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AmazonCrossing at Frankfurt

OK, with a little luck I’ll be able to post a lot of new content later this week during the American Literary Translators Conference. This is one of my favorite conferences of the year, in part because of all the cool people there, in part because the panels tend to be pretty interesting. I’ll post more about this separately (maybe). For now, here’s another post from the Publishing Perspectives Frankfurt Show Daily. It’s all about AmazonCrossing, which we’ve written about before, but in this case I had a chance to interview the Amazon.com Books VP Jeff Belle and talk a bit about the unique way Amazon is looking for their titles.

In the world of translation publishing, one of the more interesting developments of the past year was the launching of AmazonCrossing, a new initiative of Amazon.com Books. The imprint’s first book—The King of Kahel by Tierno Monenembo—goes on sale November 2nd, and a second batch of six titles was announced late last month.

According to Amazon.com Books Vice President Jeff Belle, the seed of AmazonCrossing was planted a couple years back when he read a report by translator extraordinaire Esther Allen about the “three percent problem”—the fact that, of all the books published in the US, only three percent are works in translation. As Belle stated, this dismal statistic “is really at odds with Amazon’s vision of making every book in every language available to our customers.” Allen educated Amazon about the translation market, leading Amazon to start funding translations through the “Author & Publisher Giving Program,” and to launch AmazonCrossing to “discover great voices of the world that have not been translated into English and introduce them to [Amazon’s] English-speaking customers.”

Amazon.com has been moving in the direction of publishing for some time now, first with a couple of self-publishing options—CreateSpace (formerly BookSurge) is a print option, and any author/publisher can sell their eBooks through Amazon’s Kindle program. In a somewhat more traditional publishing vein, there’s also AmazonEncore, through which Amazon uses information such as customer reviews to identify “exceptional, overlooked books and authors” that deserve to have their works reintroduced to readers. These titles are available both in print and Kindle formats.

In some ways, AmazonCrossing is an extension of the Encore program, with Amazon acquiring rights and responsible for the marketing of these books. What’s interesting is that they’ve chosen to pursue international works—a category that many of commercial publishers shy away from. As Jeff Belle puts it, this “dearth of foreign translations into English” is one area of publishing that’s not well served.

As mentioned above, the first title in the AmazonCrossing program is Tierno Monenembo’s The King of Kahel, which first came to Amazon’s attention when it won the 2008 Prix Renaudot in France and just starting to plan this initiative. More than a year later, the English rights were still available, which further convinced Belle and the rest of the Amazon team that there are a lot of great books that never make their way into English.

Similar to the Encore program, customer reviews (in this case on Amazon.fr—the company’s French site) helped convince Amazon to go ahead with this book, which points to Amazon’s ability to leverage customer research. Although comments are obviously public, traditional publishers don’t tend to examine this sort of feedback when deciding whether or not to publish a translation of a particular book. This
customer-centric approach is unique, almost the diametrical opposite to the traditional “I know what readers want” mantra of most editors. “Our choices are really dictated by what our customers tell us about the books they love,” says Belle. “We’re looking for exceptional books that are effectively nominated by our customers and deserving of a wider, global audience.”

Amazon won’t specify how many translated titles they plan on publishing in any given season, but they recently announced their next six , which include a thriller (The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch), a non-fiction book on Argentina’s economic troubles (No Reserve: The Limit of Absolute Power by Martín Redrado), a YA-novel (Pizzicato: The Abduction of the Magic Violin by Rusalka Reh), a 19th-century Spanish novel (Pepita Jimenez by Juan Valera), and a controversial work of literary fiction (Field Work in Ukrainian Sex by Oksana Zabuzhko).

Members of the AmazonCrossing team will be at the Fair, meeting with agents, publishers, and translators to spread the word about this new program. More information about AmazonCrossing and its titles can be found online.



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