When I read for the first time about Oxygen Books, I was so excited that could not resist the temptation to write them an e-mail asking for an interview. Heather Reyes, the mind and inspired hand behind this interesting edition house took her precious time and answered my curiosities about the brilliant idea of a different type of travel guides with full literary flavors.
How did you have the idea for such guides?
We were in Athens for the first time. We had all the standard guide books and were doing the usual touristy things but we still had the feeling of not quite being able to ‘get under the skin’ of the city. Some things about it that were different from what we’d expected.
We were literally on the slopes of the Acropolis when Malcolm (the marketing director) said to me, ‘What we need is a really good anthology of writing about the city – and not just “old stuff” … a book that takes you around the city with the best writers beside you, pointing things out, illuminating things …Novelists, travel writers, historians, whatever …’ ‘Mmm, that would be nice,’ I replied, vaguely. By this time we were wandering along the hundreds of stalls of an outdoor book fair, astounded by just how many publishers were represented. But no visible anthologies. A visit to the city’s bookshops were equally fruitless.
Malcolm was suspiciously quiet and thoughtful, and eventually came out with it: ‘If we are looking for something like that, the chances are other people are too. We’ll do a bit more research back in London but if there isn’t anything … what do you say to the idea of us setting up a little publishing company and doing it ourselves? I’ve been in book publicity and marketing, you’ve been an editor …’ Now whether it was the climate or the effect of finally being in a city I’d always longed to visit, I don’t know, but I said ‘Yes. Let’s do it.’ So we did!
What is your expected target?
Mainly people who take short city breaks. So we started with some of the most popular destinations – Paris, London, Berlin, Venice, Dublin and Amsterdam. We then ventured as far as New York as there is so much good writing about the city and people often do take a short break there, too. Our most recent book is on St Petersburg, often visited by cruise ships, so perhaps a slightly different readership.
What was the reaction of the readers so far? Which guides are more in demand right now?
Well, we’ve had excellent reviews in lots of different places, including major national newspapers, and readers often contact us to say how much they’ve enjoyed the books and had their visits to the cities enriched by them. So I guess you could say the reactions have been good.
Paris, Berlin and New York all sell consistently well, and St Petersburg, as our most recent book, is in demand at the moment.
Do you intend to publish the guides in other languages? If yes, what would be your main choices?
Publishing in other languages would only be viable if we sold the rights to do so to a publisher in that language. The rights and translations situation for the many, many texts we use would not make it viable for us to take on. And unfortunately we don’t have the necessary expertise in languages other than French.
What are your publishing projects for 2013? What will be the next cities to be featured?
Our next city is Istanbul, which will be published in April 2013, to tie in with Turkey being the Market Focus of the London Book Fair. This has been quite a big undertaking as it contains a lot of material translated from Turkish for the first time – there are an amazing number of brilliant Turkish writers whose work is scarcely available in English, if at all, and we wanted to show Anglophone readers just what a wealth of literature there is in Turkey. So, this will be our only book in 2013 – also because both Malcolm and I have personal writing projects to complete before the end of the year.
Do you want to extend your geographical area covered by the guides by including other continents, such as Asia, Africa, Latin and North America?
We have already ventured into North America with our New York book. And I suppose an obvious choice would be Rio for 2016, because of the Olympics. There are many possibilities – we are often contacted by readers suggesting certain cities – but before deciding on a city, we have to be convinced that enough people of the kind who would buy our books actually go there … or are sufficiently interested in the city: we do sell to quite a number of ‘armchair travellers’. We also have to know there is enough really brilliant modern writing on the city for us to use in a meaningful way. So at the moment we are still considering where we go after Istanbul.
How do you select the writers?
It’s quite a ‘messy’ process, actually. We start with our personal library, which is quite large. Then, of course, we scour the web and keep an eye on the book reviews in newspapers and magazines for what is most recent on the city. Once our various contacts know we are ‘doing’ a city, they start to send in ideas or the names of people we might consult. We also simply browse in good bookshops and libraries. We buy some books, but our local library service has been very helpful in ordering books for us. We also belong to a library at the Barbican Centre (a big arts and performance complex in London) which is also very, very good. Then every evening for quite a few weeks is spent on the sofa surrounded by tottering piles of books, speed-reading and marking possible passages to include. (Lots of them don’t make it into the final selection: we always start with a lot more material than we can use.)
Variety is important and we aim to include as many different genres as we can – we use fiction, history, memoirs, biography, journalism, travel writing, diaries, letters … We would even use graffiti if it were useful! The rule for final acceptance of an extract is, ‘Does this piece help me get under the skin of the city in some valuable way? Is it something I, personally, would want to read?’
We like to put the famous alongside the less well-known and try to keep one or two slots for young or ’emerging’ writers whenever possible, and to use writing translated from as many different languages as possible, including some material translated into English for the first time. It’s part of our ‘mission’ to get Anglophone readers to try more translated writing. The UK publishes relatively few translated books – though it is improving. We want to show people what they’re missing and persuade them to enter other cultures by reading the writing that comes from them.
How would you define a nearly perfectly written travel guide?
One that doesn’t overload you with ‘information’ but helps you to understand the ‘soul’ of the place and maybe helps you to fall in love with it – warts and all! One that truly enhances your visit – or enables you to make a meaningful visit to the city from your own armchair.