So German Literature Month readers, I was half-way through the chosen readalong title, Anatomy of A Night, and my first full-length e-book read, when I recognised two things.  1) I was reading a masterpiece and 2) I was missing paper, ink, my post-it notes and the whole tactile experience far too much.  My whole process was thrown out of kilter and I began to feel incapable of writing a review that would do the novel justice. So I thought I’d enlist the help of E J Lanen, founder of e-book publisher, Frisch & Co, and someone who is obviously not as shackled as myself to the physical object. The resulting interview naturally covers much more ground than Anna Kim’s novel but fellow readalongers will be particularly interested in questions 6-9.  I intend to add my own thoughts in comments later today.

1). How did you come to found Frisch & Co?  How did the company get its name?

Well, I founded Frisch & Co. because I wanted to keep working in translated fiction, and I felt I was in a position where I could conceivably start something on my own. By which I mean, I felt I knew enough about each of the constitutive parts of publishing–acquiring, editing, production, publicity, etc.–and about the particularities ofpublishing translated fiction, that I could give it a go. And there are so many truly fantastic books that just need a little help to make their way to English. If I could help make that happen…

As for the name, it’s just after Max Frisch, who is one of my favorites.

2) Why e-books and only e-books? Business imperative or personal choice?
There’s a really long answer to this, which I wrote more about here:

But the shorter answer is that it’s expensive to print and distribute physical books. It’s also limiting: If I’m a publisher in the UK, it’s almost always the case that I only distribute my books in the UK. This is especially problematic for translated fiction, which traditionally has had a smaller audience (with notable exceptions). So if you publish a translated book in the UK, most of the time you’re reaching a fraction of a fraction of the market: a fraction of the UK market for fiction and a fraction of the overall English-language market for these books.

Ebooks can, potentially, change that calculation. There are no printing costs, and you’re only charged for distribution when you make a sale. And your audience is readers of translated fiction all over the world–not only readers in the US, UK, Canada, etc., but also in Europe, Asia, and so on (we seem to have a mini-following in Taiwan, for example); for better or worse, English has become the lingua franca. So for translated fiction you can combine the small markets that exist in all of these places, if you can reach them, to create a much bigger pool of potential readers.

But that’s just the business end of it. Readers of English are shut out of a lot of great fiction that’s published worldwide. It’s simply not something that’s well-published in English. There are many reasons for this, but ebooks create the potential for more of these books to be published. As a reader, I find that really exciting. It’s cool, I think, that I can be reading a book at the same time as someone in Seoul. A book that was just published. This wasn’t possible before.

3) What are the specifics that must be considered in e-book design and distribution?
Thankfully, our books are pretty straightforward from a technical standpoint; they’re mainly long blocks of text. It’s not difficult to design something that will read well across the many ebook-readers and devices. One of the more interesting challenges, for me, was the covers. They answer to a wholly different set of demands than print book covers. They’ll only ever exist online, and they need to be legible in many places and in many sizes: on phones, tablets, browsers, etc. It seemed to me that they needed to be made simpler and bolder–many of the details that are worked into print covers just don’t translate to, say, a set of thumbnail-sized cover images on the iBookstore. I hope I’ve hit on something that appeals and that works online.

Distribution could be very complicated. It’s possible to do it yourself, but there are so many retailers and you’d have to manage your relationships with each of them individually. So I work with Faber Factory, and they distribute my books to twenty-seven online retailers, many of whom have outlets in several countries. I send the books to Faber Factory, and they take care of making sure that they’re online, that the money goes where it needs to, etc. And because they represent many publishers, they have access to promotional opportunities that I wouldn’t have on my own. For anyone that isn’t reached by these retailers, they can buy the books directly from me.

My books are truly available everywhere.

4) You’ve chosen to specialise in translated fiction. Another niche market. Won’t that make life more challenging for you?
Yes and no. On the one hand, yes, the market for translated fiction is smaller. On the other hand, if you’re a general publisher you’re competing with all the other general publishers, both for authors and for readers. And you’re also faced with competition from self-published authors as well, who seem to be taking over certain genres. These aren’t necessarily my problems. The market I’m in is competitive, but there are so many great books available from countries all over the world, and the original publishers in these countries have already done much of the legwork in choosing fascinating writing already, that it’s relatively easier to build a list of first-class writers. In English, a translation publisher can, as it were, punch above their weight class simply by publishing. My authors are well-established, respected, award-winning writers that have been translated into many languages, in some cases they’ve sold hundreds of thousands of copies in their countries–this isn’t
something that most new publishers can say about their list. So, yes, it’s a niche, but the writing you can find there is deeply, deeply rich.

5) How do you decide which titles to publish?
That varies from book to book, so it’s difficult to say exactly. I partner with my publishers closely, so we meet and discuss their list; I talk to their editors; I talk to other publishing colleagues, translators, etc.; there are sample translations. By now, I’ve been working with my partners for a long time, and they have a sense for the kinds of books I’m interested in publishing, that helps enormously. That’s the mechanical part, anyway. But in the end I’m looking for something that I would be excited to read myself. I follow my interests, that’s all.

6) How do you commission your translators?
This also varies. Occasionally, a translator will already be attached to a project–perhaps they’ve done a sample translation for a publisher, or they’ve translated something from this author in the past. Sometimes you have a project but you need to find a translator, which was the case with Anatomy of A Night. I heard Bradley read something else he had translated, and it gave me the feeling he would be good for this book. It can be a little bit like matchmaking: you bring a book to someone and hope it sparks something in them. Generally speaking, translators don’t take on projects for the money–there isn’t much to be had–so it’s important that the book mean something to them as well.

7) Why did you decide to launch with Anatomy of the Night?
In the first case because I thought it was a special book. It makes demands of its readers, and I find that to be exciting. It’s brave and brimming with well-earned confidence. There’s something about the writing in the book that is at once compelling and mysterious, though I’ve never been able to put my finger on precisely how that happens. It’s stretching itself both structurally and stylistically to describe an intriguing and perhaps unexplainable phenomenon. That was more than
enough for me.

But it also makes a statement about what Frisch & Co. is up to. Ebooks don’t necessarily have the best reputation, and I thought Anatomy of A Night could make a strong case that literary fiction has a place in the ebook world, and that readers could find great books, challenging books, beautiful books that were published in ebook-only editions too. To me, it felt like an exceptionally strong place to start.

8) Do you have a favourite section or quotation from Anatomy of A Night?
Just one? This is part of a much longer section that I particularly love, but for brevity’s sake here’s the end of a passage that
describes the landscape in which the novel takes place:

“But perhaps Amarâq’s landscape has to be restrained, so it can show that the earth isn’t the opposite of the sky, but its counterpart: at the end of the world the distinction between sky and earth disappears, the sky is a vast ocean just as the ocean is a vast sky, and the mountains green-seamed clouds, perhaps it’s possible to climb that mirror image, and not only the mirror image but the actual firmament, where you wait for the last drop of rain, the first ray of sun, and the rainbow, for the lowermost sky, and then climb slowly from rainbow to rainbow, from hue to hue, in the winter, when everything is frozen,
every step confirming that the earth continues into the heavens, and that the end is really nothing but an illusion.”

I read that section aloud at a reading and it gave me goosebumps!

You can see some of my other favorite passages here:

9) What are the outstanding characteristics of Bradley’s Schmidt’s translation?
I’ve spoken with Anna Kim about the structure of Anatomy of A Night a lot, about what she’s trying to do with the language, and the book takes advantage of the structure of German grammar in a way that’s difficult to translate into English. She said she would write a sentence, then pull this sentence apart and put another sentence or thought in the middle of it, and then pull that apart and put another thought in the middle, to build image upon action upon description, which is something, apparently, that you can do to great effect in German. English doesn’t work this way, however. What impressed me about
Bradley’s translation is how he captured the feeling of this accumulation in English. Of course, it could never be as beautiful as in the original, but it’s still beautiful, and that’s no small accomplishment.

10) Anatomy of A Night  is to date the only German title on your list. Are there more to come?
Oh, many others. In the spring, we’re publishing The Tower by Uwe Tellkamp, which is an epic story about the last years of the DDR and was hugely debated, discussed, and read in Germany a few years ago; then the first book in a series of novels by Andreas Maier called The Room (Maier’s The House and The Street, from this same series, are forthcoming from us as well); and a novel by Anna Katharina Hahn called Shorter Days, which was long-listed for the German Book Prize
in 2009. That’s just to start!