Interview for the blog 'Donde viven los monstruos'

Román Belmonte: I am very aware that this interview, for me, is a challenge, not only because of the respect that comes from being face-to-face with a Spanish publisher who has been awarded four times with the Bologna Ragazzi (among many other accolades), but also due to my admiration towards a self-made imprint. Tell me, Vicente, after all these years, what is left of those small fanzines that you called ‘medias vacas’ and which gave name to this project?

Vicente Ferrer: Between 1991 and 1998, approximately, we published those booklets also called 1/2 Vaca. We did not refer to them as fanzines, although, it is true that name was quite popular at the time. The name Media Vaca appeared written as a fraction, and the drawing showed the cow’s rear and not its front. What remains of that project? The spirit that inspired that publication, that is, the desire to find our ideal interlocutors. And also the physical booklets, fanzines or however we want to call them: stored in cardboard boxes, they take up an entire wardrobe and are spread throughout many corners of the house.

R. B.: You went from being an illustrator to becoming an author-editor. From there you made a leap towards independent publishing, and now, one could say you are at the front of a renowned publishing house. Step by step, is that the way?

V. F.: Exactly: step by step and making leaps. Sometimes like moles and others like Iberian wild goats. In any case, I believe that in all this time I have never stopped being an illustrator, although now I illustrate through the hands and brains of others. We have also never ceased to be independent, since we exclusively rely on our own resources and solely publish what we wish to. I have a hard time accepting the phrase ‘renowned publishing house’. We are still a very small company. Not like a neighborhood mercery, but almost, although our customers are not in our neighbourhood. We have no desire to grow and become renowned, we only aspire to do the work we have set out to the best of our knowledge. For the moment, we are still making our way, which is the important thing.

R. B.: Two inks, paper with a good weight, extensive, meticulous details… Your books seem like a product designed for the children of yesterday. Could you silence those who believe that such a format could be a problem in the eyes of contemporary children?

V. F.: Why ‘the children of yesterday’? Which yesterday is that? Yesterday morning, when we lived in caves? Yesterday at midday, when there were no mobile devices? How many children in the world today use these devices exclusively? The children of today, in essence, are not so different from the children of yesterday. We can give them rocks, hoops, or a Sphero SPRK+, and children will adapt to their toys with the dedication and enthusiasm that characterises children everywhere in the world.

R. B.: Doctrine, demagogy, emotions, progressivism, false morality… There is so much we can relate children’s books to! All things considered, it is not unreasonable, since any cultural product is brought to life with a purpose. With what intention do the editors of Media Vaca publish books?

V. F.: I do not associate children’s books to any of those things. That is the world of adults, with all their prejudices. Books, on the contrary, should be used to overcome those prejudices, to make us critical readers, to make us all —children and grown ups— better citizens, and to have a great time, of course. For me, books have always belonged to the fun side, not to obligations. 

R. B.: Media Vaca declares that, in part, your books are born from the capricious nature of its editors. I love anecdotes, so, if you do not mind, could you tell the story of one of those publishing whims? 

V. F.: That is true in every case. Every project is an adventure, and some have particularly been an odyssey. One day, if I find the time, I would like to write the secret stories behind each book. What I mean by saying books are born ‘from the capricious nature of its editors’ is, simply, that most of what we publish are things we think of and propose ourselves, and not projects that come from external sources. ‘Caprice’ should also not be interpreted as a burst of inspiration that strikes on a day when one wakes up in a special mood. No. Although it is evident chance can intervene.

R. B.: ‘To invent a book’… Sounds like a somewhat utilitarian vision of art. Could you explain further this concept you have used in the past?

V. F.: Utilitarian? I am not sure if I understand the question. All books are inventions, or they should be. Except those which have been plagiarised.

R. B.: Let’s cast aside utilitarianism and the authorship of a literary work. What is ‘to invent a book’ in publishing?

V. F.: I have read in a statistic that in 2016 more than 80,000 new titles were published in Spain, of which 28 per cent were children’s or school books. The figure is scandalous. One would imagine that among so many books it would be possible to find anything, but that is not the case: the market tends to produce very similar objects, always with sales in mind. In this context, ‘to invent a book’ would mean to bet on content and not be influenced by trends or commercial strategies. The ‘invented’ book should bring a certain dose of innovation to a very saturated market, and not repeat what others are already shouting at the top of their lungs. And it should be done with the greatest care and effort, devoting as much time as necessary.

R. B.: Reading how Once Upon 21 Times… Little Red Riding Hood, one of your most captivating books, was born, as well as making me smile on various occasions, led me to reflect on the difficulties of self-production… There are all sort of themes when it comes to this subject. Acts of bravery, of responsibility, of patriotism, of generosity, of corporate wit, of economic profitability… I would like to know what your thoughts are on this…

V. F.: Patriotism? That word makes me think of trumpets. The case of the book you mention is quite singular. It brings together the resulting work of a summer workshop held in Tokyo with twenty-one female illustrators, who, during five summer days, carried out the task I had given them: a personal version of Little Red Riding Hood’s story. Since we had limited time, we all worked very hard, but we also had a lot of fun. At the end of those five days, each of the participants handed me their book. Workshop participants and publishers stayed in touch, and a year later we found out that many of the illustrators had redone their work with the purpose of improving it. The decision to publish all of the projects is due to their high quality, but also to show respect and gratitude for the students’ commitment.

R. B.: You once stated that if you notice an idea another publisher has satisfyingly resolved, you decide that there is no need to repeat it; however, do you not think that revising concepts, in a way, is the publishing world’s responsibility?

V. F.: What I wanted to say is that, indeed, if in the research phase prior to a book’s publication, we discover that a very similar book to the one we want to make already exists, it makes sense to consider abandoning the project. Why make something twice? I am not stating that contents could not be updated by including a commentary or improving the translation or illustration work. This is always possible, however, we should evidently assess whether it is worth the effort. But I am referring to another matter: there are certain novels by certain authors that can be found in seven different editions, while the rest of their work —which could be abundant— remains unpublished, unknown and inaccessible to readers. There are many examples that come to mind.

R. B.: Could you reference some of those works which, in your opinion, other editors have properly resolved?

V. F.: That comment should be taken as a statement of intent. I am unaware if such examples exist. Some books that we wished to make have been made by others, of course; sometimes because we have attracted the interest of other publishers. Such is the case of Libro de juegos para los niños de los otros (Book of Games for the Children of Others), by Ana María Matute, first published by Lumen in 1961, as part of the collection Word and Image, and republished in 2003 by Espasa. We would have wanted to make a respectful edition of the original, with photographs by Jaime Buesa, but Espasa replaced them with current photos and turned the book into something rather different.

R. B.: Arnal Ballester, Ajubel, Miguel Calatayud, Isidro Ferrer… Your catalogue includes very experienced illustrators with a long professional career. Apart from their background and some common points they share with you, what is it about them that you find so captivating?

V. F.: That explanation would require a lot of time. Perhaps there is no need for one. It is evident that they are great illustrators with a long career. They have all worked for children’s books, advertising, comic strips, newspapers and posters; in other words, they understand the requirements of media and its different audiences. All of them possess a personal language and their own universe of images —what we refer to as visual culture—, acquired through constant work, study, research and experimentation.

R. B.: You will not believe it, but because of two of your literary children, Robinson Crusoe and The Stream, I have mixed feelings regarding illustrated novels… On the one hand, my images clash with Ajubel’s images of Defoe’s work. On another, I cannot imagine Reclus’ words without the serene water stream created by Guazzelli. Does illustration add or subtract from the experience? Is it necessary?

V. F.: Sometimes it adds to it; others, it subtracts, multiplies or divides. What can I say? From reading a text or an image, not everyone receives the same thing. Some factors influence us, like habits or aesthetic tastes. In my opinion, not all books should be illustrated, but this is not the case of the books you mention. I am not aware of any other illustrated editions of The Stream, but there are countless editions of Robinson, to suit all tastes. Ajubel’s Robinson is not Defoe’s, but there is no reason to prefer one over the other. Ajubel, Cuban, inhabitant of an island, tells many things in his personal approach to the classic that in other literary versions perhaps go unnoticed. The passage of time, the harshness of the wild life, is perfectly portrayed in the different physiognomy of the character, who morphs throughout the drawings until he no longer resembles himself. Most illustrators, on the contrary, usually worry about maintaining the resemblance: repeating a face well is part of the illustrator’s skill. The look the character of Robinson shoots at us, with a Friday humiliated at his feet —to give an example—, directly questions the reader-viewer about the prickly issue of slavery, often times ignored.

R. B.: By referring to Ajubel’s Robinson, other two titles by Media come to mind, I Have No Words by Arnal Ballester and The World Turned Upside Down by Miguel Calatayud, two other wordless books with great critical capacity but which simultaneously are highly entertaining. Are those two premises what current children’s books lack?

V. F.: I remember a quote by Les Luthiers, which said: ‘If a book is not written, it is as if something is missing’. Les Luthiers are humorists and that statement is a joke, of course, but a large majority of readers might take this in complete seriousness, because for many people books are, above all, tools for literacy and not for the imagination. Books are asked to teach young ones to read, and often not much more than that. Although we know this, because we have studied Egyptians, or because we have seen it in a documentary about Gothic cathedrals on television, we tend to forget that images are also a form of writing, and should also be read. It is impossible not to think about the interesting books of images that could be made and all we are missing out on.

R. B.: Out of all of Media Vaca’s books, and probably due to professional reasons, my favourites are those in the collection The Map of my Body by Genichiro Yagyu (to which, by the way, I owe a review). Following on from these, and approaching your illustrator self, I would like to ask you, do you think the combination of graphic art and informative books goes better than graphic art and narrative?

V. F.: That collection, The Map of my Body, includes, by the way, the only books we have translated. If we were to only take into account commercial considerations, we could have done as most publishers do and focus on purchasing illustrated albums, and spare ourselves half a hundred published books. This is not the case because, as we said earlier, we have worked hard to fulfill our caprices. To answer your question: illustration is narration; whether the book is informative or about adventures, it does not matter.

R. B.: The anthologies Book of Lullabies and Noses, Little Owls, Volcanoes, the Book of Questions by Pablo Neruda with illustrations by Isidro Ferrer, Claw of War by Gloria Fuertes and Sean Mackaoui… Your publishing house places great faith in poetry. Why do you think that, overall, hardly any poetry is published for children?

V. F.: I think there is a lot of poetry published for children, although it is likely that in schools and media those books do not receive the same attention as narrative ones. Half of the projects sent to the publishing house are poetry books. One of the reasons why poetry books are not as visible in Spain, perhaps, is because of the relationship children’s books have with the academic world. Most books read in school tell stories related to the subjects that form part of the school curriculum. If what we want is a book to talk about gender equality or about climate change, for example, it would be easier to read it in prose than in verse. Although I am probably mistaken and there are already several poetry books on these topics. Another very obvious reason that comes to mind has to do with translation. Many children’s books are versions of books that were originally published in other languages, and translating poetry, for instance, is more expensive and complicated than translating stories: every word counts. Despite what I just said, successful authors such as Shel Silverstein have been published in many places, and I assume their translated poems sell, just because they are famous names, as much or more than the original creations of poets published in their own language.

R. B.: In regards to the poetry genre and recalling your edition of Fire! by Jan Brzechwa, the topic of literary translation (a prickly subject for some) has just come to mind. As an editor, what do you consider when deciding to translate a text?

V. F.: As with theatre, the general rule is that if a play is a comedy, it cannot become a drama when translated. From there, the purpose is to ensure that the reading is smooth and that the writing does not differ too much from what the author said. Although every translation is a betrayal, one must prefer a traitor who does not stab one in the back.

R. B.: When I have visited an industry fair and I pay attention, I hear things like ‘It is an impeccable book, but I am not sure if it will work in X country’ or ‘I am unsure if Y readers would understand these illustrations’… What is it about graphic literature that is sometimes more difficult to extrapolate to other geographical realities, to other reading contexts, than purely textual ones?

V. F.: I do not think that is true. I do not believe that reading images poses greater difficulties than reading texts for any audience, whether they are X, Y, or Z. Clearly, it is the other way round. It is a question of education. Also, a question of the market. Those who decide what sells and what does not, what is suitable and what is not, are retailers, not readers. Our books, in Spanish, sell in other countries without any problems. They sell because of the images. It is also true that if they were translated they would have many more readers.

R. B.: What does an international award as the Bologna Ragazzi and a national one as the best edited book mean to Vicente Ferrer?

V. F.: What do those awards say to me? I do not think much about it, to be honest. Awards are important, because they help to make our project known. The Bologna Book Fair Award has done so on an international level and we are very happy that this is the case. The significance of this award is given by the jury, composed of independent professionals, and its great participation, since the main commercial publishers from all over the world take part. If this award, which has been awarded to us several times, had been won by a publishing house with more resources, they would have probably known how to exploit this publicity better, but we have not increased our sales significantly for this reason. However, we do sell rights to Korea, whose publishing companies would have probably not approached our books otherwise.

R. B.: However, the visibility Media Vaca has abroad does not extrapolate to our country’s bookshops. Sometimes I cannot see your books in shop windows. What is happening with the distribution of your books?

V. F.: When we started, almost twenty years ago, we had regular commercial distribution. We worked with over ten distributors, most of them small, spread across the entire geography. There were those who understood our project, appreciated the books, and could sell them better. Others sold 200 copies of a title and after a few months would return 180. The book that seemed to be a great success had only reached 20 people. The book selling activity was a continuous movement of boxes via transporters, who were the ones who actually made a profit. At one point, two distributors scammed us and we sued them. We won one of the lawsuits and lost the other, because the trade of books is strange and there are certain perverse practices that no one can understand. We decided then that it would not be possible to compete with an unequal market based on deposit sales and a system of nonstop novelties that favours the big publishers who implemented the model; we made the decision to become our own distributors and to work mainly with booksellers who support us and who want to have our books. We have been working like this for several years now. We offer them bigger discounts, facilitate the payment conditions as much as possible, and organise activities in their spaces. Although departing from usual practices limits our visibility, it is much more rewarding to work with people we consider allies.

R. B.: This country of provincial and poor people, where mistrust and envy feed that unhealthy vice of failing to acknowledge what is ours, has also sheltered the genius of many artists. Despite having read your critiques of our cultural context and sharing them, let’s give it a chance: What is positive about Spain in regards to the world of children’s literature?

V. F.: I think the best thing about this country are the provincial and the poor. City and wealthy people leave much to be desired. The world of children’s literature —if even a world and not an alley— also leaves much to be desired. In Spain we look at what is being done abroad, paying close attention to what their success models are, their big names, their awards, and we ignore almost everything about our own tradition, which is extremely rich and deserves more attention. I am speaking of books and authors from the Republic era, like Salvador Bartolozzi, but also about books and authors from recent years. Why have the series that José Luiz García Sánchez and Miguel Ángel Pacheco made in the seventies not been recovered? Why is there no current version of Bestiary by Andrés Rábago —signing as Ops—, published in Alfaguara in 1989? And what about the Fricandó series by Montse Ginesta and Arnal Ballester? These books, and many others, should always remain within reach of new readers.

R. B.: What do you like to play, eat, and what readings do you share with your other half in Media Vaca and in life, Begoña Lobo?

V. F.: Play, I play the game of life, like Cecilia says in her song, but the game does not entirely convince me. Eat, I eat a lot of everything, thanks to my grandmother, and never leave a crumb on my plate. I share most readings with Begoña, but she reads even more than I do, and faster, and she understands everything twice as much. The last book we have both finished reading, a few days ago, was not a children’s book. It was The Dinner Guest, by Gabriela Ybarra.

[Interview by Román Belmonte with Vicente Ferrer, published in the blog Donde viven los monstruos on 24 March 2017. In the photograph: Vicente Ferrer about to take out his glass eye.]