When husband-and-wife duo Adam and Ashley Nelson Levy left New York in 2015 for the Bay Area, where the latter is from, they spent most of the more-than-3,000-mile drive plotting a new project: Transit Books, a nonprofit indie press dedicated to the publication of international literature and works in translation.
The Levys graduated from Columbia’s writing program, a program they found “heavily steeped in domestic literature” in which “translators and readers of translated literature exist in their own sealed-off space,” Adam said—a trend that reflects, in many ways, the U.S. book market.
“We really wanted to build a list that bridged the gap between the readerships of domestic and translated literature,” Ashley said. Adam, a former agent at the Wylie Agency, translates Hungarian literature; Ashley, who worked at a boutique agency before transitioning to the marketing department at the New York Review of Books, writes fiction herself.
When the Levys arrived in Oakland, Calif., where Transit Books is based, they found almost immediate support from the area’s booksellers and literary community. “There’s a kind of energy and curiosity about making a more vibrant and sustaining literary culture,” Adam said.
Transit will launch its initial list of four books in 2017, with plans to grow to six books in 2018; an ideal list, Adam said, would include eight to 10 books per year. The intention, Ashley added, was to start with a small list specifically so that Transit could have enough time to really work to promote each book individually after publication.
The books on the list for next year include Such Small Hands, by Spanish author Andrés Barba, translated by Lisa Dillman; Kintu, by Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi; and Lessons for a Child Who Arrived Late, by the Peruvian writer Carlos Yushimito, translated by Valerie Miles. The Levys have not announced the fourth book.
Transit intends to remain loyal to its authors; among books secured for future lists are collections of Barba’s novellas and of Makumbi’s short stories. The press also places great value on its relationships with translators. Its translator contracts are modeled on PEN America’s Model Contract for Literary Translations, and the Levys rely on their translators to serve as de facto scouts for books in their respective languages and literary scenes.
“We’re a pretty old-school publisher at heart—we really value our relationships with translators and agents and foreign houses,” Adam said. “Our first book, Such Small Hands, came to us directly from Lisa, the translator.”
Transit, which is distributed by Consortium, relies primarily on fund-raising and funding from cultural institutions for its operations, although Adam added that the press is hoping to secure “more funding opportunities within the NEA or other governmental or institutional funding sources” as it grows.
As for operating a press as a married couple, Ashley sees it as “a very natural thing” filled with “funny moments,” she said. “We were in Nashville the other week for a sales conference, and we were in our hotel room preparing a sales pitch, and I thought, our marriage has become very strange.”
Adam added, “It gives us an excuse to keep talking about books from morning until night.”