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Should Overseas Publishers Americanize Their Authors’ Names for US Distribution?

As overseas publishers enter the US market should they Americanize their author’s names to sell more books?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Of the handful of events that featured overseas publishers at the Tools of Change for Publishing conference in New York City was “The World From Another View — Small And Non-US Publishers Going Global” presented by Tobias Nielsén of Sweden’s Density/Volante publishing house.

flags of the worldHow hard is it to be a Swedish publisher? Sweden is a market of only 9.5 million people, largely run by a trio of large conglomerate publishers (who also control the vast majority of distribution, and indigenous publishers compete directly with English editions. Translation, as you might expect, was a key issue.Nielsén used the example of Daniel Kahnemann’s Thinking Fast and Slow, which sold sold some 20,000 copies in hardcover and 50,000 in paperback, with a ratio of 1.5 English-language editions sold for every Swedish edition. Part of the appeal he said was not just the ability to get the book immediately on publication without having to wait for a translation, but the fact that the English language edition typically sold for half the price of the Swedish edition. But, he also noted, the ratio was not always so favorable, citing the example of Nicolas Taleb’s The Black Swan, which sold at a ratio of 13/1.

Nielsén’s talk ranged across a variety of challenges Swedish publishers face in competing in the global marketplace. Translation was, as you might expect, a key issue.

The only way for Swedish publisher to fight back against the global marketplace, argued Nielsén was to “go global” — an enticement he punctuated by cueing up an ABBA tune on his phone.

As evidence of how this might be done, Nielsén described the launch of Stockholm Text, a publishing company launched in 2012 to translate Swedish titles into English and sell them directly into the American market. The company has since published 15 titles, including mysteries, business books and romance novels. Four of the fifteen, all romance and mysteries, “did well.” Nevertheless, he felt the the company was off to a promising start.

As yet another example, Nielsén noted that his own company Volante had already experimented with translating and distributing their own book in the US: Creative Business was published in 2010, but never broke past the 8 million mark on Amazon’s “bestsellers ranking.”

“We paid $3,000 for a URL and thought it would be enough to market the book, but we were wrong,” he said. “We soon realized that American’s weren’t necessarily keen to learn about business from a bunch of Swedish guys. The fact is, people want generalized takeaways, not localized information.”

Nielsén’s takeaway: “Don’t be so Swedish.” Also, it helps to have some localized PR support and to work with aggregators who are in constant contact and have an existing relationship with the online retailers.” 

But that “don’t be so Swedish” line is the one that really stuck.

How should we interpret this?

Last year at BookExpo America Javier Celaya of the Spanish-publishing consultancy Dosdoce (author of yesterday’s feature story, “4 Ways to Fix the Publisher-Startup-VC Relationship,” noted:

“The US is already a crowded market, but it’s going to have foreign publishers coming to this market with English books or their own versions as they are looking at creating new market opportunities. And they will come with new authors with American sounding commercial names. They have the clout and business structure to deliver that product.”

As more and more overseas publishers — be they Barcelona eBooks, Bastei Lübbe, or Stockholm Text — enter the US market with their own translations, would you advise them to take this route? To Americanize their books, or perhaps go so far as to change their authors names, to make this leap? Would it help sell more books?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

RELATED: US to Face Domestic Competition from Overseas Digital Publishers 

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  1. Miki Smith
    Posted February 15, 2013 at 8:05 am | Permalink

    Americanizing names is one of the dumbest ideas yet. Yes, I suspect there are some readers that would be turned off by a name that didn’t support their prejudices, but they probably wouldn’t like the subject/content either. Stick with the good translations–get more of them too–and let the author have his/her name. They deserve it.

  2. Posted February 15, 2013 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    What you need is a good story, not an American-sounding name. There are a lot of purely American-named authors that don’t sell either. I agree with Miki, the authors deserve to have their name. As a publisher of translated fiction, the choice of the books is key. Americans just won’t be interested in all books from a given culture, no matter how successful a given book is in its home country. There has to be something in the story that serves as a bridge. At Le French Book, we focus on commercial fiction and we don’t hesitate to work with the French authors on adaptations if they seem necessary. We are advocates of the story and don’t want there to be anything in the translation that is a stumbling block for the reader.

  3. Doreen
    Posted February 18, 2013 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    A very Eurocentric article. If you sneer at “Americanizing” authors’ names, does that mean you seriously advocate leaving, say, Chinese/Japanese/Arabic/Russian/Hebrew/Thai etc. authors’ names in their original-language (and script) versions?

  4. Posted February 18, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think so. Although most of books that I read were written by an American author, I also read a lot of books in English from authors from other countries (e.g. Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, India, Asia, etc.). For this, I don’t have to simply ignore the fact that the author is not American just because for example the names were ‘Americanized’. There are simply styles of writing that I recognize as American and in many instances I can easily distinguish that from say, British. I love books from India and even South Africa, for example. I’d rather read novels from these beautiful countries in their local names and places with their sometimes unique style of writing and plot for me to enjoy the book more. Say, do that for certain books. That might work but I wouldn’t generally recommend that.

  5. John Wilson
    Posted February 19, 2013 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    I do believe that a good translation of the work is essential. The reader has to be able to easily read and enjoy the book. However, the author has to be able to review and consent to that translation to validate their art.
    That being said, the authors name is as valuable as their face. Would I expect an author to change their face to please their audience? No! The authors name should be their original name as they use it. If their language is not easily read, then show the original name and an accurate transliteration. Provide an explanation if necessary.
    Assume your audience wants to know who the author really is. Because they do…

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