Looking for the Lingo
The first thing Bloomberg News’ Allesandro Speciale wanted to know when he sat down to interview me here at Frankfurt Book Fair’s Business Club is: “Is translation as big an issue this year as it seems?”
Answer: yes. As the glut of content in the book marketplace deepens, what could be more natural than to look to distant readerships for new sales?
There are too many books.
He’s right. The digital dynamic, in both the traditional and self-publishing sectors, has created an historically unprecedented level of competition among titles, among authors, among publishers. While the number of titles out there has exploded (with nothing going out of print nowadays, “digital is forever”), the audience size has not. For the most part, we’re producing exponentially more material for a readership that largely has stayed the same size and is being wooed by other electronic entertainment media.
Nowhere is the pressure of oversupply felt more keenly than in the strongest centers of self-publishing, the US and UK and, to a lesser degree, here in Germany.
The subject of how independent authors might go about finding affordable and reliable translation was big in our First Word day on international outreach at the Novelists Inc. conference earlier this month in St. Pete Beach. There, Jane Friedman focused on input from LiteraryTranslations’  Athina Papa, something Friedman and I returned to in The Hot Sheet  on the topic.
Even for publishers, translation is no walk through the park. And for many independent authors, the $10,000 price tag that Papa quotes as the ballpark rate for a good translation is impossibly steep.
No wonder, then, that the news from AmazonCrossing has been so well received, and particularly by authors.
AmazonCrossing  is the translation imprint of the Amazon Publishing wing—not self-publishing but contracted authors and translators (all of whom are paid royalties and on a monthly schedule, by the way, reflecting one way in which “APub” is not entirely traditional in its approach).
As I wrote at The Bookseller’s The FutureBook earlier in the week  ahead of my onstage interview with AmazonCrossing chief Sarah Jane Gunter, the company has announced a $10 million commitment to translation.
A part of that allocation goes to the production in early 2016 of English translations of Indonesian writers, including (from the AmazonCrossing statement):
- Nirzona, a love story by Abidah El Khalieqy, set against the backdrop of the Aceh tsunami, a rare moment in recent history when the world’s eyes turned to Indonesia
- English-language originals The Oddfits and The More Known World, the first two titles in the Oddfits series from Indonesia-born Tiffany Tsao, a translator and past Indonesia editor at large for Asymptote Journal
- Paper Boats, a new adult love story from popular novelist, actress, and singer Dee Lestari
- A new edition of Laksmi Pamuntjak’s acclaimed A Question of Red and her latest, Aruna and Her Palate, which follows a food writer’s travels through Indonesia
- Hummingbird, a work of magical realism from Nukila Amal
Indonesia is the Guest of Honour at this year’s Buchmesse, of course, and the more widely talked about point coming from Gunter’s team this week has been the opening of the AmazonCrossing process to submissions.
Is this, then, suddenly the preferred avenue for authors to offshore markets?
My provocation for you: It’s all very well to say that authors are not in competition with each other, as many indies like to assure us in that community-forever way. Unfortunately, it’s not true. Everyone is locked in a rising siege of competition. And when trying to break open new territory to get a leg up on that battle, translation may be the one area in which independent authors really aren’t as effective, on the whole.
Lots of horror stories are out there about bad translations bought by indies at ridiculous prices, only to have to be done over at more cost and with dubious results.
And once you’ve had a book translated, even beautifully, can you market it in another nation?
Giving AmazonCrossing a good, hard look may be the smartest move you could make, if you’re contemplating crossing the linguistic frontiers of bookselling today.
Inviting the World’s Authors to Submit
One of our frequent FutureBook #FutureChat author participants is Catherine Ryan Hyde , an AmazonCrossing-translated author who speaks very highly of her experience. And self-publishers as widely known as J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, and H.M. Ward have been translated by AmazonCrossing, which makes a point of taking an eclectic approach to genre as well as to languages. (Nineteen languages so far, 29 countries, around 200 titles in five years.)
Now, in answer to a lot of authors’ interest in the programme, AmazonCrossing has provided this site for submissions of material for potential submission , a URL already taking thousands of hits daily, Gunter told me, as writers spread the word that they now can submit. Here are the categories in which submissions are being taken:
- Historical Fiction
- Literary Fiction
- Mystery, Thriller, and Suspense
- Science Fiction
- Women’s Fiction
- Young Adult Fiction
“One of the reasons we started Amazon Publishing,” Gunter told me during our interview, “was to think about what an author-centric publishing experience would be.
One of the core desires of an author is not only to be a bestseller in their own language but to also reach a broader audience. and by making translations available to self-published authors [as well as traditionally published writers] we’re able to help satisfy that desire.
Are they ready for the load of submissions headed their way? Gunter says they are. “The staff is not large but dedicated, and we’ve had the opportunity to plan for this for some time.”
An author lucky enough to be picked up by AmazonCrossing gets not only a chance to be translated without having to try to cover the costs and market themselves in foreign contexts but also to have truly high-quality translation of their work by a translator who may have worked on the writings of highly visible, prize-winning authors.[pullquote]Being overwhelmed with submissions would be the best news story we could have. — Sarah Jane Gunter, AmazonCrossing[/pullquote]
“And we go to great pains to give translators the credit they deserve,” Gunter says. “They’re an important part of creating these books.”
To find the best translators, she says, “We work with a number of the translators’ unions, both in the US and in Europe. We work with established literary translators, professors of literary translation, either to engage them in working with us or to recommend their colleagues in the field. We’ll be at ALTA, the American Literary Translators Association  conference in a couple of weeks.”
While several platform-style translator-author sites have arrived—Babelcube  is probably the best known—the jury is out on how effective these outfits can be in handling translation needs for most authors. What Papa stressed over dinner in Italy during the Matera Women Fiction Festival Writers’ Conference was that a collaborative relationship between author and translator is essential. The job can’t be done well in a vacuum.
Keep in mind that AmazonCrossing is rated by University of Rochester specialist Chad Post as having now become the largest translation house in the US market. Its capacity is probably as great or greater in this area than any other company’s. And yet, we’re talking about 75 titles per year at this point, which is not that many by comparison to the number of submissions piling up on the doorstep of that new site.
Nevertheless, Gunter is optimistic: “Being overwhelmed with submissions would be the best news story we could have.”
I’ve told her I’ll remind her she said that as the new submission site opened.
What about your work? Would you like to see it cross borders in other languages? Remember that a fully translated and marketed book is a different proposition from checking the boxes for other territories on a self-publishing platform. How important do you think it might be to go through a full-service publishing outfit like AmazonCrossing to get your work into international markets effectively?
Now, thanks to tinyCoffee and PayPal, you can!