John O’Brien in Action

John O’Brien, the head of the much-admired Dalkey Archive Press, has died. Here is a piece I wrote in December 2009, after a visit to the Press, when it was located at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. O’Brien was in his element. —JG


Dalkey Archive Press is the largest publisher of translated literature in the United States, but Associate Director Martin Riker [now at Washington University] makes clear to visitors that Dalkey believes literature is an international art form that transcends national boundaries. One result of all this is that not all their books are by writers working in other languages, and not all are fiction. Riker also cheerfully admits they publish books to their own tastes.

When pressed, founder and director John O’Brien says those tastes run to the “subversive,” since he does not like terms such as “avant-garde” or “experimental.” One writer who happened to be eating lunch at Dalkey last week, during my first brief visit, described the aesthetic as “bat-shit crazy.” (Others feel Dalkey doesn’t publish experimentally enough. No pleasing everyone.) They have been publishing since 1980.

Their current building, formerly occupied by Printing Services, looks a little like a pole barn from the outside and is on the southernmost edge of campus on a bad gravel road, out where the university has pushed the last evidence of its Morrill Act origins. Inside it is recently renovated, but business-austere. There are half a dozen cubicles for interns and translation fellows beyond an unmanned receptionist’s desk, and small offices with windows along the wall for O’Brien and Riker. Cheap, durable carpeting covers concrete floors, and overhead there are fluorescent light boxes with wiring running each-to-each in conduit pipes.

Riker’s responsibilities have varied over the years, but his main job at Dalkey now is marketing, while John O’Brien spends half his time on editorial duties and half on fundraising. There are another four permanent staff members, smart young people in their twenties and thirties.

Riker took me into their back storage room filled with metal shelving. I probably exclaimed over the shiny new books, and he said, “This is just the tippy-tip. Review copies.” Riker explained that Dalkey has 470 titles, a consequence of their never allowing titles to go out of print. Obviously it is a big benefit of publishing with them, so canonical as well as emerging authors publish with Dalkey.

(Unbelievably, major commercial publishers have let titles such as William Gass’s The Tunnel lapse, and Dalkey now publishes it alongside his Temple of TextsFinding a Form, and other books that have been important in my reading life.) Similar situations brought Dalkey the works of Stanley Elkin, Carlos Fuentes, and other world authors. Fuentes is especially a fan of the press, Riker said, and Dalkey will release the first world publication (in English, and before a Spanish-language edition) of his new collection of essays.

The mini-warehouse is filled with stacks and stacks of beautiful books with modern covers designed by Danielle Dutton [also now at Washington University], and Riker handed me copies of several titles, including ones by Goncalo M. Tavares (“three more coming soon, we like to have several by our authors”), Jean-Philippe Toussaint, and Stanley Crawford. He gave me Crawford’s Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine and said it’s become a cult book (“a captivating short work almost beyond description,” says The New Yorker) and one of his favorites. He said reprints are harder to get press coverage for, so he “hand-sold” this book to indie booksellers, and it was picked up by Daedalus. It’s easy to see that Riker, laidback, funny, but deadly knowledgeable, does this very well.

When we emerged from the stockroom, a meeting was underway for the permanent staff, who had spreadsheets at a long table with John O’Brien installed at the head. I’d heard O’Brien could be gruff or imperious, but he looked a little like Santa, if Santa wore a herringbone jacket over a sweater and Oxford shirt and had been to London or maybe Barbados recently. He definitely had a twinkle in his eye. As I sat down at the conference table Riker handed me a Dalkey catalogue. A line drawing of a bust on the cover looked suspiciously like O’Brien in deep repose.

Talk turned to the main topic: endowments and other funding for a non-profit literary press. O’Brien, a former tenured professor at Illinois State, ran the meeting as a teaching opportunity, by Socratic method, rather than as a corporate meeting with an agenda. He said an endowment would provide economic stability but would not relieve them of the responsibility of selling books or fundraising. It would offer protection from ups and downs in the economy that they don’t currently enjoy.

“Or in case of sudden change in administration at the host university,” he added wryly.

O’Brien said they had lost 75 percent of their support from the Illinois Arts Council, which is virtually defunct. As recently as two years ago, the press got $26,000 from the IAC (and significantly more annually before that), but last year it went down to $13,300. Dalkey’s annual budget is $1.7 million; only three percent of that comes from the state of Illinois in various forms. But, Riker added, talking to the younger staff members at the table, they were living in the state now and should write letters to their representatives about arts council funding.

O’Brien then turned to charitable foundations. “The worst time to go to a foundation asking for support,” he said, “is when you’re in distress. All you get is sympathy.” He defined other threats: “If Borders goes under, it won’t just be millions and millions of books flooding back to publishers from them. Because of the policy of Barnes & Noble to put stores across from Borders, would they still operate those stores? And if not, would B&N stock come flooding back too?”

O’Brien asked, “What are the opportunities of endowment?” He eventually answered himself: Office support in London (where there is now a young office), or maybe a New York office too. The ability to hire a tech editor at a salary of $60,000 instead of $22,000. Even the ability to compete against commercial publishers for editorial acquisitions. “For instance, if William Gaddis was still alive….” O’Brien wistfully left the suggestion dangling.

“If we’d had an endowment when we moved from ISU,” O’Brien continued, “we could have done it right, smooth as could be, we could have taken a semester off. Also: We had to pulp a number of books in the move to Norton [their new distributor] rather than warehouse them, ship them from Nebraska, or move them from a different pay schedule. The move was an opportunity, with costs, and an endowment would have helped with all that.”

“Anyone know the old stock market joke? Know it?” O’Brien challenged Dalkey’s main acquisitions editor, Jeremy Davies. “You should.” A man has stock in a company, and the value keeps going up and up. It reaches an improbably high price, and the man tells his broker to sell so they can clean up. “Sure,” the broker says. “To whom?” It is the same with fundraising for publishing, O’Brien said. The stock of Dalkey—its reputation—goes up and up, but how do you locate the people out there who want to support it?

O’Brien then put his production assistant on the spot by asking the difference between Dalkey’s fundraising and that of, say, a Champaign, Illinois, community theater company. With much prompting, O’Brien got his answer, that the theater had several advantages. Its staff could draw a circle of some radius around the city and know that 90 percent—or all—of their donors resided within it. They could see these donors arrive, know what kind of car they drove up in, greet them as they came in the door of the venue. O’Brien said some of that could still be done by zip-code demographics, for instance, but it was not the same and not as focused.

“The theater company can get instant feedback on the lousy play they put on,” he said, and get to know the patrons and matrons. “If someone thinks the lighting was bad, you use that to discuss donations for new lights.” It was also fairly easy for theater personnel to know which causes patrons donated to in the past, or if they ever donated at all. Literary publishing does not have access to all this information, O’Brien said, and these are the downsides of fundraising for it.

At O’Brien’s request, Riker began to list advantages they had in their mission as publishers, spokesmen, and preservationists of literature. One well-to-do donor might dearly love a particular Dalkey author and feel that in his donation he has not only keeping the writer’s books in print, but that the books will “get around” because of Dalkey’s network and reputation. This will lead more readers to that writer, which will help ensure his work’s cultural survival, and so it goes. Another donor might have an interest in a particular region—maybe her family immigrated generations ago—and while her support of the press through authors from that region of the world wouldn’t be a cenotaph, exactly, it would serve her own interests in mutually beneficial ways.

O’Brien said that funding, whether it was an endowment or annual donations, comes in the shape of a pyramid. Maybe five or 10 people give very large amounts, but literature largely has not benefited from these. There were many people at the bottom of the pyramid with a few dollars to spend, but many of those bought Dalkey’s books and considered their work in support of the press to be done. He himself as a young man would not have contributed to New Directions; he just bought their books. No, most of the money came from hundreds or thousands of miles away, from New York, LA, New Mexico, sources which defy conventional fundraising practices.

There was discussion for a few minutes about the very top of the donor pyramid, the “obscene amounts” given by the likes of Ruth Lilly, who provided Poetry magazine with maybe $100 million, Riker said.

“They got more like $64 million out of it,” O’Brien said. “A rule for donors: Never give more than an organization can handle or it’ll make a mess of it.” He mentioned a defunct magazine that burned through an enormous endowment, and departments at Yale who got money from donors “at the very top.”

O’Brien believes that Dalkey’s endowment will come from a few people at the very top of the traditional philanthropic pyramid. He cited as an example a recent $2 million donation to the Press to establish a named series. He then turned to Melissa Kennedy, Dalkey’s office manager. “So this is a softball right down the middle of the plate: Where are they going to come from?”

“From a few individuals?”

“That’s right,” O’Brien said, the expression on his face, made for comic effect, was that of a teacher who had asked a student why Joyce is an Irish writer and was told it was because he was from Dublin.

After a short break the meeting resumed with how to find potential donors–people who have saved money over the years and would see Dalkey’s work as something they would like to support. The “regular Joes,” as someone put it.

“As regular as us, anyway,” O’Brien said.

“We don’t need somebody swimming in money,” Davies said. “Just wading in it.”

Together, and again mostly by O’Brien’s Socratic method, the group recounted that the profile for such a person might include an interest in an area, region, or country. “What else? Just gimme one part,” O’Brien prodded.

“Interested in the future of Dalkey?” Kennedy ventured.

“Probably not,” O’Brien said.

“Long in the tooth?” Riker said. “Young people don’t read books.”

“And they have no money,” O’Brien said.

“I was kidding,” Riker said. (Those 18-26 may be Dalkey’s core readership, the age when many of us came to reading serious literature.)

They discussed several cases of people with relatively low lifetime earnings bequeathing tremendous amounts because they never spent any of the money in life.

“It’s not unusual in the chronicles of philanthropy to see these people leave two million, five, ten million,” O’Brien said. “Children interfere with that.”

Davies said in his polite, soft voice, “So you’re saying cheap, lonely….”

I laughed from the far edge of the table, and Kennedy cried, “What must you think of us?”

There was more discussion on finding donors among cultural societies, alum groups, or from the university. The university has a dedicated fundraiser, O’Brien said, but the person has to work to help 55 departments. O’Brien said he had thought of asking Dalkey’s authors to give the names of three major donors in their home countries. He would like to ask the authors if they knew them, and if the authors would be willing to help pitch the idea of donation.

O’Brien ended the meeting suddenly by saying they would pick this up again, to take specific actions and make dramatic progress in the near future. He and a young staff member donned coats and sunglasses, and O’Brien lit a cigarette as they went out the door, priming himself for his meeting with the dean.



This piece is adapted from its original form at Inside Higher Ed. Read more by John Griswold here.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.