One-night stand: an interview with publisher Leevi Lehto

17 September 2010 | Interviews

Leevi Lehto. Photo: Lotta Djupsund/Savukeidas

Founded by poet Leevi Lehto, ntamo is seen by many as the black sheep and enfant terrible of the world of Finnish publishing.

From its inception, ntamo (shortened from the word kustantamo, publishing company) has striven to subvert the familiar conservative models of publishing that audiences are used to.

Ntamo publishes books for small circulation, such as poetry and experimental prose. Its catalogue includes works both by celebrated writers, such as Kari Aronpuro, and by a whole host of authors making their literary debuts.

Lehto’s objective has been to publish as many books as possible, using a system of print on demand, and to have as little to do with the books’ content as possible. What’s more, ntamo’s publications are not marketed at all. Readers can find information on new publications by following the publisher’s blog [in Finnish only]. I met up with Lehto a while ago and we discussed ntamo’s current situation, new trends in the publishing world and the future of books and literature in general.

Teemu Manninen: When ntamo was first founded, I couldn’t help thinking it was some kind of performance or a work of conceptual art. What do you think of ntamo nowadays? How have your decisions not to actively market books and not to edit them worked out as a business strategy?

Leevi Lehto: I’ve been surprised at how effective a marketing strategy of not marketing your books can be. It’s made it possible for us to establish and develop a brand that’s easily recognisable. I’ve received a lot of feedback on my refusal to edit books. At first I just thought that books should be released exactly the way they were written, but before long I came across situations where I ended up having to edit some books in the traditional way. That being said, I still think one of the reasons larger publishing houses seem so stiff is because they won’t budge when it comes to editing new works.

The tradition of editing always comes back to the issue of technology and the fact that, once an edition has come out, you can’t recall it. But with the advent of modern technology, polishing each and every new work for publication seems utterly senseless. At the same time, the internet has removed the distance between producer and consumer: anyone can produce a book and publish it. In order to remain competitive, paper books will have to be able to do the same, which will involve publishers’ thinning out their vast organisations and essentially cutting out marketing altogether, because it will no longer be cost-effective.

TM: We could soon move to e-books. What do you think about that?

LL: Whenever a new technological medium is created, at least at the outset it’s always filled with content from the old media: for instance, in the early days of the wireless, the radio used to broadcast plays, and so on. In the same way, the e-book currently preserves the whole idea of a book, and is actually strengthening it. As long as this is the case, e-books will not challenge the dominance of paper books. From the markets’ point of view – for the time being, at least – e-books and paper books have to be seen as fully interchangeable with one another.

TM: You’ve often said that the era of large publishing houses as gatekeepers and guardians of good taste is over. This prediction seems to be coming true – only recently, Jacques Eijkens, the CEO of the largest publishing house in Finland, WSOY, commented that the financial significance of works of literature was just ‘small potatoes’. At the time, people were shocked at this comment, but I remember thinking that ‘potatoes’ is in fact the future of literature as a whole: there will no longer be such a thing as an international bestseller; instead there could be a vast amount of books with small print runs aimed at smaller audiences. That’s the reason online bookstores like Amazon have been so successful.

LL: Absolutely, and in fact ntamo has already proved that, in this changing environment, publishing poetry can actually make for profitable business. This too is linked to the notion of the larger publishing houses’ role as the guardians of good taste: from the perspective of traditional publishing houses’ marketing strategies, it was important to keep up a fictional assumption of the existence of a ‘refined’ taste and the literature of national significance, and that every now and then we could graciously accept new members into this closed clique. In fact, this is precisely the kind of fiction the traditional houses have succeeded in destroying, because it no longer meets the needs of the current market conditions, as Eijkens’ comments aptly demonstrate. But isn’t it ironic that it is this kind of fiction that has made publishing poetry look like a fruitless endeavour, the idea that selling marginal literature constitutes some kind of aesthetic and financial risk.

In reality, things are now the other way round: literature published in small print runs has to sell lots of different titles in order to be profitable. Of course, it’s taken a certain amount of courage to start a publishing house based on this theory alone. The fact that I dared to do it links back to the idea you mentioned of conceptual art: at first it didn’t matter whether I succeeded or not, the important thing was just to give it a go. That same spirit of adventure is still at the heart of what I do, and it’s for that reason that I should say ntamo will never become a real publishing house. Whenever I manage to make ntamo look more like a real publishing house, it increases the pressure on me to do things differently.

TM: Finally, I’d like to give you a comparison. When people talk about ntamo with a sort of moral superiority, I’ve often heard them say it’s like a light-footed woman, and that getting involved with it would be like entering into a sinful relationship. On the other hand, a large publishing house is like the most desirable bachelor in town, with whom writers strive to enter a loyal marriage. The reality is that this partner too flirts with hundreds of other lovers, and nobody thinks there’s anything indecent about that.

LL: Exactly, because a large publishing company is a male! This is a pretty good metaphor. It’s clear that every book published by ntamo is something of a one-night stand, and I want to make sure it stays that way. And not just to make sure you have the freedom to sleep with other people too, but so that, if you want to, you can also sell the books you have published with ntamo somewhere else. All I ask is that, if you get me pregnant, I get to keep the baby.

TM: So in other words, I could effectively clone our shared child?

LL: Precisely.

Translated by David Hackston

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