Open Letter Books is a new non-profit publisher of literature in translation affiliated with the University of Rochester. Headed by the seemingly indefatigable Chad Post, Open Letter publishes a modest, well-selected 12 books a year; each title is available in finer bookstores (ahem) as well as through Open Letter's subscription service.
In addition to the Press, Chad is the driving force behind the excellent literary blog, Three Percent, which focuses on works in translation, provides reviews, and hosts a "Translation Database" which aims to offer a complete inventory of all translated books published in the U.S. Finally, Open Letter hosts the "Best Translated Book Awards".
Chad was gracious enough to answer a few questions via email for the blog. We'd like to thank him for his time and insight into the nature of non-profit publishing.
Green Apple: First, can you explain what Open Letter is, how it came about and what your role with the press is?
Chad Post: Open Letter is a relatively new publishing house at the University of Rochester connected to the university’s literary translation programs. I was hired by the university (along with two other guys: E.J. Van Lanen and Nathan Furl) shortly after quitting Dalkey Archive Press to put together a publishing house that would focus on literature in translation. We took a few months to plan out what the Press would look like and all its different components, and then officially launched it in July of 2007 with the first title—Dubravka Ugresic’s NOBODY’S HOME—coming out in September of last year.
Over the past three years, the Press and UR programs have expanded and evolved in some very interesting, and somewhat unexpected, ways. The Press’s books are at the core of what we do, but Three Percent (which launched at the same time), has come to play an equally important role. The blog and reviews are the main attraction of the site, but the Translation Database (the only database of its sort, which explicitly demonstrates just how few works of fiction and poetry are published in translation every year) has become more and more important, and the Best Translated Book Award got a lot more attention last year than anyone could’ve predicted.
With the undergrad certificate & Masters program in literary translation, the Press, our Reading the World Reading and Conversation series, the website, the database, and the award, I think we’ve finally reached our first level of maturity as an organization—I can’t think of anything else we need to start . . . And most importantly, I feel like we’re accomplishing what I always dreamed of—publishing great books, and creating interesting outreach programs that help cultivate an audience for international literature.
CP: It sort of just felt right . . . And it fits nicely with our subscription series. Most importantly, this pace gives us enough time to do as much promotion as possible for each of our books. Nothing worse as a publisher than churning out a ton of books and watching each one pass by unnoticed . . .
GA: Why should we read literature in translation?
CP: Short answer: for the same reason that you read literature in general. That sounds a bit facetious, but what I mean is that there are reasons, pleasures one gets from reading literature. For me, the best reason is that novels (and stories) can do something no other art form is capable of, and that writers can present the world in very unique ways that are beautiful, and possibly can change the way you look at things. Any author could do that, but in America—maybe because of the proliferation of MFA programs, or the damaging impact of corporations on publishing—most writers (but definitely not all) aren’t that daring. There are a lot more authors being published in translation who are doing unique, boundary-pushing things. And that’s exciting! Why read the same old story presented in a way that feels familiar?
GA: It appears you are heavily involved in not only running the press, but in maintaining the Three Percent website and blog as well. How would you hook a reader into reading your daily blog?
CP: There are a lot of good book blogs and online magazines out there—Literary Saloon, Conversational Reading, Words Without Borders, Salonica, etc.—and I think the thing that Three Percent adds to the conversation is a behind-the-scenes look at the publishing industry. Most of the posts are about interesting books that may have falled through the mainstream media cracks (or gaping holes), but there are also a lot of posts about what e-books will do to stores and publishers, about ways in which indie presses try to connect with readers, about how/why a book is acquired, etc. We’re concerned with the literature first, but in my mind, that can’t be entirely separated from the business side of things.
GA: Finally, what are you reading now?
CP: Two of my favorite books of the year are THE ZAFARANI FILES by Gamal al-Ghitani (translated from the Arabic by Farouk Abdel Wahab and published by American University of Cairo Press) and REX by Jose Manuel Prieto. Both are brilliant, strange books. ZAFARANI is unlike any book I’ve read from that part of the world. Starts off with hints of Robbe-Grillet, but then develops into something much different—a weaving of stories that are funny, well textured, and very compelling, all centered around an alley where all the men suddenly become impotent . . . And REX is a very Nabokovian novel about fake diamonds and Proust—how can that go wrong? Well, yeah, it could, but in this case it totally doesn’t. Prieto is incredibly talented, and this is the sort of book you’ll feel like you have to read twice . . .