ARTICOLO n. 66 / 2022

A CONVERSATION WITH ANIOL RAFEL

What does it mean to be a publisher?

When thinking about international publishing, there are many questions we should ask ourselves: how is cultural work changing in the world? Will the publishing world be able to respond to the multiplicity of stimuli from which it is overwhelmed every day? What will the role of the publisher be in the future? These, and many other questions, open up a series of conversations with the protagonists of today’s publishing industry.  Aniol Rafel is a catalan editor and publisher. He established Edicions del periscopi in 2012.

Andrea Gentile: What does it mean to be a publisher? Giangiacomo Feltrinelli used to say that a publisher is like a wheelbarrow, a mean of transportation, thanks to which books pass from an author’s hands to a reader’s. The late Roberto Calasso, on the other hand, thought of a publisher as an artist, who thinks about the construction of a catalogue as a writer thinks about his novel, with a creative, artistical mindset. Which of these two positions you feel closer to?

Aniol Rafel: Both of them are probably right, in their way. When I think about being a publisher, I often visualise the work midwives do when they are assisting in delivering newborn babies: make sure that the mother is healthy and that the baby comes in its best possible way. Translated into publishing, that would be to convert manuscripts into the better version of themselves. But our work is also to be gold seekers. I understand an important part of what we do when we are building a catalogue is to filter. We filter the manuscripts through our readings, of course, but also through reviews, advice, awards, suggestions from people we rely on. And with all these clues we seek our treasures, the books that are going to build our catalogue. And when we have the first pieces, the search changes, because we must build our catalogue of books that complement and balance themselves, that can dialogue with the rest of the books and with the readers. So maybe I do not think of a publisher exactly as an artist, but as an architect or a builder. Someone who must build the house that will accommodate the miracle that is the binding of books and readers.

A.G. Before being publishers, first of all we are readers, though readers who read books in a way no one else does, sometimes dissecting a text like a surgeon would. My question then would be about the books that influenced you the most in your work as publisher, the ones you keep returning to in your daily job. What are the most vital pages that give shape to your publishing strategies?

A.R. I’m convinced that one of the first impulses that turns us into publishers is the will to share the wonder we felt after finishing every one of these readings that deeply moved us, that made us become someone different than who we were before. This moment of ecstasy is so powerful that, first, you want to share it with your loved ones, and, soon enough, with as many people as possible. This moment occurred to me after finishing both The Famished Road, by Ben Okri and Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. The way they expanded the frame of reality was something I always try to find when I was reading, and probably that is one of the reasons why our catalogue has interests in African Literature and has incorporated authors such as Mia Couto or José Eduardo Agualusa. Another of these moments was when I reread, in my twenties, Peter Pan: Or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up – A Fantasy in Five Acts, by James M. Barrie, and got captured by its ferocity, by its approach to the human wild soul and cruelty combined with its beauty and irony. Since then, the idea of evil and its representations, and also of coming of age with its different approaches, has been a matter of interest in my readings and in the construction of our catalogue. 

A.G. Of course, today books are only one part of a delicate, sometimes elegant, often surprising  equation of content. From movies and tv shows available for streaming at a click of our devices, to podcasts, mobile Apps and games, stories, words, ideas are all around us, a cloud of content that we breathe, constantly, as we do our morning routines, go to work, talk with a colleague, have a romantic dinner in a restaurant. It’s inescapable and can be suffocating, this cloud, but also exhilarating. What other “cultural objects” beside books are currently influencing your publishing strategies? Are you pursuing any type of cooperation between books and other media that might turn out to be mutually beneficial?  

A.R. When we publish books, we are also offering a dialogue to the community of readers that surrounds us, and of course reality around us is heavily influenced by the constant presence of all these contents. So, if we are to understand our society and our community, it is our obligation to try and understand how all this is reshaping the way we all behave and communicate with each other and decide to spend our time. Also, all these changes apply not only to our daily lives, but also to the narratives that are trying to explain the world through fiction and literature, and to the way we read and understand both literature and our reality too. This changes also offer new ways to communicate, and this is something that must be considered if we also want to be close to our readers and our community. We must also understand that these other ways to communicate can also play a role in determining the social importance of reading, of books and of literature, so we must understand all the possibilities that can help us, but which might also confront us. 

A.G. But let’s go back to books. Books are strange objects, and I often wonder what their role in our contemporary society is – especially given the proliferation of media we were talking about. What do you think the common perception of books is? Are they thought about as merely entertaining devices? Do they still represent a different kind of emotional experience, or a different way to interrogate our reality? Franz Kafka used to say that we need books that break the icy sea inside ourselves. Do books still manage to do this?

A.R. Books still manage to do this in a certain segment of our society, but of course a big part of our community is neither putting books at the centre of their lives, nor are they seeing them as important tools to develop themselves. So, we have this one part of society in which books and everything around them is considered to be almost sacred, something that gives you some kind of social and cultural status. But more and more people just consider books to be another way to entertain yourself – and a decaying one –, to learn something, maybe, or simply an expensive object you sometimes receive as a gift. Even though the numbers of this second group are likely to grow, there will always be a resistance, the happy few that have this special connection, this special bond with books and reading.

A.G. A follow up question would have to do with the readers. What’s the ideal reader you have in mind while you work? And how does this ideal reader, if present at all, come to you: do you search for her, trying then to find the best possible reading experience for her; or do you invent her, meaning that you move about the publishing world creating needs and spaces that weren’t there before?

A.R. Late publisher Jaume Vallcorba stated that «I don’t publish books that people want, I publish books that people doesn’t know yet that they want». We don’t exactly follow this, but it’s good to return to it now and then, especially to remind ourselves that we mustn’t be prisoners of someone else’s desires. We also mirror ourselves as possible readers for our books, so we try to publish not only those books that we’d have loved to find, but also those that would awake our curiosity, those that would let us explore uncharted territories and make us move to uncertain places. 

A.G. However a publisher thinks of the readers whom the books she publishes are going to meet, books are often seen as bridges, especially in times of great division. It’s a platitude, of course, but one that holds – like all platitudes do – a morsel of truth, though one that is constantly challenged by political, societal, and linguistic barriers. Many have dreamt, over the decades, of a fully European publishing house, one that can make a book available in multiple languages at the same time, targeting readers across the Continent. Is this utopia, or is it perhaps something that new technology and a renewed need for cooperation are making more and more possible? How would you feel about such a project?

A.R. In a truly united Europe, it would certainly make sense. But, to get there, there is still a long way to go. Nowadays, what is read in every country in Europe is too different, not only due to the published language, but because of too wide social and cultural differences. A much more fluid communication and an increase in cultural exchanges can help, but references and interests are too separated. One of the keys to publishing, and to understand this as an effort to make books get to the public too, is to stablish a solid net of complicities with them and with their prescribers (booksellers, journalist, influencers…). And, as for today, these nets are way too different from country to country.

A.G. Despite the need for cooperation we were talking about, we do have our differences, of course, and differences must be treasured even as we find new ways to work together, to be together, because it’s our differences that make us unique. Another platitude, perhaps, but one that is often exemplified in publishing by the contrast between British and American publishers, on the one hand, and European publishers on the other hand. In fact, and generally speaking, every book is different in the UK and the US, and a publisher’s identity is less perceivable than the identity of the editor building a particular list. Whereas, in Europe, a publisher’s identity tends to be immediately recognizable from the get-go – think of a Gallimard blanche, or Adelphi’s pastel colors on a bookshelf. What do you think the respective merits of the two approaches are? And which one do you feel closer to?

A.R. In our market, there are examples of both lines, the one that prioritizes the individual title or the author, making every book so different and where the publisher’s identity is almost hidden, and the line that puts the publisher’s identity at the centre, even at the cost of making it harder to individualize and separate every title inside a given catalogue. And, at least here, the labels with more commercial aspirations tend to follow the first line, where the most literary labels usually follow the second one. We feel clearly closer to this second one, but since the beginning we incorporated some elements that you can usually find in the first line, in an attempt to get some of the advantages of this line, mainly to avoid the confusion between different titles of the same catalogue, and to provide an individual identity even in the context of the identity of a strong publisher. 

A.G. Publishing, as our readers may have gleaned from this conversation, is sometimes a very idiosyncratic business. How do you imagine the future of our industry? Umberto Eco used to say that books are “eternal objects”; objects that, like a fork or a spoon, are so perfect from the moment of inception that they don’t need changes. Do you think this is true? Do you believe that books will stay the same – physically and spiritually – through the years to come? And if you think they will change, how will they do it?

A.R. It’s very hard to predict. Indeed, and as objects, books are very difficult to improve. However, we find ourselves in a predicament of systemic crisis, where raw materials will be more and more scarce, the price of paper is skyrocketing while its availability has sunken, so we don’t know what will come. On the other hand, and since books are wonderful objects, possibly ones to last many more decades, what we sell is not the object but its content. Therefore, even when the format eventually changes, which is unclear, publishers will be needed. If are playing at imagining a possible future, it’ll be one where less books are produced and sold, but still exist and hold meaning for many people. Maybe they’ll be more expensive, and more related to other kinds of content. And, most probably, it will all happen in unexpected ways.

A.G. As we wind down our conversation, perhaps it’s time to move into more playful territory. We talked about the future of publishing, so perhaps now it’s time to talk about the future of your publishing house. Give us a sneak peek into your next six months. What are you most excited about?

A.R. As we publish 10-12 books per year, every title we publish is special and has been selected after a very conscientious process. For the next six months, we’re going to publish books from very different parts of the world that we are sure that will thrill our readers as much as ourselves. We are, for instance, very proud of being the long-standing Catalan publisher of Mozambican author Mia Couto, and we are going to publish his latest novel. We’ve recently putting some faith in narrative nonfiction books, and Robert Kolker’s Hidden Valley Road, whose Catalan translation will be published soon, is also a perfect example of this. And of course, as this conversation is for The Italian Review, we are happy to publish the Catalan translation of Il libro delle case, by Andrea Bajani.

A.G. Last question. If you were to choose a classical book from ages past that were to reach your desk today and that you wouldn’t be able to pass on, which book would that be?

A.R. I know I’m supposed to say only one, but I have to say at least three: The OdysseyThe Divine Comedy, and One Thousand and One Nights.

ARTICOLO n. 74 / 2022