Because of how this was broken up over two weeks, and because I’m still recovering from my vacation in Ohio with my family, I thought I’d rerun the editorial I wrote for Publishing Perspectives. I’ll stick with the two-part format, since that pretty much makes sense, so here’s Part One:
“What we need is a great translated beach book. Something that will appeal to tons of people and convince them that it’s safe to come in the water,” a friend said to me.
“This is true . . .” I instantly imagined someone sitting in the sand reading Zone, the 517-page, one-sentence novel that Open Letter is publishing this fall, and which has become my summer read. In my mind, this imaginary reader looked frustrated, disgusted, like she’d never read a French book again. No, like she’d never travel to France again.
OK, so anyone with a little common sense knows that our books aren’t really of the “beach read” variety. But as someone who endlessly advocates for the publication, promotion, and appreciation of international literature, this statement my friend made really got me thinking: maybe all of us promoting translations need to get more commercial. More in touch with the common reader. Maybe everyone’s right, the translations that get published here are too erudite, too specialized to survive in the marketplace.
Swiping a line from one of our board members, I’m not sure I’d be able to identify a bestseller if the damn thing sold a million copies all over my head, but there is something to the argument that a breakthrough book could help change the marketplace for literature in translation. If only it were that easy . . .
Before getting too far into theories of audience development, let’s back up a bit. I’m willing to bet everyone subscribing to Publishing Perspectives knows full well that the situation regarding literature in translation in the United States is a little bit fucked. We export the hell out of our authors, watching them get translated into dozens of languages, but we rarely publish a novel from Sweden much less Croatia, Bulgaria, Paraguay.
And we all know the two most common reasons cited for this literary isolationism: translations cost too much and don’t sell very well.
Correcting Supply vs. Creating Demand
Believing in those two premises — and these premises may well be bullshit, but let’s let that slide for another day’s editorial — has led to a large focus on correcting the supply-side of the situation, especially through translation grants designed to offset part of the publisher’s production costs. From a publisher’s perspective (no pun intended), it’s much easier to look at your balance sheet and find ways of offsetting your costs that are immediate, guaranteed, and relatively easy to acquire. And in the greater scheme of things, filling out a two-page application form and sending along a sample translation is much quicker and more reliable than trying to make a book’s budget work by identifying readers and increasing sales.
In addition to translation costs, occasionally a foreign government will also subsidize rights payments, and in very rare instances will help pay part of the printing bill. These grants are wonderful, are necessary, are the reason that certain presses stay alive. And the fact that most of these monies go to translators — one of the most woefully underpaid links in the translation publishing chain — is fantastic.
But except under very specific conditions — a book tour, a particular event — these monies are never directed at readers. Or to be more precise, at the idea of building and creating a readership.
It could be argued, or rather, I would personally argue, that by changing the demand-side of the international literature equation, the entire translation balance could be upended. If publishers believed the readership for literature in translation was equal to that for any other book they might publish, their arguments against doing these books start to fall apart. At least a little bit. And maybe more translations get published, and sell better than expected, resulting in more translations, and for once we have a positive feedback loop in relation to foreign literature.
So if the end goal is to increase readership instead of focusing on how to pay production costs, the question becomes, “how do we get people interested in these books?” And we’re back at the beach read possibility . . .
I’ve heard a number of people promote the idea that if a few translations really “took off” then we’d see an overall increase in the number of international titles making their way to our shores. Which is absolutely true. What’s the over/under on Scandinavian crime novels coming out next year that are the “next Steig Larsson”? Fifty? One hundred? I’m sure every publishing house in Manhattan would overpay by a million dollars to find the next “Girl with a something something.”
Also absolutely true that readers of Larsson will be much more willing to give another Nordic thriller a try. It’s not like international crime is an unpopular genre, but it’s pretty likely that baseline sales for the genre will spike over the next couple years.
There’s no denying that the beach read argument has validity in terms of generating a larger audience and change the minds of some publishing people. It most definitely does. And that’s great. But I think it’s just part of the picture and carries with it a few cautions and needs to be supplemented with other approaches. More on that in Part Two . . .
Gustavo Faverón Patriau’s The Antiquarian, translated by Joseph Mulligan, is a genre-blending novel, a complete immersion that delves into a lesser-used niche of genre: horror, gothic, the weird. There are visual horrors, psychological ones, and dark corners with threats lurking.. . .
What a wonderful, idiosyncratic book Weinberger has written. I say book, but the closest comparison I could make to other works being published right now are from Sylph Edition’s “Cahiers Series“—short pamphlet-like meditations by notable writers such as Ann Carson,. . .
Early in Sun-mi Hwang’s novel The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly, the main character, a hen named Sprout, learns about sacrifice. After refusing to lay any more eggs for the farmer who owns her, she becomes “culled” and released. . .
When Sankya was published in Russia in 2006, it became a sensation. It won the Yasnaya Polyana Award (bestowed by direct descendants of Leo Tolstoy) and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker and the National Bestseller Award. Every member of. . .
Stalin is Dead by Rachel Shihor has been repeatedly described as kafkaesque, which strikes a chord in many individuals, causing them to run to the bookstore in the middle of the night to be consumed by surreal situations that no. . .
Paradises by cult Argentinian author Iosi Havilio is the continuation of his earlier novel, Open Door, and tells the story of our narrator, a young, unnamed Argentinian woman.
The very first sentence in Paradises echoes the opening of Camus’s The Outsider. . .
This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The. . .
I’m talking about pathological individuals; six twisted people taking part in an unpredictable game.
Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is the story of two missing children and the journalist trying to find them. Actually. it’s the story of a group of. . .
For Lukas Zbinden, walking is a way of life. At eighty-seven, he is still an avid walker and insists on going for walks outside as often as possible, rain or snow or shine. Now that he lives in an assisted. . .
Commentary is a book that defies simple categorization. Marcelle Sauvageot’s prose lives in the world of novel, memoir, and philosophical monologue as the narrator, a woman recuperating in a sanatorium, muses on the nature of love and examines her own. . .