Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Department of Sad News and Bargain-Basement Books

The sad news, which I should have broken to StickFinger readers long ago, is that Robert Wechsler's Catbird Press has gone out of business. Rob will keep in print the books he's published so far, but will not be issuing new titles anymore.

Why is this sad? Because Catbird was the only publishing house in the United States that specialized, to any real degree, in Czech lit.

The story of Catbird Press, in Rob's own words:

"Catbird Press was founded in 1987 by Robert Wechsler for the purpose of publishing two kinds of books he knew a lot about: Czech literature and sophisticated prose humor in the classic American tradition (we call it 'humor for grownups'). To these specialties were added American fiction, starting in 1991, and British fiction, starting in 1999; two books to help people do good better (charitable giving and helping public schools); and Wechsler's own book on literary translation (1998). As of June 2002, Catbird Press has published 49 titles, about 4 a year, nearly all of which are still in print. We publish our Czech literature under the Garrigue Books imprint; see below for an explanation of this name."

To Rob I am personally thankful for his decision to publish my translation of Jáchym Topol's mind-bending post-1989 masterwork, City Sister Silver, a surefire scheme for losing money if ever there was one. (To be fair, the novel was highly acclaimed in all the right places and held its own in sales. But that's another story.)

In a piece published today on Britské listy, a Czech-language site run out of Glasgow by transplanted Czech Jan Culik (billed as: "the daily about everything that isn't talked about much in the Czech Republic"), Rob reflects on his experiences as a publisher of Czech lit.

As Rob told it to me back — when was that? a year ago? — the problem is he can't guarantee his authors he can get their books into stores anymore. Distributors being as mammoth as they are, a direct consequence of the mammothness of the booksellers they distribute to, a small house like Catbird Press, when it sends a batch of, say, 200 books into the chain, has no idea in which stores, in which cities, they'll wash up. That's fine when you blanket the nation with a multimillion-dollar ad campaign, but it's hell for a book that doesn't have a marketing juggernaut plowing a path on its behalf.

Another interesting point Rob made, which makes sense to me, is that while the Internet has been good for the individual reader (i.e., the consumer), it is a nightmare for the small publishing house. I can find any book I want, anytime. But how does a book with a print run of 3,500 copies find its way to those few thousand people it is intended for?


If you are a budget-minded shopper and have been impatiently waiting to hear about the bargain-basement books, here is the deal: Rob is offering copies of Catapult, by Vladimir Paral; City Sister Silver, by Topol; Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else, by Daniela Fischerova; The Four Sonyas, again by Paral; and Lovers and Murderers, also by Paral, for a paltry three to five bucks a pop.

Order by phone at (203) 230-2391, e-mail, fax (203) 286-1091, or write Catbird Press, 16 Windsor Road, North Haven, CT 06472-3015.