The Good, the Bad and the Future
A Publishers’/Editors’ Roundtable About Writing and Publishing in Amsterdam
with Megan M. Garr, Boudewijn Richel and Nina Siegal
by Bryan R. Monte
On 11 February 2012, Amsterdam Quarterly publisher/editor, Bryan Monte, convened a publishers’ and editors’ roundtable in an apartment overlooking the River IJ and the rigging of a three-masted ship, flying a pirate flag, moored on Java Island. Sitting around the table were Nina Siegal, editor-in-chief of Time Out Amsterdam; Megan M. Garr, editor of Versal,and Boudewijn Richel, director of Ulysses Reizen. With their combined 35+ years of publishing and editing experience in Amsterdam and fueled by coffee, tea and börek, a Turkish casserole served by hostess, Iclal Akcay, the quartet discussed Amsterdam’s current writing markets, bookshops, reading spaces and workshops, along with their views of the future. (Note: On 22 March 2012, Selexyz, one of the biggest Dutch bookstore chains, filed for protection from its creditors).
For readers’ background information:
Time Out Amsterdam is a monthly, English-language, cultural magazine that features articles and listings about Amsterdam’s music, film, theatre, art, restaurant and bar scene. Nina Siegal described its readership as being: “college-educated people between 18 to 40 who consider themselves to be culturally in tune.” Its total print run is 30,000 copies with approximately 75,000 readers, a third of each being tourists, expats and local residents.
Versal is an annual, international, English-language, literary and art magazine founded in Amsterdam in 2002. Megan M. Garr said: “we do a lot of experimental writing and art so our writers are more interested in innovative work.” Versal’s readership, is anywhere: “from teenage writers to older writers.” It has a print run of 750 and is sold in North America, Europe and Australia.
Uitgeverij Ulysses, (Berlin 1991 – Amsterdam 2006), published “more non-fiction than fiction,” according to Boudewijn Richel. Richel currently organizes tours through Ulysses Reizen to places such as Tibet, Mongolia and Burma for Ulysses Reizen and travel fairs, such as the one at the Beurs van Berlage in Amsterdam in January 2012. He also publishes exclusive tour “readers … by the hundred” which are bundled with Ulysses’ tours.
Bryan Monte: I’d like to start off the conversation this afternoon by asking you what your markets are like at the moment in Amsterdam. Do you see your markets expanding or, with the rise of digital media and bookstores’ reluctance to carry much stock, do you see them contracting?
Nina Siegal: These are really two different questions. The first question is what is the market and how does it grow and the other is what kind of media. First, I would say that Time Out did try to launch an edition here in the ’90s. However, they really felt at that time that there really wasn’t enough of an English-speaking audience. And so they moved on to New York and didn’t come back for another ten years. But this time, I think it’s just a different landscape. There are more internationals, and Amsterdam has become a more international city. The city is on its own campaign to get more international companies based here, so you’ve got huge groups of new expats arriving all the time. Plus, there’s a really different focus in terms of the kind of people the city is trying to attract as visitors, who are not so much the drug/sex tourists, but the museum/cultural types. That is our target audience, but I think what you’ll see over the next ten years is that the internationalism of the city is going to be growing rapidly. So I think our market is only going to expand in terms of readership—that’s my prediction.
As far as the market for people who pick up magazines and read them, [Laughter] well, people have been guessing about this a lot. I think we have to go digital—there’s no question. It’s just a matter of how. There’s not any argument about whether that’s a necessity, but what kind of digital. A lot of magazines actually skipped over doing the website and now are just focusing on hand-held tablets because if you’re a tourist or a visitor and you want to go out at night or you want to find out what a good restaurant is, you may not be sitting down in front of your computer to look it up. You’ll be looking at your hand-held device.
BM: So in other words, the handheld will have your location (via GPS) and know that you like Chinese restaurants, so when you go by one, it will go PING and say: “This might be a good place to eat.” That’s really amazing. It sends you information without you having to ask for it.
NS: And not only that, it’s customer/client specific. At some point your Time Out subscription is going to know that you love to go clubbing at hip-hop clubs, and you love Japanese food and you love dogs.
Boudewijn Richel: Dogs? We don’t have dog restaurants in Amsterdam, do we?
NS: There might be a dog shop you might want to know about. And so if you live here, it will be programmed to tell you what you might be interested in. But if you don’t live here, you might fly from Paris to here and it will tell you, “You’ve arrived in Amsterdam,” and it will suggest things you might want to do; the sort of things that are in the neighbourhood. That’s sort of a while down the road.
BM: I agree that handhelds will become more important, but I don’t think that it’s that far down the road, actually. I think it will arrive in about the next year or three. I predict that soon people are going to be exploring cities using routes and information their hand-held devices provide them based on their owners’ past purchasing behaviour and Internet website visits. What about the digital future for Versal? I see that Versal has a website. How long have you had a website?
Megan M. Garr: We’ve had a website since 2002 (Editor’s note: the year Versal was founded).
BM: How long have you had your Versal blog?
MG: We’ve been blogging for about two and half years.
BM: Could you fill me in a bit about what Versal is doing with print and digital media?
MG: Well, we’re not really worried about the digital world encroaching on the literary magazine world, because the literary magazine world is about the object and it’s becoming more and more so. When Versal started in 2002, a literary magazine wasn’t something that was necessarily beautiful, it was just something that had poetry in it and it was on paper. So we were really radical by making it really beautiful. Nowadays, thank God, that’s become more normal. Literary magazines are redesigning or the new ones that are starting up are doing beautiful things. They’ve got designers on board. They’re doing hard-bound editions, they’re doing offset printing, letterpress; people are going back to some of the origins of printing rather than trying to make it worse or go entirely digital. Of course you have literary journals online, but poets, storywriters and artists like to have something to hold, so the literary journals will continue to be in print. I have no doubt of that.
Versal’s movement into the digital world really has to do with being a presence online, so making sure we have the necessary social media that is frequently updated with interesting things so right now, it’s Facebook. Five years from now, it could be something else. Making sure we have a Twitter feed. Making sure we have an interesting blog reel so the editors give you more insight into what we’re doing and making sure we have an online personality. And in the future, if we do anything, it will probably be an annex to the print edition. So you can go online and read a different kind of content online. For example, right now it’s really hip to do video poems. I don’t know if this will continue because most of them are pretty bad, but the online place would be a place where we could publish videos that the poets make, sound art, interviews with our poets online or, better yet, have them read their work that they have published in Versal (print version) on our website. A lot of journals in North America are already doing things like that, so we’re just taking it slow. I think we’re in a really good position, that no one expects Versal to go online anytime soon because people like the object, that’s the journal, so we’ll keep doing that.
BM: Well, thank you very much for that insight. That’s very interesting because Amsterdam Quarterly is always considering different things too. One of the things you mentioned about the video poem, we’re going to start doing that with this issue. Another is a button to see a text in its original language since we’ll be including more literature in translation. I try to add a new feature with every issue. That’s the good thing about having a website. You can always add a new button or feature with every issue to pique people’s interest and to continue developing the website. Boudewijn, what is your vision of the market and how it’s changing?
BR: You can still use paper for some markets, but for the book industry, it means difficult distribution, because it’s not only having the right books, but also the right PR. You can have whole pages in Der Spiegel, and your bookshop may say, “May I have two more copies. I just sold two copies, but I certainly won’t sell a third one.” That’s the mentality of a bookshop, so it’s always this line between very big going in and very small-minded people who you have to go through. And this needs an enormous apparatus that is too expensive now. So therefore, I would like to go around that, and the Internet is one way of going around it. It also has many disadvantages, of course. The Internet is getting more and more expensive. Still, in some ways, it’s still approachable and I am still working with authors.
I’ve put together now ten very special tours: Tibet, Mongolia, Burma, Romania, etc. This is with very famous Dutch authors. They have written books on these countries and they make special readers for the tours. A reader is a kind of tour book with articles to give a better insight, but only used for these particular tours. You cannot buy it in the bookshop. You cannot buy it over the Internet. It is only connected with this particular tour to get another side of what you see. The idea behind it is not only looking at Tibet, but also finding very special places. This morning I had a visitor, and he’s going to do the Mongolian tour. He’s a very famous Dutch author, Erik Bruijn, and he has written a terrific book on Mongolia. He says he went into all sorts of places where they found manuscripts out of the 8th or the 9th centuries. He can read Mongolian and all the languages. He is a specialist. Fantastic new ideas on history are also coming in, also on meditation from lamas, but also from ritual material. There is still so much, which was hidden away from the Soviet Union.
BM: So you’re using an old-style, publishing technique as a new tool. Very interesting.
NS: And how many readers do you print for each tour?
BR: When necessary, by the hundred. It depends on how many are on the tour. They always ask over the Internet or via e-mail: “Can we buy one reader for ourselves?” because there are sometimes famous authors in the reader, in the one about Mongolia certainly, and everyone wants to buy one. But the answer is: “No. It comes only with the tour.” The idea is the combination of the tour with the book.
NS: This is in English or in Dutch?
BR: Some are in English and some are in Dutch. Sometimes these articles are not available in Dutch. Half of the articles are in Dutch. Then, we have to print an English edition. Usually the people who do that are supposed to read English. Not all the Germans do, actually. I have lots of German customers, so that’s how it is.
BM: That’s very interesting. You’ve got the exclusivity of a book that’s bundled only with a tour. Well, we’ve talked about what’s happening in the market, or rather, how your presses have responded to it. What about the literary bookstores here in Amsterdam that support people for readings, for people who like to do really good, serious writing. Which ones are they and where are they? For example, I know The English Bookshop (Lauriergracht 71) has readings and I know the American Book Center (Spui 12) also does….
MG: … the American Book Center is a bit more populous. The English Bookshop is doing a bit of everything. They’re doing a lot of work with children’s book writers and we (Versal) do the occasional poetry reading there, and I have just heard that a short story writer is coming, so The English Bookshop is a great catch all. Perdu (Kloveniersburgwal 86) is a great place for international poetry and also local, Dutch writers. The Athenaeum (Spui 14-16) does something occasionally, but not very often.
BM: And is that in conjunction with the University of Amsterdam, Spui 25? I’m a UvA alumnus and sometimes when people come to read there, it’s in conjunction with the Athenaeum and people go across the street to buy a book with their UvA Alumni discount card or there’s someone with a cash register from the Athenaeum sitting at the back of the hall at Spui 25.
MG: Well, Versal sells the best at Athenaeum. In fact, we’re on one of the university’s current class (reading) lists in English. We’ve sold 30 issues of Versal 9 there alone. Athenaeum is a big supporter of local, international literature because they are interested in it and not just the Dutch literary magazines so they will carry just about anything that is interesting. They carry American and British literary magazines.
NS: I’ve also seen some readings at Selexyz/Scheltema, (Koningsplein 20) but not in English. They have Dutch readings for new books.
MG: And De Balie (Kleine Gartmanplantsoen 10) brings a lot of people through their cultural programmes. They’re not always about literature, but sometimes there are some nice crossovers. And sometimes you have John Adams (Herenmarkt 97) doing events all over.
NS: Yeah, the biggest literary ones are at John Adams.
BM: And Boudewijn do you know any bookstores that are good about supporting new authors — authors with books that don’t come from major publishers?
BR: Waterstones (Kalverstraat 152).
MG: Yeah, Waterstones is starting to do more events in the last couple years. They did a book launch for two, local writers, one poet and one fiction writer.
BM: So if we were to map the literary landscape for writers who are getting established, we would say that the area around the Spui would be ground zero with the Athenaeum and the American Book Center across the street from each other, Waterstones being just to the north of that, Selexyz and De Balie being to the south and then of course, The English Bookshop and John Adams being major players also, still in the centre of town or what’s referred to in Amsterdam as the grachtengordel, (canal belt), but about a kilometre or two further to the south and west respectively.
MG: I would still put Perdu (Kloveniersburgwal 86) on your list. It’s poetry-focused, but their bookstore is fantastic. It’s curated very well. They have books not just by Dutch publishers, but also by international publishers and writers. In addition, they have one of the best spaces in Amsterdam as far as I’m concerned—their black-box theatre in the back.
BR: What did you say?
MG: It’s a black-box theatre, a black space….
BM: …they’ve got bleachers for seating and it’s a nice space to do performances; it’s neutral because it’s all painted black.
MG: And they have a press themselves, but they work with small presses here in Holland that do translation work. So, for example, two years ago I saw Peter Gizzi. He was brought over from America. He’s a really big name. A Dutch publisher had made this incredibly beautiful book of translations of his work across the range of his books. And it was 40 euros. It was the most expensive book of poetry I’ve ever seen and it was very small.
BM: Well great. Now from bookshops, I’d like to move on to discuss organizations in Amsterdam that offer writers’ workshops. For example, wordsinhere had a series of workshops that they were doing for a while, and then there’s another organization that’s working out of the English Bookshop. I’m trying to remember their name….
MG: …the Writers’ Studio.
BM: Are there any other organizations? Well, actually you (Nina Siegal/ Time Out Amsterdam) offer some writing courses. Nina teaches her own course, Cultural Journalism 101. Could you tell us a little bit about that course?
NS: Sure. Time Out Amsterdam actually teaches three different courses a year. Mine is an eight-week course on journalistic writing for people who are interested in culture. We also have a class in film criticism.
BM: Yes, I saw that when I was looking at Time Out Amsterdam’s website.
NS: We were also teaching a fiction writing class. The teacher we were using for that, however, has moved back to the US. And also, there are other places teaching fiction writing, so we thought it makes more sense for us to focus on journalism.
MG: It’s funny because when we started doing workshops, we didn’t have any “competition.” And four years later, there were four other organizations doing similar things, which was great. It was a very good sign for everyone in Amsterdam. This sounds a bit dramatic, but people were being entrepreneurial starting up some of their own stuff, whether it was part of their eenmanszaak (one person business) or whether it was building some sort of cultural community enterprise. So actually the reason we pulled back our workshops after this last year has been because we are not interested in competing with our fellow writers for workshop attendees because there’s so much going on around town. So we’re doing some things that Time Out is doing. When we give workshops now, they will be in things that we are specifically interested in and good at, which is publishing, being a writer and trying to publish in the international publishing community and, depending on who’s in town, very specific poetry workshops, which are still quite under-represented.
NS: Since I’ve been here, the people who I’ve met who are very serious about writing have been wordsinhere students. They had so many writing workshops and people who met each other in those workshops who went off to form their own writing groups.
MG: There are probably seven or eight writing groups that I know of meeting now.
BM: We’re (Amsterdam Quarterly’s writers’ group) one of them.
We’re former wordsinhere students, Iclal and I. We went off and formed our own group.
MG: OK. So there’s probably nine or ten.
NS: I’m in a group from mostly wordsinhere people.
BM: OK. Great. Let’s see. We’ve talked a little about markets and places to give readings and workshops. The last topic I wanted to discuss is how you feel about digital media—the good, the bad and the future. What is your vision? Is it apocalyptical where there are no more bookshops and we’re all running around with our handhelds and people are not reading physical books anymore as I mentioned in the beginning of this interview when I said how I thought tourists would soon be exploring Amsterdam digitally? Will everyone connect with each other via the Internet to write, workshop and publish their work? What do you see as the future?
NS: I’m a really bad person to ask about this because I started my career in San Francisco in the ’90s at the very beginning of the Silicon Valley boom. Everybody I knew at that time was migrating to online media and saying: “There won’t be print publications anymore. You’d better get into online media.” Even at that time I was a bit resistant to it, because I just wanted to work in print journalism. I love reading newspapers and magazines and I like the way they feel. I have written for online magazines like Salon since the beginning of my career, but I’ve managed to have 20 years of a career so far without going into digital media and I am so happy about it. Don’t get me wrong, the Internet is incredible as a resource and as a tool, and there are amazing advances in social media that help us in the journalistic trade. I just haven’t seen that much real journalism that is that great that is written exclusively for the Net, yet. It’s surprising. The amount of energy, capital, entrepreneurship that goes into that endeavour, compared to the actual amount of work that you actually see that is readable, reliable and professional is really low. Ultimately things are going in that direction, but I’m also surprised to see how many of those magazines that started up online have folded or have cut back to the point where they barely exist. The really successful ones also….
BR: …on the Internet and on paper?
NS: No, the ones that only exist online are largely – of course you have things like The Huffington Post and Gawker that do really well. I think it would be foolish to say, though, that it was not going to be the primary way that people will relate words in the future. I think it’s just a matter of interface and not a matter of craft, so maybe we will be holding holograms in the future. The thing you have to learn to do as a journalist or as a writer is going to be the same exact thing you had to learn in the past. I hope that the mediums, the interfaces, get to the point where they are enjoyable to hold, like they’re starting to be with the tablets, but I don’t think we have to change fundamentally what we’re writing. It’ll be more about formatting and word count. If we still want to write good things, the same standards will apply.
BM: Megan, what do you see as the future in regards to Versal, with digital media?
MG: I have to say I really agree with the distinction between the medium itself and the physical act of writing. These things need to be discussed in different places—the same standard of aesthetic and the moving target of aesthetic—that conversation still needs to be had. I think when we had our initial boost of Internet journalism and Internet writing in general and the blogosphere, typos just became the status quo. I think that those of us who are in the publishing world should continue to hold up those high standards of, for example, grammar.
In terms of Versal, this is a time as poet, when I am in a unique position. As I said earlier, the digital world is not necessarily encroaching dramatically over my head. It is important for the literary world to be present online, for poets to maybe have a website or a Twitter feed, but I don’t necessarily think that I should be publishing my poetry exclusively online, or that Versal, literary journals, chapbook publishers or collection publishers should necessarily worry too much about digital media because the niche is so specific. There was a moment, about four years ago, when the literary world, in North America specifically, was freaking out about what you said, Bryan, an apocalypse that would kill all small press publishers and bookstores. Four years later, the story is very different and everyone has calmed down, which is very nice to see. In fact, what I’m seeing from a lot of small press publishers in North American—I think I mentioned this in an interview with Hazel & Wren—that people are owning up to a kind of fetish about paper. Let’s admit it. We like paper. We like the smell of ink. We like things being tangible or physical in our hands. And so a lot of publishers are taking advantage of that and making even more beautiful books—going back to hard-bound and to letterpress and doing all these really beautiful things with paper again. I think this is a really exciting time to be a small press publisher.
BM: So, it’s sort of our Arts and Crafts Movement for publishing? That’s why Amsterdam Quarterly decided to print a yearly anthology of its tri-quarterly work online using the American Book Center’s print-on-demand Espresso Book Machine. This way AQ can print a limited number of high-quality, bound copies as souvenirs for contributors and reading attendees.
MG: Yes. DIY publishing is back in. A large majority of the community is interested in the small, the handheld, the tangible form of the art, and so it’s really exciting to see even big names in American poetry, publish with small houses because they want to see their work in that beautiful form. But if you are a publisher and you are putting out novels, you should no doubt also have an e-book version, no doubt. Should Versal have an e-book version? No, I don’t think so at this point because people buy it for the object.
BM: Boudewijn, would you like to have the last word about the last question about the digital future, or if there is one for literature and writing here in Amsterdam? How will it affect your press and publications?
BR: Basically I agree with what Megan said about Internet growth. It certainly will grow for mainly digital publications and authors. Publishers will try to find a mass market via the Internet. But that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a niche for people still interested in buying paper books. Not all authors are fit for a mass market. Many publishers still think: ‘We need to sell 100,000 copies.’ Many authors are not fit for that, so as long as people can order books via the Internet, I think it will go two different ways. We had the invention of the pocket book by Penguin and they sold ten times more books, so it will be very nice over the Internet, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the printed book. There will always be an interest in narrative fiction and poetry and where there is this interest, there will always be books available in one way or another.
BM: OK. Publishers and editors, thank you so much for participating in this roundtable today.