The Stork and the Crane: Indie Presses of Denmark

Books are moving straight from writers to editors and onward to the cultural sections of prestigious newspapers, sidestepping the major publishing houses entirely. Independent small presses like Virkelig and Kronstork are thriving, but why aren't they being bought out or going broke?

Right now, somewhere in Copenhagen, a book may be getting stitched together by hand. It’s not an effective means of production and it may not make big bucks, but the book will be meticulously crafted and beautiful, at least if Andreas Vermehren Holm has a hand in it.

Holm runs Virkelig, a small publishing house based in his two-room Vesterbro apartment. His bedroom holds a bed, a desk, and about 30 crates of as-yet unsold books.

Hand-stitching is one of the ways that small and independent Danish presses are distinguishing themselves from major publishers. While they rarely offer works by established names, they do offer quality goods in terms of both the physical products and the literature itself.

A collection of poetry may have been edited and stitched together in a Vesterbro apartment, but that will no longer stop it from shining in the culture sections of Denmark’s largest newspapers. Holm’s publications of translated fiction, for example, have received rave reviews.

“When I publish a book with someone, they become a part of Virkelig. They are involved every step of the way, and they even take part in deciding what’s printed on the cover,” he says.

Lars-Emil (left) and Peter-Clement Woetmann founded Kronstork in 2010. Their works have been met with critical success.

Lars-Emil (left) and Peter-Clement Woetmann founded Kronstork in 2010. Their works have been met with critical success.

A stork with antlers
About four kilometres north of Virkelig lies another, slightly larger house: Kronstork. Founded by brothers Lars-Emil and Peter-Clement Woetmann in 2010, and joined by Erik Scherz Andersen in 2014, the publishing house has been a critical success, although fame has yet to translate into financial fortunes.

“We keep selling more than we expect,” Peter-Clement says, “but we’re still a long way from turning a large profit.”

“We are successful to the extent that newspapers are paying attention,” Lars-Emil adds. “So we are having an influence on the Danish literary public and on Danish literature in general.”

Recent publications from Kronstork include a varied group of writers. Martin Snoer Raaschou’s Blå Himmel Hver Dag (Blue Sky Every Day) offers a holistic, quasi-Buddhist long-form poem that begins with the baking of a loaf of bread. Victor Boy Lindholm’s Guld (Gold) centres on a modern-day hypocrite, the young man who wants to be socially and economically responsible, but instead spends his money on drinks and gadgetry of dubious ethical origin, such as iPhones and flashy gold chains.

There are also more established writers like Jesper Sternberg Nielsen—known simply by his middle name—whose Stenalderdigte (Stone Age Poems) dramatises the conceptual awakening of a stone age man.

If these works sound different from what you would otherwise expect from Danish poetry, it’s because they are. Kronstork’s logo is an antlered stork in mid-flight, a jab at Denmark’s largest publishing house, Gyldendal.

Gyldendal’s logo is a crane carrying a rock to stay awake; if it dozes off and drops the rock, it’ll wake up.

“It’s an old symbol of being watchful and staying enlightened. Our logo is a goofy animal in flight – not stationary, but in movement.”

The logo started out as a joke, but it hints at the artistic ambitions of Kronstork: it isn’t enough simply to stay awake.

“Our logo is about actively challenging the conception of what good literature really means,” says Lars-Emil.

The major analysis
But how is it possible for small enterprises like Virkelig and Kronstork to keep challenging the status quo, let alone to stay financially solvent? Asked why there are currently so many successful indie publishers, the Woetmann brothers hesitate to give a definitive answer.

“It would probably require a pretty major analysis to explain,” Lars-Emil says, ticking off the many factors in play: financial, social, and artistic.

The analysis, however major, would likely begin with the publishing policies of larger houses. Gyldendal’s recent poetry publication includes heavyweights such as Søren Ulrik Thomsen, Peter Laugesen, and Pia Tafdrup. A superficial reading might conclude that Gyldendal is ignoring risky debutants in order to play it safe, but Gyldendal’s literary director, Johannes Riis, denies this is the case.

“It is simply a myth,” he says.

“We have not made cuts in the number of poetry publications in many years. The number of published debutants also remains the same. Last year we published no fewer than fourteen books of poetry, and ten of them were debuts.”

Literary momentum
Kronstork needs to sell about 80 copies for a publication to pay for itself, something they now easily do. The brothers explain that this is partly because Danish poetry is undergoing a revival, but also because they publish authors that the major publishing houses would love to get their hands on.

“We’re both active writers, so we’ve got our fingers on the pulse,” says Lars-Emil. “Gyldendal can only publish so many niche titles per year, and we get to publish those that have no place at a larger house.”

The kind of artistically niche titles that contain both Buddhist bread baking and stone-age men might illustrate the crucial difference between small and large. Could independent publishing houses be making money simply by pushing the limits of literature, printing books that larger houses don’t want?

Riis doesn’t believe so.

“Gyldendal publishes both avant-garde and more conventional literature. I don’t think our books differ in that regard from what they publish at smaller houses,” he says, adding that while he doesn’t feel that he is in competition with smaller houses, they do publish work he wouldn’t mind getting his hands on.

“They do an amazing job. They publish manuscripts that we would have been delighted to publish.”

Lars-Emil reciprocates Riis’s goodwill, and says he doesn’t feel that the massive publishing house has any impact on Kronstork’s sales.

“There are a lot of good titles being published by Gyldendal, and we are not here to kill father figures. This is about publishing good books.”

Holm doesn’t seem interested in killing literary father figures either, although one larger publishing house policy opened up a nice opportunity for him.

Because books with fewer than 32 pages are not strictly considered ‘books,’ major publishing houses tend to pass on these shorter titles. The first of Virkelig’s acclaimed series of translated international fiction (featuring, among others, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes and Bruno Schulz) was a text by Norwegian author Jørn Henrik Sværen. It was just six pages long.

Holm published it as inexpensively as possible, printing it on one sheet of paper that he folded to make a book. After its publication, Holm received a phone call from translator Jørgen Herman Monrad, who had spotted the release while out browsing for books. Monrad forms one half of an oft-used translation duo with Judyta Preis, and he told Holm that they had already translated a short text by early-20th century Polish writer Bruno Shulz. No larger publishing houses were interested in it, so he offered to give it to Holm to publish at Virkelig.

The collaboration resulted in a series of short translated fiction called Bestiarium. One publication is a mere three pages, while another is a fully-fledged book (in the legal sense) of 40 pages. The Bestiarium series went on to be reviewed by Politiken and Berlingske, and was well received by both.

Between two letters
Holm has since moved away from hand stitching, but still spends a lot of time learning the meticulous ins-and-outs of bookbinding. He has spent an untold number of hours studying the visually appropriate distance between the letters of his chosen font, Centaur. And yes, it does matter, he says.

“The correct distance is simply more pleasing to the eye. It contributes to the overall beauty of the book.”

High levels of personal commitment and focus unite Kronstork and Virkelig. The Woetmann brothers still edit and publish every work at Kronstork themselves, and they work closely with their writers.

“The writer is closer to the process when he comes to a small house like ours to talk to us. And we listen to the author. There is no huge marketing department to dictate anything,” Lars-Emil says.

During our interview with Holm, Jesper Brygger drops by, a poet who has been published by both Virkelig and Kronstork. Brygger and Holm know each other well, having collaborated on several books.

“My book came to be because Andreas asked me if I’d like to make one. It was created in cooperation with Virkelig. It was one the best processes I’ve had with writing,” Brygger says.

As to why indie presses are successful, a simple answer doesn’t exist – but part of the complex answer is personal involvement. Virkelig and Kronstork have avoided going belly-up by offering something larger houses do not: a personal approach.

“Publishing is linked to my own life,” Holm says. “The people I work with are people I’ve met. In the eyes of a classical publishing house that is an enormous limitation. But I see it as a massive strength.”

Recently, Holm was complimented on his letter spacing – technically called ‘kerning’ – by a Swiss typeset specialist who happened to attend Lille Bogdag, a new event that brought 25 indie presses together for public readings, sales, and general socialising.

“That compliment was about as rare as they come,” he says. “It made me incredibly happy that someone noticed.”


By Benjamin Nehammer

Freelance writer and occasional literary critic, Benjamin recently finished an internship at DR where he produced debate programmes.

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