Want More Rights Deals/Translations? Court Editors with Culture

In News by Edward Nawotka

Chad Post, the publisher of Open Letter Books — a non profit publisher focusing on literary translation — is a well traveled guy. Last year, he visited the Turin Book Fair and came back even more convinced that the best road to getting Americans (and other nationalities) to publish more translations is to organize overseas trips for them and “court them with culture.” Here he offers a meditation on cultural exchange and six tips for organizers of editorial trips.

From Publishing Perspectives, June 2010:

By Chad Post

TURIN: “Let me tell you something: the U.S. market is closed to Italian books,” said Italian literary agent Marco Vigevani on a panel about translation at the Turin International Book Fair last month. “It may sound crazy,” he continued, “but I want you to face the facts. Yes, it used to be different. There were editors like George Braziller and Drenka Willen. But now? There’s no market. It’s just a waste of money and time trying to sell books to Americans. I can make far more money focusing just on France and Germany. You’re looking like me crazy, but it’s the truth. There is no U.S. market for Italian books.”

Vigevani was not entirely alone in his assessment. I underlined the fact that 85% of literary translations published in the U.S. are published by small presses, who do very few books and offer very small advances. Jonathan Burnham, Senior Vice President and Publisher of the Harper imprint at HarperCollins, explained all of the challenges to publishing international literature in the US, including the fact that very few editors speak a foreign language, that the U.S. is pretty much self-sufficient in terms of literary production, and that readers are generally satisfied with the English literature that’s available. While Anna Knutson, senior scout at Maria B. Campbell Associates, and Patrick Nolan, Vice President, Director Sales & Marketing for Penguin, were a bit more practical, yet not overly encouraging.

Knutson offered tips to better the odds of finding a U.S. publisher for their books, including paying close attention to which specific editors are interested in international lit, and making sure to get the best possible sample translation — not one that’s done by an Italian who happens to know English. Nolan focused more on the post-acquisitions process, talking about marketing and sales how essential it is to get the internal sales force behind any translation that’s being released. Everyone pointed to the extraordinary sales of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog and the work of Roberto Bolaño in the US as hopeful exceptions.

But the essential message was pretty clear: with only 34 original translations of Italian fiction and poetry released in the U.S. over the past two years, it’s highly unlikely that the books you’re pushing will ever reach an American audience. So, if all the news is bad, why did the Italian Trade Commission bring a number of American editors, agents, and scouts, and even Tina Jordan, Vice President of the Association of American Publishers (who moderated our panel) — to Turin?

This is all pretty obvious, trite, and maybe superficial, but these editorial trips — and I’ve been lucky enough to participate in a ton, to places like Germany, Argentina, Iceland, Estonia, and Catalonia — are the perfect opportunity to inundate editors with information and to court them with culture. Opinions change over the course of these trips. It’s cliché, but there’s nothing like face-to-face meetings, and as objective, bottom-line focused we can try and be, learning about another country — its literary history and cultural heritage — really works to get editors invested.

Sure, the number of Italian books published in the U.S. isn’t about to double, or even increase that much, but this type of trip really helps to prime people. Results may not be immediate, but thanks to a wonderful week of meetings, panels, and receptions, we all know more about the Italian market. I’ll guarantee that most participants on this trip will pay a bit more attention to the Italian works they hear about in the future.

This is why these sort of editorial trips are becoming more commonplace. In order to increase the number of titles published in translation, cultural agencies have to support publishing in a few different ways: by offering translation subsidies, by helping promote the books that are published, and by providing as much information as possible. And although it may not be as cost effective as emailing a list of recommended titles, an editorial trip has a much more immediate and long-lasting impact.

As I mentioned above, I’ve been on a lot of these trips. Sometimes they’re tied to book fairs, sometimes they’ve been group trips, and occasionally I’ve gone to a country by myself. I always come back more informed, connected, and definitely interested in literature of the region. I always come back determined to publish at least one book from country X . . .

Following in the vein of Anna Knutson’s practical advice for publishers looking to sell their works abroad, here are a few tips — mainly for cultural organizations — I’ve come up with over the years for maximizing these sorts of trips.

Tips for Running the Best Editorial Trips

1. Groups are Best

A few publishers I know would prefer to go on these trips alone, but I truly believe that the bonding experience that comes about from going with a group of editors, agents, etc., is invaluable. For one thing, this tends to make the trip more fun, and, not to get too far into behavioral economics, there is the possibility of enacting some sort of halo effect in which a bit of Turin’s luster rubs off on some of the books that were mentioned . . . Beyond general enjoyment, groups are great for sharing information and opinions. And sometimes one person hears about a book that would be great for someone else, etc.

2. Specialize, Specialize, Specialize

It’s not always that easy to do when arranging a group visit, but the most successful trips I’ve been on are ones in which a group of similar publishing people go together. It could be just people interested in literary fiction or only editors who work on books about current events. General groups of “publishing people” can be a bit diffuse, making meetings sort of drift and feel a bit vague. Even within this similar grouping idea, it’s great if there’s some matchmaking going on and the editor interested in experimental literature gets a special, individual meeting with his/her local counterpart.

3. Provide Advance Information

Prior to the Torino International Book Fair, I was emailed a ton of catalogs, rights lists, and the like. What would be ideal — and time intensive — is some informational packet with info on the publishing scene, with descriptions of particular presses and editors, some key authors, etc. Some of this stuff the participants will already know, but honestly, even the best read editor can use some background material. Besides, international flights are long and perfect for perusing this sort of info packet.

4. Broad Exposure

It may be true that meetings between publishers are most likely to generate rights sales and translations, but to really provide a wide, comprehensive view of a country’s literary culture, these visits should include meetings with reviewers, booksellers, authors, etc. Not only is this useful when it comes to info gathering about a particular author and/or book, but it provides a much clearer picture of a country’s book culture.

5. Explain Different Business Models

Although Americans love to tell people why things won’t work in our country, we are always curious about other models — especially considering how the publishing industry always seems to be perennially about to implode and eat itself. It’s fascinating to learn about fixed book price laws, different e-book distribution schemes, bookseller training systems, and the like. We’re all looking for new good ideas, and by learning about the way things function in other places, the more likely we are to come up with a useful innovation.

6. Don’t Forget the Social and the Cultural

Books are great; I’ve given my whole life over to the written word. But a culture is much broader than that. Having a chance to see some important landmarks or to experience some unique cultural event can go a long way in getting an editor to crush on a country, and also helps provide a better background for understanding references in books they’ll end up evaluating. For example, in Iceland, we spent one day on the Golden Circle tour, which included a visit to Halldor Laxness’s house, and ended with a reception hosted by the president of Iceland. We didn’t learn about a single book that day, but I’ll guarantee everyone on that tour was even more enamored with Iceland by the time we were touring the medieval prisons in the President’s basement.

Anyway, as a publisher of international fiction, I can’t urge foreign agencies enough to put together these sorts of visits. It’s interesting to me to know a number of younger American publishing folks who have been on numerous editorial trips and are very well educated and well positioned for the future to have a huge impact on how much international literature is published in translation. Maybe it’s always been this way, but in the face of such bleak statistics — just 350 total works translated last year, just 3% of all books published in the US — and downtrodden attitudes — no one reads other languages, these books don’t sell — I take solace in the belief that it won’t always be like this. That the people I met in Torino and elsewhere are the future and are engaged in global issues and the possibilities of publishing.

Chad W. Post is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester.

DISCUSS: Planning an Editor or Publishers Trip Abroad? Tell Us About It

VISIT: The Web site of the Turin International Book Fair

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.