NJME: Fra Publishing House and Michal Rydval

Michal Rydval is the man behind the thirteen years long existence of Fra publishing house that publishes essays, art books, visual theory, international and Czech prose, but above all, poetry. How does he think about book publishing and who pays for it? How does he manage the place where content is more important than form, and what goals does he set for Fra?

The interview with Michal Rydval seeks to characterize and introduce the role of small and smallest publishing houses today.

Barbora Ševčíková

01 Fra, End of the season 2013-2014

02 Interview with Michal Rydval

“When I look back on those thirteen years, I am not even sure if it was worth it,” laughs Rydval, “but that’s normal; someone else must judge it…”


Will people buy interesting content in the future? Because Fra is sustained by selling interesting content…

We can’t make living by selling our books; the more of them we publish the more we lose financially. We have some money and can publish books because we are in the distribution of Moleskins. Without that we would be able to publish three or four books at best… We are a small publishing house; we do some twenty books a year. We publish paperbacks – and because of them being cheap and having simple format we can publish more of them. In the beginning of Fra I noticed that form started to determine what the book actually is. I found it bizarre. I am interested in content. The point is to make simple, cheap books with good content. We started to publish anthologies and selected extracts of important works that haven’t been published here yet. It changed slowly; now we publish also contemporary authors, collections and new things, though it wasn’t initially the plan. You eventually stray away whatever plan you initially had.

Why did poetry start to prevail in what you publish today?

That’s simple… When someone writes a poetry collection it’s usually not more than 50 pages and to publish it is virtually effortless, it’s faster. And it’s not like we would want to hold the books off. There were supposed to be published some five books of theory edition now, but they aren’t because it’s more complicated. The translators are busy and when they aren’t their work needs to be prepared for publication and that takes a lot of time. Some two or three books are being postponed a few years now and we can’t manage to publish them.

Are you backed by grants?

Partially, yes, but it’s a very small part. Say, three or four out of twenty books are supported.


How would you describe Fra’s role and what you do today?

I believe we have succeeded to establish ourselves as a standard small publishing house with some readership. We have won some awards, but we don’t really know how accepted we are or what is our role. That’s also because there is only so many books that lead the book market and when you are not the one who publishes these bestsellers than your publishing house is in trouble. Well, and that’s us, we are practically just scraping the bottom of the barrel. We know that many bookshops don’t sell our books, but we resigned to push forward since we lack capacity, time and money to do it.

How do you update your publishing plan? How do you select from the foreign literature and how do you keep the selection interesting?

Every edition has its own editor who prepares everything. But it’s not like there is one pre-meditated idea. We come across various books, but we don’t strive to follow any trends be it in theory or in poetry. We don’t care about that. We try not to consider the book’s popularity, but merely do whatever we like. But we do of course self-reflect. For example, because we are so small everything takes too long. When we receive a manuscript, it usually takes us two to three years to publish it. That’s, for example, what we are bothered with. When authors write something they naturally want to publish it right away. But that’s not possible with us; we are not a book factory.

And our experiments with doing it differently didn’t go really well. For example, when we were trying to do hardbacks we learned it is not our thing; we found it useless to pay so much for it because for the same money we could publish more of smaller books. Sometimes it’s just more fun to do it the same way all the time, endure and not to bother oneself with pros and cons of trends.

Why was Fra founded and what were you starting with? Did you miss content you wanted to be available here?

I wasn’t keen of design, but of books and their content. I didn’t really like the discussions about the font and the type of binding… I found it quite crazy. I wanted to come up with something simple, cheap, with interesting texts. I wanted a simple edition and I didn’t see anything like it here. I don’t think showcasing is important; I was attracted by the production of French publishing houses with their formally identical editions. I knew I wouldn’t want to invent every new book anew.

Is it possible for such a publishing house to function commercially in Czech Republic?

I think that if it’s possible in Germany or France then why it wouldn’t be possible in Czech Republic. But we would need to become part of the distribution and be bigger. It wouldn’t work otherwise. But it’s also truth that we don’t put too much effort into marketing…

Are there some other options for distribution? Some experiment?

Small publishers sometimes go to all those important booksellers, bring them directly the books and explain what those books are about. We had done it for a while, but it stopped being interesting for us after some time. Another option is to sell books completely outside the distribution networks, at some events. But the options are limited mostly by time: we want to do books and not to travel around festivals and events with a backpack. Other forms of distribution are, I believe, for projects of different kind. We are a standard small publishing house. We are no experimenters at all.

What does one have to be aware when publishing books?

I would like to know that, too… I don’t think it’s a rocket science. In a way I like when someone overdoes something visually, but I wouldn’t do it, personally. I find it amusing, it’s a kind of a formal game which is not funny; I don’t care about that. Interesting content doesn’t mean the cover needs to bear a title upside down. The meaning of books lies in texts; they are the most important thing.

What makes you still enjoy doing it? When you publish poems, poetry? Is there something you would like to try?

These aren’t really the best times and I don’t want to lie to you… (Laugh) But I don’t want to complain all the time. I think in the beginning it’s amazing to meet an editor or an author who leads you to even more people. I met a lot of very interesting people. Also, it’s quite energizing when a completely different text comes; something new, powerful, and important – that’s inspiring. Also, I have a feeling it’s important. There are a lot of contemporary texts that simply wouldn’t exist if they weren’t published by us. We know that we may be publishing books we don’t find perfect, but I believe the world of literature needs this. A book is important when it’s published. It’s similar to local art exhibitions. The content is always interesting in one way or another; I don’t remember a boring book.

What questions and topics are you interested in when you publish a book? How do you set the direction Fra goes in?

I am interested in opinionated editions, a publishing house with views. And what does Fra want to say? We probably don’t have exactly a vision. In most of the things we are looking for outstanding personalities and outstanding aestheticians, but I can’t say that we would be setting any kind of pre-meditated direction or looking for some common ideas. Not even the outsiderism is relevant anymore… so, authenticity? That’s probably a cliché, but that’s how it is, probably: authenticity.

What do you miss, even generally, not just within publishing business?

Lately, the art scene – full of young curators and artists – became quite lively. The publishing houses are actually quite boring in comparison. It’s interesting they are not connected… not a lot of readings are being done, it’s difficult…

And what do you read?

Mostly things I am preparing for publishing and print. I read manuscripts, do proofreading, ten things at the same time. I haven’t read anything with proper focus for a long time. Last time it was “Alphabet of Things” by Karel Císař.

How is it with grants?

If you want to do something for a long time then you need grants, but you can’t rely on that. There are quite good commitees at the Ministry of Culture, it’s not a useless thing if you want to publish more books. There is no lack of options; in the end, what matters is who is more capable and who less. You have to spend some time doing it, and it takes a lot of time, but there is always a way to get money.

Do you stay in touch with someone abroad? Friendly publishing houses?

No, we are interested in authors; we stay in touch with agencies and bigger publishing houses.

Did you experience something unexpected? Something that sold unexpectedly well or that happened?

Most of the time we are surprised when we are awarded with Magnesia Litera for something we didn’t expect and vice versa… We don’t quite get it, one needs communicativeness, success. Marketability can be pretty much gauged. We keep reprinting Barthes, but with poetry collections it is quite the contrary.

Bigger assortment of books means bigger returns, so having a small publishing house means small returns. Bigger publishing houses live off the fact they have more books to offer and it piles up monthly. The more books you offer the bigger the chance you can make a living. When you start with one book the incoming invoice is just empty. The only option for small publishing houses is to have more of the books.

03 fra

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Café Fra events; photo Ondřej Lipár, Dorota Velek

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Café Fra events; photo Ondřej Lipár, Dorota Velek

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Café Fra events; photo Ondřej Lipár, Dorota Velek

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Café Fra events; photo Ondřej Lipár, Dorota Velek

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Café Fra events; photo Ondřej Lipár, Dorota Velek

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Fra cover: Radek Brousil

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Fra cover: Aleksandra Vajd, Hynek Alt

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Fra cover: Jiří Thýn

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Fra cover: Michal Rydval

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Fra cover: Martin Kubát

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Café Fra posters: Martin Kubát

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Café Fra posters: Martin Kubát

04 Public reading: Jean-Philippe Toussaint ve Fra

05 "The point is to make simple, cheap books with good content."

06 NJME: Not Just Marginal Entertainments

“Not Just Marginal Entertainments” (NJME) present the situation and standing of various cultural organizations. Beside the big institutions Artyčok deals with intensively and critically, the attention shifts to places that difference in their functioning, activities and financing in common. NJME explore the roles of contemporary institutions, their visions or the lack of them, and the reasons for their operation. They look for changes or, conversely, stagnations and the reasons for them; a stigmatization by past as much as following tradition and history.

The original project by Barbora Ševčíková will focus, for example, on a private museum of radios, a graphic design show or an independent gallery. It shall take a closer look at the situation they find themselves in, the ways of their financing, as much as the approaches to the management of a cultural organization. The selection of videos and photographs is left to the individuals in the question and their judgment in presentation of their work.

07 Exhibition credits

Author of the Project / Curator: Barbora Ševčíková
Author of Texts: Barbora Ševčíková
Online Presentation Concept, Editing and Realization: Lenka Střeláková
Translated into English: Palo Fabuš
Published: 27. 5. 2015