For Translation Week: An interview with Stella Sabin of Peirene Press #NovNov

Today, as part of Novellas in November Translation Week, I am delighted to welcome Stella Sabin, Co-Director of Peirene Press to 746 Books to talk about the work that Peirene Press does and the irresistible nature of the novella.

Peirene Press is an award-winning independent publishing house, specialising in high-quality first-translations of contemporary international novellas.

“We only publish books of less than 200 pages that can be read in the same time it takes to watch a film. We pride ourselves on publishing truly big stories in small packages.”

The books from Peirene Press are beautifully designed paperback editions, using only the best paper from sustainable British sources. They are affordable, timeless collector items. Three new books are published each year, linked by a shared theme or style and sent out to subscribers before they hit the bookshops.

Peirene Press relies on subscribers to sustain their work, giving them the ability to take risks and make bold choices, translating and commissioning literature that can’t be found in the mainstream market.

Stella Sabin joined Peirene Press in 2018 and now runs the press alongside James Tookey. Stella also works in radio and audiobook production and has worked on programmes for BBC Radio 4, the World Service and independent clients.

I’m delighted that Stella has taken some time to answer some questions for us.

Most of our readers will be aware of the work of Peirene Press, but could you give us a little background to the company?

Peirene Press was founded in 2008 by Meike Ziervogel, with the goal of bringing brilliant European novellas to a UK audience. In 2010, the first three books were published: translations from French, Catalan and German. Since then, Peirene has published three novellas a year, with each trio loosely themed around a subject (Female Voices, Male Dilemmas, Small Epic etc.). The series has featured translations from sixteen languages, from nineteen countries, and books on it have been listed for the International Man Booker (or its predecessor the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize) seven times. 

Marzahn, Mon Amour by Katja Oskamp (tr. Jo Heinrich), which will go out to subscribers this month, is the 37th book in the novella series. 

We have ongoing discussions about what actually constitutes a novella! Do you have a set criteria for what one is?

Yes, so do we! Of course, the most basic metric is length; the novella is longer than a short story and shorter than a novel. We set out to publish books under 200 pages (under 50,000 words) that could be read in a single two hour sitting; a kind of ‘literary cinema’ for readers short on time. I have never actually finished one of our books in two hours, but I think the idea of ‘literary cinema’ is very apt for the kind of books that we publish and for the novella in general.

As in a ninety minute feature film, there is no room in a novella for unnecessary digression, superfluous subplots or baggy exposition. Often due to the restrictions of length, novella writers will focus intensely on one character, idea or line of investigation, and this can produce really interesting and intense results.

The novella also enables writers to make bold stylistic choices and experiment in ways that readers might not tolerate in a longer length work.

You publish novellas in translation, and the novella seems much more popular in translation than it is for English writers. Would you agree and if so, why do you think that is?

Yes, I’m not sure why this is the case. A lot of our favourite UK writers have novellas in their lists of published works, but it seems to be the preserve of the ‘established author’. I really doubt that any publishers base their editorial decisions on the length of a book exclusively, and I don’t think many readers consciously make their selection on weight alone either.

But I would say that that novella asks a lot of the reader – they are not books to casually pick up and put down, they demand a certain amount of attention and a chunk of time to immerse yourself in the writing and story, and it’s possible that this puts some readers off.

For whatever reason, you don’t see many novellas on the commercial best-seller lists or the big prize shortlists in the UK, and I do think there is a certain amount of pressure on writers to produce ‘full-length novels’ (whatever that means) for this reason. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg scenario.

The subscription model for book-buying is a growing one. How has it worked for Peirene?

The subscription model has been central to the growth of a lot of independent publishers over the last decade. Our subscribers pay £35 a year (plus international postage) to receive all of Peirene’s translated novella series before they hit the bookshops. This dedicated base of readers is essential to everything we do as a small business and their commitment enables us to plan for the future and take risks.

The subscription model also changes the way we select our books. We are always thinking about the experience of the reader who is collecting all of our titles, so we ask ourselves questions like ‘Is there enough variety in this series?’, ‘Do these books speak to each other?’, ‘Do we have a good geographical and linguistic spread across these books?’

You are known for theming your subscription collections – what is the next theme that is coming up?

Actually, this is the first year that we have decided not to have a theme. We really enjoyed curating the book selection around a theme and thinking about how the books interact with each other. But subscribers who join us half way through the year miss out on this experience and it can feel like you’re joining in the middle of a programme. All our books can be read as stand-alone works, so we have decided to make our subscription continuous rather than grouping the series by year or by theme. 

Of all your publications, which title has been the most popular?

It’s hard to say! Some particular successes are Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena, The Mussel Feast by Birgit Vanderbeke and more recently The Pear Field by Nana Ektimishvili, which was long-listed for The International Booker Prize last year. 

Can you ever see Peirene branching out into publishing novels, or publishing novellas in the English language?

Yes, absolutely! We have plans to do both in the future. But translated literature and our novella series will always be our bread and butter. 

Many thanks to Stella Sabin for taking part in our Translated Fiction Week as part of Novellas in November. If you’d like to learn more about Peirene Press or become a subscriber (which I can heartily recommend!) then do visit their website. Do you already subscribe to Peirene Press? Do you have a favourite title from them? Do let me know in the comments.

Novellas in November novels in translation

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

12 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Lovely way to round off NovNov’s translated fiction week, Cathy. I love that phrase ‘literary cinema’. I was a little taken aback to read that Soviet Milk is one of Peirene’s most popular titles, not the easiest of their books I’ve read. Looking forward to hearing more about their future plans.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Coincidentally I’m currently reading Clara’s Daughter by Meike Ziervogel, the founder of Peirene Press, so I’m delighted to see this interview—I’ll come back and use it as a guide for what to look out for when I’ve finished the novella!

    Liked by 1 person

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