Let's Talk about Amazon for a Minute
I’ve been meaning to write about The AmazonCrossing announcement all week, but it’s taken a few days of Torino detox to partially regain my ability to put words into some sort of meaningful order. (Emphasis on “partially” . . . my mind is still unfurling, but hopefully by the time I’m drowning in Bulgarian grain alcohol I’ll be all back to normal.)
Anyway, for anyone who hasn’t heard about this, Amazon.com announced on Monday the launch of AmazonCrossing, a publishing imprint that will be dedicated to publishing works in translation. These titles will be available through Amazon, through major wholesalers, and via the Kindle.
The first book they’re doing is The King of Kahel by Tierno Monénembo, which won the Prix Renaudot, and is translated from the French by Nicholas Elliott. Not a ton of info about the book itself, but here’s something:
Loosely based on the life of Olivier de Sanderval, a man who journeyed to Guinea to build an empire by conquering the hostile region of Fouta Djallon, the book exposes how Sanderval braves all dangers to build a railway that will bring modern civilization to Africa.
There is an interesting interview with the translator though, which has a bit more info:
Amazon.com: What was your initial impression of The King of Kahel?
Nicholas Elliott: I read it in one sitting, on a plane, and was immediately struck by Monénembo’s daring. The King of Kahel bows to no official positions on colonialism in creating a depiction of a land as terrifying as it can be mystifyingly comical. Monénembo’s sly way of comparing the conniving of the Paris bureaucracy with the ruthlessness of the princes of Fouta Djallon would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tightly wound into a thrilling story. But more than anything else, the images of a harsh and beautiful land and the madly ambitious men who fought for it haunt me to this day, nearly a year after I finished translating the book.
As Michael Orthofer pointed out, the University of Nebraska did an earlier book of Monenembo’s—one that didn’t gain a ton of traction with the reading public. (But which did receive a solid “B” from the Complete Review.) Which is what makes this a very intriguing first selection . . . I’m sure the fact this won the Prix Renaudot played a huge factor, but regardless, without checking the Translation Database I’m going to guess that there were maybe a half-dozen books from African writers translated and published here in the U.S. last year. Maybe.
Although all this stuff about the book is cool, the real fun stuff to talk about in relation to this announcement is the effect this program will have on publishers, how people in the book business are going to perceive this, and what impact AmazonCrossing might have on literature in translation as a whole.
Before this press release came out (I knew about it a few weeks ago, since they asked me for a quote), I was half expecting a ton of outrage from various parts of the publishing world. Commercial publishers have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with Amazon.com to say the least, and are always worried that Amazon.com is going to try and become a publisher and have even more control over the book market than they currently do. And although we all know commercial publishers don’t really publish many works in translation, this is still an encroachment on their turf . . . And on the other side of the retail coin, I could envision indie booksellers—some of whom sell heaps of translated books, some of which hang up on me with a “we don’t carry those sorts of books” when I contact them about setting up a sales call—getting up in arms about potentially stocking titles with the logo of one of their biggest rivals on the spine.
I haven’t necessarily been trolling all the various litblogs, but everything that I’ve read (the main ones being Sarah Weinman’s piece for Daily Finance, Michael Orthofer’s take, and this article in the Wall Street Journal) has been fairly neutral, more focused on simply explaining the program and not getting into too many potential implications.
The only critical piece that I’ve seen was this one which is
incredibly stupid more or less an attack on a quote I made to the WSJ regarding “standard” payment rates for translators. It’s not at all worth taking down this particular post—which is based in the belief that translators are overpaid, a belief as moronic as the title of his blog—but I do want to clarify a bit re: my WSJ quote. When Jeffrey Trachtenberg called, he simply asked about normal payment rates for translators. This info is a bit tricky to come by, since it’s technically collusion for translators to discuss with each other what rates they charge. But based on experience, a lot of established translators ask for about $125/1000 words. Some get more, some get fucked. (And some unnamed publishers specialize in the low-ball fucking.) But what I want to make clear is that I have no idea if Amazon will be paying translators these amounts, or doing something more along the lines of a nice royalty share. (I’m pretty sure it will be the latter though, since that’s more in keeping with the Amazon Encore program.)
OK, backlash speculation aside, I think this program could actually do a lot for the perception and reception of international literature. It’s not like this cause is new to Amazon: for the past few years they’ve been systematically funding non-profit organizations specializing in literature in translation, such as the Center for the Art of Translation, PEN America’s Translation Fund, Words Without Borders, and Open Letter. (And just to disclaim: I’d be praising this program regardless of whether Amazon.com sponsored us or not.) Amazon’s stated goal is to make as many books available in as many formats to as many people as possible. And with so few translations making their way into English, this is an obvious place to expand . . .
My long-term interest in this program is two-fold: obviously, increasing the number of translated titles available to English readers is something I believe in strongly, also, I’m interested in seeing how Amazon’s marketing efforts could expand the overall awareness and appreciation for these books. As things currently stand, 80-85% of all works of literature in translation are published by smaller, indie, nonprofit, university presses—most of which have pretty small marketing budgets. And the big houses that do translations tend not to put a lot of money behind these books (they have other books with larger sales potential to focus on).
But Amazon.com . . . They don’t necessarily need to spend a lot of money on marketing, since they already have all the necessary tools to push a book out to the fricking world. And what would be really interesting, is if they created some sort of World Literature portal where they could push the AmazonCrossing books alongside authors like Saramago or Garcia Marquez or Bragi Olafsson . . . something that would help serve as a way to promote the whole of translated literature. It’s quite possible that over time something like this could make a huge difference in how translations are perceived and purchased.
And going back to the production side of things for a moment, there are god only knows how many fully translated manuscripts that translators have been unsuccessful in placing. And I’m sure a lot of these people would be happy to forgo an advance in lieu of a better royalty rate just to finally see their work make its way into print . . .
So in essence, the program could result in the publication of more translations from more translators reaching more readers—all very good things . . .