When planning to launch Perla Ediciones in Mexico City, I tried to keep in mind all the things that can go wrong when embarking on an independent book publishing venture. I had spent over 12 years at Penguin Random House as an editor, experiencing the battleground of books as a foot soldier for the publishing titan, and it was the most intense training one can acquire in the publishing business. When I first conceived of setting up a new publishing house—the very idea still sounds crazy to me—I revisited the many lessons learned at Penguin so I could try to avoid any mistakes that would lead to failure and disappointment.
Perla Ediciones launched with an editor (myself) and two investment partners to make the dream come true. Before we began, we had thought through a variety of worst-case, lose-it-all scenarios. We really did, and then decided to go ahead. That was February.
We settled on publishing our first books, a series of world classics, by August. There was a lot to be done, with the potential to acquire debt early on to secure paper and printing. We knew the risks: it’s an undeniable fact of independent publishing that one is not likely to make an immediate return on investment, or even possibly in the long term. As we all know, publishing is a race of endurance, not speed. It was a huge bet, but we decided to play.
By March, the world began to hear more and more about the strange new coronavirus and a pandemic that was on the rise. Arrogant and self-centered as I was, I never thought it would have an impact on my life.
Then it hit Europe and, shortly thereafter, the Americas, and I became concerned. I began worrying about my loved ones, the most vulnerable groups, the collapse of the world as we know it. I also knew there was a lot at stake when it came to Perla Ediciones, but my focus was elsewhere.
Something else happened. Due to the pandemic, my bank froze my mortgage payments for six months, which allowed me to live with a minimum of income and pour myself entirely into producing my new books. Confinement worked a kind of miracle in my case, allowing me not only to delve into my work but also to get in touch with online communities of eager readers. Also, several suppliers offered to delay invoicing, which allowed us to divert funds to areas where it was most needed.
By August, the first list of nine books was ready. It included Spanish translations of Arthur Waley’s version of Wu Ch’êng-ên’s folk novel Monkey, Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology, and Adelbert von Chamisso’s Peter Schlemihl. We focused on making them very attractive in print and produced e-books as well.
That said, the pandemic was still on the rise, and we had to decide whether to move forward. I was convinced that we couldn’t all be paralyzed by fear. The wheels had to keep turning. It was true that we had less money coming in than we planned, but we were also spending less.
Lockdowns, for certain people, have their good points. I know that many have read more books this year than they had in their entire lives before the pandemic. In these dark times, reading has been a way to channel anxiety and find peace.
Above all, when asked why we would go ahead and launch during a pandemic, I usually responded with another question: Why not? Book publishing implies always swimming against the current. Also, we’re not alone in dealing with the impact of this pandemic: there is a sense of deep solidarity among all humankind now. We may be struggling, but we’re not alone.
I don’t know whether we made the right decision. All I know is that we should stick to doing the things we love, not just for the sake of growing the book business but also to not go completely crazy in the midst of a crisis from the Middle Ages. If books have any power, they serve as a reminder of how far we’ve come since then, and how easy it might be to slip back—and not to take anything for granted.
Wendolín Perla is the founder of Perla Ediciones in Mexico City.