A Life of Books and Culture

Interview with Publisher Yvonne Twisk

/ by Edgar Tijhuis

I have the greatest job in publishing the most wonderful books on Design, Art, Fashion, Nature and Gastronomy with the most wonderful people, museums and institutes.


While preparing for my meeting with Yvonne Twisk, publisher of Terra, a major Dutch publishing house and famous for its upmarket, illustrated titles on art, photography, gastronomy and design, I go through her profile on Linkedin. Where most people choose to describe their working life with chippy summaries of job titles and technical descriptions of tasks, Yvonne Twisk stands out with the above enthusiastic statement.


On a sunny September day, we meet at the office of fellow publisher Meulenhoff, part of the same group as Terra, located at Amsterdam’s so-called “Golden Bend,” the most prestigious part of the famous canals, where the richest citizens of the Golden Age built their city palaces in a classicist style. Yvonne shows me the impressive premises, filled with books from floor-to-ceiling, and on our way we grab coffee and sit down.


Before I can start with my first question, Yvonne starts to talk with her seemingly endless amount of energy and ideas. She talks about her background and mentions that we are around the corner from the Amsterdam arts & media private members club, Arti et Amicitae, that is just across from the Allard Pierson Museum of Antiquities, where she studied Classical Languages and Archaeology. She always had a strong interest in arts, history and languages, and in another time would have loved to have been a homo universalis, all for the sake of the arts. She laughs and says she’s a true cultural omnivore, with a specialty in Asian Art. She is doing lectures and is a current advisor on projects by visual artists, museums and other heritage organizations of the Mondriaan Fund, a publicly financed fund for visual art and cultural heritage. I found her weak spot in a kitchen culture.


Edgar Tijhuis (ET): So how did you end up as a publisher?


Yvonne Twisk (YT): In fact, it was a bit of a coincidence. As a student I worked at Athenaeum Bookstore, one of the largest independent bookstores in the Netherlands, located in the center of Amsterdam. I started teaching classical languages, had a degree in communication and found myself bored working as communication advisor. My bookstore friends told me they needed somebody at Penguin Netherlands, and I immediately jumped on my race bike and went to their office. I stayed there for over seven years, and became their managing director. The rest is history.


ET: Tell me what you feel about poetry.


YT: I was raised with poetry and devoured collections of poetry from Horatius, Sappho but also contemporary poets, like the Dutch poet Ramsey Nasr. In the end of the day, poetry is a string to the heart. I was taught to read a lot and I’m a real omnivore when it comes to reading. From poetry to non-fiction, literature and even comics.


ET: Including e-books?


YT: Yes, I also read e-books. I believe that paper is only an agent. Nevertheless, as a publisher the number of e-books that we produce is still limited. Given the specific markets in which I operate, the paper book naturally constitutes the large majority of books. Many titles are beautifully illustrated luxurious books on, for example art and gastronomy, and people want them as paper books. You could even see them as gadgets. More in general, coffee table books from Terra have always been a unique category of books.


ET: Some of the best chefs in the world are published by Terra. Can you tell a bit more about them?


YT: Among these chefs is Massimo Bottura, the Italian chef whose restaurant, Osteria Francescana, was number one on the list of the world’s best restaurants in 2016. He published a book at Terra about the art of the Italian kitchen. In fact, he also is an enthusiastic collector of contemporary art and married to the American artist, Lara Gilmore. Another chef is Rene Redzepi, a Danish chef and co-owner of Noma, four times awarded as best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine. He writes about the Scandinavian cuisine that did not yet break through in the rest of Europe. My first book for Terra was a perfect blend of art and cookery: Modern Art Desserts, written by Caitlin Freeman! And another favorite one is Mangiato bene! Seven rules to recognize a good kitchen by Roberta Schira.


ET: What are you reading right now?


YT: I’ve just swallowed The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal. A great book. And I’ve just bought Paper: Paging Through History by Mark Kurlansky. It tells the remarkable history of paper and how it shaped today’s world. I also loved his books on the history of cod and salt. It is a kind of historiography that I particularly like. Like I did Art Forgery by Noah Charney, and Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong. But also the unexpected bestseller, Attempts to Make Something of Life. The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old, and the sequel that came out this year. It’s a hilarious diary of an old man living in a nursing home in Amsterdam, and was published in 25 countries. The press tried to figure out for almost a year who was behind this story, till it turned out a completely unknown librarian was the author.


ET: Do you publish poetry at Terra?


YT: I actually don’t publish poetry at Terra. But our partner Lannoo, publishes some of the finest poetry that was written in Belgium, including work from Karel van de Woestijne and Walter Haesaert. As a publisher, Lannoo publishes a broad spectrum of books and controls about one-fifth of the Belgian book market. When poets approach me, I refer them to Lannoo. I used to organize poetry festivals, and we once organized a beautiful program where 13 poets wrote lyrics for 13 Dutch musicians, for a great evening of The Evening of the Lovesong.


ET: Have you ever wanted to be an artist or writer yourself?


YT: No, not really, though I have always drawn and was trained to be an artist as a child. I became a scholar and curator of contemporary art and ended up in publishing. I enjoy teaching and entrepreneurial strategies, and have been involved in the publication of countless books. I have many artist friends, though. Among them is Joost Zwagerman, who passed away exactly a year ago. Recently The Penguin Book of Dutch Short Stories edited by Joost has been released. He curated a wonderful exhibition, “Silence out Loud,” with his most favorite works of art around the theme of silence. After he suddenly died, I felt this should be documented in a book. I decided to publish it myself. Next month the book, The Choice of Joost Zwagerman, will be published, with works from about sixty of his favorite artist from the Netherlands, Belgium and the US, including Zwagerman’s essay and poetry on silence and some correspondence with these artists.


ET: What are your plans for the years to come with the publishing house and personally?


YT: We try to further expand our list and internationalize our publications. But you have to be aware that you cannot simply export any book to another country. It’s interesting to see how some good books don’t break through in one country, while they become bestsellers in other countries. And I would publish more on heritage and art, for example about traditional costumes blending fashion, styling, design with heritage and crafts. But for now that has to wait. 

Edgar Tijhuis

studied Political Science, Law and American Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He received his Phd from Leiden University. His dissertation was published by Wolf Legal Publishers and is standard reading on transnational crime and art crime. Edgar Tijhuis is a visiting scholar at the Institute of Criminology in Ljubljana and regularly publishes in a range of journals.