Luiz Schwarcz | 'How can you be a publisher and not be optimistic?'

Luiz Schwarcz | 'How can you be a publisher and not be optimistic?'

Tom Tivnan Can you tell me about the formation of Companhia das Letras? Why did you and your wife decide to start it?
Luiz Schwarcz I worked for eight years at another publishing house, starting as an intern and ending up as the publishing director. While I was there, I could see that in Brazil there was room for a quality publishing house, where I could build a literary list—both in fiction and non-fiction. I thought that if we chose the books well, we could also have commercial success.
We wanted to combine the qualities of many other houses, in a more radical way. At that time [1986] there were very good commercial publishers, some much more literary houses, and some others with good marketing ideas. But none combined all these elements with a loyalty to good writers while respecting the intelligence of Brazilian readers. I saw that bringing all these factors together would be possible and I was tired of my old job, and with the help of Lilia [Moritz Schwarcz, Luiz’s wife] we decided to go for it and take the risk.

TT Can you give a potted history of the past 30 years: some highlights and the keys to building the business?
LS Well, 30 years in a nutshell is not so easy! But let’s say we began much more strongly than we predicted. There was a huge response to what we wanted to do, and the first books all sold out quickly. One of our first titles was Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, a book that was almost 40 years old at that time, but had never been published in Brazil. Interestingly, it was received as a sort of new discovery because it was something Brazilian essayists were not doing as it was written very clearly [in order] to be very accessible. It became number one in the bestseller list for some months and we sold more copies in Brazil in one year than the book did in the US for decades. We almost immediately gained a reputation for strong editorial care, not just of the text, but for design and packaging. That helped us attract home-grown writers, so quite quickly we signed up the most important contemporary writer at the time, Rubem Fonseca, to really kick off our Brazilian list.
After that we just grew and grew, but as the inflation was super high—as much as 75% month on month—we had no profit. So an important decision was to create Companhia das Letrinhas in 1992; it’s now Brazil’s biggest children’s publisher. We used the children’s and adult sides to create a strong academic list, so we became a mixture of a trade and educational publisher. We profited a lot with the support to education of the governments of [former Brazilian presidents] Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva].
The merger with Penguin in 2011, which of course latterly became Penguin Random House, is another very important moment of our history. We learn a lot from our colleagues around the world, and [the PRH link-up] is also a window to show Brazilian writers to the world.

TT Along with PRH’s 45% stake in your business, you have taken over the running of Objetiva when PRH acquired it a couple of years ago. How has being part of a global conglomerate affected your business?
LS I was not enthusiastic at first about the Objetiva deal, as the market in Brazil was difficult. But I was wrong. Buying Objetiva enabled us to consolidate our marketing and distribution. We are the number one publisher of trade books in Brazil now, and we reorganised editorially the 16 different imprints [across the combined businesses] to cover most of the areas of the Brazilian publishing market.
The merger itself with PRH is very positive. To be honest, I was never a skilled publisher of commercial books, and am probably still not today, but Companhia learned how to do it with our partners, filling the gaps in our catalogue. With the growing number of Brazilian lower-middle-class readers, we could not continue only with literary imprints. Having an open dialogue with the top publishers of the group teaches me a lot, every day. There is total respect [from PRH] and no interference of any sort.

TT Can you explain what you think it takes to be a great editor and publisher?
LS Respect to writers and readers. Being humble. Understanding that a publisher is just a bridge between the writer and the reader. Love for books and literature. Dignity and honesty.

TT Obviously things are rather tumultuous for Brazil’s economy and politics at the moment. Can you tell me how that has affected the industry? And how you see the books market developing over the next few years?
LS It has affected us tremendously. The government had invested hugely in libraries and schools across the country, in poor areas and also in big cities, so our educational sales have been hit hard. The Brazilian government used to be the biggest buyer of books in the world—a fact noted by Guinness World Records—and now it is broken on every level: federal, state, in the cities. Will the old situation of investment in education one day come back? Will we have politicians with the humanist view of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the will to invest in social work as Lula? I can’t predict it, but I am very pessimistic with the quality of our new political leaders.
Also, bookstores for the first time are deeply affected. We have inflation and the price of the books are kept very low, so bookshops’ costs grow but revenues do not. With the deep recession we are facing, they are having difficulties paying their bills.
We are in very difficult times.

TT But are you still optimistic for the future of the book trade?
LS How can you be a publisher and not be optimistic? I am optimistic about the growth of reading and books, and that we will find new ways to show to people that reading is a precious blanket in a noisy world. How can humankind develop without the search for the best way to express with others? What is literature, if not that?