Making books

Good day, my name is Vicente Ferrer and I am the editor of Media Vaca. Together with Begoña Lobo, I have been making books for almost twenty years. What I have learned in this time is that there are many more reasons not to make books than to make them. For example, these I list below:

1. There is already a lot of books.

2. Almost no one reads.

3. One has to think, and that is tiring.

4. It costs money.

5. Books take up a lot of space.

6. They have to be protected from humidity, heat, and insects.

7. Light eats away the colour of the covers, and it is sad to watch them turn blue.

8. Etcetera.

To make books, it is often not enough to overcome these obstacles, some of which unbridgeable; one must also have a good reason.

Every publisher has their reasons. These are ours:

1. We have come up with an idea, which we sincerely believe it to be valuable and wish to share it with others.

2. We have discovered a good idea that someone came up with a while ago and decided it deserves to be known by others.

3. There is no prior idea, we have not come up with anything special, but we have met someone who writes or draws well; a person who, in short, makes things we like. We discuss with this person to see if, working together, we can come up with a good idea that deserves to be disseminated through a book and shared with others.

Our activity as publishers can be summarised in these three points that I consider most relevant:

1. What books to make.

2. How to make them.

3. Who to make them with.

What books to make.

When I say what books to make, what I am actually thinking is: Who are the books we are going to make for? I realise that I cannot separate one from the other, because books are always for someone. These are the first answers that come to mind:

1. Not for the market. But without a good understanding of the market, it would be difficult to make something that is of real interest.

2. Not for friends, not for specialists. We must aspire to a wide number of readers; and these readers, by the way, are anonymous people whom we hardly know anything about.

3. For oneself. Not only for oneself, of course (because one person is not a large number), but also for oneself: it is important to have fun while undertaking this work.

4. For minorities. But not for the hundred richest people, or the hundred most eccentric, or the hundred most educated (insignificant minorities), but for individuals and groups who are not usually included by the market.

5. For the future. Thinking about this will probably not result in anything, because few publishers possess the gift of prophecy, but it will force us to make an effort and, since we are at it, help us develop an idea of the future. This is not a bad thing when the aim is to make books that can break generational barriers. (Meaning, from the readers’ point of view: that a book can be read and enjoyed by people of different ages; from the authors’ point of view: that any good idea can have a chance, regardless of when or who thought of it.)

How to make books.

(I am naturally referring to illustrated books, which are the type of books we make.)

1. Affordable in price and also in format, although the latter is very relative: some readers are used to (and even prefer) being faced with the most uncomfortable book options; which could explain why some hefty volumes are successful. In any case, one must not get carried away by prejudices and, since we dispose of many examples and plenty of places to get ideas from, do some research. (Antiquarian bookshops are great places for new discoveries.)

2. What has already been done must not be repeated. This could prove to be difficult, since there are millions of books and it would be nearly impossible to get to know them all in order to avoid repetition: we will repeat them without realising. Let’s just say it is enough not to copy another book word for word. Although it is only natural to be inspired by the books we know and like, for whatever the reason. Therefore, if we are going to copy, let’s copy the good ones.

3. We must keep in mind that the form is part of the content. The object says something about what is inside. (Which is why pocket books that do not fit in pockets seem suspicious. What is that supposed to mean?)

4. Books must last. If the content is to reach new generations, the object cannot be poorly crafted.

5. Decisions must be made regarding a number of elements: texts and images and the relationship between them, cover images, page design, graphic elements, papers, binding, typography, colour, size, format, weight, feel, etc.

6. The main decision to be made is: Do images fit in this text? Do they add or take from it? In my opinion, not all texts need to be illustrated. Often it makes no sense to do so, although there is much to be discussed about this. (As I write this last sentence, it occurs to me that I have never discussed this matter.)

Following on from the above, three questions arise:

1. It seems difficult not to think about books.

2. Sometimes it is better to think about them than to make them.

3. It is important who we make them with.

At Media Vaca we make five kinds of books. That is right: I have reviewed the 64 titles that currently compose our catalogue and discovered that they can all be divided into five subgroups:

1. Old texts with new illustrations. We commission new images for an already published text that we consider to be current and which may not have been illustrated before.

2. Own projects: ideas that originate within the publishing house, which we then propose to other people. Some of these projects are collective books. (Here I could elaborate and say that, from a certain perspective, all books are collective creations; and even that, from another perspective shared by many authors, there is only one book that keeps growing with the contributions of those people who make books for a living.)

3. Already published books, with texts and illustrations (often books in which graphic elements stand out), which we recover and put back into circulation.

4. Project proposals that we receive from new authors, who are sometimes young and others not so much.

5. Purchase of rights. Books published in other languages and translated for Spanish readers. These type of books, which, in all likelihood, are the most common in children’s publishers from all around the world, only represent a small percentage of our catalogue: six titles.

Who to make books with.

Today I am especially interested in discussing the authors of the books. Who are they? We recognise their names, but sometimes that is all we know. Also, publishers, particularly when it comes to small publishing houses, are often the co-authors of the books they publish. (In some cases, this is true, in others, it is unclear.) The publisher is who decides what books are made and, most of the time, how they are made. We know less about publishers than we do about authors; about their choices or the responsibility they take on when making books. Undoubtedly, there are more types of authors than of books. In the following section I will list some authors which coincide with those we have worked with:

1. Professional authors, writers or illustrators, whose work we know well and have followed for some time. In some occasions, we propose a text for them to illustrate; in others, it is them who share their proposal with us.

2. Young illustrators with little professional experience, many times without published books. However, they are authors of school assignments or personal projects that reveal a great talent, and which would have been lost if they had not landed in the hands of a publisher.

3. Deceased authors, writers or illustrators, with abundant or scarce work, whom we have not been able to meet but whom we feel close to. Those of us who work with books find that (and I believe I am not only speaking for myself), in our everyday lives, we often feel closer to people who have been dead for a hundred years than to many of the people around us whom we greet kindly when we pass them in the street.

4. Authors, writers or illustrators, with whom we work on a project for years, until that book joyfully sees the light of day, when it seemed like it would not. If at the end of the process we are all still alive and remain friends, we can declare the experience a success.

5. Authors, writers or illustrators, whose work we appreciate and with whom we wish to make a new book, but, in spite of our interest and effort, and due to many circumstances, the plans fall through and we do not succeed. (The world of books is unpredictable and these cases are more frequent than one would like.)

We have always taken a long time to make a book. (We aspire to make easy books, but this book category seems to slip through our fingers, always out of reach.) It has taken us six, ten, and even thirteen years to finish a book. For various reasons, but here are a few:

1. Sometimes it is difficult to locate the heirs of a deceased author.

2. Sometimes the author lives in another city (and often on another continent) and we have few opportunities to meet. We make the most of fairs and trips, and occasionally have even met at an airport café to exchange files or agree on a transcendental question.

3. Translations take time. When the work is highly complex, it also takes time to convince the translator to do the task, pressured as they are by numerous commissions.

4. The demanding illustrator decides to start from scratch at a very advanced stage of the process, when other illustrators would have already quit or published three book collections.

5. The task of researching never ends. Neither does reviewing. The images must be reviewed to ensure they are suitable for print; texts must be reviewed to avoid typos and misstatements; licenses must be requested from their owners; the authorship of all the texts and images used must be accredited.

In recent years the activity of the publishing house has multiplied. We are our own distributors, we sell rights to other countries, we participate in fairs and meetings related to children’s literature, illustration and book design, etcetera. However, we are still two people and never manage to get done all that we should. We also receive many projects from authors who approach us or who write from other countries, and it is hardly possible to adequately answer all of them. Consequently, to be able to continue making books, and to make them better, I think we should attend the following matters with some urgency:

1. We must find time to promote and sell the books we haven been accumulating in the warehouse. In a market in which only new releases have commercial viability, selling books that are a year old (let alone twenty) is a mission that requires considerable effort. However, it is imperative to sell books in order to make more books.

2. We must investigate the possible adaptation of physical books into new technologies. I believe there must be suitable formulas to adapt images into digital formats, even in the case of our books, which have a very artisanal feel. Up to now, we have not had the time to give it any thought.

3. We must hold presentations and exhibitions related to the books. Not only is this a way of promoting the books and their authors, but, above all, it is a good opportunity to personally meet the readers.

4. We must visit the booksellers and librarians who have supported our books and organise talks about them in their spaces. If possible, with the presence of the authors.

5. We must read books. Think about new books. (Right now, I think I would like to make economical books, based on children’s workshops.) Naturally, thinking about what those books would be like is something we have not stopped doing, but we would have to focus on it almost exclusively.

The only way to achieve the plans we have set out is to make a kind of technical pause and, for one or two years, dedicate ourselves, as intensely as possible, to not making books.

Talk by Vicente Ferrer (Media Vaca) at the International Seminar of Illustration ‘The new cave art or illustration in the digital age’, coordinated by Mauricio Gómez Morin and held at the Arts Centre of St. Augustine, Oaxaca, on 9 and 10 November 2016, during the 36th International Children’s Book Fair. (Illustration by Carlos Ortin: portrait of Vicente Ferrer, December 1998, first year of the publishing house.)