The Indiependent sits down with Goran Baba Ali and Aleksandra Markovic, co-founders of new publishing house Afsana Press, to discuss the company’s progress since its inception last year.
Goran Baba Ali has always wanted to be a publisher: “When I was a kid, there weren’t so many children’s books or magazines out there. I had maybe three or four in Kurdish, and I’d read them over and over again,” he explains. Bored of what was available, he decided that the solution was to create his own. He lays out a series of handmade booklets on the table between us, each covered with a child’s remarkably neat print and illustrated with carefully drawn logos. “I made carbon copies of each and sold them to the local kids,” he explains, pointing out the issue numbers on each delicate volume.
Spread out alongside the stack of books that Afsana Press has published over the last year, it’s clear that his passion for the publishing world hasn’t faded. So too has remained his love of storytelling; he completed his MA in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2019, and his English language novel The Glass Wall was Afsana’s first official production.
“From the very start, I didn’t want it to just be a self-publishing project,” Goran states. “I wanted to really establish it as a publishing house.” He went about researching the market, “and in six months I knew how a publishing house, big or small, works.”
Of course, that’s not an easy process. ”Having that knowledge can be discouraging,” Goran says. “I was torn between being very enthusiastic about it, believing that although the process is complicated and difficult it’s something that I could do, to just being frustrated and saying ‘no way’.”
Around December 2022, after a year of contemplation and long discussions weighing up the pros and cons, “we decided to go for it,” he recounts. Hurdles remained, though; while the passion was there from the start, passion alone cannot pay the bills. “We tried to find investors,” Alex laughs, “but of course, no one’s crazy enough to invest in publishing!” Without investors, and with banks not keen on loaning money to new companies, the couple put their own money into the project—a daunting prospect in any industry, let alone one that’s not known as a moneyspinner.
“Many small presses are started by writers, or someone who already has experience in the publishing industry,” Goran explains, as Alex suggests that Goran’s experience as a writer, and familiarity with the trials of getting a debut novel published, helps both Afsana and its writers.
The publishing house aims to give a voice to those who are often ignored by the industrial cogs of mainstream firms, where the commercial aspect is central. If a novel isn’t expected to appeal to a broad audience, it’s less likely to get picked up. Similarly, debut authors are seen as a risk. “You never know if this author will write another book,” Goran explains. “But for us, it doesn’t matter. When somebody has worked so hard, put all this energy into a project and it’s a good story, why shouldn’t it come out? People should see it.”
In large publishing houses, the journey from a manuscript being submitted to its actual publication is arduous, following a long and complicated process filled with various intermediaries. Along the way, “there are so many good stories out there that don’t make it to people,” Goran says. “Our job is putting these stories out there that might otherwise be missed.”
Afsana is keen to differentiate between ‘literature’ and ‘entertainment’, with both Goran and Alex believing that mainstream publishing has leaned firmly into the latter category. Alex laments the formulaic plots that many bestsellers follow, and the lack of variety promoted in large chain bookshops, while Goran maintains that “not everything should be entertainment”.
“Books have become a business of entertainment,” he elaborates, “while literature can be agonising. It’s experimental, it should be challenging”. That intensity is something that Afsana seeks to promote, looking for stories that deal with urgent matters alongside more entertainment-driven, genre-led conventions.
The publishing house is “very keen to hear from minority writers and writers in exile”, Alex says. “We’re both immigrants—when you have that experience, maybe you can relate more to the authors, and recognise that the path is a bit different. We know that it’s a different world.”
That being said, they’re conscious that there’s a danger of being trapped in a niche. “We don’t want to be too exclusive,” Goran explains. “While we’re focused on writers in exile, that doesn’t restrict us. Any author is welcome.” He suggests that this benefits all those involved, with the focus placed firmly on telling good stories rather than only publishing books from a certain type of author.
While social movements of the recent years have helped to provide opportunities for authors from marginalised groups, this has led to many bookshops, particularly larger chains, lumping all authors from a certain group into the same category—regardless of what their work is about.
“Recently, our friend went to look for a Toni Morrison book,” Goran recounts. “She couldn’t find her novels anywhere, and the staff told her to look at the ‘Black Voices’ shelf,” located apart from the main fiction section. “She’s a worldwide author,” he exclaims, “she could be anywhere!” But instead, she’s relegated to a particular shelf, a category.
This is a situation replicated across the board, with any books discussing gender found exclusively in the LGBTQ section, or women’s writing being grouped on a table.
In the short term, this is great; it brings attention to underappreciated, underrecognized talent, handing over dedicated space and giving readers the chance to discover something new. In the long run, though, the consequences are less positive. Rather than genre, the most important part of a novel becomes the author’s identity. Organising bookshops in this way “creates an ‘us against them’ feeling,” Alex says, “which is everything but what we want”.
The publishing process
Although settling down with a novel sounds like a dream job, reading through manuscripts is a time-consuming task. “We both read the submissions we get in and we decide together whether we’re going to publish it,” Goran explains. “We have to ask whether the book can make it in the market, and whether it will sell easily, but the very first question is ‘are we personally interested in this book? Do we like it?’”
Sometimes, other authors published by Afsana read through the submissions too. Goran and Alex consider their authors to be friends, whose opinions they value when it comes to future projects. Their contributions don’t end at the written word, either; “last year, Jane [Labous] helped us with the website,” Goran adds. “That’s one nice thing about a small publisher for authors; they have a really important role.”
Once a manuscript has been selected, then comes the editing process. “We generally do the first edit in house, working with the writers, before we hire editors for the second revision,” explains Goran, who focuses on this side of the business. Also on hand is one of the press’ volunteers, Aryan Bamo, whose interest in the industry has seen him move from a publicity to an editorial role in the company. The company’s second volunteer, Arazoo Kadir, handles Afsana’s marketing and sales.
“Unfortunately, we do have to turn down some projects,” Goran says. “We don’t have the capacity to do everything, and that’s a shame.” That being said, new ventures are not far off. Afsana has already begun working on republishing out-of-print novels, and is breaking into the world of translated work.
Goran precedes the topic with the statement that “we’re very cautious with this, because it’s a very complicated process.” When dealing with both a translator and an author, the issue of author rights becomes a little more thorny. It is also, of course, a more expensive endeavour, “but we don’t want to miss out on things just because they’re in another language”.
Despite this, Afsana is making progress.”We got a submission of a very good book, written in French,” Goran shares. An immediate problem—none of the team read French. However, “we can always find people we trust to translate for us”. With the novel originally recommended by a friend, and after receiving the first two translated chapters of the book along with a synopsis, they were sold.
Yet despite their interest, “we can’t invest in the translation”, Alex says. “We’ll support them as much as we can, but they’ll have to search for funds.” She hopes that the backing of a publisher, ready to get the translated book out into the world as soon as it’s completed, will sweeten the deal for potential investors.
While the publication of translated work is undoubtedly convoluted, the pair are eager to move forwards with such projects. “I’d really like to have some Croatian, Serbian or Bosnian books translated,” Alex muses, hoping for the press to publish at least one of these a year moving forward. She goes on to explain that in Croatia, the translation of novels into English is encouraged and subsidised, which would simplify the process somewhat.
2024 and beyond
Afsana has five titles lined up as it moves into 2024. Among these are work from Jane Labous and Miki Lentin, both of whom were published by the press in 2023, and a collection from Iranian poets connected to the Women Life Freedom movement.
“We’re also trying out a new publishing method, which would allow us to spend our money more wisely, and across more projects,” Goran reveals. Through this approach, he hopes that the press will have the capacity to release around 10 books a year by 2025.
“We’d also like to be able to get additional help at some point,” Alex adds. “We are very grateful for our volunteers’ work—we’re volunteers too!—but we can’t operate this way forever.”
Afsana Press has achieved a considerable amount during its short time on the publishing scene. Its October launch event, at Stanford’s Bookshop in London, was well attended, and it has released four volumes over the year. Goran and Alex have high hopes for where the company will go next, and between the couple’s infectious enthusiasm and real love for the literary world, it seems that their success to date is set to continue.
Words by Lucy Carter
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