Interview with Hernán Casciari, The Man Behind Orsai

front cover, orsaiWe are pleased to announce an exclusive new feature for RagingBullshit.com. Following recent discussions with Hernán Casciari, the founding editor of Orsai magazine, we have been granted rights to publish English translations of some of the choicest articles from the magazine’s recent issues. This means we will be featuring one or two posts a month by some of the best authors and journalists from across Latin America and Spain.

While Orsai might be virtually unknown in the Anglo-Saxon universe, it is a household name in many parts of Latin America. One of the most exciting of a new generation of Spanish-language magazines to have emerged in recent years, Orsai has in many ways broken the mould of modern-day journalism.

For starters, while many long-established newspapers and magazines are closing down their print editions, Orsai has done the exact opposite. In 2010, Casciari and his team of editors oversaw the production of 10,000 copies of the first printed issue of the magazine, which were then distributed to literally the four corners of the Spanish-speaking world.

What’s more, the magazine contains absolutely no advertising. As such, its editorial team is beholden to no outside interests whatsoever, and its writers are free to write whatever they want.

The first Orsai article featured here on RagingBullshit.com is a children’s fable about an imaginary village seized by a frenzy of financial speculation. Penned by Casciari himself, it is meant as an allegory of the events that lead to the recent global financial crisis and is couched in such simple and fun terms that even your eight-year old child, nephew or niece could understand it.

To mark the launch of our first ever Orsai post, we’re proud to feature below an interview I recently had with Hernán, who is both a friend and regular poker opponent of mine (and who, it pains me to admit, usually takes home most of the spoils).

hernan
Hernan Casciari, Founding Editor of Orsai

DC: How did you begin the Orsai project? What were the main goals?

HC: In 2009 I began to suffer from the early pangs of boredom. I was writing a column for the Spanish newspaper El País and the Argentinean daily La Nación. I was also doing screenplays for a Basque television company and publishing short stories and novels. I was doing what I’ve always wanted to do – i.e. writing – but at the same time I was trapped in an oppressive routine and working with people who appeared to have little commitment to the work I was doing.

I also realised that I had very little influence over the publishing process. I couldn’t take certain decisions, such as, for example, which countries my books would be sold in. They only appeared in the countries that the publishers were interested in – in other words, Argentina, Mexico and Spain. I felt a mixture of both guilt and shame because, through my blog, I had connected with readers from across Latin America, but many of them would never be able to find any of my books in a shop.

On top of that, I had begun to realize that publishers, in particular the big multinationals, were in the practice of brazenly short changing their authors. The system is meticulously designed such that the author can never discover how many copies of their work have been sold or where. And while the likes of fNAC walk away with 45 percent of the proceeds from their work, the writers get only 8 percent.

So, on the one hand, I felt angry. But on the other, I realised that I already had a community of some 12,000 readers who regularly followed my writing. So, through online discussions with them, the idea of publishing and distributing my books directly to them began to take root.

As well as publishing my own books, my best friend and co-editor Chiri began to develop ideas for producing a quality magazine of our own that could unite readers from across the Spanish speaking world. The idea was to develop a uniquely direct relationship between authors and readers – one which would cut out the obsolescent 20th-century middle men.

DC: What problems did you have working with El Pais and La Nación?

HC: In the case of El País, the main problem was its obsession with advertising. What would often happen is that I’d get a last-minute call from my editor telling me that my article had just been cut by 200 words, so as to make room for a half-page ad for fNAC. This really got my goat. It gradually became clear that their number-one priority was selling advertising space, and everything else – including the paper’s journalistic responsibilities – came a distant second. My experience with El País is what drove us to launch a magazine completely free of advertising, where the authors can write at length about whatever they want.

In Argentina, the problem was more ideological in nature. La Nacion, a stridently conservative newspaper, hired me to offer a more irreverent voice for their Sunday publication. But that didn’t stop them from phoning every week at four in the morning to ask me to soften certain words or to reduce the sting out of some of my criticisms.

DC: More and more newspapers and magazines are being forced to close down their print editions, on the grounds that there aren’t enough readers. Yet Orsai grows from strength to strength… 

HC: It’s a lie that there aren’t any readers. Never before have so many people read or written so much. What’s more difficult to find, though, is sales.

The great problem for the big newspapers and multinational publishers is that it takes them forever to change their ways. By contrast, for a little mouse like us it’s much easier. That’s not to say that ours is necessarily a successful business model, but at least we’re having great fun. For many little mice like ourselves, it is less about building a business model than it is about building a model of life. And the great thing now is we don’t have to answer to anybody.

It seems to me that there are more and more groups of little mice who, like us, are realizing that accumulating little bits of paper is not the b-all and end-all to life. But yet every night you continue to see television interviews with the same fat, bald, suited men who’ve only ever known how to accumulate little bits of paper. They have no dreams beyond that.

Life for them is all about robbing just a little bit more, and then hiding away the spoils in the Cayman Islands. Then there are the rest of us for whom a living wage is plenty enough.

DC: How did you finance Orsai?

HC: First and foremost, it was the readers that funded it. That said, it wasn’t a complete leap of faith on our part. I had some of my own capital from the rights I had sold for a play in Argentina, so I knew that the magazine could afford to make a loss in its first year. If we hadn’t reached 3,000 readers for the first issue, I would have had to make up all the difference. But luckily, we surpassed all our expectations, selling 10,000 copies.

DC: Every year you change the model of the magazine. Why?

HC: The last change we made was to move from a European style of magazine to a more American one. We have taken on more editors and our focus now is much less literary and more journalistic, with more in-depth investigations.

Next year our aim is to go from being a bi-monthly publication to a monthly one. Orsai will be more like a New Yorker-type magazine, with fewer illustrations and much more text. In other words, a publication devoted to covering the big events that happened the day before yesterday.

It would have been impossible to do something like that, with a large team of editors, from the very beginning. We first needed to learn the tricks of the trade, so that we can now continue having fun, but in a much more professional way.

DC: What are the most difficult logistic challenges you’ve had to overcome?

HC: The first was our own blind obstinacy. We didn’t want to take any advice from people who only thought about money. On the one hand, this helped to keep us fresh, but on the other hand, we were pig-headed and committed absolutely every mistake you could possible make.

The result was that we squandered a huge amount of money for simply not wanting to follow the traditional route.

For example, when we started out in 2010, I wondered why the big publishers were only interested in publishing in Mexico, Argentina and Spain, and didn’t give a flying shit about, say, Nicaragua. The answer is that it’s bloody difficult. You need to have a really strong desire and determination for everyone to be able to read what you produce.

It has cost us a huge amount in terms of money, time and effort to get to the stage where we are today – being able to deliver our magazine to places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Honduras without losing money. For example, in the first year it cost a reader in, say, Costa Rica 12 dollars to buy a copy of the magazine. But it cost us 27 dollars to deliver it!

Thankfully, we only had some 150 readers in Costa Rica. If we’d had a thousand, I would have had to remortgage the house. But we learned from this experience and began sending bulk orders of magazines to Costa Rica, via Mexico. The result is that we now have much more efficient distribution lines and the price for each copy has gone down for many people.

Big publishers like Planeta could clearly do the same. But why bother for the sake of just a few hundred readers?

You are an Argentinean living in Spain – countries that are both going through a difficult time at the moment. If someone from another country were to ask you which of the two countries to move to, which would you recommend?

HC: Neither. I would always recommend Uruguay. It’s a bit like Argentina was in the 1950s, before our pathological fixation with Peronism took root. Uruguay has never had such a Peronist political culture. Even during the worst years of the South American dictatorship, Uruguay had a fairly moderate regime. Also, much of the country is within spitting distance of Buenos Aires, one of Latin America’s most important metropolises.

What regulatory changes do you expect to see in the Internet space in the coming years?

HC: For some inexplicable reason, the groups that have held sway over society for the last 100 or so years failed to see the writing on the wall when the Internet was in its early development. They couldn’t foresee its impact, and now, I believe, it’s too late. The genie’s already out of the bottle. If any powerful figure on the right in the 70s or 80s had had a crystal ball and had seen what kind of impact it would have today, they would have cut it off at its root. That’s what they’ve always done when their power is in any way threatened, but this time it somehow slipped them by.

As such, the Internet has opened the first important crack in their power structure. For the people, it represents the first big opportunity for change in decades, perhaps even centuries.

Here’s a video of a TED talk Casciari gave a few years ago (includes English and Portuguese subtitles):

To read more from Orsai (in Spanish), click here

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