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.
How 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.