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.
To seek out the best writing, And Other Stories uses networks of friendly readers, writers and literary translators and the help of volunteering organisers to set up a series of reading groups for fiction from around the world—at the last count there have been groups reading in Spanish, Lithuanian, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, French and German. Groups are on the way for Italian, Greek and Scandinavian languages too. The And Other Stories website has details of all the groups and what they have been reading lately, including extracts translated into English so that a non Chinese-speaker say, can still read along. Through talking to readers, particularly the participants of these book clubs, Stefan and his team have been able to put together a list of books that in many ways defies categorization. I asked him what qualities and criteria he looks for when selecting a book to publish.
“Something which is fresh and young in spirit that’s going to surprise people. So-called literary fiction can be very much done by numbers and rather predictable. There is a danger that people almost write to prescription, trying to second-guess the market, we want to avoid that.”
And Other Stories is also interested in publishing homegrown English literature, and currently receive nine or ten unsolicited manuscripts a week, all of which are carefully read and considered.
It’s a huge workload for a company that only has three (almost) full-time members of staff—Publisher Stefan, Editor Sophie Lewis, and Head of Sales and Marketing Matthew Crockatt. With Sophie Lewis currently based in Rio, the internet is an integral part of And Other Stories modus operandi. It’s also a great way for them to stay in touch with their readers and to give readers direct access to authors. In this respect, And Other Stories seems to be doing a lot to breakdown those barriers that exist between book-producer and reader. In other words, the commodity of literature becomes much more of a two-way street, with Stefan and his team really listening and engaging with their readers. It makes the role of publisher into something more organic and certainly more immediate than any of the bigger companies seem able to achieve with their more diverse publishing lists. But that means work, and lots of it, just to stay on top of staying in touch.
In the early days of the company start-up everyone associated with the business had other jobs because they couldn’t afford not to, and it’s only been recently that the core members of the team have been able to pay themselves a modest fee. “In some ways (starting up the company) was complete idiocy!” Stefan tells me with a wry smile, “Not a sensible thing to do. It is very much a 24 hours-a-day job and if you’re doing literary fiction there isn’t much money in it. We pay translators properly and we pay authors properly but we haven’t been paying ourselves properly!”
Idiotic or not, And Other Stories is clearly a passion for Stefan and his colleagues. As he talks me through the preparations he made so that he could find out about the coveted Booker long-list at the earliest opportunity—including synchronizing phone and computer for immediate internet access and arranging to be on holiday at the beginning of the summer rather than around the date of the announcement—I very much get the impression that he wouldn’t have missed that moment when the first tweets came through, for all the world. Hopefully, in a few days time Deborah Levy’s book will take the coveted leap from longlist to shortlist, but even if it doesn’t, And Other Stories has a very bright future. Subscriptions are up, the new book is ready for release, and there is a plethora of literary events to set up and attend. Stefan and his small but dedicated team have little time to sit back and contemplate their success so far, not when there are so many more great books out there, waiting to be discovered.
Stefan’s three tips for starting up your own publishing company:
- Make sure you have a second source of income—and ideally that it is something flexible.
- Find a bunch of people willing to do it with you.
- Be prepared to have very little life outside of work for a few years.
The Booker Shortlist will be announced on Tuesday 11th September. For more information visit: