„I don’t want to produce fast-moving consumer goods,” says literary documentarian and publisher Baronová

Published June 4, 2020

Before the state of emergency, Baronová’s small art publishing house wo-men issued the documentary book Ženy o ženách (Women on Women), soon nominated for the Most Beautiful Czech Book of the Year.

Before the coronavirus crisis, you published the book Ženy o ženách (Women on Women), for which you received the Rector’s Award from the Tomas Bata University in Zlín. You have long tried to strengthen the position of women in society through your work. Do you feel this is going well in the Czech context?

 Yes, it’s going well, even if more could be done. There are many topics related to women that need promotion; I’ve intentionally chosen the position of women in public space. It’s necessary to draw attention to the fact that women are still not represented sufficiently – that is, in equal measure with men – on discussion panels, in debates in the public media or on decision-making committees – including those for awarding literary prizes, for example.

 It is even reflected in language. How do you handle it? Are you rigorous in the use of the feminine and masculine genders in your own work with text, or is the prevalent generic masculine not the most pressing thing you’re dealing with?

 I recently did an interview with a Dutch woman living in Switzerland who said that in certain countries and circles the emphasis on gender is already being abandoned and the idea to perceive the word “doktor” (doctor) as containing both feminine and masculine genders is being introduced. I don’t think we’re that far along in the Czech Republic – first, we have to go down the path of gender equality and language can be a good help. When we edited Ženy o ženách, I paid attention to the use of the feminine gender, but I placed greater emphasis on methodology. On my research trip to the University of New South Wales in Australia, I gained access to academic literature dealing with feminist research methodologies and I tried to apply these to the interviews.

 What did that involve?

For example, I tried to conduct the interviews non-hierarchically — this means leading the research towards a mutual sharing of knowledge and information rather than mining the respondents. I also situated myself within the research, so that readers know what perspective I bring to the discussion, why and what influence it has on the resulting interpretation of information.

 Your previous publication Slečny (Misses) deals with the theme of unmarried women in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic. Is this theme specific to the Czech context?

 Since 2008, when I started to work on the book, the perception of the status of unmarried women in the Czech Republic has changed quite a bit. The economic situation in the country has stabilised, which has influenced a transformation in the shape of partnerships. In other projects that I’m working on with Dita Pepe, we’re now noticing trends in the younger generations like polyamorous relationships, or suppression of traditional gender identities. We didn’t see these as significant topics before – now we do.

 How did you arrive at the theme of Slečny?

I always choose themes that touch me personally, so when I did a project about unmarried women, it was because I was then a childless, unmarried woman of almost thirty, dealing with an endless barrage of questions about why I’m still not married and why I don’t have children. My status did not fit with the prevailing idea of what a woman is supposed to have in life. I thought that Slečny was quite specific and it surprised me that there’s always interest in it. Someone’s always asking me if I’ll reissue it because the book has been sold out for several years.

 When we spoke before quarantine, a reissue was not in the works and you had also declined publication as an e-book. During the state of emergency, however, you stated on social media:

 “I am suspending my conservatism and launching Slečny – sold out for two years – into the world as an e-book. To preserve its artful form, together with Milan Nedvěd we’ve decided to render it only in PDF format, so that it looks exactly the same as the printed Slečny. I’ve set the price so that everyone can afford to get the e-book (we can’t do anything about the 21% VAT on e-books) and we don’t tempt anyone to engage in illegal distribution.   It’s a little punk. But I believe that today I’ve make quite a few (and not only) misses happy.”

 

What changed your position? Do you see a bigger future in e-books after your quarantine experience?

 I’m still not going to reissue books, but due to the pandemic, I made an exception and released Slečny as an e-book, something I had struggled with for a long time. The thing is, in March some large distributors froze their cash flows and refused to pay publishers and other partners for sold books (even from 2019!). I was looking for a quick solution to take care of our on-going projects, authors and the other external collaborators with whom we are preparing three books this year. I swallowed all the “nevers” and found a way to secure at least some funds in the account so that I could continue with the publishing work. For me, it was essential that the e-book not compromise the original graphics or Dita’s beautiful photography. In the end, the e-book didn’t hurt too much, but I hope that the rest of the books will remain only “offline.”

 As a sort of representative of independent publishing, you worked with the ATI team during the coronavirus crisis to map the effects of the pandemic on the field of literature. What problems has the crisis revealed, in your opinion?

 I don’t even know where to begin! Apart from anything else, it showed what an unequal relationship prevails among partners in the book business, especially on the distributor – publisher – bookseller axis, where there are hundreds of parties dealing with unfair conditions beyond their control. The crisis also brought up the topic of the demeaning fees paid to authors, translators and editors, which are often the result of pressure from the unreasonably low price of books in the Czech Republic. It pointed out gaps in the grant-making systems, which would be very easy to fill if there was the will to do so. It revealed that some traditional professional organisations are actually playing for the opposing side. It also exposed the gulf the lies between independent and commercial entities – despite some common „lobbying“ interests, these two worlds suddenly strike me as so different that I am losing faith in the idea of a single professional, multidisciplinary platform. The crisis also showed what happens when we let big players in the market buy up, or entirely liquidate, small, independent entities, whether they’re publishers or bookshops. With them, we lose variety and bibliodiversity and the priority becomes the publication of trivial, commercial publications that sell well and are inoffensive, but which won’t blow anyone away either. It’s also shown how difficult it is for independent projects to capture the media’s attention; projects with mass popularity receive more and more coverage and thus independent culture lacks a space to be seen. I would also like to say a couple of positive things. We, the small publishers, came together more, independent bookstores stuck with us, as did different literary associations and together we thought about ways to improve our conditions in the future. We didn’t think only about ourselves, but had the will to try to take some systematic steps together. For example (despite some complaints), the rapid-response May grants from the Czech Ministry of Culture managed to take into account a wider variety of genres, which I’m very happy about and view as literature’s first real advance into the twenty-first century. I also understand the Minister of Culture’s ambition to pay greater attention to living culture. Hopefully, this will move from words towards more concrete actions, but I appreciate the goodwill to do something with living culture in the Czech Republic. Last but not least, it’s shown that if a person works in publishing not only for the money but because they see some meaning in what they do, they can even manage a crisis – in the end, we small players are always quite accustomed to a crisis. And we mustn’t forget our readers, who really supported us to a great extent during the crisis.

 You mentioned the word bibliodiversity. What exactly does it mean?

Bibliodiversity means maintaining the greatest variety of books. Australian publisher and writer Susan Hawthorne published a book with this title and I stumbled upon it during my previously-mentioned research trip to Sydney. I became friends with Susan and, in 2018, I published Bibliodiversity in the Czech Republic. Thanks to the concept of bibliodiversity I began to be aware of many important things. For example, by having an independent press, one has the power to help promote society’s quieter, silenced, disadvantaged and less assertive voices. It is precisely these voices – which are ignored by the commercial sphere due to their lack of commercial potential – that society needs to listen to, in order to get to know the world from a different, non-mainstream, less-privileged perspective. In my publishing house, I now primarily publish women-authors, because in my view their perspectives are still insufficiently established in the Czech environment.

 Is bibliodiversity also connected with the limitations of mass production?

Definitely. I’ve created a strategy for addressing this — when we’ve invested three or four years of time and energy into preparing our books, I want them to look beautiful, because if they do, people will keep them for their entire lives and not throw them in the bin. Books with collector’s value will be passed down from generation to generation.

 Recently I was getting rid of a bunch of mainstream books that were literally “one-use.” I wanted to sell them, but when they’re produced in the tens of thousands, no-one in interested in buying them secondhand. At least we still have community book exchange points! I’ve realised that I don’t want to produce fast-moving consumer goods, not as a publisher and not as an author. I want to do “life long” books for people. And so care is taken with the books. The responsibility that Bibliodiversity speaks of, however, isn’t only linked to questions of quality, but also the numbers produced. I don’t want to churn out tons of printed paper, but rather individual pieces that have a chance at life. Smaller print runs also mean that when the book sells out and someone wants to enjoy it years later, used bookstores can give it a chance for a second life.

 In 2018, you were supported by ATI’s GO and See mobility programme. What was your aim in going to New York?

 I followed the activities of Printed Matter, the New York organisation behind the biggest art book fair in the world. Among other reasons, I went to the Art Book Fair (NY ABF) because I was interested in comparing the art book and independent publishing scenes “out there” with what we’re familiar with in the CR. In New York, I saw that our domestic book production is creatively strong and competitive in comparison with foreign counterparts. I still have the feeling that among the CR’s independent publishing scene, no one is terribly interested in the outward direction unless they have the good fortune to be included in an official Czech presentation, even though we have lots of potential. Without the support of the state, it’s not possible to travel regularly; independent authors and publishers can’t foot the full bill for agents, flights, PR. So I was interested in how it is for other independent creators from different corners of the world, who meet at the NY ABF.

 And, speaking of the competitiveness, I think this because I observed how such a large part of independent foreign production often marches to the same tune – in 2018, for example, xerox was big. In the CR I’m seeing lots of diverse projects, even those more underground in nature, such as works by the publishers Bylonebylo or Uutěrek, or at small publishing festivals, like Knihex, Tabook, Litr and PhaseBook. I like the accessibility in the CR – in many respects, not only the financial. For example, the possibility to collaborate directly with domestic printers and small book-making workshops. Here, the production of books plays out on a personal basis.

 During the NY ABF, I came across a parallel independent book festival in Brooklyn by chance, where I was shocked to discover that small publishers there have to print in China! At the same time that they’re taking a number of the same steps we’re taking here – applying for local grants, running crowd-funding campaigns, wanting to release their books in smaller runs – they have to print in China. And there lies the problem, because in China they won’t print you 500 books, but 5000 and it’s a nice long wait until the cargo ship arrives. And if the run doesn’t sell, it can be the end for a small publisher, or at least discouraging and frustrating.

 Otherwise, at NY ABF I found out many other interesting things, such as the fact that alternative distributors specialising only in art and non-mainstream books are commonplace overseas.

 But a person can’t see all these things from the Czech Republic, they have to go abroad for them. Supporting foreign representatives of alternative production to visit us here would be another possibility, but again without more systematic support it’s not simple.

 Have you felt the impulse to make any changes in your own work?

 I’ve thought for a long time that books have a greater chance of success if they are published in English. I now know that it’s not important to be seen all around the world, because each culture has its specificity, interests, needs and taste; it’s not necessary to insist on a big cultural presence that overshadows the growth of something local. This brings me back to the idea of bibliodiversity – to attract the widest possible group with a new global trend (albeit in alternative culture) a certain style emerges, and then you find hundreds of stands with xeroxed zines at the Art Book Fair, the sameness of which is quickly exhausting. I prefer the detours and sidesteps.

 When we did the book Ženy o ženách, I focused more on the functionality of the book’s pages, thanks to the New York epiphany. With the publication of Ženy o ženách, I knew that it would be extensive – it ended up being 994 pages – so, in collaboration with printer Robert Helbich and graphic designer Adéla Svobodová, we decided not only to use thin, quality paper, but also canvas for the sewn binding. The resulting book is light, but, at the same time, it both opens and reads well. I’m pleased that the design of the book followed its function.

 We’ve learned to support local farmers and to find out where our clothes come from. What about books?

 I would love if readers also thought about books in a broader context – about how much a book costs and why, and if a discount means that someone hasn’t received fair compensation. At the same time, we publishers can also approach our work responsibly – we can commit to paying authors, translators and editors the most decent fees possible, support the work of visual artists by inviting them to collaborate on books and produce books in the Czech Republic so that money stays here and we don’t allow local industry and craftsmanship to die out.