Manol Peykov is a publisher, running Janet45 publishing house in Bulgaria, a translator and a literary agent, founder of Sofia Literary Agency. Manol puts his energy and knowledge, his heart and mind into publishing great books from all around the world and recently he has also started the adventure of promoting and selling Bulgarian literature abroad. As multitasking is at the core of his personality, Manol also runs a printing company, a recording studio and he is also a singer. And he is able to do all these because he sticks to his belief: do what you like and work together with the people who share your passion.
How has your journey as a publisher started?
Wow, that’s a tough one! Well, it’s a hereditary thing with us. My mother started a publishing house in 1989. She is a poet and a writer and before the regime change she was doing something within the Communist framework which didn’t make any sense outside of it. She was in charge of entertainment for the workers from the service industries: she organized and wrote scripts for all kind of events. She had those contacts, so she decided to start a publishing house. Then she realized that she is not going to make money out of that so she started a printing business on the side, which actually grew to a very big printing house. That’s where the money came from and she just poured it into Bulgarian writers. Throughout the 90s she was practically the only Bulgarian publisher publishing young Bulgarian authors. So for like 10, almost 15 years, the people called her Mother Theresa of Bulgarian literature; she knew she could not make money out of that, she never expected to make it, she just did it because she felt it’s important.
Then, following her success, in the 2000s it suddenly became popular for everybody to publish Bulgarian writers and Bulgarian writers started topping the charts because that’s how it happens everywhere. But before this my mother was the only one who had this huge portfolio of close to maybe 600-700 writers. Essentially, she became something of a legend. We have all the awards that you can imagine, more than 40 national awards, for best books, contributions to Bulgarian literature, for poetry, for prose, for children’s, everything. And people started stealing some of our authors, they started offering more money. The Bulgarian literary scene grew out of that, but we still have the most important Bulgarian poets and writers. And the good news is that now there are smaller and bigger publishers who know that it’s an important, essential part of your portfolio, for your reputation and they try to publish Bulgarian authors too. My mother somehow laid the foundations for that.
During that time, I was studying, I was doing other stuff, I was travelling, I was busy doing my own things and then in 2006 I came back to my mother’s business, I kind of joined her and I started slowly publishing books in translation, because that’s my thing. It’s been more than 15 years since then. I myself have published almost 300 titles, I have organized more than 40 book tours with international authors that I brought to Bulgaria and with whom I traveled around the country, usually to Sofia, Plovdiv, maybe Stara Zagora, Varna, Burgas. This has been a major part of my life. I do other stuff as well; I took charge of the printing house. I started a second, smaller digital printing house. I have a recording studio in Sofia. It took me 10 years to just build the whole thing. And now I have the literary agency as well. Everything is working because I like to delegate. In that respect I’m very different from my mother, because in the 90’s she was more like one-woman show, doing everything. I’m the opposite, I like to cooperate with people and to find people who can take charge and take care of my business, because I’m such a multitask person. But the advantage is that I can actually switch tracks. When I get bored or when I need fresh air, I can switch from one to the other and so on.
This keeps you rolling, right?
It keeps me rolling. Well, it’s not easy, because they have different requirements, they require different type of knowledge, different type of competence, but that’s also helpful, because you learn things about life, about yourself, about the business so you become a multitask person and a publisher, if anything, has to be a multitask person.
You have a large and quite diverse portfolio, from literary fiction to nonfiction, children’s books and comics. Based one which criteria do you select the titles?
I like to divide all publishers in two main groups: small and big; it’s not really about their dimension, but it’s about the criterion on which their book selection is based. With the big ones, it’s usually the market, it’s usually the money, the bottomline which matter. The other end of the spectrum is taste. I consider myself a small publisher and people laugh at me, because we’re in the top 10 in terms of the number of titles we publish, but to me small means that I’m taste driven. If I like something I look for a way to make it happen. So, if I don’t see a way, I delay it. Maybe I leave it aside, but I usually find a way or I find the right time.
To me it’s like a win-win situation; if the book makes it, then it’s a double win: it’s a book that you like, that you think is important and it’s a book that you make money from. If it doesn’t make it, you still love the book. If you choose it in accordance with the market and if it doesn’t make it... Here is an example. It’s about the very famous Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl. He’s better known as an urbanist, because he speaks about cities at a human scale, he speaks about what people see at the level of the eye, so he speaks about how to turn cities to livable places and, because this is a trend all over the world, he’s been asked to redesign big cities around the world like Sidney, New York, Moscow, Almaty. He’s been doing that to Copenhagen since the late 50s and he is something of a legend in that field. So, I really wanted to publish his book which is called Cities for People and it has about 400 illustrations, photos mostly, and about 150 graphs, so it’s quite a book. I was approached by a bunch of young Bulgarian architects who said “Would you like to publish that book?” and I really liked it, but I didn’t know how to make it happen, because it’s was expensive. It would have needed about 7000 euros just for the printing. So, I was waiting for the right time. I was called by the chief-architect of Sofia, who was brand new in his office, and he said “listen, I know that you’re interested and you want to do it, he’s coming to Sofia, because now he’s looking to draw a plan for Sofia". I said OK, that’s the perfect opportunity, let’s do it. The original book was 44 euros. It was hardcover. In Bulgaria nobody can buy a book for 90 leva, the prices are between 20 and 30. So, what do you do in that situation? I looked at the book and I saw the format and I tried to see how it fits in a big sheet of paper and it turned out that only 8 pages can fit in one sheet and if you just cut 2 cm from the length of the book, not from the width, the width can stay the same, you can fit 16. So, there’s a lot of wasted paper in the original format. But to do that, to shrink it by 2 cm, to proportionately shrink everything, considering the font was already really small, it means rearranging every goddamn photo and playing with the distances between the lines so you don’t lose the font. So, I asked my designer to do it. Thank God, all the photos we received had some leeway, they were bigger actually. So, she put everything together, she worked hard, and we ended up with a book that actually looked better than the original, more harmonious, soft cover, 25 leva. So, one quarter of the price. Still, I went to one of these young architects and I said “listen, man, how many copies should I print? What do you think?”. He said “you know, I think just a couple of people would buy it. There’s no interest!” I said I’ll still publish 1000 copies, because I think this book is really important and it has to be on every shelf. It has a good price so I don’t care if it sits in the bookstores for 10 years, 15 years. I’ll print it, I’ll just go against the current. I printed it, the author came and in the first day of his visit there was an event in Plovdiv, which was attended by 200 people. We sold 100 copies in the first day! The second day, there was a meeting in Sofia. It was in the National Gallery. I’ve never seen so many people there. There were around 350 people. We actually had brought 200 copies and we sold them out before it started so I went to Zdravko, the chief architect of Sofia who had bought 100 copies to give them out to all the members of the local council in Sofia and he had them in his office; I said: “Zdravko, bring me the books so I can sell them out and I’ll bring you 100 copies tomorrow”. He gave his driver the key of his office. They brought the books and we sold them out. So, in 48 hours, we were already above water. We made money! In the first goddamn 48 hours! And that’s what going against the current means. If I had followed a mainstream idea of how you do things, this would never have happened. This became something of a legend.
Sometimes especially the bigger publishers are so caught up in the current of making money, that they lose sense of the changing psyche, the changing taste of the audience. So, sometimes they miss opportunities like that. Because I publish in accordance with taste, not with the market, this doesn’t happen to me.
It happens very rarely that I like a book but I hesitate a long time and I say “who’s gonna buy it” and then somebody steals it from me and puts it on the market. Usually, I’m the first to go for something that is unusual, unexpected. This main series that I publish, called “Beyond”, contains 53 books so far, novels from around the world, 27 different languages, and is a little bit of a cult. People love it and people follow it. So, that’s the advantage. Of course, there’s always a disadvantage. The risks are great, but when you do it with your heart, with your mind, with all of your internal organs, it happens.
Speaking of selling this kind of peculiar authors, which are your marketing tools? How do you convince people to actually buy these books?
My number one marketing tool is if I can afford to bring the author to Bulgaria. This has become something of an expectation from my fans, because I was the first one to continuously organize three or four book tours, bring people in, take them around the country and the reason why I can afford that is because I do most of the things on my own. On the average, one tour costs me between 750 and 1000 euros. That’s all.
It’s because I play many roles. I don’t hire a translator, which is costly, neither for the event, because I translate, nor for the actual interviews, because I translate them. I don’t hire or have a driver, because I drive around the country. I arrange all the interviews; I call everybody in person. I’m also the actor who actually reads in Bulgarian during the show. I’m the tour agent if you will, because I arrange all the tickets, everything.
What about the fee for the authors?
There’s no fee. Authors are very happy to be there. I just pay their expenses while they stay in Bulgaria, sometimes a little bit of pocket money, but most of them don’t expect it. Usually, they come from very peculiarcountries like Cuba, where things are very extreme. I brought the first female Cuban author ever to visit Bulgaria and the first Cuban author in the last 25 years. And it’s amazing. The visits of those authors are like landmarks in my life, because they’re so refreshing, they fill you with ideas. You create astonishing friendships, because all of them, minor exceptions, are my age, a little bit younger, a little bit older, but we’ve found common ground and because I am with them every day and sometimes half the night, we become friends. They’re really happy and inspired by what they see in terms of audience, in terms of communication, because it’s obviously very informal. I don’t keep them at an arm’s length, but always close. So that has helped a lot, I brought some of the authors more than once, 2-3 times. One of my favorites came 5 times and every single time there’s more people in the audience, because he’s a legend in Bulgaria, because he’s so interesting, so inventive, so unexpected, so funny. So, that’s a way to build not just sales, but also to build a group of fans, a dedicated fandom.
Apart from that, of course, I do the usual things. I use a lot of social networks. We have pages dedicated to certain books or collections. Apart from the big page for Janet45 we’re creating small pages for series of books that are popular. For example, I publish Julia Donaldson (I’ve published 25 books so far) and recently I made a special page so that I can reach more people, because sometimes, at the actual, physical bookstores, it’s very difficult to convince them. They are more and more fond of online sales and now the best way to spread the word, apart from TV and radio, is social networking. But all in all we rely entirely on the dedication of our fans who appreciate that we do things with the heart and with the mind.
Many Romanian publishers complain about the distribution channels: few bookstores, big wholesale discounts requested by the distributors, unfair competition when it comes to promotional discounts online. What does this distribution channel look like in Bulgaria? How do you sell your books?
I use every channel. There are more than 300 bookstores and bookstore chains that we work with, practically every important one in the country. We have 6 people in distribution; we are a very small team so the team that actually makes the decisions and works on the books is smaller than the team that sells. They’re very dedicated, it’s normal, they are like us. I wouldn’t want to work with people who do not take it as their personal cause. So, they’re not the type of people who work 9 to 5. Even though they receive a salary, they think about every detail, they think about how not to lose a penny here or how to make an additional penny there, how to reach an audience somewhere in the other part of Bulgaria. There’s a lot of effort involved. So those are wonderful people. I think part of the blessing when you have such non-traditional ideas about publishing (I see it more as an affair of the heart than as a business) is that it’s easy to gather around you light-minded people. Okay, most people work for the money, but, in the long run, what you need is someone light-minded. Essentially, most of the people I work with are that way.
Bookfairs are also an essential channel. We have the ones in Sofia, which are the biggest ones: there’s one in spring and one in winter and now they’ve made something called “Book Alley”, which is the third one, in September. Then we have one in Plovdiv, which we’ve organized for 20 years now. Then, there’s the one in Varna, the one in Burgas, and because these are seaside cities, they don’t rely just on the locals to buy books, but also on people coming from Sofia and everywhere. So, this is a large chunk of the actual sales. Basically, I’d say that we make between 30% and 50% of the entire sales on a given month from all the bookstore in the country per bookfair. So that’s quite impressive. We work increasingly with the online bookstores, there’s one which is growing really rapidly. They’re very flexible and this is of course the future, because essentially, they can have every title there without needing space to store it and they’re very smart and quick to organize and to find niches that the original, traditional, brick and mortar bookstores don’t find. So that is growing really rapidly.
In terms of traditional bookstores, there are 4 or 5 big book chains in Bulgaria and the rest is split into smaller, independent bookstores, but we work successfully and we have good relations with every one, we don’t complain about big discounts, because it’s a question of finding balance after all. Some of them push for a very high discount. We don’t accept, we set our limit. But at the end of the day, it’s not about the discount, it’s about how many books you sell. You sell 20 books at a discount of 45% and then you sell 200 books with a discount of 35-38-39%, which one is better?
Which books are your bestsellers?
Looking back, I noticed that my 3 biggest sellers are from Danish authors. The one that I mentioned, Jan Gehl, Carsten Jensen (it’s this book called We, the Drowned, a 1000-page book that keeps selling like hot cakes) and the third one is one of Jesper Yuul’s. He is a child’s psychologist and he is usually popular with young mothers and they keep talking about him on different forums so he keeps selling. I prefer longsellers to bestsellers. A book that sells hugely in the first 3-5 months and then disappears from the shelves is not what interests me. I’m interested in books that leave some important traces, both in the literary sphere and in the social one. So, I publish these books about parenthood, I publish books about urbanism, books that change things. Sometimes I’m willing to make a little bit of a compromise with the literary quality if the book contributes to some other field, like equal rights. In Bulgaria it’s very difficult to publish LGBT books as this doesn’t sell. I mean, you publish a book like that, no matter how good it is, it sells 200 copies full stop. But that’s important to me.
Or books on cancer awareness. One of the important books I published is called A Woman Goes to the Doctor. It’s a huge bestseller in The Netherlands and in Bulgaria we did a campaign which was huge. A friend of mine, who is the owner of an advertising company and a great reader, suggested it to me. It’s a book about a guy who is a very successful owner of a marketing company, he’s mid-thirties, his wife is also a marketer, 35, they are having the times of their lives and then she gets sick, she gets diagnosed with breast cancer, so he speaks about the 2 years between the diagnosis and her death. It’s an absolutely devastating book. But we decided to turn it into a trigger that convinces women to go to the mammologist. Because this is a problem in Bulgaria and in Orthodox countries like it – we like to bury our heads in the sand and, unless it’s too late, we don’t do it. This is what we did: we found a sponsor who’d agreed to remain anonymous, that was very important; it was not a lot of money, we printed 2000 copies. Every book had its own unique number. So we created a special group on Facebook and we announced: “you can order the book from anywhere in Bulgaria, we sent it to you on our cost, you receive it, it’s yours, you only promise two things. After you read it, go back to the Facebook group and write two things”. The first one was “did you go to see the mammologist?” and the second one was “whom did you give it to?”. The idea was to create those chains of people and the interesting thing is that 75-80% of the people were form outside the big cities. I mean, 75% of our readership comes from the big cities. Actually, more than 60% comes from Sofia so now it was reversed. We reached about 16 000 people and it was a huge success to me, because every year, in October (the breast cancer awareness month) there’s millions of leva given for all sorts of advertising that are completely futile while this small thing we did (an investment of a few thousand leva) had such a great impact.
This project led to one of the most impressive things in my career as a publisher. Two years later in a café in Sofia I just bump into my friend’s colleague. There were two people running the advertising agency and this woman was his right hand. She was responsible for the business side and he was responsible for the creative side. She takes me by the hand and says: “you know, I have this friend who is 23, she read the book, she went to the mammologist, they found that she had a very early form of cancer and you saved her”. People start thinking about the possibility of an illness beyond 35-40, usually people who are in their 20s have other things to think about. So the chances to discover the affection are very small, there was 99% chance the young woman would have missed that. So we saved a person. We know that for sure. Maybe it’s small, but as a publisher to be able to say that it makes your life worthwhile.
Which is the perfect combo in terms of Bulgarian books, Bulgarian music and Bulgarian wine or beer?
Well, to start from the back, I don’t drink beer or wine. I drink just water. And Ayran yoghurt. I also gave up on sweet drinks long ago, because of my high blood sugar. But to give an answer, in terms of Bulgarian wine and beer these days, they are creating craft varieties that are quite nice. There’s this new beer brewery called Hill Beer, near Plovdiv, that is really interesting. And there are lots of small wine cellars, like 20.000 bottles a year.
Regarding the Bulgarian music, it’s a tough one. You know I’m a singer myself. Years ago, before I started my publishing career, I recorded a CD with songs that were completely off the wall. It didn’t have a place on the Bulgarian market. People couldn’t find a niche for it. It’s this theatrical sort of music. The great Russian bards come to mind, or the French chansons, because where I come from the text is at the heart of things and music is secondary. But I don’t recite. I sing. I’m a good singer so music is important too. In this field there are not many people who do something like that in Bulgaria. My taste lies in things like Nick Cave, even Sting to a degree, the great Russian bards of the old era, some Spanish-Argentinian ones. This is where I stand in terms of taste. Also, there’s one old Bulgarian actor who is now no longer among the livings, but he was one of the great Bulgarian comedians whose films are an absolute cult. He used to sing funny songs, but in addition to that, he did a few songs based on lyrics by great Bulgarian authors. His name is Todor Kolev and when people say Todor Kolev, there’s a smile on their faces, because he’s, above all, a funny guy, but these songs are absolutely moving and shattering. This is where my interest lies in and this is why I started my studio, because this is what I want to pursue and it’s completely different from the regular music scene. It doesn’t fit within the pop department, doesn’t fit in the rock department, doesn’t fit in the folk department, doesn’t fit in the jazz department, because it’s about the text and the radios wouldn’t play it because it doesn’t sound sufficiently mainstream to them.
Reaching to the third element – Bulgarian books, they are the reason why I started the literary agency. I’ve been going to Frankfurt and London Book Fairs for the last 14-15 years and at least for the last 10, every time I’m there I get so excited, because I meet people who have interest in what I do and I think “I have to start an agency, I have to start an agency”. There’s no agency in Bulgaria trying to sell rights for Bulgarian authors, there are individuals who try to do it, but not an agency. And then I go back in Bulgaria and I’m suddenly grounded, I have everything on my mind. Last October, when I was in Frankfurt, up on the 32nd floor of the Marriott Hotel, I told myself: “This time I have to do something to trick myself into doing that, into not having the option not to do it.” So, I wrote on Facebook “I’m doing this agency” and everybody said “congrats, super” so I went back and I had no choice. I had to do it. I started it, we are just 2 people, myself and my colleague. It’s not limited only to Janet45’s portfolio, that’s why its name is completely different, Sofia Literary Agency – so that it sounds more representative. But it’s really a very delicate thing. You want to, but you cannot sign contracts with more than like a dozen, maybe 15 authors, because then they have expectations and you don’t have the capacity and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Things in this business are for a long term, a very long term. I had a chat with a lady from the Helsinki Literary Agency, which is rather new, it’s five-year-old, and she said “it’s really frustrating in the beginning, because, for two years, you keep sending materials and nothing. And then suddenly, it starts”. And then, in the fifth year, she had to hire a person just to write up the documents because they had 150 sales in one year so it’s one deal every two days. I’m not saying we’re going to get there; I’m saying somebody has to keep track.
My mother has been doing something nobody wanted to do 30 years ago, taking care of Bulgarian literature, then everybody started to suddenly be interested in it. So now it’s my turn to do something that nobody wants to do but that’s equally important to Bulgarian literature. She did it so that it didn’t disappear from the national scene. I am now trying to open it up to the international scene. We’ve signed contracts with about 15 people, 3 children’s authors, 2 poets, but a small group so far. The reason for that is that we’re testing the ground so we’d like to work with people we know well and we don’t have to explain every day why we did that, why we did the other, because we ourselves don’t exactly know what is going to happen. It’s a step-by-step process so we need people that have complete trust in us and we have trust in them. It’s something that gives me total sense of pleasure and fulfilment even though it’s something that will not bring me money even in the long run, because I pay a salary, I spend all that time doing all the necessary things.
To sum up, for me this agenting thing is about creating strong relations, creating trust, not rushing things, not pushing people, letting people take their time to consider and also finding titles that have the chance to make it on other markets. Because if you are very pushy and you convince them to publish something and it doesn’t sell, they are never going to come back to you so it’s also a strategy game. You have to think about many things, but quality, literary quality, importance and resonance are at the top of the list and everything comes afterwards.
[Transcribed by Oana Dragomir.]