MGIP January newsletter

5 questions to... Jan Martens

Jan Martens

1. Jan, the year 2017 is very important for MGIP, because the group will be celebrating its 40th anniversary! You were one of the founding members and witnessed the first crucial steps of the group. Please explain to us and especially to our younger members, why and how MGA – how it was called at that time – was founded.

The late sixties and the early seventies were a booming time for illustrated books. The technique of offset printing had come to maturation and opened a new world for simultaneous printing in several languages, which was the key to co-editions. Less important – although interesting – for publishers who were operating in territories with a large language audience (English, French, German), co-editions proved to be vital for publishers in smaller language territories, whose national markets were too small to reach the minimum level of productivity and return of investment. Yugoslavia was one of them. Bato Tomasevic, who was the new director of the national cooperative publishing company Yugoslav Review and – as a former diplomat – very sensitive to international cooperation and communication, became aware very soon of the need to anchor his ship in open waters (which also means non-communist) thanks to international partnerships.

Such partnerships happened to be more successful with smaller publishers, whom I belonged to. To ease the process of co-publishing and to establish it on a solid and sustainable basis, we decided to create a group of publishers who did not only share values based on profit, but also on ethics such as – on the professional side – freedom of expression, mutual respect, honesty and – above all on the more personal side – friendship. The ultimate objective and reward of our working together being “to become better publishers”. We also were conscious that pleasure was an important ingredient in our professional cooperation. We wanted our gatherings to be attractive and a contribution to the joy of life. We were non-political, but having our nest and name in a at that time so called non-aligned country, we proved to be above the divisions as caused by the cold war. Publishers from any country who wanted to share our values were welcome.

2. 40 years of existence is a very long time for a group of friends and colleagues. How did the group develop during all these years without losing the common goal of publishing beautiful books?

Before we established the group on a formal basis under Swiss law in Lucerne, we were 5 or 6 people meeting together regularly in the early seventies. Some of these meetings were at book fairs or at home. We took the time to find out how things would work best. Our final test case was a gathering of a small number of publishers – some of them already were friends – on a refurbished fishing boat, sailing on the Adriatic for a week. The common project – initiated by Bato Tomasevic and Yugoslav Review – was an illustrated book entitled “The Islands of the Adriatic”. It turned out to be our first and very successful international project. After that journey we knew for sure that we invented a new way of working together. We did not invent the co-publishing system, but we invented a better way – probably the best way – to use it. We experienced how much you can learn from each other when you work together in a certain manner, which is not the one of sitting together in a booth at the Frankfurt Book Fair for 15 minutes and gambling with a title. We experienced that much more important is to know who are the people behind this book, the suffering of the publisher to make a good book out of it, the way he did it, the way he thinks he can sell it better, and – eventually – seeing him back a year later, share a success, or analyze why it didn’t meet its expectations. We experienced that putting in common all our knowledge on what is right or wrong in publishing, what is ‘has been’, and what is a new hope, what is the most efficient technique to do this or that, is much more important, and profitable, if you share it with people that you can trust, who are open to your questions and your answers to their questions, who have time for you. MGA – now MIGP – is creating the space for that.

3. When it comes to one of the main reasons of joining the group – the creation of co-editions between members – did you benefit from it during all these years? And if yes, can you name your greatest success?

This is a much broader issue than the way it is put here. It’s not only a question of co-edition between members. It is a sake of benefitting from the international experience and circle of relations of each member. When we had our first informal meeting in 1976, I did not take part in the co-edition of the Islands of the Adriatic. This was not for my list, which focused on illustrated scholarly books on art and history. But there was Ljubo Stefanovic, editoral director of Giunti, who put me in contact with Iwanami Shoten, the publisher of a major project on Bruegel’s prints. Great deal. His brother Alex introduced me to Rizzoli. Bato knew very well Thomas Neurath, and Thames and Hudson – although not a member of the Group – became my major partner in the United Kingdom. Ed Boohe, then the president of MGA, introduced me to Frits Landshoff, then editorial director at Abrams, whose son Andreas introduced me to Paul Gottlieb, and Abrams became my major partner for North America. Hideo Aoki introduced me to the Japanese market and developed for me important partnerships, as he did for many other members, like François de Waresquiel from Citadelles-Mazenod. I brought into the group Belgium’s largest general publisher, Lannoo, who sold and bought a large number of titles within the Group.

Beside that, and no less important, were the direct deals with other members. Also in the early beginning I published in French and in Dutch a book on Ivan Generalic, which I bought from Bato, who bought from me Bruegel and Bosch, which he published in Serbo-Croatian. 100 $ – books. I bought the 3-volume book on the Sixtine Chapel from Citadelle & Mazenod, who got the deal with Nippon Television through Hideo. This unique book was designed by Emil Bührer, a Swiss member of the Group. Mercatorfonds, which was my company until 2012, owes its very rich partnership with the Van Gogh Museum to the friendship between Ronny Gobyn and Suzanne Bogman. My deals with Russian publishers all went through the Group. The same applies to my business with MoMA and the Met (Yale). Very important projects like “The Invitation“ (Sharks) and Daniel Ost, both 4-language co-editions, were all published within the Group. Even summarized, the list would be long. The important thing to retain is that the MIGP is an unbelievable network.

4. Within these 40 years of existence, what was the biggest challenge in your professional life? What was the be the biggest change?

As to my life with the Group, the biggest challenge has been to keep the boat floating, together with Bato Tomasevic, after the outbreak of the civil war in Yugoslavia (1991), when we lost our Motovun seat, and became kind of diaspora. The biggest change – for good – has been the taking over of the leadership by Elisabeth Sandmann. As to the challenges and changes in my life as an independent publisher, I must say that every book is a challenge – and it always will be like that – and a change, fortunately.

5. “Once a publisher, always a publisher” – these are your words, which I well remember. But publishing has changed rapidly within these last 40 years. Do you think that the profession of a publisher is developing more and more from an ‘artist’ to a ‘producer’ of books?

This statement is obviously true and to my best knowledge it applies to most of the members of the Group I know, and certainly to the ‘founding fathers’. My life stands for its veracity but I must admit that if extended to the ten thousands publishers – or named as such – worldwide it is an unauthenticated story. I am not going to develop this very complex and broad topic in this newsletter. But to the ones who read Latin, I would say “Vita brevis, ars longa”. And for those ones, it still will be “art”.