Publishing Lives 5: Barbara Epler, President, New Directions

‘And I know I will feel nostalgia for the young people so excited by change, so ready to take the old dinosaur by the paw—and lead me, dragging my . . . heavy scaly tail behind me through the mud of all my hesitations . . . and still grumbling: Who knew we’d have to be living in Tomorrow Land?’

This is what Barbara Epler has to say in the Seagull Books catalogue, as she discusses blogs and e-books. Even if one does not like them, her advice is to ‘just do it and get your game on.’

That is a fleeting glimpse of the dynamic woman I am writing about.

When you know you’ll be meeting someone important, you do the best that you can. You read up. The single paragraph introduction told me that she joined New Directions as an editorial assistant in 1984. Finally in 2011 she became the president of this publishing house, which started way back in 1936 when Ezra Pound asked James Laughlin to ‘do something useful’.

Even after reading that one paragraph I still did not know whether it would be a boring marathon or something exciting. With all due respect, some very successful people are also very successful in inducing slumber. ‘How would this session go?’ I asked myself. There was no answer.

But wait.

Didn’t someone mention something about a piece on her in the Seagull catalogue? Of course!

Hand stretched out for that book . . . not book . . . the work of art, lying on my messy table—THERE! ‘Barbara Epler’. It was not something about her. It was something by her. The four odd pages that I read before drifting off to sleep convinced me that ‘boring’ was not the adjective for her. In her piece, she told the most engaging stories, she was humorous and frank and I couldn’t wait to meet her.

As she began to speak, I thanked my stars that I had spent a good part of my life watching American sitcoms. If I didn’t I wouldn’t have been able to understand a word. She speaks fast. You better sit up and listen, she can tell you four stories in 30 seconds and start a fifth.

By the time Barbara Epler visited us, we knew about stuff (a precious little, but we did). ‘Rights’, ‘royalties’, ‘agents’ were terms that we used regularly. So the question missiles fired at her were rather limited in number on the first day.

Few minutes into her session, I knew that this lady enjoys talking. She does not ‘answer’ questions, she does not ‘tell’ a story, she performs. Animated expressions . . . bright eyes (and shoes!) . . . a wonderful mimicry skill whether it was Susan Sontag, Ezra Pound or her boss Griselda—she spared no one.

She told us how publishing was supposed to be a temporary option and then added ‘but that was 27 years ago’. She told us a lot about James Laughlin, the founder of New Directions. She kept referring to him as JL.

New Directions continues to publish some of the greatest authors. Any doubts? Here’s the list—Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño, Tennessee Williams, Jorge Luis Borges, W. G. Sebald, Federico García Lorca, Franz Kafka and many more.

She mentioned that other publishing houses wooed Tennessee Williams (hilarious come hither hand gestures coupled with ‘come to us’, ‘come to us’) and that he refused. He stood by New Directions, because he wanted them to make money so that they could support young poets. Some of our Indian publishing houses like Zubaan, survive without this kind of support.

Still on the topic of Independent publishers, she mentioned that the non-profit publishing houses like Ugly Duckling and Archipelago are doing some of the best work in America. She told us how New directions is different—there are the MNC’s, there are the University Presses and there are the non-profit publishers, New Directions is an independent profit-making publishing house.

She mentioned that JL was against corporate growth. To him it would lead to an inevitable compromise on quality. Even today, New Directions has ‘nine and a half’ employees. She said that the only thing that matters in corporate publishing was ‘guaranteed sales’, adding confidently, ‘which is insane!’ So it wasn’t surprising that to her ‘P and L’ is all ‘hocus-pocus’.

Translations are important, she asserted. Especially because once a work is translated into English, it has a better chance of being translated into Korean, Chinese and other languages. ‘So what is editing translations like?’ we asked her. It is like ‘fine tuning’, ‘almost like finger and silk’. One struggles with the language, the translator and the author endlessly till it is perfect. And when it is not perfect? Well, at times, one has to believe ‘Done is beautiful’.

For a person who has been in this field for a good 27 years she knows that while a lot remains the same, a lot has to change. She confessed that she is a ‘technical dinosaur’ as she prefers to read books and not e-books. At the same time she knows that marketing matters. She told us ‘Having a sense of business is really important.’ Earlier, she would tackle numerous phone calls simultaneously but now, she said, ‘emails have completely changed the acoustics of the office.’

Epler also came as a breath of fresh air to the poetry lovers in our batch. ‘Poetry does sell’ (they publish Pablo Neruda). But she added that the journey to recognition, for a poet, is much longer. Tomas Tranströmer was first published in 1966 and it took him so long to finally find recognition. Later, she also mentioned that in America there is actually more institutional support for poetry but people don’t buy unknown names.

New Directions publishes books that they believe are ‘truly great’. So how do they find them? Suggestions, trusting translators, finding something while sitting on panels that judge translations and so on. But one has to be careful, she warned, as it often happens, ‘she loves the book so much, but it’s her boyfriend’s book’. She believes like her boss that ‘the only way to learn to do it is to do it. You know the difference between gold and gravel. You know you want to publish it.’

We discussed agents. The good ones, according to her, listen to the publishers and look after their authors, the medium ones try to extract whatever they can—‘like selling a secondhand car’. And the difficult ones? No characteristics, only an example.

Epler is as sceptical of corporate publishing as JL. She said that at times she wonders whether they are like huge trucks, with a drunk driver behind the wheel and very often no driver at all (this is on the particular incident of a publishing house firing a celebrated editor).

She also spoke at length about booksellers, she told us about the Winter Institute where the booksellers and publishers meet, and that it’s a ‘lot like speed-dating’. The direct interaction helps.

No matter in which direction the discussion goes, no publisher can avoid journeying through the Amazon jungle. It is a force to reckon with and publishers are not happy, to say the least. Epler however said, ‘To be fair to Amazon they sell a lot of our books and they post a lot of reviews.’

Design was discussed. Some of us were fascinated by the four Lispector covers, which formed the author’s face when arranged in a certain manner. She discussed the days when all their covers were in black and white. She said, ‘Branding is important’, because now when people read the ones with the new covers, they seldom read a New Directions book, they read an authors book.

‘How do you edit poetry?’ asked someone. ‘Minimally’ was the quick answer. She confessed though, ‘My food is fiction.’

We wrapped up the session on the first day with a glimpse of Anne Carson’s ‘NOX’, the book in a box, unfolding into a breathtaking saga of sadness and beauty. Each page resembled a ‘Xerox’ and the book was really, as she put it, ‘a scrapbook of grief’.

Barbara Epler also joined us for a presentation session, where the students presented their own publishing venture ideas. She was kind enough to share inputs and also answer numerous questions. She talked about the politics of publishing, promotion ideas (‘I could use some ideas,’ she said). She told us all about the new Directions office and also talked about the personality of a publisher and more.

Whether it was Urvashi Butalia from Zubaan, S. Anand from Navayana or Barbara Epler from New Directions, meeting publishers from independent houses was always about a story of survival, a story of holding one’s own, of swimming against the tide. Barbara Epler summed it up beautifully, I quote from that little paragraph again, the paragraph which introduced her—‘Years ago, I thought the big publishers were like dinosaurs and the smaller publishers like mammals . . . Even though we look less impressive, we might be what survives.’

Shiny Das 

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