As If It's Not Hard Enough Selling Translations

Michael Orthofer has a great rant over at Literary Saloon about “how not to publish translations.” His piece centers around Serbian Classics Press, a press that I’ve personally never heard of (neither had Michael, so I feel like my ignorance is excusable), but one that is bringing out Mansarda, Danilo Kis’s first novel.

The book seems to have been released . . . well, as if printing and binding it were all there was to it. The publisher is Serbian Classics Press, and with their mission of: “publishing classic and contemporary Serbian fiction, biography, literary criticism and reference works in translation, as well as original English language works by authors from the Serbian diaspora” they sound like exactly the kind of outfit we should know about. Except, of course, that we didn’t. That happens — we’re constantly learning about new publishers. But what can we learn about them and their offerings ? Yes, they have a website, but the catalogue-page doesn’t seem to have been updated in years [Ed. note: since 2004!], and we couldn’t find any information about the Kiš-title on it. [. . .]

Which leads to the second problem: not only is there no information at the publisher’s site, this book is not listed at any of the English-language Amazons. (Or Barnes & Noble.)


Imagine that, in this day and age, where every print-on-demand title is listed at every online bookseller. Here’s a book, published in New York in 2008, which you can’t buy through Amazon.com.

One of my big gripes is the way in which small and independent publishers have a tendency to sabotage their best intentions. SCP is a pretty extreme example of how not to do things—although there are others . . .

SCP’s website is incredibly embarrassing. The fact it’s four years out of date is horrendous and the presentation is totally amateurish. Really too bad. The five books listed there sound pretty interesting (as does the Kis!) and there are even excerpts! Of course, there’s no sign of distribution (which is the number one problem in independent publishing right now) and the order form is awesomely outdated—it’s a pdf you have to print and mail in along with a “check or money order.” C’mon guys, today’s world is premised upon the ability to use credit cards for everything.

Putting them aside for a moment, this is a much larger issue that missing an opportunity with a new Kis and being technologically inept. A couple years ago, I moderated a panel at the London Book Fair that included Daniel Soar from the London Review of Books. At the beginning of his bit, he admitted that he was embarrassed by how few works in translation the LRB had reviewed over the past 6 months or so. (If I remember it was something like 3-4 titles compared to 50+ from English.) One of the reasons he gave for this was the lack of context for these books. Most translations published are by authors he’d never heard of and arrive on his desk with nothing more than a two paragraph press release and a reference to author X being the “James Joyce of country Y.” Of course, I’m paraphrasing here, but it sounded like a lot of these titles looked interesting, yet without more information, it was difficult to figure out what to do with them.

Based on the relatively few books that we get in for review (some of which are devoid of jacket copy), I can see how this is a major problem for large, influential publications. It’s much easier to decide whether to review a young American author who has been appearing in lit mags and anthologies, who has been talked about by other editors and reviewers, and who may have even shown up at a number of literary events and gatherings—the context for who this author is already exists. But a book by a relatively obscure international author needs some additional information. That’s one of the reasons publishing literature in translation costs so much—you have to spend a lot more on marketing than you do for an author working in English.

The more savvy publishers become with creating websites, generating buzz, figuring out creative ways to introduce these authors to the reading public, producing informative overview essays that place an author within a broad literary tradition—the better these books will be received and will find their voice. And the more one success will help other titles. I don’t agree with it, but I understand why Barnes & Noble has a thing against literature in translation. For years they stocked translations from a handful of presses that never figured out how to best market their books. When return rates are in the hight 70% range, one starts to generalize that translations don’t sell . . . (On the flip-side, our Icelandic book—The Pets by Bragi Olafsson—will be widely stocked due to the success of Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. And yes, I know these are different countries, types of books, etc., but in addition to credit, our book culture is all about trends and duplication.)

I hate to pick on SCP, but this is a disservice to Kis. He actually has a following, one that could be tapped and cultivated. Instead these readers are lucky to find out that Mansarda (MAO has a few things to say about that title as well) is available.

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