Updated: Jan 17
Jonas Plöger of Zagava
Jonas Plöger has been running Zagava for almost a decade now and brings many years of experience publishing supernatural fiction and horror, particularly focusing on works that have not been widely released. His publications span a wide breadth from cosmic horror novels to sketchbooks of mesmerizing artists like Nick Blinko. He also just happens to be one of the most humble and kind humans out there doing this kind of work, bringing original and beautiful pieces into the hands of even the most modest collectors. If you get the privilege of having even one conversation with him it will become abundantly clear that this is a deep passion for him and Zagava as a for-profit business is a very peripheral concern. We are so excited at the Collectible Book Vault to be able to have this dialogue with Jonas and to share it with our community.
Q: Do you remember a particular moment when you started developing the idea of Zagava? Was it a long and drawn-out evolution or a sudden spark of inspiration? How long after inception were you able to release your first book?
I have been extremely lucky to grow up in a house with many thousands of books. When I inherited this library, I started Zagava initially as an antiquarian online bookstore in 2002 to find new homes for many of my parents' books.
Later on, I created "enhanced" singular limited editions of other US and UK publishers' books, for which I often commissioned the original illustrators to add drawings/remarques or for which I commissioned special bindings in editions of 5-10 exemplars.
In 2013, a small-press publisher invited me to co-publish a novel by the wonderful Reggie Oliver: Virtue in Danger and this was the beginning of my work as a publisher. Since then, more than 80 Zagava titles have been published. I have also launched the Infra-Noir podcast and a YouTube channel.
Q: What an interesting environment to have around you in your formative years. Did you have an early interest in reading and literature in general or did this evolve over time? How has interest in different genres and authors evolved over time?
My parents came up with quite an ingenious plan and never gave me much of an allowance. Instead, they opened an account with the local bookshop which enabled me to purchase as many paperbacks as I wanted (within limits of course). My first “serious” book was not a paperback at all though, but The Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann, which I read at least three times when I was twelve or thirteen years old. Later, I dove into Hermann Hesse’s works and was especially fascinated by The Glass Bead and Siddhartha.
Q: I might have to try that with my son when he gets a little older, that is such a great idea. The name of your press Zagava is borrowed from a story by an American author/artist Edward Gorey. His work was often macabre and characterized by absurdism and dark yet whimsical imagery, which resonates closely with the general flavor of your bibliography. What does the name Zagava mean to you and how does it connect with your overall vision for the press?
I absolutely adore Edward Gorey’s work and have a rather substantial collection of his books and ephemera. This summer Pomegranate Communications in Portland published my book on the pin buttons Gorey created Always One Button Short. Several times I have traveled to the US to photograph Gorey collections and I am planning another book on the “stuffed creatures” Gorey sewed by hand. Gorey created delicate books in his own small imprint Fantod Press, of which I proudly own some and which are a great inspiration for me.
His passion to publish so many brilliant books is an encouragement to try to let some (hopefully) beautiful Zagava books see printer‘s ink.
Q: You seem to really love what you do! After nine years and many beautiful productions, does the craft still hold the same level of excitement for you or does it ever feel like a job?
It is so wonderful to be able to work with such brilliant authors and artists! I regard it, for instance, as a privilege to introduce artists to authors who then congenially illustrate their works. Each and every day I learn more and immensely enjoy helping to create these fine books. I love discovering new manufacturers of fine materials, too!
Q: Speaking of jobs...you not only run Zagava but have a “day job” (or often night job) working behind the camera for satirical television shows. Do you have a different kind of appreciation for the medium of film than the written word or do you see them as extensions of the same art?
I love both fields of my work. Of course, television has changed immensely since I started some decades ago. I enjoy experiencing new challenges; two years ago, I started working for Netflix for the first time and learned some new tricks. We’re always learning.
Of course, there are many strong connections between these two forms of media, but there are also some glaring contrasts one can make between the often-superficial quality of much of what goes into televised entertainment and the intellectual quality and subtlety of Zagava’s books. All in all, I enjoy working with both.
Q: You have described your catalog as sophisticated supernatural and horror fiction. What are the qualities you are looking for in a work as you think about producing it at Zagava and has this evolved at all over the years?
A manuscript should grip me of course. A book that positively disturbs me, and catapults me out of my comfort zone, has certainly the best chance to influence my publication decision. Over the years my reading experience has changed, of course. Needless to say, it involves quite a different kind of reading when considering a text for publication than what one gives when reading purely for one’s own pleasure.
Q: I would assume with your extensive knowledge and exposure to supernatural and horror fiction that it is hard to surprise or shock you at this point. Have you read anything recently that created a deep level of dissonance or gripped you long after reading?
To be honest, reading the manuscripts of Zagava’s authors is quite enough of a thrill in itself. There is one artist though, about whom am I trying to find out as much about as possible, because his works simply mesmerize me: Albin Grau!
Two years ago, my friend (and Zagava author) Stephen J. Clark suggested I publish a book about this long-forgotten artist, who created the visuals of many films by Friedrich W. Murnau, the director of the incredible Nosferatu (1922), which he produced as well. Through a dear friend I got access to the Grau archive and since then I have been hooked!
Q: In addition to supernatural and horror fiction, you also produce more esoteric and unique art books. Even your “non-art” books have a beautiful and haunting artistic quality to them. How do you see art as a complement to literature and what made you want to produce both of these types of works under the same imprint?
When I started publishing, I kind of returned to the time when I dropped out of university (I was studying philosophy and the history of art at Cologne). My first art book was a facsimile of a fascinating sketchbook by Stanislav Szukalski (1893-1987).
When I was offered an opportunity to publish a book about Hanns Heinz Ewers' wife Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald (1875-1957), both of whom were born in my hometown Düsseldorf, I couldn’t possibly foresee how immense the public interest in this long-forgotten artist would be. Since then, four major exhibitions of her art have taken place.
In 2019, I was introduced to the mesmerizing art of Nick Blinko by my friends David Tibet and Claus Laufenburg and Zagava’s first Nick Blinko book sold out immediately. Since then, the creative collaboration with this outstanding artist and kind human continued and a new publication is in the works.
Q: Your designs are very eclectic and always stunning, but one of the elements that has shown up fairly consistently through your work has been the use of cutouts that allow a small glimpse inside. Has this been an intentional choice with a specific meaning or purely an aesthetic preference?
There are several reasons: I certainly love beautiful dust jackets and they are probably the best way to attract attention. At the same time, they are extremely vulnerable and the worth of a collectible book is too often reduced because the dust jacket is not “Fine+”. Dust jackets with blemishes indirectly create a market for the one perfect copy, a collector is looking for. A book bound in beautiful silk or some other fine fabric with a die-cut cover can deliver both: show some brilliant art on the endpapers and endure the years in a perfect, if not near perfect condition without much aging. Furthermore, it is an attempt to create a kind of trademark. Apart from format, choice of paper and fonts, fine and unusual binding materials add a tactile sensation a dust jacket simply cannot offer.
Q: That’s wonderful, I have always been impressed by the quality and feel of the books you produce, especially considering the affordability. You have released some stunning editions since you started Zagava. They are obviously all labors of love, but what editions are you especially proud of?
A: I love them all of course, but the lettered edition of The Feathered Bough (by Stephen J. Clark) certainly is one of my favorites. The box for Dungeness Blues (by Jeremy Reed) made from wood which resembles driftwood, is special to me as well, as is the binding of The House of Silence (by the late Avalon Brantley) in mulberry bark.
Q: In the past, you have said that you try to use local manufacturers and partners as much as you can in your work. How have you found that using local artisans has influenced your work and helped with the collaborative nature of running a small press?
I take pride in all books being manufactured by a small printer and binder in Bavaria, with whom I often discuss details on the phone several times per day. The incredible paper by the famous Hahnemühle is produced not too far away, as are those by the Amalfi family. The binding material often comes from rather distant places though. Silk from Japan or Taiwan, hand-marbled paper from Brazil, leather from Northern Africa….
The wonderful collaboration with the graphic designer Jan Marco Schmitz is certainly very creative and we only live 20km apart from one another and so we can meet up easily.
Q: It’s clear to me there is a high level of care that goes into the selection of material and a consistency that weaves through your catalog. Interestingly, you have mentioned that a large percentage of your books are ordered from American customers. Has this surprised you at all and do you see the market for your books growing at home in Germany and the rest of Europe?
Indeed 40% of my patrons are in the US. My experience is that this collector's market differs from that of, for instance, continental Europe. My impression is that US collectors often build collections to generously donate these one day to their alma mater. The UK is an important market as well of course.
Q: That’s interesting, I hadn’t thought about where a collection is going after someone dies as being an influence on how they build their collection, but it makes sense. As a collector, I've noticed that Zagava has a fierce and dedicated fan base and one of the most common praises is that the quality is so high in relation to the cost. What steps have you taken to bring these unique creations to your followers at reasonable prices?
I am trying to keep the prices at a reasonable level to ensure that collectors with moderately deep pockets are able to build up a fine collection as well. Although you sometimes see recently published books reach high 4-figure sums in the secondary market, I have doubts that some of these prices will be as high in 5 or 10 years. I regularly receive catalogues from some larger auction houses and it is surprising to see how relatively affordable first editions of books illustrated by Matisse or Picasso can be relative to these modern first editions.
So, my approach is to give the collector a chance to acquire a more moderately priced book which may in turn, with time, yield a little something more on top of what they had initially paid for. There are some new books that are so expensive that only a happy few can afford these. Beautifully made books should not be so out of reach.
My attitude on quality is high though. An example: a few weeks ago, I received 199 exemplars of the numbered edition of a new Zagava title. The bookbinder had probably just had a bad day, but whatever the case the author‘s name, when imprinted, was tilted slightly to one side by 1mm. I am sure very few, if any, of Zagava‘s patrons would have complained, but I couldn‘t tolerate even this minor fault. It pained me to return the complete print-run which in turn caused considerable problems at the small bindery, but I saw no other option.
Q: I’m sure it is a fine balance between pleasing patrons and preserving relationships with the binders in situations like that! It’s very clear we have entered a renaissance for small presses and those of us who partake in it have no shortage of options. What do you hope people will value Zagava press for the most and what makes it stand apart?
First of all, the quality of authors and artists! I can attempt only to find the right frame for these works. The more the content and form correspond, the better. If a reader enjoys the text or the art, the binding and the paper should make this experience a pleasure.
I am not interested in publishing a title which has been published many, many times before, but prefer to offer new reading experiences in very fine bindings.
Q: If there was one word or phrase that came to people’s minds when they think of Zagava, what would you hope that it would be?
“Expect the unexpected!”
Q: Would it be foolish to then ask what we can expect next from Zagava? Is there anything you can share about what may be coming down the pipe in 2023?
In November 2022 a new sub-site became part of the Zagava web presence: Wunderkammer. This is Zagava´s showcase for bibliophiles, where exclusive custom-made books and book-related objects may be found. Wunderkammer items are made to order from only the finest and highest quality materials. Each Wunderkammer creation is produced by the most experienced and capable craftsmen using both new and long-forgotten techniques. Most Zagava titles will soon become available in unique bespoke bindings in addition to the numbered and lettered editions.
With the artist Michael Hutter (who lives close by), Zagava will issue a set of finely printed Tarot cards and there are many other fascinating projects planned.
I have another dream: In 1697 my ancestor Johann Bernd Plöger was granted the rights to make paper by Count Kasimir zur Lippe-Brake. For 300 years my family made paper in a picturesque mill, which is now a paper museum. I would like to continue this family tradition and collaborate with a paper maker to create mould made paper with the watermark of my ancestors in 2023.
I love handwritten texts, which is reflected in my publication of Red Carpet and The Gutter, a beautiful facsimile of 300 hand-written pages about Oscar Wilde and Eric, Count Stenbock.
It will be a wonderful challenge to offer more such manuscripts printed on the finest (hand-made) paper.
This coming spring, I will publish my first letterpress-printed title: Vestige by Mark Valentine, which will open a new chapter for Zagava Books.
Expect the unexpected!
This interview was done in a series of communications back and forth and we want to thank Jonas for his generosity of time. If you are not currently a follower and want to see more from Zagava you can check them out at their website and sign up for the newsletter to get periodic updates. You can also follow them on Facebook or Instagram for more info.
Interview by: Zach Harney a contributor to the Collectible Book Vault