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Petr Minárik: Foreign publications are not a livelihood for the publisher, but a joy and an image

Větrné mlýny is one of the most interesting Czech publishers. Founded in the mid—nineties, it publishes contemporary and classic authors, Nobelists alongside writers in whom the editor—in—chief, Petr Minárik, believes. Minárik speaks of the publishing house as a cultural institution — which is probably why Větrné mlýny also organizes the literary festival «Month of Author Readings», which is one of the largest festivals in Central Europe. Větrné mlýny publishes the most Ukrainian authors in Czech translation in the Czech Republic, from Valerian Pidmohylny to Sofia Andruchovych. It is precisely because of such contexts and attention to Ukrainian literature that we invited Petr to share his Czech experience as a literary agent.


— Petr, what was the book market like in the Czech Republic when you had just founded Větrné mlýny, and how has it changed over the years. Have you had literary agents who work in the domestic market and promote your authors abroad?

— The topic of literary agents, or persons performing their functions, is especially important for small Eastern European countries. In the Czech Republic, there is almost no system of literary agents right now. We can count our agents on our fingers: there are only three. One of them works for a major publishing house, one lives in Holland and works from abroad, and only one really works here in the Czech Republic as an agent. 

I started the publishing house Větrné mlýny in 1995. I was very inspired and thought that I would show the world Czech literature. Then we did some translations of our authors into German ourselves. We published three of them in our publishing house and presented them in Frankfurt. You can imagine how much interest there was to it—almost zero. So I learned from my own experience that it’s not as hard to publish a book in another language as it is to distribute it. 

— How did your project to publish your own books in German come to an end?

— We gave copies free of charge to bookstores so that people could take the books and learn about Czech literature, at least that way. There are book thieves who try to get books for free, and we ourselves gave them away for nothing. Promoting literature abroad is extremely important, but this first approach was unsuccessful.

— What else have you tried?

— Three years ago we had a fairly successful project. It was a series called «Czech Selection», 10 books by Czech contemporary authors were published in Germany as part of it. They are small books, 120—130 pages, which were published by the Austrian publishing house Wieser Verlag. That’s how we got into the German and Austrian markets. It’s not a success in the full sense, and comparing it to when we were just handing out books in Germany… The success is that these books are on the foreign market and are sold. A Czech publisher should not publish books in foreign languages. But such a one—time promotional event can make sense because it can generate interest in another country.

— Do you work with foreign agents?

— More often than not, we work directly with foreign publishers. Sometimes they recommend a publication to us, sometimes we to them. But here I have in mind language markets that are close to Czech in volume and context.

The situation with the big language markets is quite different and more complicated; you cannot do without agents there.

Czech literature is small, so it is not frequently that a Czech author generates interest. At that time, there are certain possibilities, and it is very important to have state support in this business.

— What does collaboration between author and publisher look like in the domestic Czech market?

The agencies that exist, and the Czech Republic, provide more of a legal assistance and help with contracts.

— That makes good business sense. I can’t say that quality literature is a business in the Czech environment — the market is small. There is a strong relationship between author and publisher; it’s not like the American format, where the author writes a novel and goes to an agent, and then the agent is already looking for better terms. From the beginning, the relationship between author and publisher is pretty clear. An entire sector of book publishing is dependent on government support. On the other hand, agency support for authors is significant — and that’s what publishers do now.

It’s up to the publishers to siphon and promote the author, send him to festivals, nominate him for awards, and in the Czech Republic they do that. They also try to get authors to appear abroad.

A publisher doesn’t make money on foreign publications—it’s a matter of image and joy.

Recently we published the book «The Republic» by David Zabransky, we made arrangements with 8 translators from 8 countries and ordered them to translate fragments. When the book was published in Czech, this fragment was published in literary magazines of foreign countries simultaneously with the Czech publication! In Ukraine, by the way, too. I don’t know yet if it will lead to translations, but I am happy to do this experiment. I don’t think it makes sense to pretend that the market doesn’t really exist.

— German and British publishers basically get the rights from the author for the entire duration of the copyright, justifying this by the fact that the rights are the main asset of the publisher. This story is not peculiar to Ukraine. What does it look like in the Czech Republic?

— If we make a deal, we agree on a term of about 20 years. It depends not so much on the market, but on the fact that the book sells slowly. We can’t pay our authors enough to take away their rights for good. It would be immoral to take away their rights for a small amount of money. At the same time, I cannot compare commercially successful authors in, say, the English—speaking market with, for example, the outstanding Czech poet Jana Orlova. This difference has to be kept in mind.

— Do you miss the involvement of agents in the work of your publishing house?

— At the Frankfurt Fair, I observe that most European countries present themselves through publishers. They present their books and hold author readings. The Americans, on the other hand, have one pavilion with only agents. There are almost no publishers there, and agents just fly home after the professional part is over. Our culture and our opportunities are very different. In Western Europe, too, a situation of approaching such business relationships is coming, but in this context, we live from the past.

— What do you mean by that?

— In the past, publishing was a kind of cultural institution.

You always have to separate the for—profit and non—profit sectors in this discussion, because they are two different worlds.

— There are gaps that arise in the field that an agent can fill. You talked about legal aid, theoretically that’s a point where an agent or a union could come in. How do you address that issue without agents?

— It’s a complex issue. If the contract truly works, it doesn’t carry much weight. The contract reinforces the agreement between the author and the publisher. There has to be trust between the publisher and the author. We also have discussions about, for example, how much the publisher should pay the author, but it’s always a market issue. If there’s no money in the market, the publisher just can’t give it.

— What then should the sector do to improve conditions?

— In my opinion, the best thing to do is to put the publisher and the author under general pressure from the state, which determines the rules of the game. It is the state’s responsibility to cultivate the national culture. We all make cars or detergents, and if there is one thing we differ from each other, it is culture. This is the defining value. And if I can advise on contracts … it would be good to have a professional organization that provides legal assistance to authors and defines certain frameworks and rules of good business. 

It’s a matter of development—over time, the dishonest players in the market will filter out.

They’ll say they want to publish the best authors, but if they act unworthy, they won’t work with them. 

— Why isn’t the market filtering so far?

— You know, certain general shortcomings are reflected in the country’s markets. It’s clear that the entrepreneurial culture in Germany is 50 years ahead of the Czech Republic. So the Germans have the best contracts — and at the same time they don’t need to, because their business is held up by reputation. There, the market will carry the dishonest player over the edge.

— Petr, tell us about the successful cases of Větrné mlýny Publishers.

— David Zabransky, whom I mentioned, is among our most important authors. His novel Logos is well received in the Czech Republic and abroad. You said that you wanted to ask me about bestsellers, I think instead about our translations and how they are received by the Czech public. We’ve been publishing the wonderful German creator Judith Herman for years, which sells very well in the German—speaking market. She is not a bestseller in our country. The same works with Ukrainian authors.

— Who are the Ukrainians you work with?

— We have a lot of them in our portfolio. These are Yurii Andrukhovych, Oles Ulianenko, Anatolii Dnistrovyi, Sofiia Andrukhovych, Tania Maliarchuk, Volodymyr Rafieienko, Andrii Bondar, Galina Kruk and others. Recently we published «The City» by Valerian Podmogylny in translation by Miroslav Tomek. Your contemporary authors have their own audience in the Czech Republic, but unfortunately they are not bestsellers either. Perhaps that will come someday.


Author: Bohdana Neborak

Translation: Victoria Pushyna