Three students ask

Questions by Marta Cachinero. Barcelona, May 2015.

Marta Cachinero: Everyone knows Media vaca is a life project. Do you believe that this purpose has been the key to achieving the international recognition you have had and have? What has been the most important thing to have been able to come this far?

Vicente Ferrer: I am not so sure people know the publishing house is a life project. I am not even sure many people know, having read that declaration of ours, what that means. In general (and I am speaking in very general terms), people who approach our books are interested in concrete things: stories, characters, opinions, and do not pay much attention to who is making them. Media outlets like to highlight authors (whom are sometimes placed at a higher level than their works), but few people are interested in editors. For most people, who they are and what their role is in books is a mystery. 

To answer your question, I believe that when a publishing house becomes a ‘life project’, enjoying the work becomes even more necessary, as there are numerous obstacles to overcome. As the protagonist of Life of Brian, tied to a cross, used to say this (in song): ‘always look on the bright side of life’. Although we would have sunk in the swamp long ago if we had not self-imposed these determinations: to not grow and to only make three books a year, which is the amount we can do more or less well, or, at least, with certain guarantees.

MC: All Media Vaca projects have something in common that is hard to decipher. Something hidden that makes you different and worthy of your success. What is the essential ingredient in your books?

VF: Everything that is obscure or mysterious could be quickly clarified if we spent some time talking about it. We publishers could tell many things about the books we have made and reveal details that readers would probably appreciate; but, in order for that to occur, someone needs to ask the questions.

The ingredient you speak of, if it exists, would be absolute dedication, born from a commitment or a demand that we could call moral, and which transcends to the community of readers, because we are aware that when we make books we are also working for the readers of the future. We cannot compete with other publishers in terms of sales, promotion, and so on. We compete with our own limitations and we see ourselves in companies which, examined exclusively from an economic point of view, can only be considered as failures. However, one can learn many lessons from some of these ‘failures’.

MC: The fact of carrying out a publishing project, from its inception to its production, is an important decision. What drives you to select the books for your collections?

VF: Many people see publishing houses especially as a business, and it is rather difficult to explain that it is quite a peculiar one. Publishers that focus on commercial criteria and the discourse of novelties and trends are in their right to do so, but there is nothing further from our thought process. In our case, the concessions we make to the market are minimal: our catalogue is created based on our personal interests. On many occasions, before we know what interests us, we know what does not: if we discover that an idea we liked has already been well executed by another publisher, we decide there is no need to the repeat the same thing again. There is no sense in making identical or very similar books.

MC: All of the phases of a publishing project are important, but what phase do you think is the most crucial, or the most difficult? Why?

VF: Each phase has its own complications, to put it that way. The first phase, which is deciding what book to make, is already rather difficult. The second: what would the book we want to make be like, is perhaps the part I like and prefer the most. The job of the editor should be to solve problems, and this phase presents many problems at once. Finishing a book is sometimes very difficult. There are books which have taken us years to make, and after so many years of exchanging pleasant correspondence with authors and collaborators, one runs the risk of thinking one has obtained enough happiness and that the publication is not necessary anymore. Evidently, this is an absurd illusion (books are always made for someone else) and one must know how to react in time.

MC: You have a wonderful list of writers and illustrators. How do they come across your publishing house? Do you try to find your own authors, or do candidates present themselves? How do you operate in this sense?

VF: Most writers have often come to us as authors of books we have found in old bookshops and libraries. Illustrators, always in stranger ways: through their work published in books, but also in comic magazines, in press, on posters and pamphlets, in blogs, in virtual galleries, etcetera. Many people send us samples of their work: some ring us on the phone to ask and others show up at our house (which is also our office). Others sends images through the Internet. (For this last group, which is very large, I wrote an entry in our webpage that can be read at the following link) Some authors arrive hand in hand with writers or illustrators we already know. Others, who prove to know our books well, propose very reasonable projects that we are sometimes very sorry to have to discard. The illustrators’ profile is very diverse and from different backgrounds.

MC: You strongly defend, and with good reason, children’s books. You affirm that books for young readers should meet the exact same standards as those for adults. From your point of view, regarding today’s publishing market, do you think that the standard for children’s editions is the same as for adult audiences? Has it always been that way?

VF: That level of rigorousness is not only lacking in children’s books. The world is not very kind to children. It was worse a hundred years ago, but that is not reassuring; and overprotection, a phenomenon of our times, is also not any better. In both cases (neglect and overprotection) the lack of respect for people who are in a crucial development phase is evident. How are we going to explain to children that books are worthwhile when many grown-ups have no contact with them? There are more books now, yes, but there are still many terrible books and many more that could be improved. On one hand, because there are habits of the business that are hard to change. On the other, because not many publishers take risks (in Spain, most children’s books continue to be produced for a captive audience within an academic environment). For all these reasons, one could say that the number of interesting books that do not exist is infinitely greater than those which do exist, and also, which is rather sad, many of these books that do exist are not even within reach of their readers.

MC: In recent years, self-publishing and self-editing have had a surge in popularity. Why do you think this is? Do you think these projects can have (or have) the same projection and recognition as publishing projects?

VF: This is due to the publishing market being deficient. In many ways, it is quite disastrous. It also has to do with the interests of authors and editors not coinciding. I would say that it is advantageous for authors to know the other side of their trade: how much it costs to produce books and how much time and effort it takes to sell them. Although it is a different job to their own, and should be carried out by those who work in that department, it is not always an issue or a mistake or a waste of time to delve into this other life of books: what the author-publisher learns of that experience can help them in their role as a creator and can help them to redirect their career. As demonstrated in many cases, a self-published book can have as much chance to be successfully distributed than a book from an ‘established’ publisher.

MC: Media Vaca is one of the publishing houses that gives most recognition to illustrators. How much importance do you think is given to visual narrators in today’s society?

VF: Apparently, more than when we started, nearly seventeen years ago. The offer of illustrated books has multiplied and the variety of proposals has increased, which can only be welcomed as good news. However, I feel that quantity over quality is given preference (and ‘quality’ can be understood in many ways). Illustration is a poorly paid profession that depends on a precarious market in which very short print runs of short-lived products abound, and which are rarely reprinted or exported. This market (which includes few prestigious names) does not allow authors to choose their projects and it does not seem that readers will inflict enough pressure to lead to any changes: most simply consume what the market offers.

MC: From your point of view, can any book be illustrated? Why?

VF: In theory, yes. And certainly in many different ways. ‘Why?’ (that is an interesting question). Because someone (an editor, an illustrator, a promoter) thought it was a good idea. Well now, is there any interest in all books being illustrated? What can an illustrated book offer that is so special? Currently, few illustrators approach texts as true storytellers (that is, acting on the level of reading and meaning) and consider the most appropriate way of telling something or expressing an idea. Many merely apply a technique or repeat a style. They create attractive images, which are nothing more than pleasant music. They always illustrate (or decorate, rather) the same book.

MC: Who commissions the illustration process to a graphic narrator? What is this decision based on? Have you been presented with an already illustrated publishing project?

VF: I (Vicente Ferrer) am who is in charge of commissioning illustrations and tracking the progress of that task, since I am the art director of the publishing house. The choice of illustrator is determined by their previous work. The illustrator’s curriculum is not only what matters, but also their personal interest in the project. Each book always starts out without a fixed deadline and is defined through conversations. On occasions some illustrators have rejected the proposed work because they could not find the way get involved, or because they were unable to make it their own, or due to a shortage of time, or for any other reason. It is essential to be able to talk to illustrators to agree on the tone of the book. Some of the books we have published landed in our hands already illustrated. This is the case, for example, of I Have No Words, A Season in Calcutta, or Buster Keaton Takes a Walk.

MC: Do you think the work of authors/writers is equally valued as that of illustrators?

VF: Writers are often considered the natural author of a work, but when we use the term writer and author we are speaking of different categories. The illustrator is also the author of the book that includes their work. In any case, to answer this question we only have to go to a bookshop and ask for books of which we only know the name of the illustrator.

MC: What advice would you give to those who want to get into the publishing world?

VF: I would tell illustrators that it is not enough to acquire your own style or train in certain techniques. There is a lot of important information one must look for in different places: in bookshops, libraries, art galleries and museums. At conferences and specialised fairs. On the Internet, of course (or not), and, of course, also outside (that is, outside the study). This research must also be considered as part of the work and time must be devoted to it. Then, we must overcome our timid nature (or moderate our fearlessness) to make our work known to those people we believe will best appreciate it. Then, if there is no immediate response, we must not be discouraged: we must insist, insist, insist.


Questions by Susana Ramírez, Lima, June 2015.

Susana Ramírez: Media Vaca already has a long trajectory, what do you think you have contributed and continue to contribute to the world of books compared to other publishers?

Vicente Ferrer: (Great start. First question and I do not know how to answer.) I think that in order to contribute something, the project should be more widely known. It is great to see that there are people who know some of our books, but we should not mistake knowing a book to knowing a publishing house. Our aim from the beginning was to create a library, and that is what we are doing. (What we call a ‘library’ is a project I could not define right now, but which encompasses more than a sum of books.) The world of books has a long history that almost no one cares about, created by the anonymous efforts of many people who are not just the authors on the covers. What will remain from all that effort? It is hard to say.

SR: What elements should a work have to become a Media Vaca book?

VF: Most of the books we have published were our own projects that respond to personal interests. Generally, it is us who propose a project to authors, although this is not always the case. We also receive all types of proposals through the most diverse ways. I can say that we know when we are very interested in something (so much that we devote a significant amount of time and effort into it) when a few days later, or even a few years later, something we read or saw keeps popping into our heads.

SR: What are some of the main issues or obstacles you currently face as a publisher?

VF: As with most publishers, I assume, the problems we face are related to time and space. Unfortunately, the focus is quite far from the philosophy that tackles these important matters. On one hand, we would like more time to make the books as we please. On the other, we have an overloaded warehouse: books, which go in two thousand at a time, come out one by one. We also need more time to answer those people who message us. It would be necessary to take a production break to spend time promoting and selling the books, and, perhaps, to redirect our project. We would like to have the chance to talk to readers and booksellers, whom we hardly know anything about and whom we connect with exclusively through books.

SR: From when you began with Media Vaca until now, in what ways do you think the publishing sector has changed and, specifically, the publishing of children’s and young adult literature?

VF: I would say there is more variety today. Although perhaps, all things considered, this variety is not that significant, because many catalogues seem interchangeable. There are also more authors who self-publish, which rather says more about the weakness of the sector than its strength.

SR: Every week bookshops receive dozens of new releases and it is evident that supply exceeds demand. Do you believe there could be a solution to the current editorial overproduction?

VF: Methods to avoid overproduction have been implemented in other activity areas, but none of those methods seem applicable to a sector such as this one, so special in so many ways. It comes to mind that a way to rationalise production would be to think twice about every decision. So, by thinking and thinking, we might come to the conclusion that basing the trade of books on the appeal of novelty is completely absurd. On another hand, although it may seem ironic, publishers also need time to read. We could all do with travelling more and seeing other things, and live outside of books for a while.

SR: How do you see the future of children’s and young adult literature in Spain?

VF: I am no fortune teller, but I believe that if young people repeat the actions and mistakes of older generations, the future will be what we already know.


Questions by Daniela Alcalde. Lima, June 2015.

Daniela Alcalde: As we know from the web and from other interviews, Media Vaca is a very personal project whose publications respond primarily to your interests, to that ideal of ‘making books that do not exist’. What has been the key to being able to find your place in a publishing market that is often driven by commercial considerations?

Vicente Ferrer: In my opinion, we have been able to remain as publishers primarily due to the decision not to grow and to publish only three books a year. We are aware of our own limitations and did not believe that forcing that rhythm was a good idea.

DA: After the experience with Soothing the Soul, have you considered the possibility of publishing a play for children? It is a genre not very well developed in children’s and young adult literature. What is your opinion on this?

VF: That book is many things at once, and also an experiment. There are not many experiences of illustrating theatre books, outside of stage pictures. We made Buster Keaton Takes a Walk, by Lorca, with illustrations and design by Manuel Flores, although it is not aimed at children. During the Second Republic in Spain, there was a great interest in theatre, which was widely promoted and considered to be a revolutionary and truly popular art. We should recover many things from that time: at least, the freshness and the ludic spirit, and the respect given to creations for young readers. Antoniorrobles, Manuel Abril, Salvador Bartolozzi, and Magda Donato, among others, made theatre for children. There is a whole field to explore, that is true: some dialogues by Tono and Mihura, which deserve to be better known, would make wonderful theatre books for children.

DA: After 17 years publishing in Media Vaca, has your conception of the publisher’s role changed?

VF: To tell you the truth, no. I have always thought there are many kinds of publishers, and that is what I am seeing. I do have the feeling that many new publishers, who usually train with bigger publishers, acquire from them, in the most natural way, arguments and behaviours that encourage them to develop a ‘big publisher’ vocation. Personally, I miss spaces for discussions about publishing work in media outlets and, in general, in everyday life, outside the places established by commercial fairs.

DA: Without a doubt, publishing is fascinating and learning about the work of publishing houses like Media Vaca is motivating. What would you advise people who are interested in publishing for the first time?

VF: Firstly, to seriously consider what is being published. Not everything one writes or draws has to be included in a book. There are things that lose their freshness and spoil when they are turned into books. If, after giving it much thought, one is convinced that the best thing to do is to make a book, then go ahead: let’s do everything we need to do in order to achieve the best result. First of all, it would be advisable to conduct a short research on suitable places to publish and the conditions under which the publication should take place. Do not give up on the first try. It is important to know that a lack of response from a publisher does not necessarily mean no: most likely they do not have enough staff to provide an answer. When nothing occurs, one must insist, and, at the same time, keep looking. And if we like to write, or draw, we must not get discouraged or stop working.

Image: Vicente Ferrer by Hermenegildo Sábat (drawing on a paper napkin in a café in Valencia).