Lifetime Achievement winner: Luiz Schwarcz

Lifetime Achievement winner: Luiz Schwarcz

There is an often-told story about Brazilian publisher Luiz Schwarcz, recently announced as the winner of this year’s London Book Fair Lifetime Achievement Award in International Publishing, writes Ángel Gurría-Quintana. In 1986, after quitting his job as editorial director of the prestigious publisher Brasiliense, he was determined to found his own publishing business. He sold his apartment in São Paulo. With his wife, historian Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, he founded Companhia das Letras, and set it up at the back of his family’s printing business.

Schwarcz was convinced that Brazilian readers were ready for books beyond the Brazilian classics and the young readers’ titles that had become Brasiliense’s bread-and-butter. Surely, he thought, there was a market for beautifully made high quality fiction and non-fiction. His first choice–a translation of Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station–was a gamble. It paid off, and became an unlikely bestseller.

More than 30 years and more than 6,000 titles later, Companhia das Letras remains the gold-standard in Brazilian publishing. A survey carried out among literary critics and scholars in 2010 by Brazil’s business newspaper, Valor Econômico, revealed that it was considered the best publishing house in Brazil–it received 81% of the respondents’ votes.

A combination of commercial acumen and canny editorial choices has given Companhia das Letras the largest share of trade publishing in Brazil. It has endured the ups and downs of Brazil’s publishing market: often buoyed by government purchases, it also came close to becoming a casualty of the hyper-inflation of the 1990s–in one instance, Companhia’s edition of the multi-volume A History of Private Life was almost ready when it became apparent that there was not enough money to pay the printers. Only careful negotiations with creditors allowed the books to see the light of day.

In 2011, a strategic partnership with Penguin led to Companhia introducing a vast array of classic titles to the Brazilian market. Its merger with Rio-based Objetiva, in 2015, made it the single-largest publisher of Brazilian authors.

Today, the Companhia das Letras Group comprises 16 different imprints, ranging from children’s literature to non-fiction. It publishes 38 Nobel Laureates, including Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, José Saramago, J M Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk. It also has in its catalogue some of the most outstanding Brazilian authors of contemporary fiction such as Chico Buarque, Rubem Fonseca and Milton Hatoum, in addition to owning rights to works by some of Brazil’s classic writers–from the poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade to novelist Jorge Amado.

With Luiz Schwarcz at the helm, the Companhia das Letras Group has claimed the largest number of Jabuti awards–its authors have won 206 awards from Brazil’s top book prize since 1988. Schwarcz himself has received numerous accolades over the decades, including Brazil’s “Man of Ideas” prize (1987) and the “Making the Difference” award (2004).

He has also worked to improve literacy among disenfranchised groups in Brazil. In 2010 Companhia das Letras pioneered the creation of book clubs in partnership with local libraries and community centres. Today there are at least 20 such book clubs, including some in prisons, hospitals and social organizations for disadvantaged young people. “Companhia never set out to be elitist,” Schwarcz has said. “We wanted to democratise high culture, with books that were accessible to all.”

The self-described “book fetishist” is known for shunning the spotlight, and regularly rails against “the cult of the publisher”. He has avoided making overtly political comments, though he recently declared his opposition to the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff.

Famous for his attention to detail, and for his fierce loyalty to his authors, Schwarcz has also mentored a new generation of publishers and editors, most of whom cut their teeth at Companhia das Letras and have since gone on to publishing careers elsewhere.

“To edit books is always an act of optimism,” he has written. “When we commit to a book, we are also inventing the future.”

Publishers Weekly – London Show Daily – Wednesday 15 march 2017