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Interview | Susan Curtis-Kojakovic, founder, Istros Books | Indie Publisher of the Week

Are (were) your parents great readers? Tell us a bit about yourself.
I actually come from a working class family, and my parents didn’t even have bookshelves when I was growing up. But there was a good library nearby and at some point in my childhood I realized that books are one of the best things about life on this planet (at least in the man-made world).

Did you want to work in the publishing industry from the start?
Despite the fact that my tutor at university predicted I would go into publishing, it wasn’t something I considered until later on. In my twenties I wanted to travel and worked a variety of menial jobs in order to fund that. Afterwards, I trained as a teacher, but my main subject was always literature. When I decided to found Istros, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world: a coming together of the disparate strands of my life into a meaningful whole.

Has your vision from when you started Istros Books 7 years ago changed?
My vision has remained the same – to showcase the very best literature from an area of Europe that is often forgotten and much maligned.

How do you balance originality and profitability?
It is very difficult to be profitable in the area of translated fiction, unless you publish crime books. Since I’m not fond of that genre, I concentrate on literary fiction, and have found that the stuff that is good will eventually be appreciated by readers and critics, and even sell in modest quantities. Luckily, there are grants from various national and international sources that help with the translation costs, which are usually the most expensive part of production. Translation funding is vital, Istros could not exist without it.

What was the book that made you fall in love with reading?
Hmm . . . I think that perhaps it was an author. The novels of Graham Greene were very significant for me, and partly inspired me to travel, as well.

What makes you decide to publish one writer, and not another?
I publish prize-winning authors, or those whose reputation is already established in their home countries. I also think about whether the story can travel across cultures, and have meaning for an audience outside its homeland. On top of this, I also try to keep a balance between the different countries I cover, as well as male and female authors.

Technology and the rise of Kindle and iPads etc have revolutionised the publishing industry. How well have publishers adapted to industry changes?
We make ebook versions of each title, and they sell modestly. The one area I think we – and other Indie publishers – haven’t really exploited, is the audiobook. This is a format I would very much like to explore, perhaps by publishing one ‘trial’ book and then working out the marketing and placement around it.

Do you enjoy reading ebooks? Will the physical book die away eventually?
I often read on my iPad, because authors send me Word files of their work and so this is my first contact. However, I personally prefer physical books, and I think many people still do. Our eyes can get tired of looking a screens all day, and having a tactile object – with good quality paper and an attractive cover, is still appreciated.

Your views on marketing and distribution? And on social media?
Since I almost never have money for marketing, I rely a lot on social media and the goodwill of booksellers. I would like to know more about how to use facebook to sell books and gain an audience, and this is something I plan to invest in. As for distribution, all the channels are in place, but if the marketing is poor then readers and the booksellers don’t know the book is out there. In my experience, the very best boost to book sales comes through reviews or other media exposure in mainstream newspapers or online journals.

Your favourite literary journals?
Asymptote has become an essential in the world of literary translation, along with Words Without Borders and World Literature Today. I also greatly appreciate the Times Literary Supplement.

What do you think the future holds for publishing now that the US has entered the A.T. (after Trump) era? Turmoil, opportunity, growth, or downhill all the way?
That’s a difficult question. Books have had to compete with TV and film for a while now, and on top of that most people now spend their free time browsing on their phones. We can only hope that the core readers will stay strong and continue to read newspapers and books.

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 and translation in your view?
Well, it means that we probably won’t be eligible to apply for EU Creative Europe funds, which is a rich source for festival and literary translation funding. It also means that it is more important than ever to keep European literature alive in the English language – so our jobs take on a pioneering role. We must rise to the challenge.

Your favourite qualities in a person?
Loyalty and honesty.

For what faults do have you most tolerance?
Exaggeration for the sake of a good story.

Your chief characteristic?
I am rather stubborn, which you have to be in order to run a small press focused on translated literature in this market!

Your chief fault?
I have little patience.

Your bedside reading?
Eclectic – I have a pile of books by my bed and a load of PDF files on my iPad. I find that since starting Istros I simply don’t have so much time for new books, which is a pity.

You are organizing a literary dinner party. Which five writers, dead or alive, would you invite?
Aminata Forna (I’d like to ask her about the genesis of her novel, The Hired Man, set in Croatia); the late Graham Greene (of course); and the late Romanian writer/historian of religion Mircea Eliade – about whom so much has been said, and whose two first novels I published for the first time in English recently.

Your heroes and heroines in fiction?
I can’t say I have many adult heroes or heroines. I suppose that Pippi Longstocking would have to be top of my list.

Your heroes and heroines in real life?
Anyone who works for the benefit of humanity, the environment or animal rights.

Who would be in your dream book club?
People who love literature for its own sake, and who believe in the power of the story to offer us a guide to life. That sounds rather grandiose, but you did ask me for my ideal . . .

Your motto?
Well, on the Istros’ site I added the motto – ‘Quality has no borders’ – that will do.

A BookBlast® exclusive. Format copyright © BookBlast® Ltd, London. Answers copyright ©   Susan Curtis-Kojakovic c/o BookBlast Ltd, London. All rights reserved. Photographs & graphical images copyright © their respective copyright holders. Unless otherwise specified, the content herein is only for your personal and non-commercial use.

 

 

Published by

georgia DC

Bilingual editor, rewriter, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.

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