This Small Publisher Just Hit the Mark Zuckerberg Book Club Jackpot

immunity_coverLast October, we declared London’s Fitzcarraldo Editions one of the “5 Small Publishers Who Are Changing the Face of the Industry.” We were right! and not only because the publisher has already turned out a stellar list of fiction and literary non-fiction. No, we were right, as it happens, because Mark Zuckerberg agrees with us.

Yesterday, Fitzcarraldo published the UK edition of Eula Biss’ excellent On Immunity: An Inoculation, a work of literary non-fiction that plumbs the depths of the vaccination debate. (Graywolf published the US edition last year.) Today, Zuckerberg selected the book for his book club, adding: “Vaccination is an important and timely topic. The science is completely clear: vaccinations work and are important for the health of everyone in our community.” The book, Zuckerberg writes, was recommended to him by “scientists and friends who work in public health.”

Today we wrote to Jacques Testard, co-editor of The White Review and founder/publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions, to ask him about the boost the small press has seen from Zuckerberg’s miracle endorsement.

Flavorwire: Can you give some background on Fitzcarraldo Editions?

Jacques Testard: Fitzcarraldo Editions is a brand new press: we launched our first two books, Zone by Mathias Enard and Memory Theatre by Simon Critchley, last autumn, having set up the company only in February 2014. Once we’d got production of the first two books – inevitably a lengthy process when you have to come up with a design from scratch – I turned my attention to building a coherent list for 2015 along the editorial lines I’d set for Fitzcarraldo, to publish contemporary fiction and long-form essays, three of each per year. Knowing full well that I wouldn’t have time to commission any essays for early 2015, I started looking at what was coming out in the US with the most interesting presses – FSG, Graywolf, Coffee House…

How did you come across Eula Biss’ On Immunity? How did you go about securing UK rights?

I can’t remember quite why it caught my eye (and a quick search through my emails doesn’t give the secret away), but it seems that I emailed Ethan Nosowsky, an editor at Graywolf [note: Eula Biss’ editor is Jeffrey Shotts], with that book specifically in mind some time last summer. He sent it to me, I read it, and loved it. It’s exactly the kind of essay I envisaged publishing when launching Fitzcarraldo: an essay in the American non-fiction tradition (think Joan Didion, Susan Sontag) which takes vaccination as its starting point and moves on to discussions of the body, motherhood, paranoia, politics, hysteria, epidemics, etc. By the time I read it I think most of the UK presses likely to have taken it on had passed, and Graywolf were willing to trust a new publisher with it. We concluded a deal a month or so before US publication via a co-agent in the UK, David Grossmann.

Has Zuckerberg’s selection of the book already affected sales?

Definitely, yes. It’s not quite clear yet what the figures are – orders have been coming in all day – but it looks like we’ll be ordering a reprint tomorrow morning. Bearing in mind that our publication date was February 18, the timing could not have been more perfect. The other thing is the press attention that comes with Zuckerberg’s choice. We were always going to get reviews in good places with this (the Financial Times review is coming out this weekend, for example), but all the places that were dithering are now definitely going to do it because the book’s suddenly been sprinkled with the gold dust of newsworthiness.

Are you going to join Zuckerberg’s book club?

I liked the “Year of Books” page on Facebook as soon as I saw the news this morning when I woke up. But it took me a few hours to realize that most of the action happens on Zuckerberg’s own Facebook page, where he explains why he picked the book. And yes, now I’ll be frantically checking to see who he picks next, although given what’s coming next in our program I think this is unlikely to happen again for a while, if ever…

The vaccination debate has reached a boiling point in the States. Is it a source of controversy in the UK?

It’s not such a big debate over here, which is partly due to the fact that we have free public healthcare for everyone, and that the NHS has a comprehensive (and free) vaccination program. You are routinely vaccinated as a child, often at school, and I don’t remember anyone ever complaining or opting out. It wasn’t a big deal (apart from the syringe bit). I wanted to publish this book more because of its literary merits than anything else. Metaphor is almost as important a theme, if not the main theme, in this book, and Eula Biss writes about it beautifully.

What new publications are forthcoming from Fitzcarraldo? Any upcoming events with Eula Biss?

On Immunity is the first of six books we’ll publish in 2015. The first translated book we publish this year is My Documents (2 April; McSweeney’s in the US) by the Chilean novelist Alejandro Zambra (translated by Megan McDowell), his fourth to appear in English. The previous three were short novels, written with the author’s trademark irony and precision, humor and melancholy. My Documents, which is, on the surface, a collection of stories, is his longest work yet. Whether chronicling the attempts of a migraine-afflicted writer to quit smoking or the loneliness of the call-center worker, the life of a personal computer or the return of the mercurial godson, this novel in fragments evokes the disenchantments of youth and the disillusions of maturity in a Chilean society still troubled by its recent past. In the words of Adam Thirlwell, “these stories are graceful, grave, comical, disabused. I guess what I mean is: My Documents represents a new form. When I think about Alejandro Zambra, I feel happy for the future of fiction.”

In June, we published Kirill Medvedev’s It’s No Good, a collection of free verse and essays by “Russia’s first authentic post-Soviet author,” according to Keith Gessen, co-founder of n+1. Widely published and critically acclaimed as a poet, Medvedev is also a prominent political activist and a member of the Russian Socialist movement “Vpered” [“Forward”]. His small press, the Free Marxist Publishing House, has recently released his translations of Pasolini, Eagleton, and Goddard, as well as numerous books on the intersection of literature, art and politics. Medvedev has also taken the unusual step of renouncing copyright — only pirated editions, no contracts. It’s No Good includes selected poems from his first four books of poetry as well as his most significant essays. A collective of translators — Keith Gessen, Mark Krotov, Cory Merrill, and Bela Shayevich — worked on the various texts. Again, this is a book that has already appeared in the US, but our edition will be different: we’ll be including some of Medvedev’s new poems.

Following on from our launch title, Zone, we publish Mathias Enard’s novel Street of Thieves in August 2015, once again brilliantly translated by Charlotte Mandell. It tells the story of Lakhdar, a young Tangerine who finds himself exiled from his family for religious transgressions related to his feelings for his cousin, Meryem. A bildungsroman set against the backdrop of the Arab Spring, Street of Thieves is also a story about immigration, and draws on a wealth of literary influences — Bowles, Choukri, Genet, and Burroughs, to name a few.

Beyond that, there will be an essay on essays by Brian Dillon, a defense of pretentiousness by frieze magazine co-editor Dan Fox, Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history of the post-Soviet years, and the first instalment of Agustin Fernandez Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy, translated by Thomas Bunstead.

As for an event with Eula Biss: no plans for an event in London just yet – she lives in Chicago, unfortunately (for everyone over here).

Note: This piece has been updated to reflect that Eula Biss’ editor at Graywolf is Jeffrey Shotts.