original” texts. For us, there is no defined boundary between the classical and the contemporary; it is a false dichotomy that should not be accepted at face value,” explains the poet and narrator. 

“Our intention is to give visibility to the non-canonical tradition of European and Latin American literature with the publication of certain works of a markedly literary nature that have not had the space they deserve, remaining in many cases unpublished and, in others, incomprehensibly neglected. We would like to create a complementary agenda and restore a heritage that has become almost invisible under the tyranny of simplicity and commercial publishing,” shares Vela. 

Sneaking into the big groups

 Las Afueras, led by two heads, is also at the helm of another relatively recent publishing house. Magda Anglès and Francisco Llorca are the editors of this project that emerged in 2017. We were involved in the world of books from different places and, at one point, we began to map our urban drifts and readings, establishing certain parallels between the two,” they share. Little by little we began to explore the idea of literature as space and reading as an exploration of its limits and, from there, things started to grow… but all this began as a game between two people who love reading and walking and that, in a natural way, evolved into a publishing house”.

With an obvious vocation, one wonders whether it is possible, however, to find a gap between the two large publishing groups that monopolise almost the entire Spanish market. For Llorca, there are always “quite a few gaps” through which smaller publishers can squeeze through. “In this sense, I remember Paco Puche’s Theorem of the Gaps, based on the ideas of José Luis Sampedro, according to which, the bigger the spheres, the more gaps they leave between them, which offered certain opportunities to small publishers in the face of multinationals”, he reasons.

Barbarie’s editor is also positive. “We see the publishing sector as a vast field that is crossed by two great straight lines, which would be the two groups in Spain. They are like two motorways with huge budgets and constant growth targets,” says López. But there are still a lot of kilometres to cover in this field that can only be reached by going on very secondary roads and adventurously. Those routes are never going to be taken by the big groups, and that’s our initial space.

Publishers such as Firmamento circulate along the same roads. “The truth is that we do not aspire to compete with the big groups, not even with the medium-sized and small publishing houses that are already consolidated. That would be a passing fancy. We are aiming at a new community of readers, perhaps not many but zealous, attentive readers, who are the ones we intend to bring together around our publishing house,” Vela argues. Not coincidentally, we start from the active role that Romantic literature already gave to the reader in the construction of meaning, and, as far as possible, we intend to restore that respectful treatment by offering them unique texts that are up to their standards. We think of our books as links or segments of the same chain, according to the image that Calasso used to define the serpentine progression of titles that make up the catalogue of a publishing house. In this sense, our project adopts a clear commitment to literature as a tool for dialogue or cultural mediation”.

The role of the press and bookshops

For Salama, who, like the rest of her colleagues, also prioritises literary interests above everything else, it is not easy to carve out a niche for herself “especially if you publish books that are not so commercial”, she points out. “I believe that this is achieved by creating and maintaining a solid editorial proposal that is accompanied by a powerful and differentiable design; also taking into account the public we are addressing and constantly looking for ways to broaden that public. The press is fundamental, and that is where publishers like Tránsito put in a lot of work so that the public gets to know us and take us into account. It goes hand in hand with bookshops and is also important because in our case they are the first prescribers of our books”.

With a strong identity, the four publishers have their own personality traits and criteria that differentiate them from the rest. “The economic precariousness of the micro-publishers, in which Barbarie Editora develops, has its positive counterpart in the freedom to publish texts based on criteria that go beyond economic ones. Micro-publishers, therefore, contribute to the country’s bibliodiversity,” says López, for whom time, and not urgency, is a point in favour of his publishing house.

The old trick of less is more, the publisher continues. “Instead of publishing many new titles during the year and keeping them for only a few weeks in the bookshops, we want to publish a few titles and extend the reading of those texts for a long time. And how do we extend life beyond the novelty? Firstly, by selecting texts that are neither opportunistic nor attached to an information hanger, and secondly, by working on new readers, readings and approaches.”

Different strategies

For their part, at Firmamento, they pride themselves on working on the basis of certain renunciations. “To give a paradoxical example: we don’t design our programming according to commercial criteria, but literary ones. We don’t go hunting for novelty. We don’t participate in auctions, although we do talk to some literary agencies and listen to their suggestions. We do not pressurise or entertain booksellers for better treatment on the shelves and on the novelty tables. We don’t call or bother journalists if a book of ours doesn’t get enough critical attention. We don’t try to pass off as discoveries titles already published by other publishers that are basically nothing more than simple revivals… In other words, we try to trust our catalogue by looking at the longer term, and to eradicate or attenuate certain habits that have become stagnant in the book industry“, criticises Vela.

Sol Salama differs from Vela, she is committed to recovering titles that have already been published. I really like to recover works,” she says. For example, La cresta de Ilión, by Cristina Rivera Garza, or Marranadas, by Marie Darrieussecq, are books that were published in Spain decades ago but whose life can clearly continue. They are still relevant, they are still powerful, and it is wonderful to find new readers for them“. But she also publishes “books that I come to through other books, such as Alda Merini’s La loca de la puerta de al lado, or Caroline Lamarche’s La memoria del aire. Finding local authors who are starting to write is difficult, but we have published several (Lorena Salazar, Silvia Hidalgo…) who had the decisive decision to publish with Tránsito”, she concludes.

In this sense, in a market where books are published every day, Las Afueras takes another approach, “instead of facing the inevitable challenge of adjusting production to demand, of decreasing, publishers have decided to flee forward and continue producing as if there hadn’t been a pandemic or an energy crisis“. How to survive in this scenario by publishing little, asks Llorca. By publishing well,” he answers. To publish well is not only to publish good books, to have a criterion (which is what sets you apart), but also to ensure working methods are fair and adjusted to our needs while at the same time trying to satisfy those of our readers”. And so, under these premises, they seem to resist.