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EJ Van Lanen, founder of Frisch & Co., talks to NBG

EJ Van Lanen
Photo: Anthony Schubert
The Start of Frisch & Co.
Frisch & Co. is an ebook publishing company, whose focus lies in the dissemination of literature translated into English. Founded in 2012 by EJ Van Lanen, the American-born and Berlinbased publisher strives to introduce stimulating new fiction to readers of English-language literature worldwide. Setting out to reach a wider audience for translated fiction, Van Lanen decided on an ebook format that would enable publishers to distribute their titles not only to the US and the UK markets, but all around the world.

The Partnerships
Van Lanen realised that by translating and publishing a couple of books each year from a small group of leading publishers, he could produce a diverse list of strong titles. With this in mind, Frisch & Co. formed a number of partnerships with distinguished publishers from various countries, one of them being Germany’s Suhrkamp Verlag. Their partnership began in 2012 and they now conduct regular meetings to discuss forthcoming titles that could be suitable for Frisch & Co. As a result of the partnership, highly acclaimed titles such as Uwe Tellkamp’s The Tower (Der Turm), for which Suhrkamp struggled to find an Englishlanguage publisher, are being made available to English-reading audiences.

Digital Publishing
Van Lanen has been working in literature in translation for long enough to know the challenges ahead of him. The high costs of translation, the relatively small readership and the difficulties of promoting translated books, are all factors that have contributed to his decision to publish in an ebook format. The costs of publishing books in electronic form are lower and the audiences that can be reached are considerably larger. And yet ebook publishers face another challenge: the need for standardisation. Van Lanen explains that many existing applications, devices and file formats are incompatible with one another, which understandably causes great confusion for readers. Many questions arise in relation to the transferability of ebooks purchased on different devices where readers feel uncertain as to whether an ebook would still be available to them if they bought a new version of a device or a device created by a different manufacturer: ‘Getting all of the different players to agree to put this mess behind them... that’s going to be a challenge,’ Van Lanen concludes.

The Changing Retail Environment
According to Van Lanen, publishers of translated fiction currently face many challenges, the most urgent being retail’s changing landscape. Declining numbers of bookshops make it increasingly difficult for readers to chance upon books in translation. Then again, there is Amazon – now the biggest book and ebook retailer. Van Lanen sees the rise of Amazon as problematic, its interface alone already complicating the discovery of less popular books: ‘And since most translated fiction isn’t popular, generally speaking, your books tend to languish in the dark back hallways of Amazon, which is a lonely, non-selling place for them to be.’

The Future
Frisch & Co. will publish three new translations from German this year: Shorter Days (Kürzere Tage) by Anna Katharina Hahn, translated by Anne Posten; The Room (Das Zimmer) by Andreas Maier, translated by Jamie Lee Searle, and the above-mentioned The Tower (Der Turm) by Uwe Tellkamp in a translation by Mike Mitchell. Robert Schindel’s Winter in Austria (Der Kalte), translated by Bill Martin, will be published next year. ‘My guess is that translated fiction won’t always win out,’ states Van Lanen. Even if this is the case, it is good to know that there are publishers like EJ Van Lanen who are sufficiently committed to and passionate about literature in translation as to venture into the uncertainties of digital publishing.
Interview with Milena Vassova