Star Interview: Publishing's male-dominated world is soundly challenged in Sheffield

Tara and Stefan Tobler, of And Other Stories. Picture: Dean Atkins
Tara and Stefan Tobler, of And Other Stories. Picture: Dean Atkins

From an inconspicuous office room tucked away at the end of a corridor at the Central Library in Sheffield, publishing’s status quo is being firmly challenged.

Three years ago, the writer Kamila Shamsie called on the book industry to issue titles solely by women for a year to ‘redress the inequality’ that, she argued, rewards male authors more generously with attention and plaudits.

Her remarks caused a stir, but just one international publishing house was bold enough to put the idea into practice.

And Other Stories, run by husband and wife Stefan and Tara Tobler, relocated to Sheffield last year and has a slate of books wholly by female writers lined up for 2018, coinciding with the 100th anniversary of women winning the right to vote.

The imprint specialises in foreign fiction, bringing work to readers’ attention in the English language – an area Stefan, who founded the company in 2009, knew was ready for a shake-up before Shamsie spoke out.

“We were already really aware it was an issue, particularly with translated fiction where only 30 per cent is by women,” he admits. “Funnily enough, for English-language authors we publish more women, but for translations more than half was by men.”

He was surprised, though, that no-one else picked up the gauntlet and embarked on a year of publishing women. “There were a couple that said they were going to and it didn’t really happen. I guess other books came along and they changed their mind. I think a lot of people saw it as more of a provocation rather than a thing to actually do. We thought – well, let’s do it.”

And Other Stories’ first big success was Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home, shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2012. It has picked up, and been in the running for, many other prizes, including the Costa Short Story Award, the Guardian First Book Award – for Juan Pablo Villalobos’ Down The Rabbit Hole – and the Best Translated Book Award, won by Mexican novelist Yuri Herrera.

“The winners of the major prizes – the Nobel, the Booker and whatnot – are men, by quite a large majority,” observes Stefan. “Even a publisher that publishes an equal number of men and women might give male authors more of the marketing budget, and send out fancy proof copies of their books. There are things which can make a big difference in how a book fares.”

He started And Other Stories after becoming frustrated at the number of good books that were never issued in English. When he submitted a translation of a novella by Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar to a big publisher, he was turned down, on the puzzling grounds that it wasn’t worth spending time on an unknown author.

The company now publishes around 12 books a year. “It’s grown gradually and organically. The plan is to move up to about 15 books in 2019 and keep it there for a while.”

The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, a collection of unpublished work by cult 1960s author Ann Quin, came out in January, followed by a new edition of Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline last month. Brother in Ice by Alicia Kopf is up next, in April.

Reading groups are relied on to source the best foreign material; new groups are starting this year for books from Africa written in French, and works in Urdu and Portuguese. Fine authors have been discovered this way, he says, who don’t have agents and are maybe without an overseas publisher. “It wouldn’t really work for English-language writers. You’d have friends of the author coming along and saying ‘Yeah, it’s a really great book’. When it’s readers talking about an author in another country, there’s an opportunity to be a bit more objective.”

And Other Stories’ small but committed team ‘reads tons’ too. Alongside Stefan and Tara there’s Nicky Smalley, who handles publicity in London, production manager Saba Ahmed and US representative Briallen Hopper. Editor Anna Glendinning is covering for Tara, who gave birth to the Toblers’ second child, a boy, two months ago. The pair also have a two-year-old son.

Did Stefan dream of reading books all day as a publisher?

“I did, that’s why it was really disappointing that there was so much admin, and bookkeeping, and funding applications,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not all fun and games, that’s for sure, but it’s still a privilege to get to do it. I can’t really believe that somehow we ended up doing this. I’ve certainly had those office jobs in the past that are just soul-destroying and you just feel like you’re a cog in a machine.”

Stefan’s parents were English and Swiss; born in the Amazon, he lived in the Chilterns from the age of nine, and moved to Dresden for several years after taking his first degree. He later did an MA and PhD at UEA in Norwich. Stefan, a youthful-looking 43, can translate from Portuguese and German ‘really well’, and reads French and Spanish ‘more slowly’.

Tara joined the publishing industry in her native Canada. She met Stefan at a sales conference in New York and moved to Britain, becoming principal editor of And Other Stories, which was previously based in High Wycombe. “Not London,” Stefan points out. “It’s been reported in a few different places that we’ve moved from London, which isn’t true. We’ve moved from fairly near London.”

Sheffield was a familiar place for Stefan – one of his brothers came here in 2000 so he’d ‘always been visiting’.

“We knew we’d be able to move in summer and we knew we wanted it to be Sheffield. There’s so many good things about it - it’s got a really creative and politically engaged spirit. It’s great for kids, a very green and safe city. Our two-year-old spends his time running around in the woods and loves it.”

High Wycombe was found to be lacking in a number of ways.

“It wasn’t a town that had universities with literature departments,” Stefan reflects. The company operated on a national level, and promoted books in North America, but only now can it do a meaningful amount of work locally. When we tried to forge those partnerships in High Wycombe there just wasn’t the same interest. Here there is.”

Ironically one of Stefan’s old jobs involved working in fraud prevention for Amazon, the online retailer that has done so much to upend the world of bookselling. And Other Stories’ catalogue is available through the website but buying from ‘proper bookshops’ – independents – is preferred. “Partly because when you sell through Amazon the margins are pretty low.”

The publisher has made links with Waterstones, Rhyme and Reason on Ecclesall Road and La Biblioteka on Pinstone Street, but more outlets are needed, Stefan thinks.

“There’s definitely room for a larger independent bookshop that focuses more on adult fiction and non-fiction. In a way it’s surprising a city like Sheffield doesn’t have it at the moment. I’m sure someone’s planning it as we speak.”

Subscription deals generate funding, and a sense of belonging – subscribers pay in advance and receive books early, with their names printed inside. Ali Smith, another Booker-shortlisted writer, is a paid-up member; the title of one of her collections inspired And Other Stories’ name.

In Sheffield overheads are much lower but some bills won’t change. “We make sure we always pay translators properly.”

There’s much to come in 2018. A book club is starting focusing on women authors, open days are happening where people can find out about publishing and a ‘big book giveaway’ is planned with arts festival Migration Matters. In addition, judges are scouring the shortlist of the inaugural Northern Book Prize, an award launched by And Other Stories in conjunction with New Writing North that offers an author £5,000, editorial support and guaranteed publication.

“We’re not the only publisher outside London, or doing translations, or publishing women authors,” says Stefan modestly. “I don’t think we can say we’re unique - but we’re certainly doing something different.”

Opening up the book industry

And Other Stories wants to make publishing ‘as open as possible’.

People can submit work at any time, unlike most companies and agents.

“We do ask them to be submitting the kind of books we publish and not something completely unrelated,” says Stefan.

Preparing for the year of publishing women has helped it to find ‘great new authors’, such as Mexican writer Cristina Rivera Garza, whose novel The Iliac Crest is coming out in June. People In The Room, by Argentine writer Norah Lange, follows in August and is ‘a bit of a classic’, Stefan says.

“She’s someone who’s just being discovered in Argentina. She was a contemporary of Jorge Luis Borges’, but had always been a bit in the shadow of the male writers of the era. That’s
down partly to the machismo of Argentina at the time, and being seen as a wife or a friend of other writers rather than the great writer she is. We’d not had any women writers from Latin America at the time we took up Kamila’s challenge.”

And Tara has just finishing editing work by Kathy Page, a ‘really great British writer who went to live in Canada’.

“We’re going to be re-launching her career in the UK, which is exciting.”