There is an often-told story about Brazilian
publisher Luiz Schwarcz, recently announced
as the winner of this year’s London Book Fair
Lifetime Achievement Award in International
Publishing, writes Ángel Gurría-Quintana. In
1986, after quitting his job as editorial director
of the prestigious publisher Brasiliense, he was
determined to found his own publishing
business. He sold his apartment in São Paulo.
With his wife, historian Lilia Moritz Schwarcz,
he founded Companhia das Letras, and set it
up at the back of his family’s printing business.
Schwarcz was convinced that Brazilian readers
were ready for books beyond the Brazilian classics and the young
readers’ titles that had become Brasiliense’s bread-and-butter.
Surely, he thought, there was a market for beautifully made high
quality fiction and non-fiction. His first choice–a translation of
Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station–was a gamble. It paid
off, and became an unlikely bestseller.
More than 30 years and more than 6,000 titles later,
Companhia das Letras remains the gold-standard in Brazilian
publishing. A survey carried out among literary critics and scholars
in 2010 by Brazil’s business newspaper, Valor Econômico, revealed
that it was considered the best publishing house in
Brazil–it received 81% of the respondents’ votes.
A combination of commercial acumen and
canny editorial choices has given Companhia
das Letras the largest share of trade publishing
in Brazil. It has endured the ups and downs of
Brazil’s publishing market: often buoyed by
government purchases, it also came close to
becoming a casualty of the hyper-inflation of
the 1990s–in one instance, Companhia’s
edition of the multi-volume A History of
Private Life was almost ready when it became
apparent that there was not enough money to
pay the printers. Only careful negotiations with creditors
allowed the books to see the light of day.
In 2011, a strategic partnership with Penguin led to
Companhia introducing a vast array of classic titles to the
Brazilian market. Its merger with Rio-based Objetiva, in 2015,
made it the single-largest publisher of Brazilian authors.
Today, the Companhia das Letras Group comprises 16 different
imprints, ranging from children’s literature to non-fiction. It
publishes 38 Nobel Laureates, including Toni Morrison, Doris
Lessing, José Saramago, J M Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk. It also
has in its catalogue some of the most outstanding Brazilian
authors of contemporary fiction such as Chico Buarque,
Rubem Fonseca and Milton Hatoum, in addition to owning
rights to works by some of Brazil’s classic writers–from the poet
Carlos Drummond de Andrade to novelist Jorge Amado.
With Luiz Schwarcz at the helm, the Companhia das Letras
Group has claimed the largest number of Jabuti awards–its
authors have won 206 awards from Brazil’s top book prize
since 1988. Schwarcz himself has received numerous accolades
over the decades, including Brazil’s “Man of Ideas” prize
(1987) and the “Making the Difference” award (2004).
He has also worked to improve literacy among disenfranchised
groups in Brazil. In 2010 Companhia das Letras pioneered the
creation of book clubs in partnership with local libraries and
community centres. Today there are at least 20 such book clubs,
including some in prisons, hospitals and social organizations
for disadvantaged young people. “Companhia never set out to
be elitist,” Schwarcz has said. “We wanted to democratise high
culture, with books that were accessible to all.”
The self-described “book fetishist” is known for shunning
the spotlight, and regularly rails against “the cult of the
publisher”. He has avoided making overtly political
comments, though he recently declared his opposition to the
impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff.
Famous for his attention to detail, and for his fierce loyalty
to his authors, Schwarcz has also mentored a new generation
of publishers and editors, most of whom cut their teeth at
Companhia das Letras and have since gone on to publishing
“To edit books is always an act of optimism,” he has written.
“When we commit to a book, we are also inventing the future.” ■
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