The Other side of the book trade

The launch of the Northern Book Prize at Dina in Sheffield. Tara Tobler, Stefan Tobler, Nichola Smalley and Saba Ahmed of And Other Stories.
The launch of the Northern Book Prize at Dina in Sheffield. Tara Tobler, Stefan Tobler, Nichola Smalley and Saba Ahmed of And Other Stories.

International publishing house And Other Stories, which recently relocated to Sheffield, has underlined its commitment to the North of England by getting behind a new prize for northern writing.

In conjunction with  New Writing North it has launched the inaugural Northern Book Prize in which the author of an unpublished work of fiction can win £5000, editorial support, and guaranteed publication.

Stefan and Tara Tobler who run their own publishing company

Stefan and Tara Tobler who run their own publishing company

And Other Stories, run by husband wife Stefan and Tara Tobler knows all about literary awards. The publisher’s books have been awarded and shortlisted for many prizes, including the Man Booker Prize, the Costa Short Story Award, The Guardian First Book Award and the Best Translated Book Award.

The company was founded in 2011 by Stefan, who along with a group of fellow translators, had become frustrated at the number of great books that never got published in English.

When he submitted a translation of a novella by prominent Brazilian writer Raduan Nassar he was told by a major publisher that although they liked it they couldn’t devote their vast resources to “an unknown writer who had produced two books and then become a farmer.”

It sparked an idea. ”We thought if the big London publishers aren’t covering this area of translated literature then perhaps a collective could get something together and we could all carry on translating.”

We wanted to bring out books large publishers didn’t accept.

And that has proved the case with And Other Stories going on to specialise in foreign fiction, although it was rather left to him to organise it. A collective ethos remains at the heart of Any Other Stories, however, since funding is largely achieved through subscriptions.

It works like crowdfunding. Subscribers pay up front and in return receive the books before they are in the shops and their name is listed in the books.

“May I suggest it would make a perfect Christmas present – £20 gets you two books, £35 for four and £50 for six,” offers Stefan.

And where did the unusual name for the publishers come from?

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

Swimming Home by Deborah Levy

“There was a lot of brainstorming at the beginning and all sorts of possible names were being suggested by the collective. In the end I took the decision.

“It’s taken from a playful line at the end of the title of collections by Ali Smith, The First Person and Other Stories and Other Stories and Other Stories. It seemed to fit what we were doing. We wanted to bring out books that weren’t necessarily being accepted by the large publishing houses.”

Ali Smith has subsequently become a subscriber but it was another well known British novelist’s support which proved crucial.

Deborah Levy had made a name with three previous novels in the 1990s but by the time she came along with Swimming Home in 2010 she could find no takers.

“Deborah came and trusted us.” Swimming Home was among the first four And Other Stories titles in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2012. “That had a massive impact for us.”

With an office in the Central Library they now issue 10-12 books a year and the next, Ann Quin’s The Unmapped Country: Stories and Fragments, out in January will be number 55.

Sales are a mix of subscriptions, online orders and over the counter at bookshops. Distribution to bookshops comes from a sales force shared with other small publishers. This is not just around the UK but in North America and Europe

“The support of a good sales force is vital,” says Tara. “It’s tricky without brand recognition. There’s what they call an elevator pitch where you have to get them on side quickly or they will move on to something else.

Adds Stefan: “We also spend a lot of time cultivating relationships with independent bookshops and there are some good ones around the country who will take a chance of something. Sadly we have a lack of independents in Sheffield.”

Tara got into publishing in her native Canada, giving up a Masters in Renaissance Literature for a job at literary press Biblioasis. “I threw myself into the deep end and became head of publicity and marketing.”

Four years later she was at a sales conference in New York when she met Stefan and life changed dramatically. She relocated to Britain, became principal editor of And Other Stories, and the couple had a son, Angus, with another baby due any day now (requiring the company to advertise for maternity cover).

The team is completed by Nicky Smalley, based in London handling publicity, marketing and sales, and earlier this year they recruited a production manager in Saba Ahmed.

The collective spirit persists in the choice of titles to publish. “We started having reading groups where people would suggest titles and we would talk about them in the pub. So the list emerged from reading groups, my own reading and submissions,” explains Stefan.

“Before I got into publishing I thought I would spend all my time reading books but last week for example I was doing book-keeping, sorting out contracts and writing funding applications.”

So far they have published translations from Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Russian, Afrikaan and Catalan with stories set in different parts of the world. Lina Wolf’s book in Swedish is actually set in Spain.

“We are keen to find things from other part of the world and different languages. We have people reading books in Chinese, Arabic and Urdu. Places that have a strong book culture, we are always looking for tips for new countries and their authors.”