That post was a bit bleak, talking about a 15% reduction in the number of works of fiction and poetry published in 2015 when compared to 2014.1
Since that went live, a lot of things happened. As always, I encourage people (publishers, translators, readers, booksellers, cultural organizations) to let me know if there are any missing titles. That happens regularly, although not all of the titles submitted actually turn out to be eligible. On Friday, the entire narrative changed.
In that initial post, I wrote about how the top ten publishers of translations—especially AmazonCrossing and Dalkey Archive—didn’t do as many books in 2015 as 2014, which explains a huge chunk of the decline. On Friday, a PR person for Amazon told me that I was missing a ton of AmazonCrossing titles. Eventually she sent me a list of all the books they published in 2015.2
Now, a few days later, the situation has changed dramatically. Let’s start with the basics:
According to the most current version of the database, in 2014, 600 works of fiction and poetry were published for the first time—502 works of fiction, 98 of poetry.
Right now, I’ve identified 549 titles that came out in 2015—468 works of fiction, 81 of poetry. That’s a drop off of 8.5%, which isn’t as bad at the previously reported 15%, but is still something.
Looking closer at 2014: 202 publishers brought out at least one new work of fiction or poetry in translation, and these titles were translated from 49 different languages and authors hailing from 73 different countries.
In 2015, only 151 presses brought out an eligible translation, with the books published being translated from 48 different languages by authors from 79 countries.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to investigate the 51 presses who fell off the list, and hopefully I’ll uncover a couple dozen more titles. For the sake of this post, I’m going to put that aside, since there’s no clear indication that I’m missing a(nother) huge chunk of books.
Let’s look closer at the publishers though, since that’s where things get interesting (in my opinion). Here are the top 10 publishers in 2014:
Dalkey Archive 30
Seagull Books 21
Europa Editions 19
Gallic Books 16
Other Press 15
New Directions 13
K A Nitz 11
Those presses account for 191 titles, or 32% of all the counted titles.
Dalkey Archive 25
New Directions 20
Seagull Books 16
Gallic Books 13
Le French 11
Open Letter 10
These presses account for 202 titles, or 37% of the grand total.
But what obviously stands out is Amazon, sitting up there with 75 titles—three times more than the next press. Three times! They make up almost 14% of all the translations included on their own. That’s incredible.
So, why is there a decrease between these two years? From a cursory glance at these reports (I’ll do more later, when I’m not exhausted, half-sick, and watching football), it seems like fewer presses did translations in 2015, and the ones that usually do the most fell off just a bit. I’m not sure why . . . Might be because the market isn’t supporting a lot of the smaller presses that have been doing two or three translations a year, so they cut back to one or zero. I know Dalkey switched distributors and locations this year, which is obviously going to throw things off for a bit. Kerri Nitz told me that he had to slow down on his translation and publishing project this year because of a move. It happens. And hopefully this is just a fluctuation, not a trend.
But if there’s one thing that we could do to change this, it’s to buy more works of international literature and to get people who don’t usually read international lit to but one or two books. If all of these books sold an additional 250 copies on average, things would most certainly change. This is especially true of small, independent, nonprofit presses. If we sold 250 more copies of each of our books, I might actually be happy and less neurotic.
Also, without making too big of a deal out of it, I want to point out that it takes a lot of work to keep up this database. It’s not part of my official job, and it’s not something that we as an organization are obliged to maintain and share. But we do. For free. I spend most of my day working on this because I think it’s important for the literary community. And although I’m always tempted to lock it down and charge for access ($10 a year? $100 for institutions?), I can’t bring myself to do it.
Open Letter is a nonprofit, which means a few things to me. Most importantly, I think a nonprofit should do things to benefit culture as a whole. Yes, we need to sell books and reach as many readers as possible—it’s not like we can just do whatever we want and live off of donations. But I personally believe nonprofit presses should be doing some things that aren’t financially motivated. It could be offering internships to high school and college students. Giving away books to correctional facilities. Hosting free public workshops or bringing authors to communities that aren’t New York and don’t often have access to professional writers. Or, maybe, providing a database of international literature and trying to support the field as a whole. Nonprofits should be good literary citizens.
That said, we obviously need donations to survive. We don’t get nearly the amount that we need (no one ever does, I know), but for something like this, it would be great if literary patrons would consider donating to Open Letter to ensure that we can continue to publish and promote this database. It’s something I want to continue to do, for everyone, but a bit of financial support would go a long way.
1 What I track in the database are all the works of fiction and poetry published in translation for the first time ever. Just to make sure there’s no confusion, I’m going to expand this footnote to explain that is and isn’t included. I don’t currently track non-fiction, graphic novels, manga, or children’s books. Just fiction and poetry. New translations (even if they’ve never been published before) of books previous available in an English translation are not included. If a collected poems comes out and more than half of the poems are available in other, previously published volumes, I don’t include it. All books in the database have ISBNs and/or are registered in WorldCat. They are available for sale in the U.S. through normal distribution methods (bookstores can order them), although the presses don’t have to be based here. The key: Fiction and poetry ONLY, and books that have never been available in any prior English translation.
This isn’t a reflection of ALL translations being published, since there are a significant number of new translations and reissues coming out every year. And a significant number of nonfiction books. (Probably.) Take it for what it is. If we got any money whatsoever for doing this, we might be able to expand it. But the situation being what it is—note that I just spend four hours on a Sunday working on it—I’m doing the best I can.
2 I don’t want my musings/jokes to overrun the story above, so I’ll put them here. First off, the initial email from Amazon simply stated that my reporting was wrong. They were publishing 76 titles this year. (This wasn’t quite accurate—she missed a few titles and included a book of essays and one by an Australian originally written in English.) Without actually listing the titles [insert joke about Amazon not being great with sharing actual data], it was kind of hard to figure out what was missing, what had gone wrong.
I use two sources for info on what AmazonCrossing is publishing: a monthly email from their team with links to review copies, and this website. Maybe someone reading this will really “get” the Crossing site, but I don’t. It’s totally fine, but figuring out what books to add to the database requires clicking on those “new release” options on the left every 30 or 90 days, and checking all the titles there against what’s already been logged. There’s no quarterly catalog, no easy way to do this. And when they’re doing so many books, it’s quite a bit of work.
What’s weird to me, what I want to make fun of, is that I’ve sent updates of the database to over 200 publishers (including Amazon) on multiple occasions this year. That’s one of the ways I find out what’s missing. As recent as two weeks ago, Amazon said nothing about titles missing from the official list, although they did respond with submissions for the Best Translated Book Award. Which is fine, except that I feel like people in charge of PR should be doing PR for their books, such as by telling a website focused on international literature about the books they’re publishing. That would be nice. Because I can tell you, having gone through all of the titles they’ve published, I’ve seen almost no attention whatsoever for these books. I’ve been a long-time supporter of this particular aspect of Amazon, praising the fact that they’re doing the books other presses ignore (romance in translation, for example) and giving jobs to translators.
But it would be so much better if people were discussing these books! Sure, there aren’t many outlets reviewing translations at all, and I’m sure there’s a widespread bias against books coming out from Amazon, but I also don’t think they’re doing all that they can to get the word out within the existing community of people interested in international literature. (Although I want to point out that they do a great job working with ALTA and advertising at the annual conference.) Maybe they don’t need to, instead relying on direct marketing to readers. But I feel like more could be done, and it’s sort of unfair to some of these books. (Like Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found.)
Basically, what I really want is a PDF catalog describing all of their titles. It would make my life easier and I am selfish.
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