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Alternative Publishing Transit Books: How a Home-office Publisher Spotted a Nobel Prize Winner

By Francesca Harnett, Alice Fusai, Chloë Marshall and Natalie Klinkenberg


In 2015, Adam and Ashley Nelson Levy founded the non-profit publishing house, Transit Books, in their San Francisco Bay Area home. With the help of community support and donations, Transit Books releases about twelve titles per year in international and American literature including literary fiction, narrative non-fiction, essays and prose. This includes their series Undelivered Lectures which feature “book-length essays in slim, handsome editions” that allow readers to engage with narrative non-fiction that goes beyond what is expected. As their website states, their mission is to bring together people and communities through the power of literature, bridging cultures together and deepening literary and political imaginations. Transit authors have been nominated for awards such as the National Book Awards, the National Book Critics Circle Award and many more. Now they can add to their list of accolades that they are the home and American publisher of Jon Fosse, the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature 2023.


The couple-led publisher sensed the quality of Fosse’s writing well before his burst into the international literary scene granted by the Nobel Prize. Their first publication of Fosse’s translated work The Other dates back to 2020, but it seems that they already knew the Norwegian writer was someone to keep a careful eye on. This year, Fosse became a Nobel laureate for Septology, a massive 1,200 page magnum opus in which an artist speaks to himself as another artist in the course of seven days. In an interview with The Washington Post, Adam Levy reported how he felt Septology was going to be the right candidate for the Nobel Prize. The confidence level was so high that they aligned their publishing schedules, strategically planned the paperback release and a new Fosse publication in tandem with the award. And indeed, they were right.


So, how did a small, non-profit publisher discover a Nobel laureate? Apparently, they just “had the feeling.” When they first read the opening, they were immediately drawn to it so that they signed on to publish the entire multivolume work of Septology based on a thirty page sample that was sent to them by Fosse’s British publisher, Fitzcarraldo Editions.


A Series of Award-Winning Publications


While best known for the publication of Fosse’s Nobel prize-winning work, Transit Books is hardly short of other award-winning publications. One of the areas the micro-publisher excels at is translated works. Novels like Jennifer Nansbuga Makumbi’s novel KINTU made waves in the literary community when it was awarded the Windham-Campbell Prize. The novel is a remarkable piece of cultural memory, exploring Ugandan history through the cursed Kintu bloodline, spanning generations and exploring carrying tradition to their modern future. Other notable translated novels to check out include The Tree and the Vine by Dola De Jong, We All Love Cowboys by Carol Bensimon and All My Goodbyes by Mariana Dimópulos.


However, Transit is not simply known for its fiction, but also for its impressive array of award-winning essay collections. One of Transit's most applauded works is Maria Tumarkin's Axiomatic, which won the Melbourne Prize for Literature's Best Writing Award and was shortlisted for five other literary awards in 2019. Manifesting from nine years of exhaustive research, Axiomatic explores inherited trauma and the systems that perpetuate and maintain it. Axiomatic is distinguished by some reviewers as a new and experimental genre of its own, blending poetry, narrative and essay styles to create a beautiful, unapologetic discussion of trauma. Other acclaimed publications include Mariana Oliver's Migratory Birds, which won the 2022 Translation Prize. Applauded for its poetic rhythm and lyrical prose, Oliver explores migration in a multitude of forms and delves into what it means to leave the familiar behind and embrace the unfamiliar as our own.


Looking to the Future


From its beginnings in the Levy’s San Francisco home, Transit Books hasn’t gone far – physically, that is. However, they have since steadily increased their output and now have several award-winning and nominated authors under their belt; the recent Nobel prize for Fosse is particularly far flung from initially modest ambitions. Transit Books do in fact go very far: travelling across countries and between languages, climbing up prestigious nomination lists and into window displays of major booksellers. The Levys have managed to create a press which celebrates a recontextualisation of stories, especially those which may not have a place in more mainstream publishing firms. Their focus on a smaller list allows them a crucial and productive relationship with their authors, in addition to a conscientious editorial process which remains entirely personal, as Ashley says, Transit is “the output of [their] marriage, really: the list reflects how [their] tastes work together.” Indeed, this approach is reflected in their recently launched imprint for children, inspired (to some extent) by the tastes of their four-year-old son. Transit Children’s Editions aims equally to find a home for translated children’s fiction in the American book market and has so far published books translated from Danish and Korean, with How Dreadful! by Claire LeBourg (translated from the French by Sophie Lewis) to come in 2024. Although the Nobel Prize has caught everyone’s eye recently, it’s far from their biggest achievement; their continued dedication to their authors and to a succinct, expertly curated list is a true accomplishment and one to which the recent media coverage will hopefully draw more attention.

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