BookBlast interviews Judith Uyterlinde (Publishing Director) & Lydia Unsworth (Editor-in-Chief) at World Editions as a three-way conversational Q&A.
Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
JUDITH (Publishing Director): My father loves reading newspapers and history books. My mother loves reading novels. If I publish a book I usually ask myself if my mother would like reading it too―meaning that it shouldn’t be pretentious or unnecessarily complicated. My aunt was the person who stimulated me most though―she was a great storyteller herself, as well as a librarian, and somehow she always seemed to know exactly which books to give me to read.
LYDIA (Editor-in-Chief): Not while I was growing up, although I’m not sure how much free time they had. It was very much noted that I was a reader though, and was encouraged. I also quickly worked out that reading in bed meant I could stay up late by turning the light back on after my parents went downstairs.
What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
JUDITH: My aunt gave me a big book of fairytales by the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen with beautiful pictures in it―I devoured these stories. One of my favorites was The Little Mermaid.
LYDIA: The Naughtiest Girl in the School series, by Enid Blyton.
Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
JUDITH: I always felt attracted to languages and stories, but as a child I thought I would be a writer or a librarian―I didn’t really know about publishers. When I started working, I first translated and wrote a few books, and I worked as a literary critic before I ended up in publishing.
LYDIA: I wanted to work in a shop when I was little. Then, I suppose, once I realized proofreading was a job, I thought that must be a pretty cool way to spend one’s time.
Has your vision from when you started commissioning for World Editions two years ago changed?
JUDITH: We still focus on translated literature and publish voices from all around the globe, but whereas we started out solely as a publisher of fiction, we then opened up to narrative non-fiction as well. We want to publish beautifully written stories that matter.
What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
JUDITH: That’s a combination of many factors and also a matter of gut-feeling. A writer needs to awaken something in me, surprise me, shock me, move me, change my way of looking at the world.
He or she needs to make my heart beat faster, grab me and pull me into the story. I also weigh external factors: it helps if the book has been successful in previous territories, in terms of sales, reviews, literary prizes, etc., and if the author speaks English and is able to help promote the book.
LYDIA: For me, that would be the quality of the prose. I want sentences that make my stomach sink.
How is your experience as a published prose poet beneficial to your current role in terms of both commissioning and balancing originality and profitability?
LYDIA: It means I’m excited by language or images that are maybe coming from a slightly different angle, so I’m able to provide an extra filter within the team. I like that we all have different tastes, meaning that if something works for all of us, we know we should give it a home!
How well have publishers adapted to technology and the internet in your view?
JUDITH: Most publishers, including ourselves, publish e-books of every single book they publish, which I hope will become a bigger market, as it’s so much easier in terms of distribution. If you publish worldwide like we do, transportation costs of physical books are a pain in the ass, as is the time it takes.
LYDIA: I’m no expert but it feels like it’s working pretty well. As a reader, I’ve adapted ― I listen to audio books, read online journals, own a Kindle, etc. I see competitions, Kickstarter campaigns, subscription schemes, and online communities and support networks that just wouldn’t have been there earlier.
Do you enjoy reading e-books? Will the physical book die away eventually?
JUDITH: I do read e-books occasionally, but I very much prefer the feel of a physical book.
LYDIA: I do read e-books. I like that you don’t have to hold them. They can be handy in certain situations (pumping breast milk springs to mind). Although the first time I had one I put my foot in it (literally) and cracked the screen, so there’s a risk involved. The physical book won’t die, it’s too mysterious, that block of paper waiting to be opened. I like the wear-and-tear of the book, the history, the previous owners, the damage. Here in Amsterdam you have these free bookcases for swapping books all over the city, they excite me; and the rate of exchange within them, and the rate at which new ones keep popping up, means they excite other people too. There’s something almost primordial about a book. And as long as we’re teaching children to read using paper books, then I think there’s always going to be that accompanying nostalgia for them.
Your views on how marketing and distribution are boosted by social media and online collaboration?
JUDITH: For us, being a small but very ambitious publishing house, social media and online collaborations are very important. Our publicists spend a lot of time and effort on such things.
LYDIA: Our publicity team is amazing. It’s not my field at all, but watching the difference it makes is fascinating.
How important is funding for independent publishers?
JUDITH: We wouldn’t be able to survive without translation grants. Translated literature is expensive and the retail prices of books in the US and UK is so low―without these grants there wouldn’t be any margins left.
LYDIA: It’s vital for a lot of small presses. There are a lot of people that do a lot of hard work and need to be paid along the way.
Nearly 80% of the UK’s publishing industry wanted to remain in the EU. In the wake of Brexit, what are the implications for book publishing in your view?
LYDIA & JUDITH: Who knows? The uncertainty is affecting everything.
In your experience, how and why does winning a Literary Prize make a difference?
LYDIA and JUDITH: It makes people buy the book, the readers know someone else has vetted the book for quality already, so it feels like less of a risk. That goes for the shortlist too. It can boost an author’s career, also a translator’s. It can help the publishing house grow and become more visible.
Your views on handling success?
JUDITH: Enjoy and celebrate your successes, and then move on to the next project that deserves your attention.
LYDIA: Stay genuine.
Your heroes/heroines in fiction, and in real life?
JUDITH: Survivors. People who have gone through hardships without losing their humanity and ability to love ― such as those of Héctor Abad’s Oblivion, which we will publish in the UK this coming autumn.
LYDIA: Women. And anyone without enough money, security, or time, who still manages to be kind, creative, or generous.
Your favourite literary journals?
JUDITH: The New Yorker, Paris Review, Granta.
LYDIA: Banshee, Versal, Poetry, Ambit.
For what faults do you have most tolerance?
JUDITH: Everything I have tolerance for I don’t consider to be faults.
LYDIA: Over-enthusiasm. Under-confidence. Preferably together.
Your bedside reading?
JUDITH: Refuge by Dina Nayeri, a beautifully written migrant novel published by Riverhead―it’s the kind of book I would have loved to publish myself if I had discovered it earlier.
LYDIA: Currently open are Outline by Rachel Cusk, The Bedroom: An Intimate History by Michelle Perrot and translated by Lauren Elkin, and a shifting pile of recent poetry collections.
Your five favourite feature films?
JUDITH: Memento, Down by Law, Roma, Amelie, Paris Texas.
LYDIA: Being John Malkovich, The Forbidden Room, Watership Down, The Favourite, Beetlejuice.
Who would be in your dream book club?
JUDITH: Amos Oz, the wisest man I have ever met; Maaza Mengiste, whose warm personality I love and adore; Rodaan Al Galidi, because he always makes me laugh; Sisonke Msimang, because of her sharp outlook and open mind. And my best friend, Mireille, to make me feel at home.
LYDIA: Franz Kafka, Georges Perec, Hera Lindsay Bird, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, a couple of interpreters, and someone more nervous than me.
JUDITH: “Open your eyes and don’t forget to breathe.”
LYDIA: “Perhaps my best years are gone, but I wouldn’t want them back, not with the fire in me now.”
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