Translation-Exchange Partnerships: Leading Publishers Share Their Experiences

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

In a Publishing Perspectives Talk at Frankfurt Book Fair, the chiefs of Gallimard Jeunesse, Bloomsbury Publishing, and the Quarto Group joined Kalimat’s Bodour Al Qasimi to discuss their publishing houses’ translation-exchange partnerships.

Nigel Newton of Bloomsbury Publishing in London and Hedwige Pasquet of Gallimard Jeunesse in Paris discuss their translation-exchange partnerships with Sharjah’s Kalimat in a Publishing Perspectives Talk at Frankfurt Book Fair. Image © Frankfurter Buchmesse / Bernd Hartung

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
Kalimat: ‘Proud of These Relationships’

The Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi speaks at a Publishing Perspectives Talk on her Kalimat publishing house’s translation-exchange partnerships at Frankfurt Book Fair. Image: © Frankfurter Buchmesse / Bernd Hartung

Because the Arab diaspora has become so widespread, “We really look at it as a global industry” in terms of publishing’s reach with Arabic books, says the Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi. What’s more, as The Bookseller’s Lisa Campbell points out in her writeup of the Frankfurt session, Bodour has a keen interest in “the translation and exporting of Arabic children’s books as ‘vital in order to avoid cultural ‘misunderstanding and stereotyping’ globally.”

And in a Publishing Perspectives Talk at Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club this month, this international outreach was clear as Bodour was joined by three outstanding fellow publishers to talk about partnerships that her 10-year-old Kalimat publishing house in the United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah has pioneered.

The session was titled “Kalimat’s Approach to International Business: Translation Exchanges That All Publishers Can Create.” And joining Bodour in the discussion were:

The fundamental model of the translation exchange partnership at issue here is this:

  • Two publishing houses based in different linguistic markets, make a formal agreement to exchange a certain number of their titles.
  • The houses each then have translations produced of the exchanged books.
  • They then proceed to sell them into their own marketplaces.

That last element is one of the most important parts of the approach: rather than trying to sell into a distant market, the local publisher handles the distribution and sales into his or her own marketplace, greatly reducing the risk of trying to sell into foreign terrain.

As Sharjah prepares to open the 36th iteration of its Sharjah International Book Fair and the world’s first free trade zone for publishing, Sharjah Publishing City, it’s a good time to look at the successful partnerships Bodour’s Kalimat and these renowned English- and French-language publishers have established because the basic premise holds potential for so many publishers looking to expand international markets for their books.

“This model” of translation-exchange partnerships “is very unique,” Bodour told the Frankfurt audience. Quarto, Bloomsbury, and Gallimard Jeunesse “are very special publishers,” she said, referring not only to these companies’ high regard in the world industry and outstanding track records in the business, but also to the character of the content each produces.

“I’m very proud of these relationships,” Bodour said, “because they’re built on trust. These are publishers who understand their markets. They’re innovative publishers, not afraid to try something new. And that’s something rare in the publishing industry. You don’t find a lot of publishers who are willing to explore” such unusual business relationships.

“That’s what’s missing so often in the business,” she said, “and it’s just wonderful to have these people to work with, willing to look into other markets.”

Sharjah’s Sheikha Bodour talks with the Quarto Group’s Marcus Leaver at Frankfurt Book Fair. Image: Porter Anderson

Quarto Group: ‘Doing Business With People We Trust’
“I said to Bodour, ‘You clearly have the local knowledge and distribution, and we’ve got lots of intellectual property.'”Marcus Leaver, The Quarto Group

The first of these partnerships arranged with Bodour’s Kalimat operation—which is the first Arabic house to be fully dedicated to books for children—was an exchange with the aggressively internationalist Quarto Group.

“We’re in the intellectual property business,” Quarto’s Marcus Leaver told the audience, “and for the 41 years that quarto has been in business, selling outside of the US and UK has been incredibly important. Certainly, you can’t exist with just the UK, so the UK has always been an exporter. And as of last year, 20 percent of our entire revenue at Quarto—about $155 million—20 percent of that was foreign-language rights.

“The first international partnership we did was in Brazil with Livraria Nobel,” Brazil’s major bookselling concern. As Leaver explained, however, “There just weren’t enough publishers to take all our books. So we decided to find a partner to distribute our books.

“And then sitting down with Bodour was so refreshing. Because we actually did zero revenue in the Middle East and North Africa. I mean we did not sell a single book in those territories.

“And I said to Bodour, ‘You clearly have the local knowledge and distribution, and we’ve got lots of intellectual property.’ And we like doing business with people who we trust and like they way they do business. And that’s why we’re working with Kalimat.”

The Quarto partnership, announced in April 2016 at London Book Fair, has produced a 20-book exchange so far, based primarily in cookbooks for Quarto’s part–one of that house’s specialties. “It’s small acorns so far,” Leaver said, “but big oaks are going to grow in the future. We’re very pleased with the relationship.

“We’ve been to Sharjah” International Book Fair “for three years now. It’s a long, lasting relationship. We’re looking far into the future, and we’re there as Kalimat grows.”

Bloomsbury: ‘Just Plain Good Business’
“The benefits of having a series relationship instead of just doing just one-off rights deals, is just plain good business.”Nigel Newton, Bloomsbury Publishing

Nigel Newton, speaking for the partnership that Bloomsbury has been developing for about three years with Kalimat, said, “I’d echo what Bodour and Marcus have been saying, that strength comes through partnerships. Marcus and I were reflecting on the coincidence that we run probably the only two directly listed public companies on the stock exchange in British publishing. And when you’re out there,” as a publicly traded company, “people like to see partnerships because that’s what they see from much bigger corporations in other industries.

“At Bloomsbury, early on, we formed a partnership with Microsoft that was tremendously important to us back in about 1999 when we published the Encarta World English Dictionary with them. And so we’ve had an eye for partnerships ever since.

“We’ve also had an interest in Arabic literature, and as we got to know Sheikha Bodour and watched the incredible developments of her publishing house, the idea of a partnership was very attractive and is working very well.

“The benefits of having a series relationship instead of just doing—as much of this book fair is about—just one-off rights deals, is just plain good business.

“So most importantly, we’re thrilled with the books we’ve published under the series. It’s all very well to talk in theory, but I can tell you some titles of what we have taken from Kalimat in Arabic to give you a flavor” of some of the children’s books “we’ve translated into English and published” so far in the partnership with Bloomsbury.

Newton entertained the audience with a quick reading of the list, each book by the author Fatima Sharafeddine: Tweet Quack Moo  illustrated by Hassan Zahreddine; and, with illustrations by Rasha Mounib Al Hakim, Mimi in ParisMimi and Her Busy MumMimi and the Pianoand Mimi’s Hair.

These are books, Newton said, not only that “kids absolutely love, but they’re on universal themes, which, as Bodour says, is what we’re doing in Frankfurt: discovering our shared humanity through publishing.”

Newton did also get off a much-appreciated wink when he added, that he hoped that Tweet Quack Moo isn’t “the president’s operating manual” for certain Twitter activity. The basic agreement between Bloomsbury and Kalimat, he said, is for an exchange of 10 titles per year, but the partnership is based primarily in exchanging “the right titles,” as Newton clarified, rather than adhering to a set number.

While Bodour clarified that each partnership functions as “a normal rights deal,” she and her publisher-partners prefer to keep the precise details of their arrangements private. What money moves between them, then, wasn’t part of the discussion in Frankfurt. “Each partnership is different as each publisher is different,” she said, but there are advances and royalties, money is involved,” rather than the partnerships operating strictly as content exchanges.

“At the end of the day, we’re all publishers,” she said, “and we want to be sure we make money from these deals,” as well as supporting the cultural importance of the exchanges. Her point was that these are genuine financial deals, simply structured so that the marketing and distributional risks are reduced because each house is selling into its own market the translations it produces.

Gallimard Jeunesse: ‘Respect for the Author’
“We were very glad to find Kalimat, which is so careful with the author. If there’s a foreign language edition, then the author has to be part of this.”Hedwige Pasquet, Gallimard Jeunesse

Gallimard Jeunesse’s Hedwige Pasquet made the point that in coming to what is the youngest of the three partnerships represented in the Frankfurt discussion–the publisher signed in Paris with Kalimat in March–the French house was motivated in part by the fact that “the French market is not large enough.” As do so many British houses, for example, the publishing companies in France must look outside for export markets.

And when looking for a partnership of the kind Gallimard Jeunesse now has with Kalimat, one of the motivating factors is a good match in terms of the type of content the two houses present, a level of shared know-how in the same work, which, eventually, can mean some control of costs in actual production.

Pasquet made the point that in earlier attempts to work in the Arabic markets, Gallimard, “never found publishers who worked with respect for the author” to the degree that the Paris house feels is appropriate. “So we were very glad to find Kalimat, which is so careful with the author,” aligning well with Gallimard’s own traditions of author relations. “If there’s a foreign language edition,” she said, for example, “then the author has to be part of this,” rather than having the original work taken out of the author’s hands.

“So we were very glad to find a publisher who sympathizes with us” on this, “and for the marketing, the quality of the printing, for all we exchange.” Kalimat’s standards of operation and production, in other words, match those of Gallimard well, so that the venerable Paris house is assured of shared values in the partnership.

Also, Pasquet said, it’s important that the two houses are both in children’s publishing and equally concerned for the responsibility this entails.”We’re very concerned about the cultural exchange, about the links we can create between countries in the Arabic world. And if we don’t get this to the children now, to know and discover, it’s not going to happen later”—it will be too late.

An interesting practical point Pasquet shared is that in evaluating books for the exchange, it’s easier for us to look at them in English rather than in Arabic initially, before choosing them for translation into French. This, of course, is completely logical because French shares its alphabet with English, but it’s the type point that may not be apparent until two houses like Gallimard Jeunesse and Kalimat begin working together.

She also added that because illustration is more easily understood across cultures than language, the Gallimard-Kalimat exchange is working in picture books and comic books as the partnership develops.

Challenges: ‘The Prework Is Important’
“We can give access” for partner-publishers “to the 420 million Arabic speakers around the world. And they can do the same for our books.”Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, Kalimat

When asked if there are challenges that publishers interested in exploring translation-exchange partnerships of this kind might want to bear in mind, Quarto’s Leaver pointed out that, “The pre-work you do to get the right relationship, to work with the right publisher is the key.

“I could do international partnerships in many, many territories, and I’m sure that Nigel and Hedwige could. There’s not a book fair where I don’t have five or 10 Chinese or Indian publishers come and talk to me, as well as from other countries.

“But the partnerships we’ve done so far”—three, including the Kalimat arrangement—”are with publishers we believe are sympatico with how we publish books. Whether it’s the quality of the paper or paying the authors or whatever it may be. If that pre-work is done, then there are really very few speed-bumps in the relationship along the way.

“From Quarto’s point of view, our relationship with Kalimat is icing on the cake. This is a nice way for us to make more money when obviously our core business is in our domestic markets and the foreign rights we sell already.”

And the Sheikha Bodour, in summing up the value that these partnerships hold for Kalimat as well as for its partner publishers, said, “You want to remember that we’re all going into markets that we know very little about,” whether it’s an Arabic publisher looking at the British market or a French house looking at the Middle East, and so on.

“Working with a partner who already knows that market”–as Gallimard Jeunesse knows France, as Bloomsbury knows the UK, and as Quarto knows the US and UK markets–”takes a lot of the groundwork out. And I hope that we can reciprocate that in the Arab world, as well.

“We can give access” for these partner-publishers “to the 420 million Arabic speakers around the world. And they can do the same for our books.”

This is the real currency of these translation-exchange partnerships,” Bodour said. “You understand what your strengths are and your weaknesses are, and it’s a learning process for all of us, to understand our own markets and to understand these other markets, as well.”

In addition to the markets Kalimat is moving into now with its partnerships from this discussion, one result of its efforts in internationalization also includes its upcoming Guest of Honor arrangement for Sharjah at the São Paulo Biennial Book Fair in August of next year, 2018.


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About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.