Interview with Num Stibbe, Director of Sylph Editions
How did it all start?
Sylph Editions was established in 2006. It came about as a natural expansion of our design studio, which specializes in book design and frequently works with other publishers. The events that led to the setting up of the press clearly illustrate the main objectives and ideas. It began with the artist Jila Peacock. She had produced a spectacular silkscreen, hand-printed book with ten shape-poems from Hafez, the great 14th century Persian master. She approached us to turn her limited edition book (50 copies) into a more readily available publication.
We were happy to do this, but obviously the book needed an appropriate publisher. We approached many prospective publishers along with Jila at the London Book Fair but no one seemed to have the necessary imagination to turn this into a commercially viable book. This was very much a tipping point for us; we realised there are many such worthy projects out there that fail to materialize – all they need is a certain kind of vision. Jila’s limited-edition book was being exhibited at the British Museum as part of the Word into Art exhibition. The British Museum is fortunate to have its own independent bookshop, which, unlike corporate chains, was happy to stock our book. During the exhibition it became their best-selling non-British Museum publication.
This gave us the impetus to carry on. What we wanted to do, and believe we’ve done since then, is publish books that marry text and image – or as we like to put it ‘image and text conceived as one’ – while also paying attention to the book as a physical object.
Who are the people behind these elegant publications?
Sylph Editions was set up by my partner, Ornan Rotem, and me. We have a very active design studio and the press has become an integral part of it. The press and the studio obviously share the same resources and there’s much cross-over between the two. We publish books in the same way we approach any design project, by creating ad hoc teams. This enables flexibility and allows us to meet the particular needs of every project.
We’re able to choose the best people for a given task, those best suited to tackle its unique challenges. That is to say, the core team consists of both of us, but we expand and take on others as need be. We work with editors, photographers, production managers, proofreaders, and printers and have ongoing relationships.
Obviously the relationship between image and text is central at Sylph Editions. In a publication like Alison Leslie Gold’s Lost and Found, how was the connection between the artist (Charlotte Salomon) and the writer established?
You are absolutely right to note this fundamental relationship; however, the meeting in every publication between the image and text is always a story of its own. There are no set rules for establishing the connection: sometimes it’s pretty obvious because the author and the artist are the same person (e.g Jila Peacock, Gao Xingjian, Simon Leys, Vincen Cornu, Isabella Ducrot, and Jenny and Eran Gal-Or).
Other times, the choice of artist is dictated by the material: Keith Botsford writing about the painter Józef Czapski means you use Czapski paintings; or George Craig writing about translating Samuel Beckett’s letters make the choice for you: Beckett’s letters.
Often, however, finding the images is the result of patience and painstaking research peppered with serendipity. The guidelines are always the same – we are seeking images that are not mere illustrations, back benchers, but rather images that engage with the text and converse with it. The images are supposed to be genuine protagonists. Sometimes we begin with the image itself, as in the Nobile Folios – there, the question is of finding the right text. However, in Alison Leslie Gold’s cahier it was obviously the other way round.
Initially our first choice was an outstanding New York photographer called Saul Leiter, whose work we knew from his book Early Color, published by Steidl in 2006. His particular style of colour photography from the 50s seemed to tie in perfectly with the mood of Alison’s text. We approached Leiter through his agent. Leiter, who has been recently rediscovered, is now in his late 80s and has quite a lot going on; in any case, he wasn’t interested in the collaboration. By sheer chance, I was in Amsterdam at the time and spotted an ad for an exhibition. It was a huge poster on a bus of Charlotte Salomon’s self-portrait, and it grabbed my attention. I went to the Jewish Historical Museum to see the drawings and found an English version of her book originally written and published in German. I was struck by the powerful emotions of her work and I immediately felt that this is exactly what we need for Alison’s cahier.
We painstakingly selected 13 images from Leben? oder Theater? (Life? or Theatre?) which contains some 800 gouaches she painted feverishly between 1940 and her death in 1943 in Auschwitz. We felt these images worked exceptionally well with the text as Alison, as you know, has herself worked extensively on the holocaust and her cahier, Lost and Found, touches on this subject obliquely. Salomon’s images seemed to engage with the text in an unexpected and profound way, thereby greatly enriching Alison’s words.
You publish work in different ‘series’ – The Cahiers Series, for example and the poetry in the Ellipsis set, as well as the Nobile Folios monographs. What leads to a ‘series’ concept – and does it also require a purchasing readership who will buy into that idea?
The idea behind creating a series is very simple: we are an independent publisher and rely totally on our readers. We do not receive funds from the Arts Council or some such institution. We want to create a following, an ongoing relationship with our readership, and it’s important that each book ties in to the other, acting as an ambassador for its siblings and for the whole list. The individual books in the series tackle the same set of issues in diverse ways, and we assume that if you are interested in one such discussion you will also be interested in similar books, those preceding and following it. For example, The Cahiers Series is about translation and the art of writing, and while each individual cahier is interesting in its own right, the series as a whole has a statement to make: that translation is not just the transition between natural languages but between cultural entities; hence cahiers about architecture, textile, music and painting.
Creating a following is crucial for an independent publisher. It seems to work, since many of our readers are indeed return buyers – we even have a few customers who have bought every book we have ever published. A series is not only a relationship with one’s readers; it is also a framework for fruitful partnerships. The Cahiers Series and The Nobile Folios are both joint enterprises, the former with an academic institution, the latter with Piano Nobile, a London art gallery.
Can you say a little about the connection between yourselves and the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris?
The Cahier Series was set up jointly by Sylph Editions and the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris. The centre is run by our friend Dan Gunn, Professor of Comparative Literature and English at the AUP and when he set it up, some four years ago, we were exploring the different ways to grant the Center an identity and a presence. The idea of a publication series dedicated to translating and writing came up. It was a natural collaboration, since we have the production and publishing capabilities as well as being very interested in literature and more specifically in translated literature. The university, on the other hand, sits at the hub of intellectual activity with far-reaching ties and commands the respect from many notable figures. However, the university as such would have found it difficult to set up and run an ongoing publication. This arrangement, with Dan as editor and us as designers and co-publishers, is mutually beneficial.
Are all your publications generated through the same printer, or do you use a variety of print services?
The production is of course handled by the design studio, and the studio works with several different printers in the UK and in Europe (Belgium and Italy). I would say that, in general, different jobs call for different printers, each according to his area of expertise. Our design studio handles the printing of our books in the same way it would handle any other job, which is to say with the utmost care to detail, from the choice of paper, to image preparation, to press passes, controlling the binding and even the packaging. We have a very hands-on approach and perhaps the single most important decision by far is the choice of paper, which we are very particular about. As my partner Ornan once said in an interview, ‘Paper and proportions; everything starts from there. It’s what makes the whole tactile experience of the book. It’s like music – you have to establish harmonic relationships.’
How important is your website, in terms of sales?
The website is very important. It allows us to tap into a large audience and helps break the limitations imposed by geographical boundaries. This is all the more important wherever there is a shortage of independent bookshops, like in the UK. We are not the first to note this and it is quite commonplace to mention that corporate retailers find it difficult to engage with independent small publishers. They do not seem to be geared up for this kind of engagement, nor can we afford to meet their inexorable attempts to buy and sell everything cheaply. A healthy chain of independent bookshops and the re-enforcement of the Net Book Agreement would have been ideal and would have been beneficial to readers, to non-corporate publishers, to literature and to book culture. However, this is not the case. To overcome that, we have to seek our readership beyond the local, and the internet puts the whole world at our disposal. Not surprisingly, nearly half our sales are from abroad (mainly the USA and Europe).
You sell publications at bookshop outlets in London, Paris, Berlin, New York and now also San Francisco. How did these contacts come about?
There are two ways to create such contacts: either we, or one of our representatives, approach a bookshop directly, or else a bookshop approaches us having heard about us through reviews, the grapevine, or simply customers seeking our books. We think it is very important for our books to be displayed and sold in bookshops because there is a symbiotic relationship between a publisher and a bookseller. Bookshops are not just commercial outlets, they are a vital way of engaging with the public and they provide an answer to the anonymity, sterility and uniformity of the online buying experience. We contend that the more the web becomes prominent, the more room it makes for a ‘tactile’ reading experience. To establish and maintain that, bookshops are vital. Though the web is convenient and efficient, it is not a substitute for a sensuous encounter: you cannot feel or smell the book, nor delight in its use of type or enjoy the subtly of an image printed with ink. There is nothing like seeing, touching and handling a beautifully produced book. Take for example The Seafarer. This is probably one of the most beautiful books we have ever produced: a brilliant translation of the Anglo-Saxon poem set along mesmerizing images by Jila Peacock, printed very large format on bamboo paper in a bespoke slipcase. Just to convey the sheer scale of the book is practically impossible on the web (we had to resort to video for that), let alone the gentle rustle of leafing through bamboo paper! You have to see it to fall in love with it and this is something that can only happen at bookshops or at fairs.
Ruth Valentine’s Ellipsis pamphlet The Announced was a Sphinx high-stripe award-winner. That series is now sold out. Have you plans for more?
We were delighted that Ruth Valentine won the Sphinx award and we think it is a great compliment to her poetry. We are keen to continue Ellipsis, even though amongst our publications it is unique in that it is the only publication of ours that is text-only (that are no images). Ellipsis has been in the back burner for a while, but we definitely have plans to continue and two-thirds of the second in the series are ready to go. The first part consists of a fascinating collection of poems by architect and poet Fawzia Kane, Houses of the Dead which is followedby Stalin is Dead, more ofRachel Shihor’s piercing prose (we published her in Days Bygone, cahier no. 7). So, it is set to be a really fascinating collection.
Are you open to approaches from artists/poets/writers with ideas for publications?
We are open to unsolicited approaches, but since we publish no more than 3 to 4 books a year that are planned well in advance, and since we have a long list of authors to whom we are committed, the likelihood of unsolicited material being accepted is slight. Having said that, Ellipsis was the product of a rare example of exceptionally good poems that we received unsolicited and which excited our imagination. Besides a publishing plan, we have very personal set of criteria relating to what we would like to publish which unsolicited material cannot guess and so is always a bit of a shot in the dark.
Do you receive grants from public institutions or is all the financing up to you?
We do not receive any grants from funding bodies and the press is self-financed. We rely on readers buying our books. To make it work we need to be quite entrepreneurial, since our books are very expensive to produce. The design and production is all done in house, which is a great asset. While we would very much like to be able to pay royalties, and hope to do so in the future, to date all our authors and artists, have generously given their work freely. This is another great help. Partnerships are also a very important element in our finances since they enable us to share the production costs, but in the end, as I said above, we rely on readers liking our books and spreading the word.
Besides continuing The Cahier Series (number 17 is forthcoming this autumn – a brilliant short story by the renowned South African author Ivan Vladislavić) and a new edition of The Nobile Folios (an exploration of Cyril Mann’s painting St Paul’s from Moore Lane) we have set up Rasika, a new imprint dedicated to the appreciation of aesthetic culture in all its manifestations, past and present, with a special emphasis on Asia. The first publication in this imprint is a landmark study of classical Chinese furniture by Marcus Flacks, initially published as a lush limited edition, which will be followed by a commercial edition.
Also, we will shortly be taking part in the London Art Book Fair at the Whitechapel Gallery (23 and 25 of September), and will be delighted to be visited and joined there.