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Dalkey Archive Press, or How to Publish Writers No One Reads

[The following was written by Stephen (SS), a bookseller and panelist on the Best Translated Book Award jury—and, as a caveat, a one-time employee of Dalkey Archive. Any responses should be directed to him. I apologize to those of you not interested in polemics. Nevertheless, it’s my hope that among the followers of this blog, which represents a sizeable community of readers who care about discovering and disseminating works that are too easily overlooked, there will be some who care enough to feel that the actions of Dalkey Archive Press are, at the very least, irresponsible.]

To reward you for at least scrolling past this rant on your dashboard, the three of us at WNOR offer some book recommendations below.

[NOTE: As of December 7, Dalkey Archive submitted several worthy titles (as PDFs) to the BTBA committee.]


A few weeks ago, I learned through Chad Post, organizer of the Best Translated Book Award, that Dalkey Archive Press, who publish the most translations per year of any English-language publisher, was withdrawing from the competition, citing expenses. The justification offered was that sending eligible titles to the members of the nine-person judging panel, of which I am a member, leaves “a smoking hole in [our] budget.” (Despite the fact that the judges all accept PDFs.) Tacked on to this already questionable excuse was the kicker: “And… we’ve never won.”

As a reader and a bookseller, I’ve long been passionate about translated fiction. Along with inimitable New Directions, which served as a model for Dalkey’s early efforts, Dalkey Archive has always seemed to me one of the most daring publishers in the United States. The Press brings to English-language readers work from across the world, often publishing the kind of challenging and innovative fiction that larger, for-profit publishing houses would never touch. Their list is rich in significant, enduring titles and I can happily say that during the course of my career I have sold hundreds of copies of these books.

So it’s a real disappointment—less for myself than for those whose reading worlds just got a little smaller for lack of exposure to Dalkey’s books—that (a) a publisher of this caliber would withdraw from a competition designed to promote translated literature, their ostensible raison d’etre and (b) that their excuse for doing so would be so transparently insincere. In his reaction to this move, Chad Post, who in addition to organizing the BTBA also runs Three Percent, a good resource for readers interested in translated literature, effectively sums up the reasons why a publisher claiming budget concerns in their refusal to send books to the judges is baseless. (It boils down to this: it would cost Dalkey in total about $120 to mail books to the panelists.) Even if we accept for a moment the possibility that the Press is in such desperate financial straits that it can’t afford to mail—or, again, to email!—books to judges, the lack of consideration the publisher is demonstrating toward its authors and translators, the cultural agencies who underwrite the work, and the readers the Press ostensibly aims to reach is galling.

Dalkey Archive is a non-profit; its publications are funded by cultural organizations like the Illinois Arts Council, Institut Raymond Llull, the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, etc. Surely, the grant-makers at the Institut Raymond Llull, for example, whose aim in disseminating grants is to promote Catalan literature, will be disappointed that a book like Salvador Espriu’s classic Ariadne in the Grotesque Labyrinth is essentially being published in a vacuum that just had a little more air sucked out of it. (The only review I find of this book was written by a member of the Best Translated Book Award panel.)

Most distressing to a bookseller and enthusiast is the lack of regard Dalkey displays for its potential readers. On a primary level, it means that the Press’ books are getting less media exposure. (It would be one thing if Dalkey desisted from entering its books in competitions altogether, but a quick glance at its website reveals that this isn’t the case.)

Beyond this immediately apparent downside, there is another, more insidious and far-reaching one: as a buyer at an independent bookstore, I see a lot of books every year. As conscientious as I try to be in selecting which books we’re going to stock, the sheer numbers are so overwhelming that decisions are sometimes made less by what I know than what I don’t know, meaning: the more I know about a book, the better the chances are that I’ll be able to make an informed decision about it. If a publisher’s representative or catalog informs me that So-and-so’s last novel was long- or shortlisted for (or won) an award, it provides an immediate signal to me that I should look more closely not only at a specific book, but at the publisher’s entire list. For better or worse, awards are criteria of value, and for most publishers of translations, whose catalogs are typically filled with writers virtually unknown in the U.S., any foothold is a good one.

And so, even if a publisher like Dalkey has “never won,” doesn’t it seem a better option to continue to play the game—at such minimal cost—in the chance that an writer they publish, whose work they presumably stand behind and admire and believe should be read by great numbers of people, will benefit from whatever exposure the competition brings? Doesn’t it stand to reason that they would enter such a competition for the sake of the hard-working translators with whom they collaborate—often primarily, since many of Dalkey’s authors are made inaccessible by language, distance, or time—none of whom, I assume, would turn down the chance to win the $5,000 that comes with the prize? (For an argument from a translator, read Susan Bernofsky’s thoughtful piece on her blog, Translationista)

Dalkey’s excuse for not participating is flimsy, irresponsible, and demonstrates that the Press has lost its way. This is a shame, because Dalkey Archive is one of the best publishers we have.


As a postscript, I asked Will and Jozsef to recommend a few Dalkey titles for readers of Writers No One Reads. Dalkey is having its annual holiday sale (10 books for $65 or 20 books for $120), which makes it a good time to help the Press patch any other holes in its leaky budget.

JS recommends:

WS recommends:

SS recommends:

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