One Year of Translating, Selling Swedish Literature Direct

In Europe by Daniel Kalder

By Daniel Kalder

The US market is notoriously conservative when it comes to publishing books in translation, with the Big Six/Five largely happy to leave the risk to smaller, independent outfits (with a high casualty rate). However, in an increasingly digitized world, is it necessary for foreign publishers to be constantly pitching their wares at timorous English language firms?

After all, today you can upload digital content from almost anywhere in the world and sell globally. Thus a Swedish firm could produce its own translations in-house and sell books on Amazon, or via iTunes or any number of platforms. And indeed, that’s what Claes Ericson, the Swedish economist behind Stockholm Text has done. Excited by the global success of Scandinavian crime, he and his partners decided to establish a firm that would attack the US market directly. Its three full time staff are based in Stockholm, with one representative in Seattle.

Claes Ericson

“Swedish publishing is a small business, and to be honest it is growing smaller by the year. That’s why we felt that the moment was right now—after the Stieg Larsson trend, Swedish crime is growing internationally. There’s an increased awareness of what’s going on in Scandinavia. Our goal as a publisher is to bring the best of Scandinavian literature to the world, by translating it into English and distributing it globally.”

However although Larsson may have provided the spark that lit the fire, Stockholm Text’s original list was intriguingly diverse. In 2012 the house published 15 titles from a range of different genres, including romance, crime, YA and non-fiction. Prominent among that original group of authors was Mari Jungstedt, one of the so-called Scandinavian crime queens, whose works have been filmed in Europe. All the books were available digitally and POD. Ericson cites total sales figure of “between 50,000–100,000” for 2012. That’s not bad at all for a start-up launched halfway through the year, but still he says he learned a lot:

“The results were mixed. Non-fiction was the problem side, although we did have a few successes. For instance, we did one book about grappa, the Italian drink. It had been a bestseller in Sweden, and the beauty of it for the American market was that there was no competition on Amazon, there was nothing else on the subject. So we did a nice promotion, and identified and approached 300 different media outlets, including online bloggers and wine clubs.”

Another non-fiction book on body language The Art of Reading Minds started off slow, but sales improved when Inscribe Digital, Stockholm Text’s distributor, suggested a name change and a new cover. Re-titled The Upper Hand and enhanced a more Malcolm Gladwell-esque cover — a process that took only two weeks — the book was re-listed and sales improved. “Now it’s the bestselling book on the topic on Kobo,” says Ericson.

Ericson cites total sales figure of “between 50,000–100,000” for 2012.

A book on the Russian oligarchs failed to take off however: “Here there was a problem, as there is more competition on this topic from our American peers. A journalist from the Washington Post for instance already has a platform and name recognition. It’s hard to compete without physical distribution, and harder to go into competition with American author.”

Thus the core business of Stockholm Text for the foreseeable future is likely to be the detective novel. “Crime novels did well. We were one of few foreign publishers to be #1 on sales chart of Kindle and Nook last year. Scandinavian crime fiction is so strong right now, it has such a good reputation, there’s so much word of mouth that it almost sells itself.”

Focusing on Crime, Why?

However although Stockholm Text’s list is focusing primarily on crime in 2013, Ericson is keen to stress that he is not exclusively a noir publisher. “We will concentrate on detective fiction yes, but also release one or two romance titles, the number one feel-good novel of the 21st century in Sweden and number one YA novel. As a publisher, yes, our job is to find readers for titles and perhaps now we have to be realistic. Scandinavian crime is the way to reach the American reader. But we are still sticking to our original business idea, to bring the best Scandinavian titles to the world. We hope that by leading with crime, readers will get interested in Stockholm Text as a publisher, and become aware of our other books.”

So what is it about the art of Swedish murder that so fascinates the world?

“Well, we don’t talk about Swedish crime anymore — for us it’s Scandinavian crime. I’ve just returned from a trip to Copenhagen where I was talking to publishers there about increasing the profile of some of their crime authors abroad. But I think there are several reasons. First, Scandinavian crime is not only about the plot or the mystery. There is an emphasis on the protagonists, on the characterizations. We have focused on female authors, and their characters have interesting personal problems, which make the books more interesting, or at least different from those of their US peers.

“The environment is also a little exotic. Two of our main authors, including Mari Jungstedt, set their stories in Gotland, which is an island off the Swedish mainland. This is perhaps good for readers who are tired of New York as a setting. But also, I think, Swedish history is part of it. You know, there’s that myth of Social Democracy, that in Sweden everything is great and green, and everyone is happy — and it’s interesting for people to read about all these brutal murders that are taking place in ‘paradise.’ It contradicts the common point of view.”

50/50 Split and Adding Print

Stockholm Text splits shares royalties 50/50 with its authors after all production costs have been deducted. “It’s a good and fair model that enables us to pick up the best.” In 2013 meanwhile the publisher is upping the ante. Ericson has only praise for INscribe Digital, the digital-only distributor that handled the books for 2012, but believes that Stockholm Text may be losing as much as 75% of sales without a physical book. “We are going to change our distributor to Consortium, which means we will now publish all our books in print as well as digital. For our next crime novel we will print 10,000 copies to start, and these will be distributed to stores. Of course that increases our costs — it costs $15,000 to translate a book, and now with print that will be even higher. But the upside is higher also, in that we will have a greater retail presence.”

Although Stockholm Text’s big focus is on the American market, the publisher also has a presence in Sweden. The problem, says Ericson is that without Amazon or any serious ecommerce platform the market is tiny. The 25% VAT charged on ebooks — compared to the 6% charged on print books — doesn’t help either.

“The Swedes think of themselves as early adopters, and yes there is a high share of iPads. But the ebook market was half a per cent in 2012 and this year it is projected to grow to be one and a half per cent. That’s why we’re focusing on the US, although we are also the number one ebook publisher in Sweden. Last year we published 60 ebooks in Sweden including novels by well-known authors such as Harlan Coben. It helps us that right now in the Swedish market you can pick up digital rights easily.”

Flexibility is essential for any publisher in today’s climate, says Ericson. “Our permanent staff is small, so we hire people on a project by project basis, to do the translations, the proofs, the PR. In my view that is how all publishers should work to lower their overheads — that way you can hire the best people for a particular project.”

So with a good first digital year behind them, and a second year of expanding into print ahead, is Ericson feeling nervous?

“No. We’ve had such success with the books in electronic format only we feel this is the way to go. We still have the desire to bring the best of Scandinavian literature to the world.”

SURVEY: For Small Publishers is Print Still Worth the Expense?

About the Author

Daniel Kalder

Daniel Kalder is an author and journalist originally from Scotland, currently based in Texas after a ten year stint spent living in the former USSR where he (more or less) picked up Russian. He has written two books about Russian life and culture and contributes features, reviews and travel pieces to publications around the world.