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The publishing houses are traditionally the main participators in the Brazilian literary field and are a comparatively new phenomenon in Brazil — the first publisher, Imprensa Régia (Royal Press) dates from the arrival of the Portuguese Royal Family in 1808. Many books by Brazilian authors were printed in Europe until the late 1920s. Even today Brazilian publishing houses retain some of this aplomb. Two traditional publishing houses, José Olympio in Rio (1931) and Globo in Porto Alegre (1883) originally were bookshops that were purchased by corporations. Another common characteristic of Brazilian publishing houses is that many have a background linked to a wealthy family greatly interested in the arts and cultural life, such as left-wing intellectuals Monteiro Lobato (Companhia Editora Nacional), Carlos Lacerda (Nova Fronteira), Caio Prado Jr. (Brasiliense) and Ênio Silveira (Civilização Brasileira).
The main publishing houses dedicated to literature today are Companhia das Letras, Record, Rocco and Nova Fronteira who represent the most important Brazilian and international authors. A second group of publishers, Objetiva, Top Books, Editora Globo and Cosac Naify are also highly dedicated to literature, the latter specialising in a more experimental graphic design of their presentation of modern classic literature and poetry.
More recently international publishing groups have entered the Brazilian market; Prisa-Santillana has purchased many local publishing houses and opened others as subsidiaries (Planeta, SM, Alfaguara, Moderna, Objetiva). The same process occurred at the level of publishing groups e.g. Grupo Editorial Record, the owner of José Olympio, Civilização Brasileira, Bertrand, Best-Seller and others.
It is important to be aware of vital differences among these publishing houses. A dividing line exists between those houses more associated with literary quality and those that are seen as openly focused on market results. This is an important matter because it affects the reception of books: the same author, published either by Companhia das Letras or by Record, for example, will receive completely different treatment by the press, and this may have considerable impact in the success (or failure) of a title published in Brazil.
In everything that concerns intellectual and literary prestige in Brazil, Companhia das Letras is crucial. While it is not the biggest fiction house in the country, it is the one that has found a judicious balance between healthy sales and editorial respectability. Name a prestigious contemporary writer and his Brazilian publishing house will probably be Companhia das Letras: Philip Roth, Ian McEwan, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, J. M. Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, Doris Lessing, José Saramago and Cees Nooteboom. It’s the Brazilian house that has the closest connection to the Wylie Agency, the American literary agency owned by Andrew Wylie that represents some of the most prestigious fiction authors in the world.
The same is true for Brazilian names. Authors such as Raduan Nassar, Bernardo Carvalho and Milton Hatoum, all around fifty years old and regarded by critics as among the best to appear in Brazil in recent years, are in the Companhia stable. And, in a recent development, Companhia has started publishing Brazilian contemporary classics, such as Jorge Amado, Erico Verissimo and Lygia Fagundes Telles.
Companhia was founded in 1987 and it blazed significant transformations in the editorial market in Brazil. It was highly aggressive in its marketing and PR, yet was able to establish a reputation of an enterprise preoccupied with the artistic quality of its books. If you add excellent relations with significant academics in the university, influential members of the press and the financial markets (Companhia is partly owned by a family of bankers), then you see the secret behind the excellent reputation in Brazil of this particular publishing house. Even though some of the books it publishes have very good sales, Companhia das Letras is almost never seen as a publisher of best-sellers.
Another important Brazilian publisher is Cosac Naify, which like Companhia is based in São Paulo. Cosac Naify was founded in 1997, initially focussed only on the fine arts. Now it publishes literary authors, mainly classics such as Melville, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Henry James, Gorky. Though much smaller than Companhia, the quality of its editions, particularly the graphic work, has attracted a great deal of attention. While its sales figures are modest Cosac Naify retains a high level of artistic prestige and integrity, and is generally the only publisher of its size to receive regular coverage in the press.
On the other side of the line one finds the bigger houses, mostly located in Rio de Janeiro. All of them seek to publish prestigious literary authors, but in every case where there is tension between literary quality and sales figures they will inevitably lean towards sales. Objetiva is a good example. It became famous in the early 1990s trying to find a balance between literary authors and high sales statistics. It was initially successful at sustaining such a balance, but, as major international groups arrived in Brazil, it was bought out by Santillana, one of the biggest Spanish communication groups. Nowadays, it owns Alfaguara, which follows a similar line as elsewhere in the world and is the imprint through which literary authors are published.
A similar situation is faced by the big Spanish group Planeta which arrived in Brazil in 2002 in an attempt to establish an image of literary quality. First Planeta hired a team of highly qualified editors and tried to attract authors from Companhia das Letras but the company quickly abandoned this strategy to invest directly in best-sellers instead, thus resembling other major groups. The company plans to launch the imprint Seix Barral as a reserve for literary authors.
Record is the biggest publishing conglomerate dealing with non-didactic books in Brazil. During the 1970s Record provided an important example of editorial modernisation and the quality of its backlist was unquestioned. As it started to grow and acquire other houses, however, it ran out of cultural power. Now it is no longer driven by sophisticated values, but rather by an “eclecticism of results”. Some of the most important authors of Brazilian literature, such as Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Graciliano Ramos, are published by Record. But it produces such a flood of books — more than one title every day — that it cannot be associated with an image of high editorial care, or the judicious selection of authors.
It’s very similar for Rocco and Ediouro. Both are big publishing conglomerates in Brazil and both adopt an aggressive market strategy. Rocco exists independently and was responsible for the first publication of Paulo Coelho in Brazil in the early 1980s. Now it’s known as the publisher of Harry Potter.
Ediouro owns the traditional houses of Agir and Nova Fronteira, both founded more than forty years ago. The latter is still responsible for Brazilian classics, such as João Guimarães Rosa and Manuel Bandeira, but nowadays it’s much more visible in the market as publisher of best-sellers by Khaled Hosseini and others. It’s a widespread opinion in Brazil that these majors are all interested in selling their businesses to the big international groups, and are just waiting for the right proposal.
There are many small, relevant publishing houses in Brazil, who, even though they are not contending for a big share of the market, are important in that they discover new authors, fill niches and publish important studies.
Estação Liberdade, for example, specialises in translations of Japanese and French fiction, publishing authors like Haruki Murakami, Junichiro Tanizaki and Atiq Rahimi among many others. Boitempo, also small, regularly publishes left-wing authors, both classic and contemporary, be it fiction or non-fiction. Hedra is known for publishing literatura de cordel, highly traditional oral poetry from the northeast of Brazil, and works by Padre Vieira, one of the founding fathers of the Portuguese language who lived in Brazil in the 17th century. In 2006, in its pocket series, Hedra became the first publisher in Brazil to work entirely with free software and open source (Linux).
The small publishers of Brazil are well organised. The quality of their material, the editorial revision, translation and graphic design is quite high, particularly since the 1990s. Together they organise their own publicity event, the Primavera dos Livros, maintain their own trade association, LIBRE (Liga Brasileira de Editoras), for the discussion of their interests and very often launch important authors and titles that later go on to attract the attention of the bigger Brazilian houses and the wider market as a whole.
All this publishing activity is concentrated in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, just as the greater part of the literary and cultural activity in the country, though many important authors in Brazil do not come from these regions. Milton Hatoum, for example, is from Manaus, in northern Brazil. Daniel Galera (1979), a splendid name in the new generation is from Porto Alegre in the south. A list of such decentralised writers would be very long, but all of them, without exception, must be published by the houses in one of the big cities. That is the only way they will find space in the newspapers and magazines, be invited to literary events or be considered for prizes.
Everything that matters in Brazil for a literary career mostly happens in Rio or São Paulo.