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A Day at Dalkey Archive Press: On Donors
December 18, 2009 - 1:25pm

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Dalkey Archive Press is the largest publisher of translated literature in the United States, but Associate Director Martin Riker makes clear to visitors that Dalkey believes literature is an international art form that transcends national boundaries. One result of all this is that not all their books are by writers working in other languages, and not all are fiction. Riker also cheerfully admits they publish books to their own tastes. When pressed, founder and director John O’Brien says those tastes run to the “subversive,” since he doesn’t like terms such as “avant-garde” or “experimental.” One writer who happened to be eating lunch at Dalkey last week, during my first brief visit, described the aesthetic as “bat-shit crazy.” (Others feel Dalkey doesn’t publish experimentally enough. No pleasing everyone.) They’ve been publishing since 1980.

Dalkey also publishes The Review of Contemporary Fiction and the magazine Context, “a triquarterly publication intended to create an international and historical context in which to read modern and contemporary literature. Its goal is to encourage the development of a literary community.”

I’d never been to Dalkey before but can’t imagine why not, since they moved to the University of Illinois three years ago from Normal, Illinois. Yesterday I returned at Riker’s invitation to have a better look.

Their current building, formerly occupied by Printing Services, looks a little like a pole barn from the outside and is on the southernmost edge of campus on a bad gravel road, out where the university has pushed the last evidence of its Morrill Act origins. Inside it’s recently renovated, but business-austere. There are half a dozen cubicles for interns and translation fellows beyond an unmanned receptionist’s desk, and small offices with windows along the wall for O’Brien and Riker. Cheap, durable carpeting covers concrete floors, and overhead there are fluorescent light boxes with wiring running each-to-each in conduit pipes.

Riker, I’ve been told, studied with David Foster Wallace at Illinois State University and went on to do a Ph.D. in English with a creative dissertation at the University of Denver. His responsibilities have varied over the years, but his main job at Dalkey now is marketing, while John O’Brien spends half his time on editorial duties and half on fundraising. There are another four permanent staff members, smart, young people in their twenties and thirties.

Riker took me into their back storage room filled with metal shelving. I probably exclaimed over the shiny new books, and he said, “This is just the tippy-tip. Review copies.” Dalkey had been using the University of Nebraska Press for its distribution but in August moved to W.W. Norton, which could provide world distribution and better sales support, not unlike what Norton provides New Directions Publishing, which Riker says shares some customers with Dalkey.

Riker explained that Dalkey has 470 titles, a consequence of their never allowing titles to go out of print. Obviously it’s a big benefit of publishing with them, so canonical as well as emerging authors publish with Dalkey. (Unbelievably, major commercial publishers have let titles such as William Gass’s The Tunnel lapse, and Dalkey now publishes it alongside his Temple of Texts, Finding a Form, and other books that have been important in my reading life.) Similar situations brought Dalkey the works of Stanley Elkin, Carlos Fuentes, and other world authors. Fuentes is especially a fan of the press, Riker said, and Dalkey will release the first world publication (in English, and before a Spanish-language edition) of his new collection of essays.

The mini-warehouse is filled with stacks and stacks of beautiful books with modern covers designed by Danielle Dutton, and Riker handed me copies of several titles, including ones by Goncalo M. Tavares (“three more coming soon, we like to have several by our authors”), Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Stanley Crawford. He gave me Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine and said it’s become a cult book (“a captivating short work almost beyond description,” says The New Yorker) and one of his favorites. He said reprints are harder to get press coverage for, so he “hand-sold” this book to indie booksellers, and it was picked up by Daedalus. It’s easy to see that Riker, laidback, funny, but deadly knowledgeable, does this very well. Now that Norton sells the books to accounts such as Borders and Barnes & Noble, and 50% of sales come from Amazon and other online sellers, Riker has more time to spend on marketing. Dalkey’s new anthology, Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Aleksander Hemon and with a preface by Zadie Smith, has gotten very good attention, including at the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and PRI’s The World.

When we emerged from the stockroom, a meeting was underway for the six permanent staff, who had spreadsheets at a long table with John O’Brien installed at the head. I’d heard O’Brien could be gruff or imperious, but he looked a little like Santa, if Santa wore a herringbone jacket over a sweater and Oxford shirt and had been to London or maybe Barbados recently. He definitely had a twinkle in his eye. As I sat down at the conference table Riker handed me a Dalkey catalogue. A line drawing of a bust on the cover looked suspiciously like O’Brien in deep repose.

The staff were in the middle of a conversation about what to call an internship. “There are bad connotations of ‘intern’ here,” O’Brien was saying. “Not in England.”

“How about just ‘fellowship’?” Jeremy Davies, Dalkey’s main acquisitions editor, asked.

“Mentorship?” O’Brien said.

Their conference space is just an area carved out of the single large room and is bordered by vertical and horizontal file cabinets and bookshelves. The shelves are filled with old books, reference books, foreign-language books: Golden Age of the Twenties, a tired Russian dictionary held together with packing tape, a biography of Max Perkins, a book titled Druhe Mesto with diacritical symbols I’m having a hard time reproducing here. Stacks of boxes (“Misc. Stuff from Marty’s Office” in permanent marker) and a dozen unused office chairs line the wall, next to someone’s mountain bike (a graduation tassel hanging from the handlebar with a pot-metal “08” on it), lots of black production binders with three-inch spines, a Hammond wall map of Africa, and an unhung art poster propped on top of a shelf.

Talk turned to the main topic: endowments and other funding for a non-profit literary press. O’Brien, a former tenured professor at Illinois State, ran the meeting as a teaching opportunity, by Socratic method, rather than as a corporate meeting with an agenda. He was explaining to the staff the Press’s goal of establishing an endowment and said an endowment would provide economic stability but would not, however, relieve them of the responsibility of selling books or fundraising. It would offer protection from ups and downs in the economy that they don’t currently enjoy.

“Or in case of sudden change in administration at the host university,” he added wryly.

O’Brien said, “Protection. What are the threats? What if our distributor went bankrupt? We just got out of two distributorships before they went bankrupt.”

Riker said, “You mean that most recent thing?” He started to correct O’Brien by saying that that outfit wasn’t bankrupt, just foundering. O’Brien said no, he meant the two before that.

O’Brien said they’d lost 75% of their support from the Illinois Arts Council, which is virtually defunct. As recently as two years ago, the press got $26,000 from the IAC (and significantly more annually before that), but last year it went down to $13,300. Dalkey’s annual budget is $1.7 million; only three percent of that comes from the state of Illinois in various forms. But, Riker added, talking to the younger staff members at the table, they were living in the state now and should write letters to their representatives about arts council funding.

O’Brien then turned to charitable foundations. “The worst time to go to a foundation asking for support,” he said, “is when you’re in distress. All you get is sympathy.” He defined other threats: “If Borders goes under, it won’t just be millions and millions of books flooding back to publishers from them. Because of the policy of Barnes & Noble to put stores across from Borders, would they still operate those stores? And if not, would B&N stock come flooding back too?”

O’Brien asked, “What are the opportunities of endowment?” He eventually answered himself: Office support in London (where there is now a young office), or maybe a New York office too. The ability to hire a tech editor at a salary of $60,000 instead of $22,000. Even the ability to compete against commercial publishers for editorial acquisitions. “For instance, if William Gaddis was still alive….” O’Brien wistfully left the suggestion dangling.

“If we’d had an endowment when we moved from ISU,” O’Brien continued, “we could have done it right, smooth as could be, we could have taken a semester off. Also: We had to pulp a number of books in the move to Norton rather than warehouse them, ship them from Nebraska, or move them from a different pay schedule. The move was an opportunity, with costs, and an endowment would have helped with all that.”

“Anyone know the old stock market joke? Know it?” O’Brien challenged editor Davies. “You should.” A man has stock in a company, and the value keeps going up and up. It reaches an improbably high price, and the man tells his broker to sell so they can clean up. “Sure,” the broker says. “To whom?” It’s the same with fundraising for publishing, O’Brien said. The stock of Dalkey—its reputation—goes up and up, but how do you locate the people out there who want to support it?

O’Brien then put his production assistant Jessica Henrichs on the spot by asking the difference between Dalkey’s fundraising and that of, say, a Champaign, Illinois, community theater company. With much prompting, O’Brien got his answer, that the theater had several advantages. Its staff could draw a circle of some radius around the city and know that 90%—or all—of their donors resided within it. They could see these donors arrive, know what kind of car they drove up in, greet them as they came in the door of the venue. O’Brien said some of that could still be done by zip-code demographics, for instance, but it wasn’t the same and not as focused. “The theater company can get instant feedback on the lousy play they put on,” he said, and get to know the patrons and matrons. “If someone thinks the lighting was bad, you use that to discuss donations for new lights.” It was also fairly easy for theater personnel to know which causes patrons donated to in the past, or if they ever donated at all. Literary publishing doesn’t have access to all this information, O’Brien said, and these are the downsides of fundraising for it.

At O'Brien's request, Riker began to list advantages they had in their mission as publishers, spokesmen, and preservationists of literature. One well-to-do donor might dearly love a particular Dalkey author and feel that in his donation he’s not only keeping the writer’s books in print, but that the books will “get around” because of Dalkey’s network and reputation. This will lead more readers to that writer, which will help ensure his work’s cultural survival, and so it goes. Another donor might have an interest in a particular region—maybe her family immigrated generations ago—and while her support of the press through authors from that region of the world wouldn’t be a cenotaph, exactly, it would serve her own interests in mutually beneficial ways.

O’Brien said that funding, whether it was an endowment or annual donations, comes in the shape of a pyramid. Maybe five or 10 people give very large amounts, but literature largely has not benefited from these. There were many people at the bottom of the pyramid with a few dollars to spend, but many of those bought Dalkey’s books and considered their work in support of the press to be done. He himself as a young man wouldn’t have contributed to New Directions; he just bought their books. No, most of the money came from hundreds or thousands of miles away, from New York, LA, New Mexico, sources which defy conventional fundraising practices.

There was discussion for a few minutes about the very top of the donor pyramid, the “obscene amounts” given by the likes of Ruth Lilly, who provided Poetry magazine with maybe $100 million, Riker said.

“They got more like $64 million out of it,” O’Brien said. “A rule for donors: Never give more than an organization can handle or it’ll make a mess of it.” He mentioned a defunct magazine that burned through an enormous endowment and departments at Yale who got money from donors “at the very top.”

O’Brien believes that Dalkey’s endowment will come from a few people at the very top of the traditional philanthropic pyramid. He cited as an example a recent $2 million donation to the Press to establish a named series. He then turned to Melissa Kennedy, Dalkey’s office manager, on his right. “So this is a softball right down the middle of the plate: Where are they going to come from?”

“From a few individuals?”

“That’s right,” O’Brien said, the expression on his face, made for comic effect, was like that of a teacher who’d asked a student why Joyce is an Irish writer and was told it was because he was from Dublin.

At this point someone suggested a break, and Riker asked O’Brien to make it a lunch break. I was invited to sit with O’Brien in his office, and we had an interesting chat (I’ll post some of that separately). When the subs were delivered I excused myself to check phone messages and gulp down a sandwich, and a few minutes later the meeting resumed on how to find potential donors, people who have saved money over the years and would see Dalkey’s work as something they would like to support. The “regular Joes,” as someone put it.

“As regular as us, anyway,” O’Brien said.

“We don’t need somebody swimming in money,” Davies said. “Just wading in it.”

Together, and again mostly by O’Brien’s Socratic method, the group recounted that the profile for such a person might include an interest in an area, region, or country. “What else? Just gimme one part,” O’Brien prodded.

“Interested in the future of Dalkey?” Kennedy ventured.

“Probably not,” O’Brien said.

“Long in the tooth?” Riker said. “Young people don’t read books.”

“And they have no money,” O’Brien said.

“I was kidding,” Riker said. (He was indeed kidding; those 18-26 may be Dalkey’s core readership, the age when many of us came to reading serious literature.)

They discussed several cases of people with relatively low lifetime earnings bequeathing tremendous amounts because they never spent any of the money in life. “It’s not unusual in the chronicles of philanthropy to see these people leave two million, five, ten million,” O’Brien said. “Children interfere with that.”

Davies said in his polite, soft voice, “So you’re saying cheap, lonely….”

I began laughing from the far edge of the table, and Kennedy cried, “What must you think of us?”

There was more discussion on finding donors among cultural societies, alum groups, or from the university. The university has a dedicated fundraiser, O’Brien said, but the person has to work to help 55 departments. O’Brien said he’d thought of asking Dalkey’s authors to give the names of three major donors in their home countries. He’d like to ask the authors if they knew them, and if the authors would be willing to help pitch the idea of donation.

O’Brien ended the meeting suddenly by saying they’d pick this up again to take specific actions and make dramatic progress in the near future. He and a young staff member donned coats and sunglasses, and O’Brien lit a cigarette as they went out the door, priming himself for his meeting with the dean.

 

 

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