By Rebecca Carter
When I was asked to write this piece, I had just come back from the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival where I attended a panel on self-publishing. A group of crime writers who had successfully self-published their novels were debating the pros and cons. There were many pros. They had a very direct relationship with their readers, which they nurtured with care. Some of them had made really a lot of money. In fact, one of them, having been picked up by HarperCollins after his self-publishing success, was so disillusioned with the experience (and so in debt) that he went back to self-publishing. They all shared three things in common: they had tried for years to get published by the conventional route; they believed strongly in the central importance of an editorial relationship (if there was anything that would draw them back to traditional publishing, it was that); and their success was due entirely to Amazon Kindle’s self-publishing tool. It was almost as if any other form of self-publishing didn’t exist. Most of them had started self-publishing around 2011, shortly after the UK launch of the Kindle led to an increased hunger for ebooks. What they had discovered was that, by manipulating the pricing of their ebook to make it extremely cheap (or even free), they could attract a large number of downloads, thus rising in the Kindle charts and bringing their book to the attention of readers. This then became self-sustaining.
For those with a passion for getting foreign books into English – be they rights sellers, translators or the authors themselves – there is a temptation, when meeting with resistance from publishers, to take things into one’s own hands. To some extent, this has been happening for a long time. Translators have lobbied editors hard about particular books; authors and rights sellers have commissioned lengthy sample translations to convince publishers to take risks; small independent publishers have sprung up to specialize in translation. However, in the past few years, the opportunities to “do it yourself” have increased. In an era when publishing is redefining itself, this is both exciting and challenging.
Amazon, the Game-changer?
Let’s go back to Amazon self-publishing. One of the many reasons I became a literary agent (after fifteen years as an editor at Random House) was to be able to experiment with new ways of publishing – something it had been relatively difficult to do as a small cog in a big corporate machine. A major issue facing literary agents at the moment is to what extent they become “publishers,” or whether they even should. Although, as an agent, I am working with far fewer non-English-language authors than I did as a publisher (my main focus now being representing the best writing in English), I am nevertheless taking on a few writers who need translating. This year I have been frustrated by my failure to find a publisher for a French novel. The enthusiasm of those Harrogate crime writers for Amazon was enticing. I had a good relationship with the author, the translator and the original publisher of this French novel. What was to stop me suggesting a self-publishing experiment? Indeed, earlier in the year, I’d had a meeting with a representative of the Amazon “White Glove” program – a sinisterly named bespoke scheme for agents to help their authors self-publish and market themselves on Amazon. I’d been toying with the idea of trying it out. But there were many deterrents. Self-published crime fiction is one thing; literary fiction another. Those crime writers had relied on low pricing and the popularity of the crime genre to give them a platform where they could start creating an online community of fans; I couldn’t see Kindle readers flocking to download, say, a translation from Chinese just because it was free or priced at 1p; it would be much harder to achieve the visibility. And that’s before any ethical objections to Amazon’s potential monopoly.
“Community” is, of course, the key word here. The publishing world has learned many hard lessons from Amazon, but one of the biggest is the importance of collecting and exploiting data about your customers’ reading habits. This is leading to more and more focus on the mass-market – on creating “communities” around brand-name authors and big best-sellers. But it is no accident that one of Amazon’s first forays into publishing, launched in May 2010, was Amazon Crossing, the translation imprint that used customer feedback and “other data from Amazon sites around the world to identify exceptional books deserving a wider, global audience.” Amazon had identified an extremely strong and under-served community: readers with an interest in books from other countries.
I remember going to a publication party in 2008 where a friend of the author had been a manager at Amazon during its launch, and was now working with other digital start-ups. I was working as an editor at Random House at the time. I spoke to him about my excitement at the way the internet was bringing people with a passion for translation together, and how I wondered whether we could use Random House’s “platform” to crowd-source ideas from around the world about books to translate into English. He pretty much told me it wasn’t worth my while: “Amazon will do that,” he said (as if it was only worth doing if it could be BIG). Yet, it has been proved subsequently that it is very much worth doing even if it’s small. The translation community is not easily wowed by algorithms and product. It has never been in it for the money, except as a means to an end; its commitments are rather to the craft of good translation, and to connecting readers and cultures across the globe.
Small Press Start-ups Focused on Translation
Witness the success of small publisher And Other Stories. Launched in 2010 (the same year as Amazon Crossing), And Other Stories also had elements of crowd-sourcing built into its business model, but in a very different way. Stefan Tobler and his colleagues set up reading groups in foreign languages to allow the public to suggest books that should be translated; they positively encouraged recommendations from translators; and, by using a subscription model where readers could sign up to receive several books a year, they not only helped pre-fund their publications, they created a ready-made community to receive them. Community is at the heart of what And Other Stories does. They draw on the commitment and expertise of existing communities, and they expand those communities further by organizing impressive live events that draw people in (something that Peirene Press has also done very successfully in the “salons” that publisher Meike Ziervogel organizes in her home). This has brought them to the attention of other, larger communities. When Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down the Rabbit Hole was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award, they tapped into the Guardian’s community. When Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home was shortlisted for the Man Booker, they came to the attention of the literary community as a whole.
The power of the crowd can be heady in such circumstances, but a publisher’s resources are necessarily limited, and success doesn’t come without incredible focus. And Other Stories has a clever way of working, but it also has a publisher of great taste and good judgement at the helm, Stefan Tobler. Publishers talk a lot about “slots,” i.e. available space in their catalogues. There will always be many more foreign books with merit than there are “slots” to take them, and so we will always need informed and passionate curators to take difficult decisions. One of the exciting things about the current upheaval in publishing is that new publishing companies are springing up “like bamboo after rain,” as the Chinese would say. These are being run by determined individuals, who realize that the books they want to read are only going to get published if they do it themselves.
One such is Will Evans, who is in the process of launching a new publishing company in Dallas called Deep Vellum. A graduate in Russian literature, and a translator, Evans was struck by the paucity of Russian translations, but was also interested in how Russian literature relates to the rest of world literature. He was an avid reader of web magazines such as The Quarterly Conversation and Three Percent, the latter linked to the fabulous US publisher of translations run out of the University of Rochester, Open Letter Books. Inspired by the publisher, Chad Post’s advice that the only way he was going to see more translations published was to start his own press, Evans spent a summer interning with Chad at Open Letter, and then did just that. Open Letter is definitely acting as a seed bed for new enterprises. Its influence is obvious in And Other Stories, and just last week I attended the launch of a new UK publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, which has as one of its first publications the UK edition of Mathias Enard’s Zone, first published by Open Letter in 2010. In Berlin, EJ Van Lanen, one of the triumvirate who founded Open Letter, has set up Frisch & Co to publish translations in ebook (in contrast to Fitzcarraldo who are putting the focus on beautiful physical books).
When it comes to choosing which books to publish, EJ Van Lanen, who is pretty much a one-man operation, has an interesting method. Realizing that if he were to spend all his time sifting recommendations and submissions, and attending book fairs, he would never have time to publish any books, he decided to narrow the field by forming alliances with the best foreign publishing companies. In Germany, for example, he works with Suhrkamp Verlag, selecting books from their catalogue for his list. Inevitably, the rights department at Suhrkamp want to hold back the books they think they have most chance of selling to a British or American publisher, but that doesn’t bother Van Lanen. He told me, wryly, that there were still a lot of interesting books to choose from. The other innovation of Van Lanen’s model is that he doesn’t pay advances, not even to the translator, but instead shares the revenue generously. He, the original publisher and the translator all take a financial risk, but benefit if the book is a success. Last autumn he published Uwe Tellkamp’s Der Turm (The Tower) in a translation by Michael Mitchell. Winner of the 2008 German Book Prize, Der Turm was considered by British and American publishers at the time, but perhaps dismissed because of its daunting 900 pages. But the pre-publication buzz around Van Lanen’s edition was such that Penguin acquired rights to publish a physical edition. Although Van Lanen doesn’t encourage submissions as such, he is always open to suggestions, particularly in languages such as Chinese where it is unlikely he’ll find a partner publisher. For example, he is publishing Nicky Harman’s translation of Hang Dong’s novella A Tabby-cat’s Tale, which she proposed to him. And he’s still seeking partner publishers, with France a notable gap.
I don’t know what the French are waiting for: Frisch & Co is clearly providing a wonderful route into the English language. But it seems to me only a matter of time before foreign publishing companies and literary agencies set up their own English-language imprints. After all, Europa Books has set a blazing trail. Started in 2005 by Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, the owners of the Italian publishing company Edizioni E/O, among its first books was a translation of the Italian novel Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Ferrante is now an international bestseller, and Europa has been hugely successful, branching out into publishing English-language authors, and attracting loyal readers who collect all their titles, with their distinctive cover design.
Identity and Model is the Key
Identity is so important for a small publisher that wants to attract a following. It’s not enough just to publish good books: those books need to create a world to which readers want to belong. To specialize or not to specialize is one of the questions. Will Evans of Deep Vellum is determined that, although his roots are in Russian literature, his publishing company is about ‘world literature’ and how authors in different languages speak to each other. The exciting relaunch of Pushkin Press under new proprietors Adam Freudenheim and Stephanie Seegmuller has put internationalism at the heart of the publisher’s identity. Its website declares that it publishes ‘the world’s best stories’. At Hispabooks (profiled today), however, it’s all about literature in Spanish. Founded in 2011 by Ana Pérez Galván and Gregorio Doval, two experienced editors who felt that not enough Spanish books were getting into English, Hispabooks emulates Frisch & Co by publishing e-editions, but is also determined to get its print-on-demand books stocked by bricks-and-mortar bookshops. This has been a challenge, Ana Pérez Galván admits, because bookshops don’t tend to realize that they can return the print-on-demand books, and are therefore wary of ordering them.
This is a period in which small start-up publishers are experimenting with different financial models, new forms of distribution, and interesting balances between e- and physical books. At the moment I’m doing business with the valiant Valancourt Books, run by Jay Jenkins from Virginia, and specializing in rare, neglected and out-of-print fiction. Jenkins is bringing back into print an author I represent, Isabel Colegate. Low overheads, and little to no advances to pay, make an ebook and print-on-demand business for English-language books just about viable. But translations are expensive to fund. Frisch & Co gets round this by asking translators to accept payment once the book is being sold, if a translation grant isn’t available. Other publishers rely more heavily on public funding, although the proprietors of Hispabooks have been frustrated by the fact that, as publishers based in Spain, they are not eligible for the government support given to British and American publishers who translate books from Spanish. For Will Evans at Deep Vellum, local philanthropy is going to be the answer. Dallas, where he is based, is an international city with a strong tradition of donation to the Arts, but not to Literature. In setting up Deep Vellum as a non-profit, he aims to get people in Dallas reading and appreciating translations, and hopefully funding them too.
If I look ahead, I see publishers experimenting more and more with involving the “crowd,” be it in choosing, translating, funding or publicizing foreign literature. Crowd-funding platforms like Unbound (which recently had a book on the Man Booker longlist) may embrace foreign literature, and – for better or worse – we will probably see collaborative online translation. In the week that I wrote this, a new publisher called Advance Editions launched in which readers are encouraged to give editorial suggestions about a text before the definitive version is published. Setting aside the wisdom of an author opening him- or herself up to bombardment from a multitude of amateur editors, this also raises questions of what work should be paid for. ‘Involvement in the process’ could be seen as another way of saying ‘free labour’, and certainly authors, editors and translators will increasingly be asked to contribute their time and skills for free, or below the going rate, with the hope of remuneration further down the line.
As the line between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ becomes increasingly blurred, the need for curators – for highly skilled editors, translators and taste-makers – will become all the more acute. It has always struck me that, although publishing translations is a niche occupation, the innovations that happen here are of huge relevance to the rest of publishing – and it is often here, through force of circumstance, that the best ideas first have their airing. Take the increasingly interconnected relationship between web magazines, blogs and book publishing. The translation community were among the first to see the power of blogs in bringing books to the attention of readers (and publishers who might translate them into English), and start-ups now incorporate a strong blog/web magazine into their identity. Or direct to consumer sales (D2C). On the day I write, the Bookseller has a news item about how HarperCollins’s direct sales site has recently gone live, and how Penguin Random House is this week launching ‘an audience segmentation strategy, which groups together readers with similar attitudes, behaviors and motivations’. In relation to all the small publishers I’ve been talking about in this article, this seems a little old hat.
In a recent interview with the online magazine Guernica, Fiona McCrae, Publisher of Graywolf, extols the benefits of being a small to medium-size independent press, publishing books you believe in. “My nature is much more attracted to against-the-tide books,” she says. “For example, at Graywolf, if I hear that there is another offer on a manuscript, it generally makes me less interested, not more. I do not feel competitive in that way, so I don’t believe that the fact someone else wants to publish a piece of writing makes that piece of writing good. I think I was overly affected as a child by fairy stories where the bronze casket turns out to be the winner, not the gold.” By publishing this way, Graywolf has had a number of big successes that will help fund it to continue sailing against the tide. McCrae also says: “For every big breakout book there are people who say that kind of thing will never happen again. And then it happens again.” My advice to innovative start-ups would be: although a solid income seems a distant dream, make sure you know how to scale-up at short notice if you have to (and then scale down again). Look at the tiny Galley Beggar Press who suddenly had such a hit on their hands with Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing that they needed to get Faber & Faber involved to publish a mass-market paperback (and advertise the novel on the sides of buses!) Although you can’t bank on the fairytale ending, you ought to be prepared.
This is a version of an article that first appeared in the November 2014 edition of the journal for literary translators In Other Words.
Rebecca Carter is a literary agent with Janklow & Nesbit (UK) Ltd.