Would You Read Sex Advice from a Brazilian Prostitute?

In Discussion by Edward Nawotka

Publishers gravitate toward cerebral books from countries with strong literary reputations, but there is a wealth of genre titles that have potential.

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Today’s feature story looks at Le French Book’s plans to translate books — including self-help, crime and other genre works — from French into English and distribute them digitally. Such news is always welcome, considering the vast number of books that rarely make it into English translation. With French books, this is a particular problem, as rarely do we see much more than the occasional literary title or pop philosophy or lifestyle tome grace the shelves of American bookstores. Yes, France has a wealth of historians, biographers, “public intellectuals” and other writers of all stripes. Not to mention a prolific publishing industry cranking out fiction each fall, most of which is presented during the “rentrée littéraire” (France’s literary season).

Of course, this problem is not limited to France — the same issue confronts publishers from Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan…you get the picture.

The issue of why so little genre fiction is translated was brought up two years ago during a booksellers forum at the London Book Fair, with the collected booksellers concluding that a) publishers were conditioned to cater to the existing market rather than attempt to establish new ones, and b) even if the books were translated and published there wouldn’t be space on the shelves for them.

Digital publishing solves the issue of shelf space. The real problem is “a” — the lack of desire on the part of publishers to try and engage a new audience. That issue is not as pervasive as it might sound, particularly with digital publishing having lowered the barrier to entry to becoming a publisher to almost nothing. Of course, finding capable translators, which is tougher than it sounds, to tackle a self-help or pop psychology book from Indonesia or Portugal might be trickier. Translators in general tend to be cerebral people, often academics, who are likely to prioritize work that they see as intellectually rigorous — or at the very least, a good fit for their disposition or personality. Genre works aren’t likely to be high on that list.

And so the issue is more complex than it might appear on the surface. But I for one would love to see more romance titles from India or political histories from Russia or wine guides from Chile on the bookstore shelves, be they physical or digital. I can’t think of a better way to get into the head of another culture than to read widely among the most popular genres — the mass market — rather than focus exclusively on the brainiest stuff of the bunch.

Of course, the ultimate question is whether or not these works would really sell? There is little or no guarantee that any books will sell, and translated books have a tougher time than most. But would you be interested sex advice from a Brazilian prostitute? (Yes, this has already been published and did not sell so well) Or advice on entrepreneurship from a successful Indian businessman? Perhaps.

As we all know there are exceptions to the rule, and with publishers willing to take the risk every so often, the gamble might just pay off. After all, the odds can’t be worse than at a casino, so why not take a chance once in awhile?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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.