• The commonly accepted wisdom in the United States says that translations cost more to produce, and that they don’t sell well.
• Chad Post argues that publishers should focus on finding and developing readers for international literature rather than on fixing supply-side factors like translation costs.
Editorial by Chad Post
“What we need is a great translated beach book. Something that will appeal to tons of people and convince them that it’s safe to come in the water,” a friend said to me.
“This is true . . .” I instantly imagined someone sitting in the sand reading Zone, the 517-page, one-sentence novel that Open Letter is publishing this fall, and which has become my summer read. In my mind, this imaginary reader looked frustrated, disgusted, like she’d never read a French book again. No, like she’d never travel to France again.
OK, so anyone with a little common sense knows that our books aren’t really of the “beach read” variety. But as someone who endlessly advocates for the publication, promotion, and appreciation of international literature, this statement my friend made really got me thinking: maybe all of us promoting translations need to get more commercial. More in touch with the common reader. Maybe everyone’s right, the translations that get published here are too erudite, too specialized to survive in the marketplace.
Swiping a line from one of our board members, I’m not sure I’d be able to identify a bestseller if the damn thing sold a million copies all over my head, but there is something to the argument that a breakthrough book could help change the marketplace for literature in translation. If only it were that easy . . .
Before getting too far into theories of audience development, let’s back up a bit. I’m willing to bet everyone subscribing to Publishing Perspectives knows full well that the situation regarding literature in translation in the United States is a little bit fucked. We export the hell out of our authors, watching them get translated into dozens of languages, but we rarely publish a novel from Sweden much less Croatia, Bulgaria, Paraguay.
And we all know the two most common reasons cited for this literary isolationism: translations cost too much and don’t sell very well.
Correcting Supply vs. Creating Demand
Believing in those two premises — and these premises may well be bullshit, but let’s let that slide for another day’s editorial — has led to a large focus on correcting the supply-side of the situation, especially through translation grants designed to offset part of the publisher’s production costs. From a publisher’s perspective (no pun intended), it’s much easier to look at your balance sheet and find ways of offsetting your costs that are immediate, guaranteed, and relatively easy to acquire. And in the greater scheme of things, filling out a two-page application form and sending along a sample translation is much quicker and more reliable than trying to make a book’s budget work by identifying readers and increasing sales.
In addition to translation costs, occasionally a foreign government will also subsidize rights payments, and in very rare instances will help pay part of the printing bill. These grants are wonderful, are necessary, are the reason that certain presses stay alive. And the fact that most of these monies go to translators — one of the most woefully underpaid links in the translation publishing chain — is fantastic.
But except under very specific conditions — a book tour, a particular event — these monies are never directed at readers. Or to be more precise, at the idea of building and creating a readership.
It could be argued, or rather, I would personally argue, that by changing the demand-side of the international literature equation, the entire translation balance could be upended. If publishers believed the readership for literature in translation was equal to that for any other book they might publish, their arguments against doing these books start to fall apart. At least a little bit. And maybe more translations get published, and sell better than expected, resulting in more translations, and for once we have a positive feedback loop in relation to foreign literature.
So if the end goal is to increase readership instead of focusing on how to pay production costs, the question becomes, “how do we get people interested in these books?” And we’re back at the beach read possibility . . .
I’ve heard a number of people promote the idea that if a few translations really “took off” then we’d see an overall increase in the number of international titles making their way to our shores. Which is absolutely true. What’s the over/under on Scandinavian crime novels coming out next year that are the “next Steig Larsson”? Fifty? One hundred? I’m sure every publishing house in Manhattan would overpay by a million dollars to find the next “Girl with a something something.”
Also absolutely true that readers of Larsson will be much more willing to give another Nordic thriller a try. It’s not like international crime is an unpopular genre, but it’s pretty likely that baseline sales for the genre will spike over the next couple years.
There’s no denying that the beach read argument has validity in terms of generating a larger audience and change the minds of some publishing people. It most definitely does. And that’s great. But I think it’s just part of the picture and carries with it a few cautions and needs to be supplemented with other approaches. More on that in Part II next week, so stay tuned.
READ MORE: About literature in translation on Three Percent, the blog of Open Letter