For years now one of the most impressive publishing houses in the Czech Republic has been Joachim Dvorak's Labyrint, focusing on serious prose and poetry as well as the arts, even offering a number of illustrated children's books. Joachim Dvorak has been in love with books all his life and today publishes a number of prominent Czech authors that include Lenka Reinerova, Jaroslav Rudis, and New York-based children's author / illustrator Peter Sis. It was at a book launch of Sis' in Prague last December that I first met Dvorak and saw him promoting his product with contagious enthusiasm.
Later, when he sat down to discuss his career he explained first he had been attracted to books and publishing at an early age.
"I founded my first 'publishing house' when I was seven, publishing books I wrote or drew myself. All came out in one copy and I put out about a hundred, with pictures, over the years. My mum still has many of them somewhere. My initial interest lasted until I hit puberty. It was then that I put together a final book titled "The Olympic Games", which I had begun when I was ten. "The Olympic Games" had about fifteen separate books, bound by cardboard covers. But, unfortunately there was a spelling mistake in the title on the cover. I had written "i" instead of a "y", which I had to draw over in thick marker."
Who was the main character?
"The hero of the book was Petr Hantl - ski jumper. Hantl would go around competing at various hills, where I'd describe minute details, from the amount of snow, to wind conditions. But, I was so clueless I always had the hero taking three jumps instead of two. Then, at some point during the summer holidays I came to the conclusion the whole thing was idiotic. I set the book aside and that was the end of my childhood writing."
Later, while studying at Charles University, Joachim Dvorak continued to be involved with books, not only reading voraciously but selling books on Prague's Wenceslas Square. It was 1990, shortly after the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia, and he figured that he knew what Czech readers would appreciate.
"I had great expectations for this one paperback: this publisher had come out with a book with stories by three major Czech authors: Josef Skvorecky, Arnost Lustig, and Milan Kundera. It was called "The Big Three" and, I thought it would be a run-away success. I put my money on it, paid cash, investing in 1,500 copies. But, when after a week I'd only sold about 150, I began to realise something was very wrong, and it dawned on me I'd made a mistake.
Because I loved the book, I assumed customers would want it too. After all, Kundera's newer work had not even been published here. But, I was wrong. This sobering experience, which came early for me, helped me realise that above all the 'street' dictates what it wants, and not the other way around. As a publisher you first have to figure out what readers want. Then, on a more refined level you have to figure out how to sell them what you think they should buy."
In 1991 Joachim Dvorak founded Labyrint publishers for a number of reasons: not only to publish books but to help to financially support his journal, the Labyrint Revue, today a 250-page journal full of articles on culture, writing, and the performing arts. Each revue is theme-based, the latest titled "Dangerous Liasons". It includes, by way of example, interviews with Austrian writer Elfriede Jelinek (author of the The Piano Teacher) and Michel Houellebecq (author of Atomised). There is even an excerpt from Houellebecq's newest "The Possibility of an Island".
Not surprisingly, Labyrint Revue reflects Joachim Dvorak's sensibilities as publisher as a whole: maintaining creativity and independence.
"Labyrint has a reputation as being favoured by 'intellectuals'. We're small and we're independent. That's the main difference from more major names. We're not really interested, or even financially able, to buy into, for example, Dan Brown titles. But, that wouldn't be any fun anyhow: you'd basically just be the Czech distributor. At Labyrint there's no board or committee that meets every month to decide what will go to press. The decision is basically up to me.
I get to see through my ideas, which means sometimes publishing books I know will not be great sellers but which I consider important on a larger scale, pushing the intellectual scope. But, it isn't always easy. You have to balance your budget. That means publishing some mainstream books as well, but without sacrificing quality. Then, hopefully they make a profit, so you can reinvest, in lesser-known authors and take something of a risk."
One area which he was particularly excited to explore was that of the graphic novel, through unique work by then fairly unknown author Jaroslav Rudis. The now cult three-part series titled "Bily Potok - A Story from the Borderlands" introduced a new character to the Czech lexicon, the dumpling-shaped Alois Nebel. He is a middle-aged, half-mad train dispatcher whose increasing hallucinations connect in a fascinating mosaic, combining some of the darkest periods in Czech history.
Author Jaroslav Rudis:
"Our story is the story of a railwayman working at a small station near Jesenik, north-eastern Moravia, in the former Sudetenland, a railwayman who 'sees' what other people can't. He has visions in the fog. He's a bit... maybe ill, mentally ill, but perhaps not. Nebel means 'mlha' in Czech, or fog, but you can also read it flipped backwards as 'leben', which in German means 'life'. Hidden in the name are different levels of meanings. Nothing is ever just black & white, but you have different shades."
Joachim Dvorak, meanwhile, describes it like this:
"It's funny: the series forms a kind of 'canon' of the new Czech graphic novel. There was nothing like it here before. You can't compare it to comic books from the 60s or children's comics. In the Anglo-Saxon world the current phenomenon in comics is similar to 'Bily Potok'. The main character is an outsider. The stories cut through different historical events. Often the stories are grim and atmospheric. And, they contain all kinds of inter-textual references. There was nothing like that here. At the same time, it wasn't easy to convince people here that graphic novels can be taken for literature. That's one thing that has changed in the Czech Republic in the last three years."
The rewards too, have been easy to see: getting people even now, not just to buy books but simply to read. With the million different ways we can now entertain ourselves in the age of the Internet, that's not always as clear-cut a proposition as it might seem.
Joachim Dvorak tells one story he views as a sign of certain success:
"Rudis and I were in Nymburk, a small town near Prague, to promote a new book. We were in this complete dive, a former Communist-era cultural centre, and there were only about a dozen people around, all just drinking beer. We held a concert and then we promoted the book and afterwards this young punk girl came up. She bought a copy. Then she told us it was the first book she had ever bought."
So, promotion plays an exceedingly important role, one that has less of a tradition here than in Western Europe or the US. When I saw Joachim promoting Peter Sis' book he was only too happy to take the mic, to jest with people in the café, to ad lib with the author for the audience's enjoyment. As far as he's concerned, those who prefer a stiff, high-brow approach can keep it - and good luck to them. According to Dvorak good books deserve more.
"Some people have criticised me for turning book launches into a 'circus'. With Jaroslav Rudis and others we've had inter-active readings; we put together posters and we release music CDs to promote our books. We play. Rudis has had around 50 readings in Germany alone. But, some here think that approach is not appropriate. Abroad they know they have to get the book to their readers. It's the same as when you have a new film release and the director and main star show up at the premiere. It doesn't have to be tabloid or trashy: you can easily take a cultured approach."
What's next for Joachim Dvorak? More books of course. Late November the publisher surprised even Peter Sis by announcing publicly he was interested in doing an extended version of one of the illustrator's most beautiful children's books, now impossible to get in Czech: "A Small, Tall Tale from the Far, Far North". Labyrint has already come out with two by Sis, but "North" would be a special treat. It tells the story of one of the most famous Czech adventurers ever: the inimitable Eskimo Jan Welzl, who spent most of his life in the frozen north.
More info on Labyrint and 'Bily Potok' - A Story from the Borderlands at www.labyrint.net