Ox and Pigeon Electronic Books embraces the digital age with a dynamic publishing model that enables them to deliver the literature they love to readers anywhere in the world. Since 2012, they have specialized in translations through their literary journal, The Portable Museum. Earlier this year, Ox and Pigeon began releasing their first novels in English translation. I spoke with co-founder Lucas Lyndes from his home in Lima, Peru, via Skype.
Frances Riddle: How was Ox and Pigeon born?
Lucas Lyndes: I moved to Peru in 2005 to learn Spanish with the idea of becoming a translator. I got married here in 2010 and my friends from Boston, Jason Curran and Katie Sedat, came down for the wedding. We got to talking about books because we’re all big readers. I was dabbling in translation and I was surprised at what was being translated; there were a lot of writers who weren’t getting any attention. So we decided to try and do something about it. The idea was born in 2010 and the first issue of The Portable Museum came out in 2012.
FR: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced since you started publishing translated literature?
LL: If I had to pick just one challenge, I would say it’s that we came into this with pretty much zero knowledge of the mechanics of the publishing industry. We thought it would be a good thing—and I think to a certain extent it has been positive. There are a lot of things that are done a certain way just because they’ve been done that way for so many years. Especially when you add e-books into the equation, these ways of doing things just don’t apply. So we came into this with the idea that we were going to do things in the way that seemed the most logical to us. Sometimes we have had to stop and say, okay, there’s a reason it’s done that way and we have to go along with it. We sort of picked things up as we went, so it’s been a learning process. But it also gives us a different perspective.
FR: What are the specific challenges of running an English-language publishing house so far removed from the New York City publishing scene?
LL: As a publisher of translations, it’s a big benefit to be in Latin America. My impression from outside the New York publishing industry is that it’s easier for us to do things our own way. It sounds exhausting when I hear about the publishers’ lunches and having to do all that networking. We didn’t know anyone before we started doing this, but it’s funny how many publishing people have come through Lima. I have gotten to meet people here or at the book fairs around Latin America. I think that being outside of New York allows me more time to get down to business without all those other commitments.
FR: What are the advantages and disadvantages of only publishing e-books?
LL: With e-books, you can reach English speakers all over the world. It’s virtually unlimited. There’s less overhead; you don’t have printing and distribution and all of those costs. And I think that the biggest advantage that we try to emphasize in what we do is that we’re able to take a lot more risks with what we publish. I’ve been a fly on the wall at conversations between people of more traditional publishing houses, and they have to take into consideration so many more factors, like, has this person won awards, how established are they in their home country, how many other languages have they been translated into? We don’t have to worry about any of that. We can keep our books available forever if there are no contractual obligations. If a title doesn’t sell right away, we don’t have angry bookstores because we’re taking up shelf space. We can look at young authors and we can say we’re going to take a chance on this person because we really believe in them. That’s what made e-books really make sense to us.
One challenge with e-books that we’ve run into is that you do sense a certain resistance. I think e-books still have that connotation of being just romance novels or people who couldn’t get published. I don’t want to talk trash because obviously sometimes really good writers can’t get published through traditional channels and so they go the e-book route. But there’s still some resistance to “literary fiction” in the e-book form. I think it’s just a matter of time before people start backing down from that preconception. Many small print publishers have to rely on grants or they might be connected to a university; they might have a board of directors, so they can’t take such a chance on an author. We’re able to say, yes, this is great writing; we’re going to publish it. Often the choice for readers isn’t between an e-book versus a physical copy, but between an e-book or no book at all. So we’re just broadening the range of writers that a reader can gain access to.
FR: What implications do you think the digital revolution is going to have for translated literature?
LL: I get the feeling that what’s going on right now with publishers and, specifically, publishers of translations—and even more specifically, e-books—it’s like in the late 1970s and early 1980s when punk and indie kids had their bands and they realized hey, we don’t need major labels to put out our records, we can record this for a few hundred bucks and send it to the pressing plant and we’ll have LPs to sell at our shows. And that was the beginning of indie music as we know it today. Indie publishing already has a long tradition, but I think the changes that have come with e-books are going to take a while to play out. I think we’re looking at a new development that is really going to have an impact on what sorts of books we can get our hands on. I can read a review online from a newspaper in Argentina, and if a writer sounds interesting, I now have a way to read his or her novel if it’s available as an e-book. Before, I would have had to travel to Argentina—and if I was lucky, I would have found this book with a tiny print run in Buenos Aires. Digital publishing in so many ways can break down the turnaround time. I can’t imagine it’s going to be anything but good for translated literature.
FR: How do you decide on the writers and titles you want to publish?
LL: Each edition of The Portable Museum includes a handful of short stories from a wide range of authors, generally lesser-known authors. We try to include one author that English-language readers may be familiar with so that they have a reference point for what the style is or what they might be getting themselves into. Hopefully if they are inspired to pick up an issue, then they will discover other writers that they are much less likely to have heard about. With the two upcoming editions of The Portable Museum I’m looking to some small Argentinian publishers who have a taste similar to mine. One of the stories I’m excited to be publishing next year is by a very interesting new writer from Mexico who now lives in the U.S. named Francisco Laguna Correa. My impression of what’s being pitched to us is that they are maybe things that had a hard time fitting in other places. So hopefully The Portable Museum is an outlet for things that might not work in other publishing houses and we can put them out there for readers who are looking for something just a bit different.
FR: Can you recommend some forthcoming Ox and Pigeon titles we should be on the lookout for?
LL: Following a trip I took to the Buenos Aires Book Fair, the next two issues of The Portable Museum will focus on younger writers from Buenos Aires. Although there’s already lots of Argentinian literature getting published in translation, there’s so much more out there; we’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s a different culture when it comes to writing and there’s so much great literature in Argentina. And then we’ve published our first novel this year, Dead Stars by Álvaro Bisama, translated by (Asymptote alum!) Megan McDowell [see an excerpt here]. Our next release this fall is a re-edition of a novel called Farabeuf, or, The Chronicle of an Instant by Salvador Elizondo. It’s a cult classic Mexican novel from the 1960s, like a Latin American response to the French nouveau roman. It was translated by John Incledon and it came out in translation in 1993 in a hardcover academic edition that sold for like $40, but the publisher is no longer around. It’s one of my favorite books that I’ve ever read in any language so we’re excited to be able to give it a new lease on life.