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Interview with Miguel Aguilar

Miguel Aguilar: Small Publishing Houses Often Act as a Source for Larger Publishers

Miguel Aguilar

Interview with Miguel Aguilar held on 29th May 2012 at the Dámaso Alonso Library of the Instituto Cervantes Dublin in connection with his participation in the “Tribute to Félix Romeo”, with Luis Alegre, Malcolm Otero Barral, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón and David Trueba.

Miguel Aguilar (Madrid, 1976) has held the position of Director of the Debate Publishing Company since 2006. He has previously been editor at Random House Mondadori and of non-fiction works at Tusquets. As a translator, he has published an anthology of Cyril Connolly, Selected Works (Lumen, Barcelona, 2005), and George Orwell, Orwell journalist (Global Rhythm Press, Barcelona 2006).

Sergio Angulo: —Miguel, I’d like you to explain to us what the work of an editor entails.

Miguel Aguilar: —The work of an editor has two parts. On the one hand, you act as a filter for all the different book proposals, novels, essays, for the different authors who are in circulation and approach you directly or come through agents. You have to select those that seem most interesting. That’s just the first half. On the second hand, you act as a spokesperson for what you have selected, what you have filtered. You try to spread it to as many people as possible, try to create the best cover, edit it well, give the best press coverage and present it in the best possible light to booksellers. In short, you try to reach the readers, who are ultimately the ones who will decide if they like the book or not – the things that you’ve selected.

Sergio Angulo: —What kind of jobs are in a publishing house? Translators, proofreaders, editors…

Miguel Aguilar: —Well, there are many tasks that are outsourced. For example, translators and editors are often freelance. The most important section is the Managing Editorial Department, which is responsible for the selection of titles and overseeing the whole process. There’s also the Contracts and Legal Department, which is very important because it’s responsible for all the legal paperwork of the books that are being published and also, in many cases, for the sale of the translation rights to other publishers in other countries, the transfer of collections to newstands, hire-purchase contracts or book clubs…

You have the Editorial Department which oversees the layout of books and the editing of texts to avoid misprints, so that everything is well written and well formatted. The Creative Department is responsible for the graphics, the covers, the illustrations etc. Then you have the Production Department, which is more industrial and has to do with paper and ink, with printing, with the production and making of books. The Sales and Marketing Department is directly in charge of marketing. Marketing has a role in encouraging the booksellers, especially, to sell them copies of the books and stay on top of things. The Sales Department are the people who go to bookstores and get the bookseller to buy five copies of this book, or twenty of the next. Finally, there’s the Press Department, which, as its name suggests, deals with the media in order to achieve as much publicity as possible for publications.

Sergio Angulo: —What’s the impact of a good editor on the final work of an author?

Miguel Aguilar: —The quality of the final work is basically the author’s responsibility. There are very famous relationships. Maxwell Perkins may be the finest example. He was an American editor who was the editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In fact, the prize of the Association of American Publishers is named the Maxwell Perkins Award. They are editors who become really involved with the text and are able to convince the author to change things. But I think an editor contributes mostly, not to the quality of the work itself, but to the impact it can have. I think an editor is able to ensure that a good writer reaches a much wider audience.

There is a simile which is a bit cruel but it does contain some truth, which is that small publishing houses often act as a source for larger publishers. This is because a larger publisher has more resources at its disposal, can invest more in marketing, and because it has a more developed commercial network, it is able to ensure that a writer with interesting work reaches a much wider audience. I wouldn’t dare tell you about percentages, but they can be quite significant.

Sergio Angulo: —Now that you’ve mentioned big publishers, what do you think of these literary prizes sometimes offered by the larger publishers? They involve a lot of money and have a vast reach, but lately they’ve gotten a bad reputation because the winners are known before the jury has made its decision…

Miguel Aguilar: —Well, I think it’s funny to say “lately” as not long ago, Malcolm Otero, who was sitting in this chair, remembered that the 49th anniversary of the Formentor Talks was commemorated (I’m not sure why they didn’t wait to celebrate the 50th anniversary). They were poetic and literary talks that were held at the Hotel Formentor in Mallorca and continued on from there, giving rise to the Formentor Award and the International Editing Award, which were major international awards in the late ’50s and early ’60s. And amongst other things, there was an interview with Carlos Barral, Malcolm’s grandfather. I think it was around 1963 or 1964, when he criticized literary prizes as a shameful platform for marketing and sales. So you can see, the bad reputation surrounding the awards is not recent, it goes way back.

I think you have to distinguish between awards that are given to books that have already been published: the National Essay Prize, the National Book Award, the Salambó Award, for example, awarded in Barcelona… and awards for unpublished work, which is a bit of a peculiarity in Spain. Other countries have no such awards. The awards given to unpublished works are to be regarded as a launching pad, rather than a recognition of an intrinsic quality. In this way, I think they suceed in drawing the attention of readers to a particular work. Is it something questionable? Well, I don’t think it is. Being part of the industry, I don’t find it problematic. Nor do I think it is misleading to readers. Readers know what is behind the Planeta Award or behind the Torrevieja Award, etc. I don’t think anyone can be surprised that, year after year, the winners are well known writers with many sales prospects. In that sense, I think that what you need to know is that, in terms of literary quality, they are not the best guides and yet, there are other awards that provide that.

Sergio Angulo: —In your role as a translator, you have translated essays of an author that I like a lot, George Orwell. In George Orwell, it is sometimes difficult to see the line between what is fiction and what is journalism. Is this kind of journalism coming back into fashion?

Miguel Aguilar: —It’s funny because in Orwell, in principle, (Kapuscinski is a similar case) it seems that everything is an absolutely faithful to the facts and to what happened. But then, if you start digging, you always, inevitably, find that there is something that has been polished. It happens both in Homage to Catalonia and Down and Out in Paris and London. These are two books that even though they seem completely real testimonies of what happened, Orwell’s biographers have found small inaccuracies and small details that do not quite fit.

I think it’s a kind of journalism that’s not necessarily coming back. It never disappeared completely. Perhaps, what is coming back is people’s need to have stories of true reality. I think the essay has gone through a pretty tough time, as it was unattractive to readers, but this kind of essay is certainly coming back. I suspect it has to do with the economic crisis, the situation of general concern about the world in which we are living and where we are headed. We need voices that tell us what is going on, and that’s something that Orwell did very well in the ’30s. Kapuscinski did well too in his wonderful chronicles of Latin America of the ’70s, for example, or in his book on Africa and the Soviet Union. I think it’s gaining a wider audience again. I don’t know if it’s because it wasn’t done before or because now there is an audience for that kind of journalism.

Sergio Angulo: —With the Internet, the news is updated every minute. Maybe this kind of journalism is more common in the press now and the news has moved to the digital space.

Miguel Aguilar: —Yes, I think that’s definitely a logical conclusion. It’s impossible for a newspaper to break a story, because everybody knows about it already. More and more often, even if you check the Internet at night, you wake up the next morning, read the paper and you get the feeling that you’ve already read everything. And of course, those chronicles or opinion pieces should appear in the newspapers, on paper, to provide that value and distinct character, because if they don’t, they can’t compete. It’s impossible to compete against a media that has the immediacy of radio plus the visual character of television. In a nutshell, it has everything, and all you can do is bring to the Internet the kind of voice and experiences that are lost in thewelter.

Sergio Angulo: —Do you think this will eventually lead to a total separation between the printed press, focussed on literature or that kind of journalism, and the digital press focussed only on the news?

Miguel Aguilar: —I think they might specialise and new paper products will be produced, more selective perhaps. But what I don’t envision is that there are things that exist on paper that don’t appear on the Internet as well. For example, there is a magazine called Jot Down. It’s a Spanish cultural magazine that has very good writers. These include Azúa, Savater, Enric González, and Manuel Jabois… Until now, it was only digital, but they plan to publish a collection of their best digital content. It will be a fairly big issue of around four hundred pages and will be sold as a book. I forsee this type of collector’s edition of digitally published material, but because technology is so easy to work with, it’s difficult for me to comprehend that there are things made of paper that don’t exist in the digital world as well.

Sergio Angulo: —In connection with your role as a translator, how do you deal with the cultural aspects implicit in a text? Do you ever have to do some research?

Miguel Aguilar: —Yes, it is advisable. You’re also translating for the reader of your own time so it’s better to include footnotes and try to give a little context instead of basing it on the translation itself. This was the case with Connolly, which is probably the translation I enjoyed the most. It’s an anthology of nearly 900 pages with articles on all kinds of cultural issues and a huge frame of reference. As he had a degree in Classics from Oxford, the classical references, for example, were numerous. Also, the audience he was writing for in the ’30s and ’40s was probably more familiar, but for a Spanish reader in 2005, when the book came out, the stories were totally remote and incomprehensible. So I think we should try to accompany the readers a little, give them a little support, but not overwhelm them with too much cultural context. We should also give them more freedom to explore things that they find interesting. Before only certain people had the Espasa (Spanish encyclopedia), but now it’s quite simple to use Google and it’s relatively reliable.

Sergio Angulo: —What would you recommend for a young writer who is starting out to write and wants to publish? What would you advise as an editor? Going to a small publishing house? Trying to win prizes?

Miguel Aguilar: —Well, there are many regional and municipal awards that are very good. They are not the promotional routes we were talking about before but they are still an option and whatever way it’s used to approach big or small publishing companies, it’s a good thing. Making contact with them, being able to collaborate as readers or proofreaders, and seeing how that world works a little bit – a world that’s not particularly hostile. On the contrary, I think it’s quite welcoming. I don’t know if everybody has the same opinion but that’s my opinion. That always gives you a little confidence and ease when submitting a manuscript.

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