Deep Vellum Publishing Takes Dallas By Storm

By Common Desk - July 31st, 2014

Will Evans is getting ready to change the face of publishing—and Dallas. He tells us all about it.

Who are you and what are you up to?

I’m Will Evans, and I started Deep Vellum Publishing in summer 2013 and have been working out of the Common Desk since October 2013.

Deep Vellum is a nonprofit publishing house founded with the threefold mission to publish great works of international literature in English translation, to foster the art and craft of translation, and to promote a more vibrant book culture and literary community in Dallas and beyond.

My main title is Publisher, which means I oversee all of the operations of the publishing house, from finding and signing on to publish works originally published abroad to coordinating the translation, commissioning the book design and layout, then working to market the books and get booksellers and readers as excited about the books as possible.

As a nonprofit, Deep Vellum’s operations are governed by a Board of Directors made up of individuals who provide advice, guidance, and support to the operations. I am also the Executive Director of the Board.

Tell us your story.

I came up with the idea to start Deep Vellum in Dallas while I was in graduate school at Duke studying Russian. While there, I had a professor who inspired me to get really into literary translation and translate a novel myself. Through the process of translating that novel I learned lots of crazy statistics about how few works in translation are published in English every year (the rough estimate is less than 3% of everything, and in terms of literary works in original translations—i.e. no re-translations of the classics—the number is far less than 1% of everything). At that time I was reading the Three Percent blog run by the publisher of Open Letter Books, which is based at the University of Rochester in New York, and he is a huge advocate for more people to get into translation and for more people to start their own publishing houses and publish translations.

Around that time my wife got a job offer in Dallas, and we decided to move here to be near her family, who are all in Weatherford and Fort Worth. I took a look at Dallas to see what I could do here with a Master’s degree in Russian and saw that the literary landscape was pretty dire. There are a few cool literary nonprofits here (like the Writer’s Garret, WordSpace), but not much of a book culture: there were no literary publishers (SMU shut down their press in 2012) and no independent bookstores where an indie publisher might hope to sell their books.

It was this lack of options that inspired me to start Deep Vellum, to bring more of a literary culture to this city and region (and state, and country, and world). Some might have looked at that situation and decided the worst thing to do would be to get into publishing or books, but I did a lot of research and saw that the arts community here is thriving and growing and that there is a lot of support for the nonprofit community as a whole here, and that if I founded Deep Vellum as a nonprofit, I could appeal to people who love books and literature but who have never been presented the opportunity to think of books and literature as vital parts of a robust arts community in their city.

So far, things are going well, I have signed a lot of books that start coming out this fall, and I’ve started participating in as many literary events in town as possible and am working to bring authors to town who would never have come to Dallas otherwise. At this time, I am the only full-time employee, but I have freelance contracted help from Italy (book design & layout), San Francisco (marketing and editing), New York (PR), and Minneapolis (book distribution).

What sets you apart from others in your industry?

I’m in Dallas. That always shocks people. And I’m VERY optimistic about the future success not only for Deep Vellum but indie publishing in general. I’d love to see more publishing ventures open up outside of New York. My experience working in the music business for years taught me the value of independent labels as a way of providing alternatives to the corporate music schlock that saturates pop culture. For some reason people have never thought of indie publishers as providing the same alternatives on a massive scale, and so part of what I want to do is draw attention to the fact that 99% of what you’re being sold in Barnes & Noble and on Amazon are books from imprints of massive corporate conglomerates and that unless you actually think about who is presenting you the books you read, you will never look for alternatives, which include indie presses who publish English-original works or works in translation, which are almost never published by the gigantic publishing houses anymore. Their loss.

How are things going?

Things are AWESOME. I just got back from two weeks of meetings in Germany and the Netherlands with publishers, authors, and translators—those trips were sponsored by the German Book Office and Dutch Foundation for Literature, respectively, and I came home with a much richer understanding of publishing and what’s going on in each of those countries. I keep signing awesome books, like one I got out of the Dutch trip: Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s newest novel, LA SUPERBA, which just won the biggest Dutch literary award, the Libris Prijs! My first book is coming out in October and I have a big distribution deal kicking in January 1st, which means you’ll be able to get my books much more easily in any bookstore in the country, from Dallas’s own Wild Detectives to the Barnes & Noble in Highland Park. I’ve started adding local board members who are committed to helping Deep Vellum grow, and they’re all so amazing it’s ridiculous. I’m about to launch my first fundraising campaign to get people invested in the success of Deep Vellum, because it’s all about growing a bedrock of support, from donors to readers to students to teachers and beyond.

In the future, I’m looking to open a bookstore in Deep Ellum that will house Deep Vellum’s offices. Looking forward to hiring employees who are going to help expand the reach of our mission. Looking forward to doing lots of amazing events in town with authors and translators. Looking forward to hosting translation workshops and getting people stoked to translate and to realize how important it is both as an act of creative writing as well as a business skill that will serve them well no matter what they do in the future.

What are your biggest challenges?

The biggest challenge, like with any startup, nonprofit or not, is getting the funding at the start to put this amazing mission to work. But in general, it’s a struggle also fighting to get heard: it’s difficult to get the institutions, government agencies, and foundations who support the arts to consider literature as being part of the arts at all. There are multiple agencies and foundations whose donations specifically support visual and/or performing arts, leaving out the literary and interpretive arts altogether. It is hard to constantly remind people that there is a gaping void in the arts community, and at the same time it is a challenge to educate everyone I meet on what publishing actually is, because there is a lot of confusion about how the industry is changing with the digital/Amazon revolution that upended the traditional publishing model in recent years.

But I relish these challenges, and I think you can see that the mission of Deep Vellum was written to confront these problems as a vital part of what we will do, because I know I’m the only literary publisher in town, and definitely the only publisher in the area who’s ever worked with translated literature like this, so it’s all about education, and I love that. I’m probably the first publisher most people in Dallas will ever meet, so I invite them all to meet me and ask me questions, because there is no question too dumb: the New York publishing world is built differently, it’s intentionally opaque, whereas I want Deep Vellum to be transparent, open, and inviting to everyone in the community.

What are the two most valuable things you have learned since starting your business?

1-“No” is the second most valuable answer you can ever receive. It’s so important to reach out, to ask, to inquire, otherwise you’ll never learn.

2- If what you want doesn’t exist yet, create it. If the demand for what you do doesn’t exist, create it. If the audience doesn’t exist yet, create it.

What’s your favorite part of your work?

Finding great works of literature written in other languages that have never been published in English for the first time and then working to find them an excited reading audience. It’s the most inspiring part of my job, too.

What is the most time-consuming part of your work?

Reading. It’s also the most valuable part of my work, the most pleasurable, and the most treasured. Some days when I’m having an awful day, I just shut down my computer and phone and go read—most of the time I make my way through submissions, but on those really hard days, I just go read a book, any book, and it’s not only the best thing in the world, it’s work. I guess in other lines of work they call it “R&D”. That’s what reading is for me. As well as being my favorite thing about my job.

Do you get much free time? How do you spend it?

I relish free time, and disdain the culture of “busy” that dominates every aspect of work these days. Of course you’re busy, we’re all busy. So in my free time I love to read, I hit up the Wild Detectives and the downtown public library all the time to grab new things to read, riding my bike around town and exploring the unique and under-appreciated parts of Dallas, and trying all the ridiculously amazing restaurants we have in town.

Where are you going from here?

As I get books out this fall and start planning events, the plan is to grow the audience of books far and wide, by calling bookstores, doing huge online pushes to get the books reviewed everywhere possible, and getting them into the hands of readers in every nook and cranny in the country. Locally, I want to grow a dedicated base of readers who subscribe to my press, to receive a book a month, and then grow that number every month, building an audience for the books and for the events. The plan is to eventually get Dallas thought of as one of the literary capitals in the States.

Are you thinking about expanding your team?

I’m looking to hire my first employee this fall, and my dream candidate is someone from Dallas who has worked in the New York publishing world for a long time and knows more than I do about the publishing business, someone who can come home and help me cement Deep Vellum’s place in the publishing world and in the local arts community.

Once we get cemented, we’ll be looking for creative marketing candidates as well as opening up the internship process to hire those who want to learn about publishing.

Check back to for information on hires in the future, but know we won’t be hiring any local talent until fall or winter 2014 at the earliest.

What is the impact of your business/ industry on your local community? On society?

The impact of Deep Vellum on the local community will be made evident through a more widespread appreciation for literature and books, and will inspire a systemic reevaluation of how important literature is in our city and our community. Those are broad terms, but in real terms, you’ll see more books around, you’ll see more bookstores around, you’ll hear about more literary events.

And the societal impact will come through more people thinking about how important it is to round out our knowledge in life through reading other peoples’ & cultures’ experiences. That is the only way we can learn what is going on in the world, and I don’t mean in a geopolitical sense, but in a human way, how we all experience the human condition in every part of the world. Reading the world allows us to think of ourselves in new ways, and to reevaluate our place in life. That’s invaluable stuff!

Another impact will come from more people translating, and not just in the ESL and immigrant communities for whom translation is a daily practice, it’s necessary to their way of life. To teach translation means to learn how to appreciate the person you are in each language, because we are different in every language we speak, we express ourselves differently, we think differently, so Deep Vellum’s impact will come when we learn how to teach translation as not just a literary art but also a necessary skill for every single American and person in the world to possess to take them through life with a richer understanding of themselves and those around them. Let’s teach the ESL classes about translation as a practice, let’s talk to immigrant and refugee groups and do the same, but let’s also get kids from Highland Park to Oak Cliff thinking about other languages and how to translate between them and how to read and express themselves in other languages. The impact from the success of that translation program would be immeasurable to our entire community and society.

Are you looking for partnership opportunities or additional funding?

I am always looking to find creative partners and investors. The idea of investing in a nonprofit is different than other startup venture capital projects, because the return on your investment comes not in terms of profits but in real-world, tangible and measurable benefits to the community. You reach X number of readers, students, teachers, translators, and the world through every dollar put into Deep Vellum. The reach of your investment is not only local, but impacts the reach of literature in a massive international scale and expands the reach of Dallas’s cultural offerings to the world, which is so important for attracting the top-tier businesses that look to our area for relocation: they want to see a healthy and diverse arts community, and they want to see that Dallas is the world-class city it purports to be, and publishing translated literature goes a long way to helping Dallas’s arts community achieve all of those goals. Investors in Deep Vellum have the chance to make a HUGE impact on literature and the arts through their donations and can participate in the publishing process as much as they would like, and they have the opportunity to join the board if they are interested as well.

We are looking into a crowdfunding campaign to begin this fall, though we are still working out details to make sure the offerings are truly unique and inspiring to the new audience we would hope to reach through such a campaign. I do worry about crowdfunding fatigue in general and more specifically in publishing crowdfunding campaigns, so I need to make sure Deep Vellum’s campaign is both unique and impactful to anyone who is willing to give.

Are you working on a Mac or a PC?

My laptop is a Macbook Air I inherited from my wife, and my phone, which I seem to use as much as my laptop, especially when I’m traveling for work, is a Samsung Galaxy. I’m wedded to no one device, no one corporation!

What are two mobile apps that you couldn’t work without?

Unfortunately, there are not many apps for publishing that I use, though there’s a huge push in the industry to find the magic app that will increase the “discoverability” of books. But everything so far has been boring or off the mark. So I’ll just go ahead and say that Twitter’s app is the way I communicate with a lot of my audience, and the MLB At-Bat app allows me to watch baseball forever as I read and work, and that is like transcendental meditation for me, I love baseball.

What’s your favorite place to eat in Deep Ellum?

All Good Cafe. They have the best atmosphere of any restaurant in Dallas, and their food, no matter what meal of the day you’re eating during, is, literally, all good. Their huevos rancheros are insane. Their pancakes make life worth living. They also have the best slogan, “It’s like going to Austin without having to pass through Waco!” It’s true, and pitch-perfect. It’s the type of place I was worried Dallas didn’t have when I moved here. I didn’t know the city, I had lived in Austin once, and, well, you know how they look at Dallas. And so I was truly afraid it was going to be all glitz and glamor, just like the reputation. And then I discovered All Good Cafe and was like, “This is going to be work out jusssssst fine.” And it has.

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