I still get asked about it on the odd occasion. By the handful of people who saw me selling books at the Small Publishers’ Fair. By peers who’ve found information that I barely knew was public somewhere in the depths of the Internet. By Volkskrant readers who saw that photo several years ago, of three young men and one not-so-young man leaning over a bridge.
Whenever they bring it up, they always ask the same thing: I might be mistaken, but didn’t you use to work for a publishing house?
Yes, I did work for a Dutch publishing house for a few years. As an editor. I didn’t edit any manuscripts though, didn’t acquire any writers, didn’t get paid and, I’d better admit it from the outset, didn’t have a contract either. But still. There was a publishing house, officially registered with the Chamber of Commerce, complete with logo, website, books in the shop — the works. And I, a twenty- year-old student of Dutch who’d published his first fiction title not long before, became an editor there.
The name of the publisher: Babel & Voss. Established in 2oo9 by Reinjan Mulder (b. 1949), who I’ve known almost my entire life through my friendship with his son, together with Daniël van der Meer (b. 1986) and my brother Daan (b. 1986).
The idea was simple. They’d establish a modest list, fiction and non-fiction, Dutch and translations, consisting exclusively of books they’d actually want to read themselves. They’d stand out due to their meticulous editing. They wouldn’t publish dozens of titles each year like other publishing houses: the well-known scattergun approach. They wouldn’t circulate hefty prospectuses or work with authors they couldn’t see any potential in. No, they’d keep it small, guarantee the highest quality, and in the old-fashioned book world their publishing house would be one of the first to embrace the Internet.
Reinjan had worked at various publishing houses before; he’d discovered authors and had successes to his name, such as the secret metamorphosis of Arnon Grunberg into Marek van der Jagt. Whenever I saw him, Reinjan always made a satisfied, cheerful impression. But he still felt as if something was missing from his life. Since entering the book world in the late 198os, first as a journalist and later as an editor and publisher, he’d had a fantasy, a childhood dream that hadn’t faded away like many dreams do, but had only become stronger over time.
He wanted to start his own publishing house.
Of course, he was well aware of the difficulties. In 2oo9, the book industry was not yet in visible distress, but the prophecies of doom were starting to sound increasingly convincing and phrases that have since become awfully commonplace were starting to take shape. A decline in reading, fund mergers, outdated revenue models. But Reinjan wanted to give it a go, especially when Daniël and Daan approached him for advice about starting their own publishing house. Reinjan suggested joining forces. He had experience as a publisher, could afford a certain amount of financial risk and wanted nothing more than to release his own titles. Daniël and Daan, who’d just started a series of interviews in De Groene Amsterdammer, would, above all, be able to help find young, ambitious authors.
I didn’t edit any manuscripts, didn’t acquire any writers, didn’t get paid and, I’d better admit it from the outset, didn’t have a contract either. But still. There was a publishing house.
I was involved in the whole process from the sidelines. Actually, perhaps I stayed on the sidelines the entire time, although one day my role became official. My brother dropped out after two books, he didn’t have time for it any more, or lost interest, which amounted to the same thing. When I asked him about it, he said, ‘I was going through some emotional turmoil at the time. And the endless side issues annoyed me too much. In fact, publishing itself annoyed me too much.’ In 2o11, I took his place. During a lecture about experimental poetry that dated back many centuries, in which each student was being forced to read a page out loud, I got a call from Daniël. I mumbled that I had to go to the toilet, made a dash for the corridor and heard Daniël say, ‘Would you perhaps like to become an editor? We don’t have any authors yet, and we can’t pay you. But it’ll be an investment.’
I thought: investment, that sounds good, I’d like to give it a go. And I shared Daniël’s conviction that the world of publishing had not yet reached its full potential. So many books were being thrown half-heartedly into the market without an underlying plan; Babel & Voss wouldn’t be that haphazard. Anyway: how many twenty-year-olds get the chance to publish and edit books themselves?
I agreed without a moment’s hesitation. Within an hour, Daniël had posted the news on the Babel & Voss website that I was going to be ‘strengthening the team’. As of that day, I was officially an editor.
Our office was on the top floor of a dilapidated building in the Wallen, Amsterdam’s red-light district. On the ground floor was a medical centre, where there was always a handful of young adults dressed in shabby clothes sitting behind a thick glass wall, sometimes groaning softly, as they waited to see a doctor. It turned out that the Salvation Army was barely a hundred metres further on.
Whenever we arrived for a meeting, there’d be dozens of empty, tired eyes staring at us as we entered the building.
Beside the entrance was an a4 sheet of paper with ‘We don’t dispense methadone’ printed on it.
Once inside the office — a room with fluorescent lighting, water-stained walls and desks for dozens of freelancers — Babel & Voss had its own corner, with its own bookcase, its own desk, its own records, its own pile of papers.
My main task was to assess the manuscripts that came in. It was about one a week — far fewer than at other publishing houses, at least so I’ve heard. I often wondered why, unless they knew someone at Babel & Voss, an author who was just starting out would decide to send their work to this publishing house in particular. My suspicion that they’d probably already been rejected by other publishers was only reinforced when I started looking at the manuscripts. With the exception of a few unintentional highlights in cover letters (‘A clairvoyant gave me a task eight years ago, only she didn’t say what the task was because I was supposed to figure it out myself before my 3oth birthday. Unfortunately this turned out to be a book, and in particular the contents of the book’), I didn’t come across anything worth publishing. I always reported back at our fortnightly meetings, and my assessment could usually be summed up in one word: no.
Still, the difficulty in running our own publishing house didn’t lie in finding titles. Although there wasn’t anything usable in any of the manuscripts, there were plenty of ideas floating around. Reinjan always had something new up his sleeve. For collections, translations, debuts of young Dutch authors we knew via friends of friends. And the difficulty didn’t lie in turning these ideas into reality either. We even managed — and by we I actually mean Daniël and Reinjan — to turn some of our vague plans into books.
In 2o1o, Babel & Voss’s first book, What We Can Do Without: A Manifesto against Excess was published, a ￼collection of stories and essays compiled by Daan, Daniël and Reinjan. Thirty authors provided contributions; some were unknown and just starting out (like me), but we managed to get a few established names on board too. Felix Rottenberg, Arie Boomsma, Micha Wertheim: they all wrote a contribution about something they could do without. Perhaps they simply didn’t dare say no. Kees van Kooten and Arnon Grunberg both, independently of each other, wrote that they could do without initiatives like What We Can Do Without. In his opening paragraph, Grunberg wrote, ‘If this collection’s remaindered in a year or so (maybe sooner), nobody will notice it’s gone.’
But we didn’t let that discourage us. ‘It’s all good,’ Reinjan said during one of our meetings. ‘Stirring things up a bit can’t do any harm. And so many publishing houses are built on favours to friends and obligatory pieces.’
We spent months tinkering with the texts. We hired an agent who went to bookshops on our behalf, a cover was designed, some authors dropped out, but new names were added too.
Then, one weekday afternoon, the moment was upon us: the book arrived from the printers. Reinjan sent us a message, ‘They’re here! I’ll wait to open them.’
Barely half an hour later, Daan, Daniël and I were in the office. We each took one of the cardboard boxes filled with books that had been delivered to the medical centre. We carried them upstairs and put them under the fluorescent light, like doctors about to operate on a patient.
‘You can do the honours,’ Daniël said to Reinjan.
Reinjan picked up a pair of scissors and carefully cut through the tape.
There they were, our own books, in neat piles of ten. We quickly ripped open the plastic packaging and each took our own copy out.
We examined the name of our publishing house, printed proudly on the cover: Babel & Voss Uitgevers. We nodded approvingly when we saw our logo, the curly letters B&V on the side of the book. We read the authors’ names aloud, weighed whether the book felt heavy in our hands, sniffed the pages as we flicked through the book.
‘Oh no,’ I burst out.
Daniël and Daan looked up.
‘Look at page 1o1.’
I could hear pages being turned at top speed beside me.
‘Fuck,’ Daniël said softly.
‘Shit,’ Daan said.
‘This can’t be possible,’ Daniël said. ‘We’re meant to stand out due to our meticulous editing.’
Then Reinjan found the page as well and saw what the three of us had already seen. In big letters, dangling at the bottom of the page, right in the middle of Jan Jaap van der Wal’s argument against New Dogmatism, it said: ‘Please adjust to take out or gain 1 line here.’
We were all in agreement: we couldn’t publish this. An error in our first publication, we’d never live it down, critics would write scathing reviews, the public would no longer take us seriously.
‘How can this be possible?’ Daniël asked.
‘Sloppy,’ Reinjan said. ‘Very sloppy.’
We stared at that stray sentence for a while, as if that might make it disappear.
We were all in agreement: we couldn’t publish this. An error in our first publication, we’d never live it down, critics would write scathing reviews, the public would no longer take us seriously.
Feeling despondent, we slumped down behind the desk. Apart from Reinjan, who hardly seemed bothered by it. ‘These things happen every now and then in the world of publishing,’ he said, almost glad to be able to teach us about this aspect of the book industry already. ‘This is a printer’s error. You can usually ask for your money back when this sort of thing happens. But not if a former colleague printed it at a discounted rate as a favour.’
We spent the rest of the afternoon leafing through our book. We found other errors too. Some hyphens were wrong, a word or two had disappeared, here and there a capital letter or full stop was missing.
‘This can’t be possible,’ Daniël repeated.
‘We’ll reprint it,’ Reinjan said: a decision that only he was able to make, seeing as he was the one who’d be paying for it. ‘And perhaps then we should take out an advert.’ He smiled. I could see the childhood dream of success bubbling to the surface in his eyes. ‘A whole page in Vrij Nederland or De Groene Amsterdammer. And we’ll write, “First book from Babel & Voss. With Arie Boomsma, Arnon Grunberg and many others.”’ His eyes sparkled. ‘And above it, we’ll put, “Already in its second edition.”’
That advert never materialized, but a corrected version of What We Can Do Without appeared a few days later. We held a book launch at Studio/K in Amsterdam, which was a sell-out event. There were readings, drinks, people wandered around in the What We Can Do Without T-shirts we’d made especially, and hundreds of copies were sold in the first few weeks.
‘Very good for a first book,’ said Reinjan, who’d since had thousands of business cards printed for everyone. ‘Every publishing house has business cards. You can hand them out wherever you go.’ Once I started working there officially, I also received a thousand of them: Thomas Heerma van Voss, Babel & Voss — editor.
I got a former fellow student to create a free website for the publishing house, which was more functional than inviting, but it sufficed. I also took care of accounts on Twitter and Facebook. ‘From now on, you’re not only going to be in charge of the manuscripts, you’re also social media director,’ Reinjan said.
On Facebook I sent friendship requests to hundreds of strangers on behalf of Babel & Voss at such high speed that the account was removed within a week
I started following thousands of people on Twitter in the hope that they’d follow me back and see the updates from the publishing house. On Facebook I sent friendship requests to hundreds of strangers on behalf of Babel & Voss at such high speed that the account was removed within a week: ‘Facebook users only want to be friends with people and not companies or brands. For this reason, your account has been blocked with immediate effect. Kind regards, the Facebook team.’ I didn’t let it deter me and quickly created a fan page, which people had to ‘like’ of their own accord — which virtually no one did. Our eighty fans were a stark contrast to the thousands of friends we’d had just the day before.
Sometimes, Daniël and Reinjan would email to ask if I’d like to post something on the online accounts. ‘Press release in Trouw about our new book, read the contribution by @arieboomsma in What We Can Do Without here.’
I always did exactly what they suggested, even though I never knew what else to post. Apart from Daniël’s mother, hardly anyone ever responded.
Fortunately the publishing house got enough attention in other ways. What We Can Do Without was featured in a number of newspapers and journals, and because we were new and just starting up, the four of us were interviewed by the Volkskrant as a ‘new initiative’. I can’t remember much about the discussion now, apart from the fact that the interviewer frequently used the words ‘ambitious’, ‘fresh’ and ‘ahead of the times’.
They also wanted to take a photo of us. At the request of the photographer, we went and stood beside each other on a bridge in central Amsterdam. Every once in a while, when I’m least expecting it, I stumble across this photo online. It always strikes me how young we all seem and how smart Reinjan, Daniël and Daan look in their shirts, jackets and smart trousers. I look out of place there in my jeans and baggy T-shirt, with my expectant expression. The expression of someone who doesn’t know what’s going to happen but is thinking: it’s going to be a blast.
A year passed. The meetings continued, we gained a couple of hundred followers on Twitter, and in 2o11 Babel & Voss published three new titles. In particular, our translation of Stillness of the Sea by the German author Nicol Ljubic received a lot of positive attention.
However, even if you tried to see the positive, it was ultimately extremely difficult to sell our books. The biggest difficulty, I discovered, involved making a new title visible. Not by means of media attention or reviews, no, I’m referring to the visibility of the physical book. Often, minimal numbers of Babel & Voss’s titles were purchased, regardless of how enthusiastically we promoted them. And it soon transpired that our publishing house wasn’t alone in this regard. I was always hearing, and still hear today, stories of declining sales figures, at big publishing houses too — stories about authors who, after working for years, only ended up with a couple of hundred books in the shops. Now and then even a title that had been announced in a prospectus full of overblown adjectives didn’t end up getting published, because the publisher deemed the response from the book industry insufficient.
Our books were mainly sold at independent bookshops. They stayed there for a month, two at most. Big chains also stocked our titles, but to our disappointment they never stacked them up; usually one or two copies ended up in one of their bookcases somewhere. They found it too risky: an unknown title from a small publishing house.
It was all perfectly understandable, but it made it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to break the deadlock. If customers weren’t seeing our books in the shops, they weren’t going to decide to buy them online either. They’d rather buy a work that was available in the shops. And as a result, the shops themselves saw no reason to order our titles. And why would they, if no one asked about them and their competitors were hardly selling any of them? How could we ever break through this system, how could we make a novel like Stillness of the Sea visible to the public?
In the meantime, I’d been learning about the importance of written reviews at university. A man who, according to the University of Amsterdam’s website, had spent years specializing in ‘canonization processes’, explained how a novel can only continue to exist if it’s referred to in review papers and anthologies. And what the review papers say depends on what critics write in the newspapers. No reviews means no recognition, no recognition means no literary awards, and no awards means no place in the canon.
I nodded along to everything the man said and even passed the course with an 8, mainly by simply reproducing what he’d said during his lectures in my exams. But even while I was writing down my answers, I was thinking to myself: What on earth’s the point of media attention if the book in question remains invisible, and doesn’t become anything more for the general public than a title in a newspaper, a cover you never see in the shops?
What was the impact of a good review? Or of the author’s visit we’d organized for Ljubic? On the same weekend in which a prominent interview with him had been published in a national paper, including a full-page photo, and he’d received rave reviews in various magazines, a total of nine copies of his book were ordered. It was the best day of sales we had that year.
Nine copies. I suspect it would have been more effective if we’d gone and stood somewhere on the Kalverstraat one afternoon and tried to sell books to passers-by at random.
And yes, it was disappointing. We couldn’t understand why our books weren’t selling, but we were happy to carry on regardless. For years on end. Regardless of how few books we sold, how our titles struggled, our fortnightly meetings remained pleasant and good-humoured. This was perhaps one of Reinjan’s most striking characteristics, something I observed with wonder and increasing envy: his ability to face setbacks with the same smile he’d had on his face when he’d been dreaming aloud of something great weeks before. As if everything contained a hidden message that only he was able to decipher.
One time, he started a meeting by saying, ‘I’ve got some very good news.’
How can you measure the importance of your own books if it’s not reflected in sales figures? And how long can you continue attaching value to that self-deemed importance if so few others see it too?
Daniël and I jumped to our feet.
‘Paul Witteman wants to be my Facebook friend,’ Reinjan said. ‘That won’t be all he wants, not right after we’ve just published an important book.’
Another time he showed us, beaming with pride, how he’d had a thousand postcards of our book covers printed instead of the five hundred we’d agreed on. ‘Now we’ve got lots more to hand out, and there wasn’t much difference in terms of cost. So we’ll be making a profit almost immediately.’
Sometimes, sitting in our building in the Wallen, I’d feel as if I’d ended up in an Elsschot story. Then, from nowhere, Reinjan would turn to me and ask, ‘Have you got anything new, a scoop, a big talent, something that’ll be a breakthrough for us?’
I’d shake my head, which never seemed to disappoint him for one moment, and he’d then start telling me with great bravura about his own plans, which he must have already known were completely unattainable. He’d mention a Dutch author who, so he said, wanted to write a book for us — and who never did — or speak of publishing successes from his past that he believed we could repeat.
And still, regardless of how unfounded his optimism, his talent regularly came to the fore during those meetings. I saw the powers of persuasion he must have previously used to attract big authors, the enthusiasm with which he spurred others on, the sharpness with which he was able to produce full books from anecdotes and stories he’d heard down the pub. But at Babel & Voss I also saw the extent to which the publishing world had changed in recent years. Powers of persuasion, enthusiasm and sharpness alone would no longer get you very far.
This is the only era I’ve ever known; for as long as I’ve been writing, there’s been talk of a crisis. Reinjan made me realize that the book world had been different before. His expectation was that each title would sell about a thousand copies, and he’d only start counting after that. After every review he’d expect a clear impact on sales. That’s how it had worked for decades. But the rules of the game had changed. People used to think in terms of cause and effect: if an author received X amount of attention, they’d sell at least Y number of books. There was logic in it. Like expecting success after having worked hard, the way a farmer can expect rain if his land has dried out, because everyone knows that sooner or later the weather’s going to change.
Those fundamental principles no longer exist. In total, Babel & Voss published eight books over the course of four years, and each copy sold required a lot of work. I still remember a meeting when Reinjan was looking at our annual financial overview, which was completely in the red, and pondered, ‘We could say: that bestseller will come, one of these days. We could also say: the books we publish are so important that they simply have to be made, so it doesn’t matter if anyone buys them or not.’
No one said anything for some time.
Then Daniël asked, ‘But how many important books are there that no one buys?’
Without our realizing it right then, that was the key question, a dilemma we thought about as our efforts for Babel & Voss increased. How can you measure the importance of your own books if it’s not reflected in sales figures? And how long can you continue attaching value to that self-deemed importance if so few others see it too?
During the Small Publishers’ Fair, I saw increasing numbers of independent publishers reaching out to the general public. We did it too. But Real Farmer Wants a Real Wife, the book we published about the TV programme Farmer Wants a Wife, which we expected to become a big success, didn’t do any better than our less accessible titles.
What were we doing wrong, which other strategies could we apply?
It didn’t make any difference when we decided to halve the price of all our books either, to ten euros. That had been Daniël’s idea: according to him, books shouldn’t cost more than a tenner these days. But even after lowering our prices, the bestseller list still featured the same books as the weeks before, big names at big publishing houses, at twice the price of our titles.
It makes sense that nothing changed. If people don’t see a book in the shop, they’re not going to notice it if it suddenly becomes a lot cheaper either.
Would it essentially have made any difference, one bestseller? I doubt it. A handy arrangement with the District Council of East Amsterdam meant that our collection of stories East (2o12) ultimately became our only really profitable title, but none of us benefited from it. We’d already made too great a loss on our other titles for that.
All in all, the publishing house must have cost Reinjan a fortune; from start to end, he was the one who paid for everything, but he never mentioned it. He only spoke about the future. About new authors, new proposals, new titles. He sometimes forwarded manuscripts to me that former colleagues or vague acquaintances had sent him, in which I spotted spelling mistakes in the first sentence or the cover letter. Reinjan must have noticed them too, but he always wrote in all seriousness, ‘Have a look and see if this could perhaps become our next publication.’
At other times, he sent me emails without any attachments that just contained the words, ‘Any other interesting submissions, scoops? In haste, Reinjan.’
In 2o12, we published three books, none of which were picked up, not even after Reinjan placed large adverts in weekly papers.
Then we discovered Gert Boel. A young Flemish author who wanted to write a big debut novel, the type of book the publishing house had been designed for in the first place. Daniël came up with the idea one day. The three of us were convinced at once, fantasized about him appealing to a wide audience, and Reinjan immediately drew up a contract, including a generous advance.
Boel travelled to Amsterdam to sign it. He was a tall, skinny guy with curly hair and a downy beard. He used the formal form of ‘you’ to address us and told us at length and in great detail about his novel-to-be. It was an interesting but rather complex story, if I remember rightly, about a private detective living in Ghent who travels to Budapest for love. Boel said, ‘I’ve got it all in my head. I just need to write it down.’
Afterwards, we signed his contract in our office. The moment had something very solemn about it. We shook hands, smiled and even drank champagne, the way they did at big publishing houses. One of the freelancers in our office took a photo, which has been online ever since. Until now, it’s the only concrete evidence of us having worked with Gert Boel: Daniël, Reinjan and I, each holding a glass of champagne, standing triumphantly beside our own author.
By then, thousands of copies of our books were in storage at the national distribution centre, and the stocks were decreasing excruciatingly slowly. Of the eight books we published in five years, What We Can Do Without remained one of our most popular titles. With the later publications, we ended up asking ourselves more and more often: how are we ever going to get rid of these hundreds of copies?
Reinjan must have also noticed what we all noticed: that our ambitions were slowly evaporating and that it seemed as if the publishing house was fading away.
In order to stay alive, a publisher hardly has to pay anything. It’s only if you want to do more than exist that it costs money.
We announced Boel’s book, obviously lacking inspiration, under the title The Novel. When it was put up for sale, eleven copies of The Novel were ordered, by all the bookshops in the Netherlands and Belgium put together. ‘It’s the lowest number I’ve ever encountered,’ Reinjan said. ‘What’s going on? The champagne photo had more than a hundred likes on Facebook — that was our record. Where have all those fans gone?’
In the meantime, Daniël was spending more and more time working on the literary journal Das Magazin, which he’d co-founded. ‘Strange,’ Reinjan said when I bumped into him one afternoon with the dog he’d just bought. It was called Milan Kundera and Reinjan took it for a long walk around the city every day. ‘People in publishing circles always used to say: never start a journal, you’ll only make a loss on it. But Das Magazin is already more profitable than all of our books have ever been.’
Perhaps, I later mused, the main advantage of Das Magazin was that the literary journal was a branch that had not reached its full potential. Perhaps there were simply too many publishing houses when Babel & Voss sprang up and it was impossible for it to stand out among its competitors.
The last time the editorial board of Babel & Voss got together, the three of us met in a bar in West Amsterdam. We rarely went into the office in the Wallen any more. ‘I always liked it there,’ Reinjan said, ‘for doing my own things too. But it’s not possible now I’ve got Milan. As soon as I arrive, I have to go home again to let him out.’
As usual, we started by discussing how our titles were struggling, then I said ‘no’ about the manuscripts we’d received, and we finished off with future plans.
There was a moment of silence.
And then, as if they’d planned it in advance, Daniël and Reinjan said that we shouldn’t make any new books for the time being — without a discussion, without any hard feelings, without any regrets or remorse.
It was a factual announcement: no new prospectuses, no more Small Publishers’ Fairs, no fortnightly meetings.
We bade each other farewell without exchanging a word. Daniël went back to the Das Magazin office, Reinjan rushed home to his dog, and I cycled home, with no idea what I should do with all the free time I suddenly had.
Half a year later, a piece about Babel & Voss appeared in the literary journal Ons Erfdeel. It described in detail the early days of the publishing house, Reinjan’s dream, the ways in which we wanted to stand out, the setbacks we encountered, our futile attempts to get books in shops. The piece contained all sorts of details an outsider couldn’t possibly know, details about sales figures and conversations that had taken place behind closed doors. It wasn’t strange, because I’d written it myself.
I’d been wary of sending my text to Daniël, and above all to Reinjan. Daniël responded within half an hour of my sending it to him. ‘Nice one, mate,’ was all he wrote.
Reinjan’s response followed shortly thereafter. ‘A shot in the arm,’ he emailed. ‘Now Babel & Voss hasn’t been in vain. It’s been recorded. It’s got a place in history. PS: A good bit of advance publicity for Gert Boel’s novel as well, and yes, I’m an optimist.’
He phoned me the same day. He wanted to use my article, in extended form, to make a pamphlet. ‘Our fifth anniversary is coming up,’ he said. ‘I think it would be perfectly suited for a celebratory publication. At last, an anniversary publication that doesn’t have success stories in it, as a sign of life.’
His voice sounded so full of hope I could only agree.
Soon after, Reinjan and I met up in ’t Loosje on the Nieuwmarkt. ‘Babel & Voss will continue to exist,’ he said at once. ‘As long as we want it to.’
He went on to talk about ‘the manuscript’. It took a while for me to realize that he was referring to my article for Ons Erfdeel. Reinjan took dozens of pamphlets out of a bag and showed them to me. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘A.F.Th., Thomése, Grunberg, Mutsaers, they’ve all had publications with small publishing houses. Which one do you like best?’
I flicked through them and picked one out.
‘We’ll make something like that then. As a special festive promotion. And before I forget: I want to make at most two thousand euros’ loss on this title.’
Evidently, it was already clear that he’d make a loss, the only question was how much.
Before I arrived home that afternoon, I received a lengthy email with words like ‘ISBN’ and ‘royalty percentage’ in it. Reinjan had also emailed several bookshops, and wanted to know if I wanted a publication without illustrations? With flaps, or a hardcover?
For the first time in ages, Reinjan was back in his role again. Finally, something was happening at Babel & Voss once more, the machine was turning — like an engine that briefly starts up again after you’ve been stuck for hours on the motorway, so long you no longer know if you’re still waiting for help or just thinking: forget it, it’s fine.
In the autumn of 2o14, the freelancers with whom we’d shared a floor in the office in the Wallen organized a leaving party for Reinjan. He’d carried on paying rent for a fair while, long after we’d stopped publishing books and even after he’d got Milan Kundera and hardly ever went to the office any more.
It was a sunny Friday afternoon. The table where the three of us used to meet was full of someone else’s papers. There were bowls containing slices of cucumber; people were drinking glasses of wine or beer from half-litre cans. I knew virtually no one and was by far the youngest there. Without being asked, Reinjan introduced me to everyone: ‘This is Thomas. He’s going to be writing our anniversary book.’ I also heard him say, ‘This is the man who’s going to immortalize the office.’
A woman with a German accent gave a speech. I was standing at the back and had trouble following what she was saying. After a while she said, ‘Books were made here and, above all, a lot of talking about books took place here.’
There was applause.
Then Reinjan spoke. Halfway through his speech he said something I knew I’d never forget, one sentence which probably summed up the whole history of Babel & Voss. ‘I’d finally achieved everything I’d wanted in my life, and then I got the dog.’
More applause, louder this time.
I clapped along, but was one of the first to leave. I found it difficult to be in this room, knowing that Babel & Voss wasn’t based there any more. I quickly shook hands with Daniël and Reinjan and left the room. Down those creaky stairs in the Wallen one last time, ‘We don’t dispense methadone’ one last time. I knew I’d never go back there. But that I’d still miss the place.
If people ask me about the current status of Babel & Voss, I mainly find it embarrassing. As if they’re reminding me of a romance that fizzled out without it being clear how or why. I usually smile a bit. Sometimes I repeat what Reinjan said. That the publishing house will continue to exist as long as we want it to.
I keep it to myself that it’s alive like a comatose patient who doesn’t have any friends or family around them: no one who would notice if they opened their eyes again after so many years.
It’s now been about a year since our last book was published. It remains to be seen whether or not anything else will be published after this piece. It’s my understanding that there are no plans to do so. We haven’t heard anything from Gert Boel for months. According to Daniël, he’s still writing an ever-expanding novel. ‘He’s going to send me some fragments again soon. One day it will turn into something big.’
Funnily enough, the old titles are selling just as well now as they were a year ago — not a lot, but we still receive orders every week. And apart from storage at the national distribution centre, there are hardly any fixed costs.
In order to stay alive, a publisher hardly has to pay anything. It’s only if you want to do more than exist that it costs money.
What remains is a collection of memories. Of that winter’s afternoon that Daniël and I travelled to Groningen to launch the novel by Vamba Sherif that went virtually unnoticed; of Nicol Ljubic’s upper arms, of course; of all the times I walked past the medical centre and up the stairs to our office; of the photo session on a bridge; of drinking champagne with a Fleming I didn’t know.
There’s still a Facebook account with a few hundred followers, to which Reinjan posts something every now and then. There are two editions of What We Can Do Without in my bookcase; virtually no one knows that the difference can be found on page 1o1. There’s an undiminished pile of cards on my desk. Thomas Heerma van Voss, Babel & Voss — editor. I haven’t given out a single one all these years.
Nevertheless, the publishing house still exists. Reinjan’s dream is still alive. It’s now spread out over hundreds of bookcases in Dutch households; traces of it can still be found in certain bookshops — not in piles by the till, but in one of the bookcases, squeezed between hundreds of other titles. If you look closely you’ll still see our logo, very small, right at the bottom: the curly letters B&V.