For a town with three times as many tattoos parlours as bookshops, High Wycombe isn’t the first place that springs to mind when it comes to award-winning literature and inspirational publishing, but thanks to the 2012 Booker Prize long-list, that could be about to change.
Hidden away at the top of an anonymous-looking block of flats on one of the vertiginous slopes of the town (they don’t call it ‘High’ Wycombe for nothing) is the creative epi-centre for And Other Stories—the hip, young, and so far precociously successful, publishing company set up just two years ago by Stefan Tobler.
It’s a muggy Monday morning, the day after the closing ceremony for the London Olympics and I’m puffing and panting my way up the several flights of stairs to meet Stefan and find out more about a publishing venture that is quietly capturing the attention of critics and readers alike. ‘Shamelessly literary’ was how Stuart Evers described it in The Guardian, and ‘A 21st century labour of love’ was Catherine Mansfield’s take on the project in an interview for the Book Trust, but since July 25th, And Other Stories can also be said to have crossed over, or at least dipped its toe into, the publishing mainstream. Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home received rave reviews when it came out last autumn, but its inclusion on the Booker longlist has sealed its fate as one of the best books of the last 12 months. If it makes it onto the shortlist, to be announced next week, the media spotlight will undoubtedly ensure that Deborah Levy, and her publisher will become far better and more widely known.
Stefan greets me at the door to his home, which doubles up as an office and secondary book warehouse, and introduces me to Adeola, an intern hard at work getting the publisher’s next publication ready to send out. I find myself cooing over the look and feel of the new book—Lightning Rods, by Helen Dewitt—admiring the striking artwork of the cover (All the books share a distinct look that brings to mind the iconic Penguin paperbacks of the mid 20th century) and exploring the list of names that cover the back pages. These are the subscribers to And Other Stories, and Lightning Rods will be the eighth book to be published since Juan Pablo Villabos’s Down the Rabbit Hole, which was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Prize two years ago. A pretty auspicious start for the company Stefan felt compelled to set up because of what he saw as a dearth of great, foreign literature being published in the UK at that time.
Born in Brazil, Stefan’s family settled permanently in the UK when he was nine and he grew up in Buckinghamshire. After college he spent some time in London before heading to Dresden to spend two years teaching English and working as a freelance translator. In 2005 he won a grant to study translation at the University of East Anglia, and it was while studying there for a PhD that the seeds of And Other Stories were sown.
“There was a lot of frustration seeing amazing authors not getting published for reasons that really had nothing to do with literature. Obviously every company needs to stay in business and if you’re a big company you’ve got a lot of overheads and shareholders to answer to so it’s hard to take risks, but it was clear that there were blatantly economic rather than literary reasons why some books weren’t coming out. Then I realised that a lot of other translators and readers might have had a similar experience and that made me want to use reading groups to seek out more great books.”
Stefan applied for a lottery-funded Grant for the Arts through the Arts Council, and despite being initially unsuccessful—it was the year that many arts organisations had their government funding slashed—was asked to re-apply later that year. He duly did and was awarded a modest but invaluable amount of funds to kick start the company. The business plan he submitted was inspired by eighteenth and nineteenth century publishing models that rely on subscriptions to fund the printing of books. Stefan proposed to offer special perks to subscribers who signed up for a year or more, and in return their financial support would finance the production of new books. For £35 subscribers receive an early, numbered edition of four books a year, they have their names printed at the back of all the books, and receive invitations to subscribers’ events, as well as goodies like postcards designed by the authors.