“Us independent publishers bring diversity”

Laura Huerga

Retrat de Laura Huerga al seu despatx. © Clara Soler Chopo

The publisher Laura Huerga (Barcelona, 1978) is an unusual case on the Catalan literary scene. With professional beginnings far removed from the cultural world, it was her reading habits and love of languages instilled in her from an early age that led her to set up Raig Verd in 2011 and in the throes of the economic crisis. It is one of the independent labels featured in the explosion of new publishing projects that have shaken up the Catalan market.

Editor in Catalan of Nobel prizewinner Svetlana Alexievich and the African writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Laura Huerga has built a catalogue that pays special attention to cultural and linguistic diversity and the commitment to freedoms and human rights. In this regard, and certain that projects such as Raig Verd have helped to increase the number of Catalan-language readers and to offer new perspectives, the publisher believes that only the connection with readers and booksellers can make the publishing sector, tested by the Covid-19 crisis, survive.

What are the origins of your reading?

Gulliver’s Travels marked the beginning of my adult reading, because it’s the first novel that made me think that there was more to books than just a way to amuse myself. From there I turned to Borges and Dostoevsky.

Were your family big readers?

I come from a family of very humble means. My mother raised my sister and I with the help of my grandmother, who worked as a housekeeper. Reading was encouraged at school, but it was our mother who urged us to read. She would take us to the library and to buy books. Despite how little we had, a book was a basic necessity.

Your first forays into the professional world, however, have nothing to do with the world of books...

From the age of 14 I worked to earn money, but every job allowed me to apply things I learned. At Decathlon I put my knowledge of French into practice, at the optician’s I learned how to make websites and this allowed me to enter the stock market world... But the goal was always to eke out a living.

What role have languages played in your life?

Languages helped me enormously to emancipate myself. Having studied and now being able to read in six languages has given me a great means of independence.

When did you decide to take the leap towards the publishing sector?

The catalyst behind this decision was 15M and the economic crisis we have been enduring since 2007, but which in my case materialised in 2011. What I witnessed on the stock market was dramatic and I felt like an instrument of capital. I had the money, I had the time and I decided I didn’t want to dedicate my life to working on the Stock Exchange.

Why did you enter the publishing world at a time of crisis?

We had emerged from the crisis of 2007-2008, and in 2011 the publishing market was surrendering to the rules of economic profitability. The publishing industry has always struggled with what can be sold more easily and what is needed is to rectify this bias, not to submit to mere profitability. It’s clear that we all, in one way or another, end up yielding to the laws of the market, because without selling no one could continue; but some resistance to your catalogue is needed, a balance between those that will facilitate publishing and those names that don’t have it so easy. Striking an optimum balance is what I set out to do and it’s my job.

Did it take a long time to define Raig Verd’s identity?

Over the first year, between setting the company up in 2011 and publishing the first book in 2012, we consulted booksellers and met distributors, listening to everyone... There were a lot of people eager to help. For instance, Javier Cambronero, from the UDL distributor, who passed away in 2013.

Who were your reference points? Did you have a model?

We knew we couldn’t repeat things that had already been done. In other words, we didn’t want to create a publishing project that already existed. I tell everyone who comes to me for advice, you can’t create an Anagrama [a Spanish publishing house] today. On account of the context, the authors, the people... it’s impossible to replicate a publishing experience. That’s why we were clear that we couldn’t emulate any publishing projects we liked, but we had to do it all over again. We had to find our path, taking everything that had been done well by other publishers we liked, such as Edicions de 1984, Quaderns Crema or Anagrama itself. That is, the publishers who made us readers.

Are you now the point of reference from whom to seek out advice?

I don’t know if we are a reference point, but we are accessible. We try to welcome everyone who comes to us, to advise them, to help them, just as we were when we first started out. We have to give back what we were given.

The first book you published was A dalt tot està tranquil (The twin, in the English version), by Gerbrand Bakker. This first book came with an award under its belt, the Llibreter 2012 Award. So you got off to a good start.

I still can’t believe it! It was a very special welcome and reception from the Booksellers’ Guild. We didn’t quite know what it meant because we had just started out, but the more time goes on the more I appreciate it. Even more than Nobel Prizes, or other awards our books have been able to earn. The Llibreter Award put us on the literary map, with a prize that awarded an idea that runs against the tide, a Dutch author, of a literature that virtually doesn’t exist among us...

In fact, one of the distinguishing features of Raig Verd is to make works, authors and literatures available that often do not reach us.

For us it was and always has been a cross-cutting pillar of the project. Like everyone else, I too am a victim of the invasion of English-language literature and culture. Most of the music, films and literature we consume are in the English language. Most of what is translated is from English, and no matter how rich its culture is, it is impossible for English literature to produce as much work and that is as good and for other cultures to produce nothing. In fact, Catalan literature endures this invisibility here.

In this regard, why did you opt for a Catalan-language publishing house? How have you combined it with Spanish-language publishing?

Over time I have became more activistic and militant because I found a personal, not so collective, need to do so. We started out with the idea of building a similar catalogue in Catalan and Spanish, but then we saw that there was more work to be done in Catalan. We still publish material in Spanish, but it’s clear that we are more active and activistic in Catalan. In the same way, the catalogue more clearly advocates the cause.

We are referring precisely to the essay genre. At the outset Raig Verd was basically a literary publishing house, but you have progressively broadened the catalogue with books of non-fiction, thought and reflection.

We don’t publish as many essays, but they do have a great deal of visibility. They are books on topical issues, on palpable conflicts in our midst (fake news, censorship, street protests, the role of the humanities), which I find rewarding and refreshing. I really like essays, but the genre really scared me. And all the more, publishing essays in Catalan, which is practically not done. Now I can say that it is one of the most enjoyable experiences of my work. I love narrative and it’s the foundation of Raig Verd, but essays have become an incentive and a source of discovery at the same time. We currently publish 80% of foreign authors in fiction, but essays make up almost 50-50.

You even published a Laura Huerga... How did you come to write a book yourself?

Tu, calla! [You, Shut Up!] emerged from a need in a context in which a law is created – the Gag Law – to censor citizens, in this dichotomy between law and justice, which makes a law legal, but not necessarily fair. Alongside Blanca Busquets, with whom I share a special bond as well as this concern, we wanted to dig deeper into this reflection. In the end, it turned into a book because we felt we had something to say.

Is commitment a part of the Raig Verd style?

I think it was more hidden and less obvious at first. I may not have dared to make it so explicit, but it has become clearer over time and we have turned the publishing house into a clear tool for activism.

When you talk about your catalogue, it is often said that it is “demanding literature”.

I don’t ask the reader for anything, and I’ve never heard our authors ask for anything from the reader. We have very generous authors, who respond to the reader with absolute humility. I’ve been lucky enough to meet most of the authors I've published and I wouldn’t say demanding. On the contrary. What’s more, what does demanding mean? Harder to read? It will all depend on what you expect from the literature. If you just want to pass the time, you might find them demanding... But it all depends on the book; we also have some that can be a source of enjoyment!

How many books do you publish a year?

We publish ten, but this year we had to bypass our own limits. In the end, the limit of truth is what I can assume. We’re making more books, but they all go through me. Once I can’t take it on, as I’m very controlling, I get the feeling that I’m losing control of the boat and we slow down. In the end, there are publishers who issue 60 books a year without losing sight of their personality. However, the idea is to keep a limit of 16 or 18 books a year.

You said everything goes through you. Is Raig Verd a very personal project to Laura Huerga?

One thing I do very well is surround myself with very good people. I’m lucky to find people who are very good at what they do and who give it their personal touch. That everything goes through me doesn’t mean that all of Raig Verd is me.

The figure of the translator must be fundamental in this team.

For us, translators are the mainstay and, at the same time, they are friends. They are part of this critical thinking behind the publishing house. Aside from their commitment and making them feel valued, the conditions concerning turnaround times and payment are related to this and make their work sound.

There must be a very close connection between the reader and the bookseller.

Thanks to social media we have very close contact with the reader and we have been able to create a close-knit community. We currently have 180 subscribers through the micro-patronage platform L’Aixeta, which puts money into the publishing house and gets three books, whatever they may be. Besides, there are people who buy every book we publish from us. This network has been created through booksellers. We believe in local bookshops that create community and jump on the bandwagon. We’ve worked very closely with them, and taking care of them has made part of their community ours too.

Your launch coincided with the explosion of small publishing houses in Catalonia. How do you relate to one another?

I think that we and other independent publishers like Males Herbes and Periscopi, which are from around the same time, bring diversity, and because we don’t publish the same books; what we do is broaden the range on offer. We are not competing against one another but rather we are gaining readers in Spanish. We are allowing Catalan-speaking readers to find books that pique their interest in their language. It is up to us to increase the million readers in Catalan and, therefore, we must do a good job.

Is this the time for publishers like Raig Verd?

It would be time for smaller specialised independent publishers to make an appearance. And the more, the better. But not because a large or medium-sized publisher is bad, but because of the diversity they offer.

Let’s talk about Raig Verd’s authors. Firstly: Svetlana Alexievich, Nobel Prize in Literature 2015.

We spent two years working on publishing the first book, Temps de segona mà. La fi de l’home roig (Second-hand Time: The Demise of the Red (Wo)man), translated by Marta Rebón. When I told reporters and publishers that I had bought a book by a Russian writer about the transition from communism to capitalism, everyone frowned. They said, “Are you crazy? This won’t sell!”. And in fact, I thought I would sell 200 at most, because it was very specialised. But I had read 100 pages in French and I was determined to publish it.

And it won the Nobel Prize...

It was an amazing surprise. I was walking home and they called me from TV3 [the public broadcasting network of Catalonia]. I was on the suburban train, I had no battery... It was an odyssey. When they called the publishing house, the girls started celebrating. It was really nice, but unexpected.

Another prominent author at Raig Verd is Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Retrat de Laura Huerga en un balcó. © Clara Soler Chopo Portrait of Laura Huerga on a balcony. © Clara Soler Chopo

He’s an author we were sure we wanted to publish and we wanted to do so in Catalan. Descolonitzar la ment (Decolonising the Mind) was published in Spanish in paperback version, but we ran a micro-patronage campaign and it immediately had a very significant impact. And then it won the Catalonia International Prize.

Publishing it was taking a stance, in relation to what you said about broadening the voices as regards the omnipresence of English language literature.

It was a conscious and sought-after decision. We always try to think critically about ourselves and noticed that we are not familiar with nor have we published anything about Africa. We realised that virtually nothing in the form of African literature was being published. He is one of its most prominent and leading voices. And he is also a point of reference on the subject of languages, on the reflection on the importance of different languages in Decolonising the Mind, for example.

What is the relationship with the authors like?

I know you come across all sorts in the publishing world, but I’ve been very lucky to encounter people who are generous, modest, accessible... who respond very well to the kind of book we publish and the values we seek.

Which author are you most proud of publishing?

If she hadn’t won the Nobel Prize, I’d have said Alexievich, because of her commitment to the inaccessible and the unknown. Every year, however, I’d say a different author. At the moment I’d say Magdalena Tulli, one of the authors of resistance in the catalogue, one of the leading voices in Polish literature.

How important is to support women writers. Is it a conscious choice or a coincidence?

At one point I realised that, for a publishing house made up of women, we had published lots of male authors. My library mostly comprises male authors too. And that’s why we have to tackle this inertia that leads us to publish, to read, to buy books written by men. What we do a lot now is engage in research and seek them out. We sought out the women we publish — Ali Smith, Ursula K. Le Guin, Magdalena Tulli, Nnedi Okorafor, etc.

Let’s talk about the current times. What has been your experience of the Covid-19 situation?

It is difficult to discuss the entire book sector or even independent publishers, but in the world of culture we are among the least affected. Bookstores have been closed for two months, a period that coincided with St. George’s Day [The Day of the Book], but we are among the least affected compared to those who need a physical audience: cinemas, theatres, concerts. If we are put on lockdown again, we can continue to sell books. I can still do my job — although the lockdown affects concentration and reconciliation is complicated — but a concert cannot be held from home.

How has your community helped you overcome this critical juncture?

Maybe I wasn’t sufficiently mindful until now, because as soon as we made a plea to our readers, the reaction was remarkable. Readers’ awareness of wanting projects like ours to continue and of making their contribution by buying our books is what will save us. Next year, if we can say we survived, it will be thanks to our readers.

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