Carcanet publishers: caviar for the masses?

Publishing is a business with no assurance of profit, even if a publisher prints only books with a presumably wide appeal. Still riskier, sticking to works that are strictly literary in nature is an editorial direction few houses are financially brave enough to pursue. The history of this industry is littered with footnotes attesting to failed publishers dedicated to high-quality writing. Undaunted by those past disasters, Carcanet is a recently established literary imprint seeking a toehold in American bookstores. This new literary house is not a true neophyte, however, for it is the offspring of an English publisher that's already highly respected in cerebral circles.

The original Carcanet, founded in 1968 by critic and editor Michael Schmidt, issues a bimonthly poetry publication (PN Review) and annually releases in the United Kingdom some 50 volumes of fiction, poetry, belles-lettres, and criticism.

With its New York office open for just over a year, the United States division of Carcanet is importing an annual list of 30 titles by selecting from its parent company books that seem to hold the greatest interest for Americans.

Among the books sailing in from England this spring are ``All Our Yesterdays,'' a novel by Italy's Natalia Ginzburg; ``In These Great Times: A Karl Kraus Reader,'' by Viennese satirist Kraus; and ``Selected Poems,'' by Christina Rossetti. A number of Carcanet's books are translations of previously untranslated European titles. Many are by English authors, and a few are neglected titles by American authors, including Laura (Riding) Jackson and Harry Mathews.

As a consequence, says Simon Gavron, director of the American branch, the US Carcanet -- in its intial stages -- is serving as a marketing arm of the U.K. operation.

``Michael [Schmidt] has always felt that it was very important to bring good writing into the mainstream,'' says Mr. Gavron.

Recognizing the commercial challenge in this idealistic goal, he adds, ``People ask us how we can publish these books and still make ends meet, but Michael has always felt very keenly that a publisher has the responsibility to publish fine authors and to win them an audience.''

Mr. Gavron admits that Carcanet's imports don't sell themselves. It's not as though he were making work available by such American literary brand names as Updike or Bellow or Styron. ``We have to work very hard to sell our books,'' he says.

To do so, he and his associate Keith Goldsmith (the entire work force of Carcanet in the US) target their audience carefully. They seek out retail outlets sympathetic to good books. They place coupon ads to make it as easy as possible for individuals to order books. They insert post cards in the books asking purchasers to send in their names and addresses, which go onto a list for direct mail promotions.

Little by little, Carcanet hopes to make inroads into the American market to sell its titles, which are imported in quantities from as low as 300 or 400 copies of a book to as high as a few thousand copies.

Understandably, when dealing with such modest figures, Carcanet exerts a scrupulous effort to keep overhead low. Its office is an absolutely no-frills single room on the third floor of a Manhattan walk-up, and both Mr. Gavron and Mr. Goldsmith say they take very low salaries. Nevertheless, the credits and debits don't balance so far.

``We're not profitable yet,'' says Gavron, ``but we'd like to be in the black by next year. We know that means we'll have to turn over a half-million in annual sales. Because we publish fine literature, we have to be good at watching the budget and we have to be good at the selling end of things. What's most important is for us to establish a sales presence here.''

When its presence is made sufficiently known, Carcanet expects to establish a publishing program on these shores as well, good news for American poets, novelists, and essayists.

For now, Gavron and Goldsmith scramble to get as much critical attention for their books as possible, try to distribute them as widely as they can, and hope that discriminating readers begin seeking out Carcanet titles.

All this means that they are determined to continue their attention to books that live up to the pledge implicit in the company name. The word `Carcanet' derives from a French noun that means a string of precious gems.

A monthly column in the Book Review.

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