Today on the eve of International Translation Day, We have Will Evans with us on Harshaneeyam. Will studied Russian Literature in college and, with a mission to bring Quality Translations from across the world to readers, Started Deep Vellum Publishing and set up a book house in Dallas, Texas, in 2013, when there were no independent shops selling books in the city.
Today after Ten years, Deep Vellum sales cracked $1 million. It has published over 1,000 books in 70 languages by authors from 100 countries and every continent except Antarctica. Deep Vellum has more books in translation than any other publisher in the history of publishing. During this conversation, he spoke about his love for Translations, taking books closer to readers, and emerging trends in publishing.
Harshaneeyam: Welcome to our podcast, Harshneem Will.
Will Evans: It’s an honour to be here.
H: Your interest in translations goes back to the time when you wanted to read a Russian novel which was not available in English.
W: I feel like it started earlier. I grew up reading translated literature, like most people in the world, but I just didn’t know anything about it. About who the translators were. There were no names on the covers. I was not told that 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne was translated, or Pippi Longstocking. And I thought that The Count of Monte Cristo was written in English. And I had no idea about this invisible, hidden hand in the translation world. But I’m from a small city in North Carolina called Wilmington. And I never left the country; like most Americans, I was limited to the southeast of the United States, which has a great literary tradition. And I was reading a lot, but I wanted to know the world. Of course, the literature became that way for me to do that.
And I love to read historical fiction set all over the world. I read a lot of history books. I was a total nerd. I still am. And in ninth grade, my real passion for Russian literature, which is really what got me into translation started when I was 14 years old, I read a book. Translated from Russian by Maxim Gorky, and it was translated by Moura Budberg, and it was called The Life of a Useless Man. And so Maxim Gorky, I’m sure you’ve read Gorky. He has a whole life in India which is totally a fascinating thing. But this is not like his major work, and of course, this is not a significant work of Russian literature. It was interesting. I chose the book from a list in my English class that we had to write a book report on a translated novel.
It was the only time we had to do that this semester. And so I, and my students, my colleagues in my class were all just fascinated with this idea that a book could be translated, like how, what do you mean that you could take something written in Russian originally and bring it to us in English? And so I read the book and it just blew my mind. I knew nothing about it. Russia, Russian literature, Russian history, and the book got me very interested in it, and then when I went to grad when I went to undergraduate University, I studied Russian and Russian literature, and I got passionately obsessed with Russian literature, and many years later I went to graduate school, and in graduate school, I do remember I read an article about a journalist who had been beaten for his reporting almost to death, and at the end of it, it alluded to the fact he had written a novel just recently.
And that’s the novel that you were talking about. And I said, Oh, I want to read that novel. And my professor, Dr. Carol Apollonio, who is another excellent translator, I hope you invite on someday. Carol said, great, translate it. And I was like, no, I want to read it in English. I don’t know how to translate. And Carol was the one who said, no translation is a wonderful way to learn a language. So live inside a language. You start to make it your own language that way. So with her encouragement, her blessing, her help, and her editorial guidance I translated that novel and I had help from one of my best friends in Russia.
A guy named Pasha Sasin sings in a fantastic band called Shlem. I hope everybody goes and listens to them. I worked on it a little bit with him. We dreamt about maybe doing co-translations together one day because he’s a genius of literature. However, during that process, I started looking at publishers who do translation and saw that there were so few. And the great Chad Post, my friend, my mentor, and my colleague recommended that if you care about this issue of translations. Passionately start a publishing house, and do more translations. And I decided to put my energy more into publishing than into translations. So I only have one published translation, but that’s okay.
Thank you, Restless Books. But then that intro started with that simple question. I want to read this thing. And it’s not available. And then Deep Vellum started with, Look at all these other languages I don’t know anything about. And one of the first things we started with was Ukrainian. I don’t know anything about Ukrainian literature. I spent my whole adult life studying Russian literature, and I don’t know anything about Ukrainian. And so we started signing Ukrainian literature from day one. And we started with Serhiy Zhadan. You mentioned Ullieam Blacker has been on this podcast before and he ended up translating Oleg Sentsov for us. So that’s the genesis. So sorry for the long answer, but you’re gonna get a lot of those. I can talk. I love it.
H: You translated only one Russian novel ‘Fardwor Russia’. What is it all about?
W: The whole book is like a meme. It’s a, it’s like internet jokes and Twitter humour. It’s not high literature in the way that you think of Russian literature.
It’s by this journalist, not really in the way that we know of in America. He’s more of a columnist. And he is an opinion writer, I guess you could say, too. But on Twitter, he’s like a notorious shit-poster. He’s just constantly posting things online. And this was, he wrote it in 2010. He was beaten in 2010 because he had done a story about a corrupt governor of one of Russia’s provinces or regions. And so supposedly this guy hired a hitman to go kill him. And these two hitmen met the author outside of his house and beat him. And broke all of his fingers, which is what you do to journalists to remind them to fear.
So Oleg Kashin is his name, and he was super brave, and he survived. On his publisher’s website, his publisher ‘Ad Marginem‘ who is in Moscow, a fantastic indie publisher, one of my favourite publishers in the world. They published like Sorokin, Yelizavrov as well and Oleg Kashin, and now they do a lot of nonfiction. Amazing. But on their website, they were like, if you read this book, you’ll know who beat him and why. And I was like, okay, that’s what I want to read. And in the book, it’s like a snapshot of this one moment in time in like 2010 Russia. Like the summer of 2010, which was when Putin stopped being president, and he had gone to go be prime minister. And so the book is filled with jokes internet jokes, memes, songs references to real people. Almost every person in the book is a real person. Thank you. And I wanted that humour to come through because the title in Russian is a, is this meme. It’s Raisev Perde, which is, it’s a misspelling of Russia, and it’s a misspelling of forward.
So it’s like forward Russia is this slogan that Dmitry Medvedev, the then president, had. And it got perverted online into this, there’s a picture. And I never knew if it was real or not, and it was like a belt buckle, it looked like, and it had the Russian flag, and it said, РАИСИЯ ФПЕРДИЯ, so it’s fart word rusa, it’s like, пердия sounds like the verb to fart in Russian, and so you get this just stupid joke on the cover of the book, that is entirely untranslatable, and so we had, the original title of the book was, I had 50 translations of the title and we settled on one so that people would know that it’s Russia and that it at least had the fard, fart, pun allusion.
And so thank you to Joshua at Restless Books who was there. We really had a blast with it, but we added the subtitle because in Russian it was like a, Фантастический оповесть. It’s like a fantastical story, a tale. And so that’s when we came up with a fantastical tale from Putin’s Russia. So it gave you the context. That you’re stepping into a hyper-contemporary world. And then the book itself, I’m grateful to everyone who helped put it together. Because translation is not, it’s a very collaborative art. And, the author had nothing to do with it. Oleg was like, I don’t really know English, have fun with it, do whatever you want. And that blessing really helped too.
H: So why Dallas?
W: Why Dallas? I’m married to a Texan, that’s the easiest answer. You move to Dallas for two things. You get a job here, or you marry someone, or you love someone who got a job here, and that’s the story. My wife grew up here, and after graduate school, we were looking for where she would work I had come up with the idea to do a publishing house and the idea was that the business plan would be a little different in any city and we wanted to stay in Durham, North Carolina where we were living, but she got a great job offer in Dallas. Her family is all in this area. And I looked around, and I thought that Dallas was actually, it’s primed for a publishing house. The last literary publishing house in Dallas had just shut down at one of the universities, SMU. And there were no independent bookstores in Dallas or in the entire region.
And there are 7 million people in this region, Dallas, Fort Worth. And I said, wow, and maybe we start an indie bookstore and kickstart a little literary renaissance. And there’s also a university here, the University of Texas at Dallas. And they happen to have one of the first translation programs in the country at this translation centre founded by Rainer Schulte 40, 50 years ago. And there are amazing professors in this program, including Sean Cotter, whom we both know as a translator of Solenoid and Them for Deep Vellum. As well as Blinding for Archipelago, Wheel with Single Spoke. Amazing. And I was like, this resource makes me think I can do it in Dallas. Because Dallas is also a city, it’s a big city.
That has it wants to be engaged with the world, right? It’s a city that is aspiring to grow, to engage, and I built the business plan of Deep Vellum accordingly, that it would be a publishing house that engaged with the whole world. And if you are a writer in Dallas, I would consider you an international writer, the same way if I’m dealing with a writer from Bucharest or Moscow or Hyderabad, right?
When you write in and when the books are available in English, they enter not just this canon, but you are part of the tradition, the entire English literary tradition. And that’s a beautiful thing for me. I’m really optimistic, right? I love this like thought that you have a writer growing up in one neighbourhood in Dallas and this, there’s a mentality in Dallas and in New York where all the publishing houses consider this a regional. The thing is that if you’re a writer in Dallas, you’re a regional writer. You must run into this in Hyderabad as well, right? This is, you have these cultural capitals and they’re telling you what to do, what you are. And if you do something unique, it’s a regional concern, and you get this provincialism, not in Hyderabad, but in Delhi and Calcutta and by we get it in New York and you get New York and LA, and they looked at it and everything else.
And it’s it’s so dull. And there are so many amazing writers in Texas. There are so many amazing readers in Texas, and they have been deprived of great books by writers from their own city, and writers from around the world. And so Deep Vellum was founded to fill in that gap. And so the question of why Dallas, the honest pushback answer should be, why not Dallas? There should be publishers, there should be way more publishers in Dallas. There should be way more publishers in Fort Worth, in Austin, in Houston. And San Antonio, Lubbock, and El Paso, Texas is bigger than most European countries. It’s like an entire world, and we have no idea the full range of what’s possible, artistically or literarily, in this state, in this city, or in this fucking world. No one in America has any idea what’s going on in the rest of world literature, and whose fault is that? It’s not the reader’s fault. We get publishers speaking down to people and not picking these books. So why Dallas? I don’t know, but I’m going to go crazy with it is what I’m going to do and have fun. And I’m very thankful that we have a big international airport so I can fly anywhere in the world right now and go hang out with you or a writer and we’ll figure it out. But that mentality of the city is built into Deep Vellum’s DNA and it’s built into our name. Deep Vellum is the name of, our publishing house is the name of a neighbourhood in Dallas where we are, where I’m sitting today.
Now I am talking to you from our bookstore, and it’s nice to tie into the cultural history of an entire city with the name of a publishing house that everyone, the great Roberto Calasso, the great writer and publisher from Italy, I met him at the Frankfurt Book Fair a few years ago, and may he rest in peace, he was just a wonderful man and a great thinker, and he asked me about the name Deep Vellum, and I told him it was the history of this neighbourhood and why it’s called that. Thank you. He said, so your publishing house, basically you tell people in Texas the name of your publishing house. Everyone knows where you are and what you’re about. And I said, yes. And he goes, in the rest of the world, just things are two weird words put together. I said, yes. And he goes, it’s genius. It’s genius. So I took that as a blessing. Roberto Calasso, blessed. Deep vellum and of course it works on multiple levels and so all that it’s like why Dallas? We’re here and we’re going to, we’re going to do it and it’s really built for Dallas. So hopefully it lives on long past me in the city too, because it’s a, it’s, I built it to last hopefully for all time.
H: When you wanted to get into the publishing business, the first thing that you did was to go and join the legendary Chad Post.
W: Yeah, Chad post-wrote a blog. I think that blog is in a book that he ended up publishing. You can get on like Amazon called the three per cent problem. That was my first introduction to the publishing industry. Because the publishing industry is very secretive, it is almost all in New York. It is very Ivy League. And I am none of those things. I’ve never lived in New York. I’m not gonna live in New York. I didn’t go to the Ivy League. I went to great schools, but not the Ivy League. And so I’m like, I’m a reader who’s starving for the kinds of books. That Deep Vellum now does, that Open Letter does which is where Chad works. And this press that he founded, the books that Dalkey Archive does, where Chad worked before that. And so when I read his book and his blog, he’s just so passionate about publishing, and he really opened up discussion of the industry.
And I use that as a jumping point to think about what we would do. We would do some translations. We could try to tie in with the university. We’ll try to do the books in translation that we didn’t see coming out from other publishing houses at the time. We’re in Texas. So I thought we’d have a heavy list of Mexican authors, et cetera. I did a lot of research on the business model. Should it be a for-profit business or a nonprofit business? Which in the U. S. is a distinction of tax more than business itself. But if you’re a non-profit, it means you can qualify for grants and donations. And this was 2012. This is when all the bookstores in America were shutting down.
All the publishers were saying that e-books are ascending. No one will read books anymore. I just, decided to go non-profit because I wanted the cultural discussion of Deep Vellum to be the centre. Not just the sales. And I wanted success for every book and every project that we did. It is about more than just selling books, and I wanted to do more than just publish books. I wanted to have a bookstore. I wanted to have a literary programming. I wanted to advocate for literary art and the necessity to help fund writers to bring more writers to Dallas to grow more writers from Dallas to be able to bring more authors to town to make the city quote-unquote more literary, which is not that it wasn’t literary before, but to just keep the programming going to get it even more known and established.
So there were amazing people here long before me doing amazing work. And I just wanted to tap into all the work people were doing and what they weren’t through Deep Vellum to fill in the gaps. And so we could all get lifted up. And today it’s a very vibrant city about how it goes. But I did all this business plan. I came up with all these ideas, and I said, great. So where do you go to actually learn how to be a publisher? There’s no, it’s not like universities teach publishing and there’s a Columbia publishing course, but it seems if you graduate from my research, you really only get to go work for the big five.
And I don’t want to go work for the big five. I don’t want to live in New York. And then there’s like Portland State University has a program. And I was like, I’m not going to live in Portland Oregon either. So I, where do you go? And I did all this research. I was racking my brain. I could not figure out how to do the thing.
I can find the business, but then what’s the next step? And so I just called Chad one day, Chad Post. And thankfully he picked up the phone and he said, who the fuck are you? You sound fucking crazy. It was just, we all know that’s how Chad talks. And. I said, I am, but I’m really, I’m going to do this thing and I just need this next step. And he goes, just come to Rochester for a summer. I’ll teach you everything you need to know to get started. And to his credit and to his eternal benevolence, I stepped in and on day one, he was so generous with his time, with his advice. And he would be, he was super busy doing a million things that he always does.
But on day one he said look proofread this book and put a stack of papers on my desk I was like, how do you do it? He goes, “do you know how to fucking read put any there are any commas in a weird place or if any word looks funny”. I proofread a book and like changes of my proofread made it into a finished book that he published later, which Was huge on day two. “ Go work with the interns and go mail books to reviewers They don’t care what they’re doing these interns. They’re doing it for class credit but you are going to mail books to the same people and memorize their names”. and it’s Yeah, and then on day three it’s another project. day four another and he talks a little bit about places to go and I’m just reading as many books as I can and so Chad really was like to him I was like the pinball in the machine and he just let me go and off I went to the races, but We get to work together now on Dalkey Archive and it’s the greatest joy because he’s so just the way that he’s able to connect.
Talking about publishing and editing to general the general public to keep us all excited, in addition to people in the literary world, It was so unique, and I’m like I’m eternally grateful. And so anytime someone writes to me and says they want to start a publishing house. I still take the meeting because I feel like I’m paying it forward for what Chad did for me, and That is to say most of those meetings Most people have done no research, and they don’t have a business plan but if you’re going to set an appointment with someone yeah, go on do the research right but Chad was awesome and he’s published some amazing books, but really his work at 3%, I think it has completely changed publishing and it is really a ruminative of what our industry is and the problems in it. In a way there are very few places to discover what he talks about. And so it’s a great resource. I recommend anyone who’s interested in publishing and especially about publishing translations to read Chad’s blog at 3 percent and the 3 percent problem book on Amazon.
H: You started the DeepVellum in 2013, right? It’s almost 10 years now.
W: Yes, we just celebrated our 10th anniversary.
H: Now, in the initial years, what were the challenges you faced?
W: Money. No money. That’s it. (Laughs)
H: How did you obtain the rights to get the first few translations published?
W: From the start in 2012, that was the summer I was with Chad, and I remember asking him one day, and I said, hey it seems like I need to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair. Seems like this is where you meet all the people doing translation rights. All the foreign publishers. And he goes, yeah, totally. Do you want to go? I can’t go this year. Go for me. Take all open letter meetings. Again, this is like extraordinarily gracious of Chad to do. And I said, yeah. And so I went and I took all these meetings and I wrote down everything from the meetings and I typed up a report for him after I remember but it was at Frankfort that I met all the people who do the real rights, the rights managers, the foreign publishers, the agents, and Chad has just an extraordinary network because he’d been in the field many decades before I got into it. Yeah. And he does translations. He said this is a crazy thing though. There are so few publishers of translations in English that you’ll be meeting with the biggest publishers in France Germany and everywhere. You got to figure out what you want to publish out of all of it. Cause there’s so much available.
And I feel like I didn’t sign any books from that first Frankfurt, because a lot of the names are also still really new. I was still piecing together, how world literature worked as an industry. And and how global publishing worked. But there were some great pitches on there, and some of those books are starting to come out in English from other publishers. 11 years later, I’ve seen them start to come out. That’s how long this stuff takes. And that summer I met some people in New York and around, some translators, and I said I’m going to start a publishing house and people started sending me ideas. And they were translators, they were other writers, and I was looking, and I said I also wanted to have one of our first books be a book about Texas written from the Mexican perspective.
And it just so happened that one of Mexico’s greatest authors ever, Carmen Boullosa, had just written a novel about Texas set on the border in 1859, historical fiction. And so I got in touch with Carmen and with her translator of that book, Samantha Schnee. And that began a deep, long publishing relationship that’s still going on. We’ve now done four books by Carmen. We just did another book with Carmen and Sam. Just began everything. And so I got to work with Sam who’s an extraordinary translator in person. She helped find ‘words without borders’ And it’s one of the greatest resources to readers and publishers around the world. That’s an extraordinary site and she’s wonderful and brought Carmen to me and to us in English, and that’s what it’s about. And I remember Emma Ramadan, who’s now a very widely published, extraordinary translator, award-winning well deserved. I think that summer she was working at Archipelago Books when I was, and I came to New York with Chad for Book Expo America, and I met her, and I met Jill Schoolman who runs Archipelago, who’s one of my favourite publishers and it was like just being around these people like Jill and just listening to them talk and absorbing the knowledge.
And I remember Emma wrote to me some months later and said, I want to go do a master’s degree in translation at the University of America, University of Paris. And I want to translate a book called Sphinx by Anne Garreta, and I think you would be into it because of what you say you’re looking for. And so she pitched me Sphinx, and we signed it, and it turned out Anne Goretta, the author, was teaching that semester at Duke University, which is where I went to graduate school and where I was. And so I wrote to Ann and set up a meeting, and I said, I would like to publish your book. I would love to talk about it with you. And Ann came to this meeting very generously, and she grilled me for hours. She was like on me. “what do you know about anything? What do you know about my book? What do you know about this? How are you going to do this?” I was just like it was a blitzkrieg because everyone else had been like, Oh, how nice. You’re starting a publisher. And she was like, do you know what you’re doing? Do you have any fucking clue? What’s your marketing? What’s your editing? What’s this? I was like. I don’t know what, but I must have done enough because she allowed us to publish her book, and she blessed it, we then reached out to her publisher in France, Grasse, and signed the rights, and then signed a contract with Emma. Who translated the book while she was in school and had it, edits done on it by Danny Hahn other amazing translators who were part of her program, like Olivia and Mui Poopoksekul, and this amazing group of just individuals helped make that book go, and that was these two books, like Sphinx and Texas, those are our first two books, and it was gone. Then there happened to be a translator at the University of Texas in Dallas I met that summer, George Henson, who was finishing his Ph.D. and wanted to translate Sergio Pitol and it became his Ph.D. dissertation project to translate this book. Again, there are so few publishers of translation. It’s not fair. I and Deep Bellum from day one got to publish Sergio Pitol, Carmen Boullosa, and Anne Garetta, three of the greatest authors who’ve ever written in any language in the history of the world. And yet, Carmen had not had a book in English in over a decade. Anne and Sergio had never had a book in English. And it’s, this is why we do it. And we couldn’t have done it without the translators. And we still can’t do it without the translators. And so we are always getting hit up with great ideas. The problem is there are too many amazing ideas, and we are still, doing way too many books. Now we used to do 10 a year, and now we do a lot. And we are still trying to keep doing even more translations than ever. We have a slightly different criteria now, but it’s still really thanks to those great translators allowing us to work with them and share their art with the world as well as the authors who are so generous with their time and their belief like Carmen said early on. She goes, I like your energy. I like your youth. Let’s try it. And it worked for us like, and she and I are just like, I every time she talks, I just listen because she has the most amazing stories. She’s a Yeah. Also I studied Russian literature, you gotta forgive me, so I believe the authors are on another tier between humans and the gods, there’s authors are in the divine strata. And so I believe that, and I still believe that and so I’m so lucky to get to work with these authors, but I think that translators are like equally mysterious and magical. And when you get to work with someone like Emma, it’s like she sends in a translation. It’s like you don’t edit these things like how does she do this is it’s insane. It’s brilliant. It’s perfect. And she’s bringing authors to me and to other publishers who are changing the way that we read French literature, the way that we read the entire world that we all live in. That’s what it’s about. So yeah, that was what we did early on. Thanks to those translators and those authors, especially back then for taking a chance, we had no money and no books out. Everyone was taking a chance on us. And I hope. Everyone enjoyed it.
H: Now, in the last ten years, you have published, I guess, more than 1000 translations. And I think except from Antarctica, you published books from every other continent.
W: Yeah, that’s what those numbers are insane. Now deep vellum has five imprints. And that’s the deep vellum phoneme, which is now our translation poetry imprint David Shook leads. We acquired that in 2019, a strange object led by Jill Meyers, who’s in Austin and Jill that’s like debut American fiction. And then there’s La Reunion, which is our book about Texas exploring the history and the artistry of the state. And then Dulkey Archive, which became part of Deep Vellum in 2021. That’s what we work on with Chad Post, whom I mentioned. And so with Dalkey Archive joining, look, that press led, founded by John O’Brien for decades. Was publishing translated literature and international work and so when Dalkey’s books joined the list the number ballooned. We now have something like 1, 200 books from 75 languages and 95 countries And that’s thanks to the Dalkey archive and a couple of anthologies, anthologies really help boost your numbers, but We are also all the time signing new languages in new countries. And we’re doing at Deep Vellum about 35, 40 books a year and Dalkey Archive around 25 to 30. That’s a lot of books.
H: Other than the publishing, what really amazes me is the kind of effort that you put into bringing the books to the reader. You started a bookstore, and so you conduct meetings, conferences and all that. Inviting writers, and interested readers.
W: The bookstore is, it was always part of the original business plan for Deep Vellum. Because I, I remember being in Rochester with Chad, and I remember him expressing his frustration with the city, that readers in the city did not seem to know that Open Letter was there, at the University of Rochester. And then we went to New York, and I heard and I saw a similar refrain from publishers that even with all the great bookstores in New York City, they can’t stock all of your books. And so even if you go to your best selling bookstore in the city, for us, our best selling bookstore account in the country is McNally Jackson, one of the great New York City bookstores. And we’re grateful to them for ever selling any of our books. And every time I go up there, it’s I’m from Texas, I’m the kid from the prairie and I go up to the big city and they’re selling our books, great, 10, we have 1200. So you need a place that the whole world can still engage with your backlist as well as your frontlist as well, your best sellers, as well as your worst sellers.
Because they’re all awesome, and there’s no way that as a non-profit organization I am fulfilling my mission if I only focus on the books that we do that sell. I think that it is a disservice, and also, every single neighborhood in this country Deserves a bookstore and there was no bookstore in this neighborhood. Although there was a legendary bookstore around the corner 70 years ago, but it’s been gone. And so people in Dallas don’t know their own literary history. So we’re like, we need a place where you can come in and engage with literature at every step of the way. I want to be a better reader. I want to learn how to write.
I want to get published. I want to promote my published book. You have to have these steps and it’s not just for writers from here. But for writers from all over the world, and then not just to do it in our store either, but to use our store as a platform to program in the community with other organizations that have complementary missions so that it’s not just books in bookstores, because a lot of people are scared of bookstore. A lot of people are scared of books because they feel it’s not for them. They feel it’s elitist. The books are all by white people. They’re all white stories. It’s all these. If it’s translations, it’s all white European dudes. And you and I know the world is way more diverse than that, but walk into any bookstore or the front page of Amazon and that 10 years ago, especially you’re greeted with one way, or maybe you thought that, only people who studied the literature get to read, you’re scared of this elitism.
And we wanted to smack that down and invite everyone in. So it’s not just about doing readings. It’s also about doing workshops. It’s also about doing social justice initiatives and music and film and art and centring the book, the story, the bookstore as the space where that happens. And that was great. But then we also go partner with the museums in the city, like the Dallas Contemporary, an amazing contemporary art museum, or the Wild Detectives Bookstore around the corner. They get their name from the Bolaño novel, and the owners are from Spain. It’s a very shared, simpatico, international vision for literature.
And when we work together on these events, we’re building new audiences, we’re bringing people in. That’s what it’s about. I don’t think, I don’t think that any random person off the street could not love our most difficult book if they were invited in. We are looking for the way to invite everyone in. And for me, I remember when I felt like I was an outsider. I still feel like I’m an outsider. I go to New York and like our authors can be doing these events and everything, but I’m still the kid from Texas up there. They don’t know, they don’t care. And so I’m still an outsider myself. And I guess that mentality feeds me and this desire to bring in more people because I’m not content with the fact that the big five publishers control everything.
And that most of the book culture in this world comes from New York City when there’s so much more to be done. And that in that time, the big five and all those bookstores there was a time when there were no bookstores in cities like Dallas. We can’t have that again. There’s still not enough bookstores in this country. But a bookstore has to be more than just a space where you buy and sell best selling books. It has to be a space where you’re really engaging with literary culture, writ large, reading, writing, translating, performing all of that. And that’s the goal of what we do at the bookstore.
H: I think even the first book that you published by Carmen Boullosa, you invited her to Dallas to talk to the readers.
W: Carmen is one of the best public speakers you will ever meet in your life. She is, she’s both charming and erudite and just brilliant on on three levels at once. And so when we released Texas, the Great Theft, we in 2014, it was the fall of 2014, almost exactly nine years ago, because the publication date for that book was in December, but we had the book in October. She came to Texas for the Texas book festival, which is in Austin, the Capitol, and it’s at the Capitol building. So this grand domed thing that looks like a pink version of the U. S. Capitol. And it’s on a hill and it’s very beautiful and it’s also where all these like politicians pass really horrific laws all year long.
But then for one weekend a year this festival is founded by Laura Bush, George Bush’s, George W. Bush’s wife. When he was the governor of Texas, she founded this festival. She was a librarian and to her credit, Texas was starving for this. We had authors coming in from all over, taking over the Capitol in this way. It’s so beautiful and democratic. You get readers and writers in this space. And you’re taking it back from these politicians who are just like, what do they know, man? It’s so beautiful. And so Carmen came and she was on a panel at the Texas Book Festival and before she, she flew into Dallas from New York where she lives half the year and she lives in Mexico City the other half.
And she flew in from New York. And I picked her up at the airport and we put her up in a hotel and we we did an event, the first event first Deep Vellum author event was at the Wild Detective Bookstore, because we did not have our bookstore yet. And because it’s also just the best place in Dallas. It is, yeah, I don’t know, it’s just the best. So we did the event there and it was amazing. And so many people came out and it was incredible because it was people who knew Deep Vellum or had met me. And it was like, people who had no idea who we were. And that’s the dream, that every event you go to isn’t just people you know.
That it’s new people there, and you could like, say, what’s up? How you doing? What are you into? You want to get involved as a volunteer, as a reader, writer, you do translate. And that event was fantastic. So Carmen did that first event in Austin, and it was amazing. And then we did an event in San Antonio. And the bookstore had not advertised the event at all. And almost no people came. My cousin came with her girlfriend and then one guy came to this event who was amazing and this is why you do these book events. Carmen had never been to San Antonio and she goes to this event and there’s a lawyer there, a white guy, like tall white lawyer in a suit.
And he goes, Carmen, I collect all your books. And she goes, Oh, what do you mean? Like my books in English? He goes, No, in Mexico, first editions. And he pulls out her first chapbook that she had published. And she published her first chapbook the same year as Bolaño with the same publisher. And so Bolaño, of course, we all know as a name, but Carmen deserves to be in that same tier. And so here he is with a first edition of this book. She’s I don’t even have a copy of this. This is incredible. You have a hundred of these in the world. Maybe. And so we ended up like, why do this event at the bookstore? They didn’t care about us. So we went across the street and ended up having this discussion that was just extraordinary about the book and Carmen’s art and her legacy and her career.
Then we did the festival, which is awesome. And then we went to Houston, to Brazos bookstore, which for the first decade of Deep Vellum has been our home away from home. Houston and Dallas are three three-hour drive. Culturally, they’re similar and different in really interesting ways. And there’s an amazing literary scene in Houston and this bookstore is so good and we did the event there and it was so good and there were so many people there and the booksellers of Brazos were so welcoming and they ended up just getting behind deep vellum early on and that event helped.
Because people came, they bought the book, and then they started recommending our books around, and through time Brazos became the space where we could most reliably meet new readers. We want to work to connect the readers and the writers. I don’t always think a book tour is the best way to do that, but any way that we can find ways to do book clubs in our store, work with another organization that has its own audience to put books in front of them that is the goal. And not just our books, open letters, archipelagos, Two lines, Transits. In this world that we’re all connected to with books on this tier, we need to be able to invite more people in and create that readership in Dallas and around the world. So having the bookstore is an important part of that because we sell all those publishers books in our bookstore too. We can’t do it alone. We are never going to do it alone. We’re part of a much larger community.
H: Now take us through some really important books that you’ve published and which you’re really proud of. I think recently you ran a promotional campaign on Twitter talking about the 10 most important books the Deep Vellum published, tell us about that promotional campaign.
W: There was a big fundraising day last month in Dallas. It’s called North Texas giving day. And it’s the single biggest charitable day. For any one organization, like in the country, it’s all run by the biggest foundation in Texas Community Foundation of Texas is based here in Dallas. And so they help non-profits raise money, which is great. And we need the money because every dollar that you donate to us goes into all this programming. Because the books we publish are my favorite books at Deep Ellum are not necessarily profitable. Every book of poetry we publish loses more money than you would, you could ever believe. But we won’t stop doing it because they’re vital to the conversation.
But what we need to do is to find the money to fill in the gaps so that we can keep doing it. And so that if one book sells, it helps pay for some books that don’t. And so do donations. And so for that, it’s, we don’t expect like a ton of money to come in that day. No one’s writing a million-dollar check to us, and we’re not rolling in cash. But we get a lot of people who donate like 25 on that day. And we wanted to remind people like why you donate to a publishing house that then sells books. Because we do sell books and the money comes back to the company to keep the whole thing going. I don’t own Deep Vellum. The people of Deep Vellum, the people of Texas own Deep Vellum. And that’s an important distinction because for that day, we set up a marketing campaign to talk about the books that we have worked on. Taking like 10 books from the first 10 years that we felt were really indicative of our history. How we got here, why we do this and why donations and contributions help make these books happen.
I don’t think that’s clear to readers obviously, if you’re the kind of person who reads a New York Times review and there’s a Deep Vellum book in there and then you go to McNally Jackson or to Prologue Bookstore in Columbus, Ohio, and you see our books and you buy the book, you’re, you don’t think, first off, this must be a nonprofit because they’re doing Romanian literature or because they’re doing Mexican literature. But we want to show that these books are made possible because of 25 donations, and grants from organizations like the Romanian Cultural Institute. So there are a couple of books that we chose from there that are not profitable or best sellers. But that are like so emblematic of why we do what we do in Dallas.
And that is vital too. But some of those 10 books, I ended up doing 11 videos. I don’t know if you counted. We did 10 years. I made an extra one because I couldn’t stop. And then today we put out a new one. So we have 12 videos for 10 years because I’m a maximalist. I want more. And I can’t stop. Their books are all so exciting. And there’s 1200 of them now to talk about. And the some of the first ones to talk about, I already mentioned Texas, the great death. And I mentioned Sphinx by Ann Garreta, which Emma Ramadan translated. Those are two of the books that we covered in this series, which were two of the first hits for us.
People put on my tombstone that we worked on those books. The books are amazing. They got great reviews. Bookstores were selling them. Our distributor was selling them. And everybody was happy. But it’s not they weren’t selling like 20,000 copies. They were selling like 2,000 copies our first year. That’s a lot of books for a brand-new publisher. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was a lot of books moving. And that was the whole point. And I was like, Oh my gosh, we got this. And then we kept publishing books and some sold better than others. And there are so many books I could pull out and highlight.
Like in the last year, we published Solenoid by Mircea Cartarescu which Sean Cotter translated from Romanian. That book could not have happened if the Romanian Cultural Institute did not exist, period. And Mircea Cartarescu visited the U S on a tour during our 10th anniversary celebrations. And it was an extraordinary time. The events were amazing. Every event was sold out. Huge audiences. And people are starved for this kind of literature that he writes. It was such a joy. And the Romanian Cultural Institute in Bucharest helped fund that translation. They helped us offset the cost of that gigantic book. Without that grant, we would not have been able to do the book. We just could not have gotten the cash to do it up front. And then, thanks to the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, And their team, we were able to help offset the cost of Mircea’s tour around the U. S. Because touring is extraordinarily expensive. Flights are one thing, but hotel nights add up and it becomes so expensive.
And so we were able to work with partners at universities to help with some of that and the Romanian Cultural Institute. And the tour was a success. It’s not necessarily because it sold a lot of books. It’s because he was here and he was a part of it. And so our official 10th anniversary party was with Solenoid at the Wild Detectives, Which is that book because they read it in Spanish years ago in a great translation that impediment to publish This is how the whole world works, Like it’s not any one thing for us We want to tie into all the languages all the discussions solenoid was a great one for that Grey Bees by Andrei Kurkov Translated by Boris Dralyuk. Solenoid and grey bees are in this 10 years 10 books as well and Grey Bees became the book that has of Ukrainian literature that a lot of people turn to After this horrific invasion last February of the full scale invasion of Ukraine.
So that book has been amazing to work on because it’s such a great book. It appeals to general readers as well as literary readers. And that’s very important. And it got us our first review on the front page of the New York Times book review. Would that book have gotten that review without that war? No way, right? So we happen to have the right book at the right time. And that’s what publishing is, right? Is that you put it out there. You cannot create these moments. The moments happen. And we had the book for that moment at that time. But when other global events happen, people have not turned to our literature the same way when something crazy happened somewhere else or some horrific tragedy or some war happens there.
But this Ukraine war was really interesting. We happened to have that book. But a couple other books that I absolutely loved. I talked about in the 10 years, 10 books like Red Ants by Pergentino Jose. It’s the first book written in Sierra Zapotec that was translated into English. Thomas Bunstead was a translator and that’s a book we inherited when we got phoneme media, when phoneme media became a part of Deep Vellum through shook, who is one of the greatest editors and people you’ll ever meet in this business. Phoneme and Deep Vellum were like very similar company started around the same time, very similar missions. Another book that I love is Tram 83 where we published the first book from the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was International Booker shortlisted, and that was the first book from DRC ever published in English.
Several months later, Phoneme did the second book translated by DRC author, but it was from Lingala. And that was like the difference between Deep Vellum and Phoneme in a nutshell was that they were going to do the smaller languages. But books are equally vital. So a lot of indigenous languages of Mexico, Central America, and smaller languages from around the world. The Book translated from Esperanto so cool. I just love phoning from afar, and so when Shook called with the opportunity to work together, I jumped at that chance. And now we get to work with all these amazing books of poetry through this imprint, including books that we recently published, like Law of Conservation by Mariana Spada, who’s Argentinian, translated by Robin Myers, who’s one of my favorite translators ever from any language, and a great writer herself. So you look at those opportunities. I could go on forever with all the books we’ve done, but those are just a few. And you’ve got books from I mentioned very casually, I think it’s four or five continents and it just keeps going. It’s that’s why we do it. And just Tuesday night, I was hanging out with this amazing translator at the University of Texas at Dallas, where she’s doing a PhD now named Jenny Bhat.
And Jenny Bhat lives in Dallas, lives in the area, and she’s doing PhD there. And she translated a book for us by Dhooma Ketu a short story writer from Gujarati. And when we published that book in English, it was the first book from Gujarati ever published in the us which is insane . This is why we do what we do. Like it’s, it just blows my mind.
H:Now, how do you choose books to publish?
W: Can’t give you all my secrets.(Laughs) This is a public podcast. , You don’t go to KFC and ask them for the secret formula. You remember, it’s like 53 spices. But, everybody picks books a little differently, right? But I mentioned some publishers before the Open Letter, Archipelago, Transit, Two Lines, Seven stories. I can keep going. NYRB, Fitzcarraldo, Tilted Axis, one of my favourite publishers, feminist press, all the publishers who do great translations. We’re all in a tier, a very literary tier. So the books we compete against each other for office, right? We’re all friends. I think in business school, they call them co-opetition. We’re friends, but we’re also competition, and we help each other. We do events with each other. It’s amazing. But we’re competing for the same authors around the world. How do we pick our books as the formula becomes a little unique?
We pick our books so that the books are diverse. I guess that would be the best way of putting it. And I don’t just mean who writes it, what language is from, what country is from, but also the style. We don’t have a house style of book that we publish. So that every book I mentioned just a minute ago, the books are so different from each other, the way they read. And also, so it’s important who’s writing it. That level of diversity is extraordinarily important to us. So that if we sign a book by a man from Europe, we’re going to look and do a book by a woman from somewhere else, right? And so this diversity of viewpoint, style, background, all this adds up into this sort of algorithm that we use to pick the books and. To slot them into schedules together so that no two books in our list end up being the same and that they’re mostly in dialogue with each other and you can make the connections as a reader between them that the authors might not have ever done so. And we definitely didn’t.
H: You have been in the publishing industry for more than a decade now. What are the emerging trends in publishing?
W: Emerging trends? Wow. In publishing. Okay, that’s a great question. I am teaching a class at the University of Texas at Dallas this semester on publishing. It is the hardest thing to teach class on because there’s no, what is publishing, right? There are no books about publishing. There’s no source you turn to. It’s a thing that you don’t think about, right? And so, what are the emerging trends in publishing be when you say publishing, I think you mean the kind of things we publish, literary publishing, which is the tiniest sliver of a gigantic industry that is called publishing.
And so I asked my students in this class on day one, I said, why are you in this class? And there’s 15 of them, and they’re all juniors and seniors at the university, and they’re all literature majors. And most of them are also doing creative writing. I said, why are you here? And they’re like, Oh, cause you’re teaching with us.
I was like, what? How do you know who I am? And they’re like, you’re the Deep Vellum guy. And I was like, how on earth do you know what Deep Vellum is? I’m impressed. I’m pleased, but like totally shocked. I was like, how do you know what Deep Vellum is? Oh our professors, of course, are all translators here at the university. They’ve worked with you. Oh, okay. But I was like, great, so you’re all here because of deep vellum. And they’re like, yeah, I was like, great. I’m going to teach you all about publishing in this course. And let me tell you the first secret on day one. It’s not going to hit until later in the semester. I am not going to teach you how to go work at Deep Vellum because there are no jobs at Deep Vellum, right? If you want to work in publishing, you won’t go work for a tiny publisher like Deep Vellum. You’re going to go start your own press or you’re going to go work in the big five.
The big five is 90 per cent of the trade books in the country, right? If you want a job in publishing, you better figure out how to market books. You better figure out how to be a part of the literary ecosystem. And I was like, if you want to work in these businesses, we need to talk about all the issues of the business. So you can identify the problems and how you can go in and find your place. And remember That you need to have some kind of background in this field. So if you want to work in publishing, it’s better if you have a podcast; it’s better if you review books on your blog. we’ll send you free books, review them, become our friend, become a trusted source for the world and you can do so much more for publishing without having to be an editorial assistant to an imprint that you hate at Simon and Schuster like.
That would be like that ninth layer of hell for me. And I can’t do that. I refuse to do that. And so I had to tell these students early on, man, like what are the emerging trends in publishing? I guess that’s a great class. Work that into a future one. Cause I don’t know. The pandemic changed everything and we’re coming out of the post pandemic reality. When I started publishing books, it used to be, I remember asking a lot of the publishers already to meet, where do you print your books? Where do you print your books? And I would call the printers that they said, and I said make my books look like theirs. I don’t know. How do you do the specs and all the designs? I’m not a designer. So we matched based on other publishers at different times and then learned the lingo. But it used to be a book would take a couple of weeks to print and it would be a dollar. And now it’s a couple months to print and it costs 3. And that difference in price was not made up in us raising our prices.
And so a big reality for us has been there’s inflation in book prices. Now we’re paying more. So customers are going to have to pay more. It’s not just us. Penguin Random House is doing it. Everyone’s doing it. But the situation is getting a little better where it’s taking a little less time again, but one of the emerging trends is like, what do you do about a supply chain that is so fragile so that this all started before the pandemic to, I don’t know if you remember some boat got stuck in the Suez canal and it supposedly had Michelle Obama’s biography on board coming from China and Thank you. So all of a sudden, this book is like stuck in limbo and they, the publishing house, called all the printers in America and took over all the printing slots to print this book and they kicked all the jobs down and everything started to get stopped up. So the printers we use down here got stopped up because publishers from up here started using this one and etc.
It caused this ripple effect. So the butterfly flapped its wings in the Suez Canal and it ruined the publishing and then the pandemic killed it and then there was no paper and then there, The thing is our kind of books, like literary work, is not being sold in e book form as widely as genre work is. E books are not the savior, they’re not the thing, but they’re amazing, and they’re always available and that’s helpful, but I think audio books keep growing which is good, they’re tuning in more to even publishers and authors of our tier, and I think that’s really cool, because There’s a, there’s a beautiful future in which you can have a print book, the audiobook and the ebook, and engage with it any way you want.
But also, books are our format. That’s like what we do. Emerging trends in that is that distribution is increasingly hard. It’s hard to get books to readers bookstores. There are amazing stores in America at any given time, though, for the last hundred years, there have been 100 bookstores in America that would stock our books. We have to focus on those 100 bookstores and I can name them all and, and everyone who’s listening right now who works in American publishing, they know the same hundred books. They know those stories. We’re all in dialogue with those stores because those stores are carrying forward literature in America.
That’s a problem. We need a hell of a lot more than a hundred bookstores in this gigantic country to carry forth this culture. I think that’s a big problem we have. And so one of the emerging things is that there continues to be like the digitization of literary culture. That’s not really emerging.
Let’s look at you. TikTok is a trend. TikTok will go away one day. It’ll be replaced with something else like it. And, just like Instagram and everything before it, but all these platforms now have different audiences, and it’s intriguing. Twitter has one audience. And when I made the first videos for these 10 years, 10 books, we posted them on X, Instagram and TikTok.
And the level of engagement across them is very interesting to compare and the way that people respond to it. So I, any way that we can continue to find readers and have a conversation. One great thing was the digitization of promotion. So you can do a Zoom call with a guy in Hyderabad and a guy in Dallas and have a conversation and see each other’s faces.That’s new and I think that’s not the answer, but it’s a way to capture moments and culture for time so that you could watch these videos again in 10 years and they’re going to be time capsules and they’re going to be incredible. They’re boring as hell to watch in real-time. But what’s boring right now Is in 10 years going to be gold for someone doing a PhD after the author gets renowned somewhere else and you can go back and look at these things are artifacts. We’re in the business of producing cultural artifacts and we hope that they live and they’re breathing real things. But at the same time, I think that the readership for our books is not only today, it has to be tomorrow and in the future. And that we need to put that stuff out there. So the emerging trends outside of that dude, I don’t know. Penguin Random House gets bigger. Amazon gets broken up into 10 companies that are all equally big. You tell me, I have no idea what the future holds, but I was shocked that Penguin Random House‘s merger with Simon Schuster was blocked by the Department of justice in the US, I was shocked and could not believe it. Who knows what the future holds? Amazon seems to be the next big thing that will change. It will just change into a different form. Like it’s book selling will be one thing and it’s web services will be another, but. Amazon right now is unique and bookshop.org has emerged to be a great competitor to it in the U. S. That does a lot of great work helping bookstores. So we need more of that. We need more innovation that is geared toward the average reader to pull them into our world. I haven’t seen in mega trends outside of what bookshop. org is up to and Future in social reading platforms like a new version of Goodreads, something like that, that they’re talking about doing, that would be awesome.
H:So what are the future plans?
W: We’re writing a new 10-year plan. I studied Russian culture, so I like to do five-year plans and 10-year plans, just as a nonprofit, we’re required to have, and everybody should have, even for private, a strategic plan, which is for us what are we up to now? What are we going to be up to in two years? in five and then 10 years? And I had a strategic plan for Deep Bellum when I founded it, and we did everything I set out to do. And I actually, this year is hard for me personally, because I’m like what comes next? What do you do when you’ve done everything you’ve set out to do?
And, it’s never, it’s not like selling books or winning prizes is ever enough to feel content. I feel like the goal for me now is in the next ten years, we have to get Deep Vellum to the point. That I could do something else or I could die. I don’t want to die. I want to go do something. But if I ever did step away from development someone else would step in and lead it into an even better, brighter future because to me, setting up a nonprofit that I don’t own and putting so much work into it, the future has to be like, it has to exist into the future for me to think it’s a success. And so I look at Graywolf Press, the great non-profit publisher in America. And they went through a leadership transition that was difficult once, but it carries on now, stronger than it’s ever been. And it is like the gold standard, but so is Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis, a peer publisher up there.
And it’s been around for a long time too, and Coffeehouse Press up there. Also going through changes, but just leading the way. Those three organizations are the ones I looked up to and said, I want to be, I want to be around in 40 years like they are. I want development to exist. I don’t want to run it in 40 years because I’ll be some tired old man, and I don’t want to be the tired old man running this exciting vibrant ship. I want new blood to come in. So can I build this in a way that we set up the systems and the operations that this vision, this unique algorithm that we have? For picking books and promoting books and talking about books can be carried forth into the future. So really it’s about becoming, I don’t know, more of ourselves.
Is that an answer? Terrible. (Laughs) I need to really think about this better. I guess I need to raise a billion dollars, right? Anybody out there who’s a patron looking for an organization to support, call us.
H: Now, this is the final question. Probably a kind of personal question. What drives you, Will?
W: What drives me? What a great question. I don’t know. I don’t know. I love this. I love the books. I love the authors. I love the feeling of talking to someone who gets into one of our books, who buys it, gets it from the library, who meets the author and they’re changed for the better, right? Like I, I’m driven by this, 19th century Russian literature kind of vibe that books can And should change the world. I have said that in other interviews and I come back to it, but I remember reading that distinctly early on, like Russian literature, there’s always two big questions in Russian literature that appear in all the books. One of them is literally the title of the book. What is to be done by Chernyshevsky? Which is, what do you do? How do you make things better? You got to do it. And so if we want to be part of the change, we got to go do it. That drives me. Like I want to be a part of the positive change. I want to make the world a better place. I want to bring cult people and cultures and dialogue like to, I don’t know, to not have to deal with some of this horrific shit that we have to deal with on a day-in and day-out basis.
And we can focus on the beauty and the conversations and all that and coffee drive to me. I’m grateful for all the coffee of the world I’ve drank along the way. The. The instant coffee in Russia and the espresso in Banyan Luka, a coffee I had in Peru, the whole world, there are things that unite us. And for me, it’s like books and stories are one of the most important things. Food and music are others that, that really does drive me. Kto vinovat? Chto Delat? Those are the two big questions. Who is to blame? What has to be done? And so my, what has to be done? We’re doing it now. The, who is to blame? I’m always like, I always talk about the big five, like the straw man argument. They publish some great books. There’s some great people who work in the big five; when you have 90 per cent of the culture, I’m like fuck you. I’m sorry if you have ten cool people in there, like it’s still a problem.
And for me, I am, like, I still am filled with like anger and no one likes to hear about anger. I’m a, I try to be a funny guy and very approachable. And I want to be able to talk to the whole world and invite them into publishing. But I get angry when I think about the publishers and how much they’ve deprived. Us of as readers for so long, they’ve robbed us of the great diversity of literary voices from our own country and around the world and they forced Stuff on us thinking that it was the only way to do it because it had sold in the past And so a lot of the problems we have in American culture publishing is completely emblematic Of the best and the absolute worst parts of American culture And I can’t speak to all the publishing cultures around the world, but I assume it’s the same everywhere, right?
It’s just how it goes, and I want to focus on the best parts of our culture because America can always be better and I believe in that part of the American experiment and the American dream. It’s a country and a culture filled with people and diasporas of multiple generations from all over the world, and we’re stronger and better for it. And we live in a time when that’s not the prevailing. Sentiment from politicians, and it’s horrific and we need to fight back against that and to be a part of that culture of positive Change and reminding people that we are stronger together and that we have a voice together And these books and these stories and writing it out is the way that we can learn from each other and listen To each other without without just having the chance to sit down over a cup of coffee Thank you.
H: Thank you.Really Will! just such a pleasure to listen to you. Thank you very much.
W: Cool. Thank you
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