Context Is Everything

Given the length of yesterday’s post, I’m just going to jump right into things, starting with this handmade Excel spreadsheet showing the three-year rolling average of the total number of translations published in the first quarter (January-March) of every year since 2008.


That’s not the most illuminating line graph the world has seen, but it should put things into perspective. For months I’ve been pointing out that the number of translations coming out in 2018 is way down from past years. For 2018, we have logged in 104 titles for January through March, whereas we had info on 153 titles in 2017 and 149 in 2016.

That said, when you look at this over a three-year period to give the numbers a bit of perspective, we’re at the same level that we were at in 2016, which is higher than every year prior. In other words, we’re coming off of two years with historically high output (well, “historically,” given that we only have eleven years of data) of literature in translation, so there’s bound to be a bit of regression. I’m still concerned, but not alarmed. Maybe. At least not tonight. Not about that, anyway.

Instead, let’s look at another chart. This one is a chart of the LTD (life-to-date) Nielsen BookScan numbers for all twenty-four works of fiction in translation that came out in January 2018. (We’ll get into the accuracy of BookScan numbers below, but this visual is pretty striking regardless.)


(The x-axis is for each title published in January 2018.)

Anyone want to guess which title is way over there at the left, screwing up all the optics? Anyone? The Perfect Nanny! It has 27,399 scanned copies as of the time of writing. For the moment, I’ll eliminate this book just so that this graph is actually useful to look at.


There we go! There’s a chart that’s somewhat legible! Again, any guesses as to what’s over at the far left? Pyramid of Mud by Andrea Camilleri (4,461) followed by Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi (2,689).

Worth noting: All three of the top-selling books are published by Penguin. In fourth place is Beneath the Mountain by Luca D’Andrea, published by HarperCollins, and the only other book to scan over 1,000.

Let’s dig deeper into that for a minute. Here’s a pie chart of the number of translations that came out in January from the Big Five and their subsidiaries (Penguin, HarperCollins, FSG, Atria) compared to those from everyone else (including Europa, Archipelago, NYRB, Dalkey Archive, Open Letter, New Vessel, etc.):


And here’s a chart with the breakdown of sales between Big Five and the others:


Well that’s . . . something. Huh. Shit. How about if we remove sales of The Perfect Nanny?


That looks slightly more hopeful for those of us not working in corporate publishing? Maybe?

This data is by no means surprising. Corporate publishers have much better representation in bookstores, dedicated sales reps, legit marketing budgets, so many employees working on any given book, more respect from reviewers, etc. I know some editors from these presses love to say that their books sell better because “we don’t market these books as translations!” or “we just focus on readers and good books!” and a dozen other trite statements that are half-true and half-based in a dismissal of the economic disparities in the publishing world.

So, there are two ways forward with the data for the next part of this post, and I’m going to do both and then work it all out at the end. The numbers might get a bit messy here, but bear with me—it’s not like we’re talking about tOPS+ or z-swing% or anything like that.

First off, BookScan. These numbers are for physical books only and are collected from about 75% of bookselling outlets. This includes B&N and Amazon, but a lot of smaller stores aren’t signed up for the program. And it doesn’t include in-house sales. I feel like it captures more sales for commercial titles than for small press ones, since we rely on individual subscriptions and sales through small, quirky locations. Regardless, for the sake of this piece, I’m going to assume these numbers are 75% of all print sales.

Then, to make the rest of this work, I’m going to assume that every ebook sold 20% of what the hardcover did. Cool? I know this is way underestimating the ebook sales for AmazonCrossing, but it’s not like this is anything more than a reasonable estimate to prove one really depressing point.

OK, so in my little spreadsheet, I divided the BookScan numbers by .75 to get them to “more accurate” levels, multiplied that by .2 to get an ebook sales estimate, and multiplied each by the appropriate price to get an estimate of total sales revenue. Then I multiplied that number by 50% to account for the average discount to booksellers/Amazon/Costco/B&N/individual web sales. Now I have a fairly reasonable idea of how much these January 2018 titles have generated so far.

Before I get into these numbers—including mean, median, standard deviation, and more!—I want to point out that I know these books will sell more copies over the ensuing months. And every so often we’ll check in with them and see what’s changed. By the end of the year, we should have a decent sense of how these particular editions did. We’ll probably be able to pick out some sleeper hits, some titles that will crush in backlist, and some total flops. But aside from The Perfect Nanny, Frankenstein in Baghdad, and that Camilleri book (someone I’ve never read, never will), I doubt these numbers will dramatically change. Books that don’t take off in the first month or so, usually don’t do so well in the long run. Unless you do something special for them to try and get things moving (see the Two Month Review, special discounts, etc.).

At this moment, here are the numbers I came up with for BookScan+ (using reported numbers as 75% of total) plus estimated ebook sales (20% of BookScan+) :

Average Sales for a Jan 2018 Translation: 2,560

Not bad! But that includes two outliers—The Perfect Nanny at 43,838 and Congo Inc. at 0. Let’s cut them because that’s skewing our already very small sample:

Average Sales w/o Top and Bottom: 800

Oh fuck.

Average Sales for Big Five Title: 7,404
Average Sales for Other Title: 147

Well, OK then. But mean is boring. If these were all from the same press, then maybe it would make sense, but it’s probably smarter to look at the median and the standard deviation from the mean. (In other words, what book is in the middle, away from the extremely good and extremely bad; and how much variation does there tend to be with these sales, are you likely to sell somewhere between 500-5,000 or 500-600?)

Median for All Books: 210
Median for Big Five: 1,629
Median for Others: 46


Standard Deviation for All Books: 8,945 (Which is nonsense. It’s 1,714 when you get rid of The Perfect Nanny.)
Standard Deviation for Big Five: 14,919
Standard Deviation for Others: 189

So, in other words, if this data is representative of the whole (spoiler: still a small sample, although the general trends are probably true), then 67% of Big Five translations will sell between 5,775 and 9,033 copies. And for the translations coming from smaller presses? Most will sell between 0 and 193. That’s really bad.

Just to back this up, here are some non-AmazonCrossing books that scanned less than 150 physical copies: Theory of Shadows (FSG), Temple of the Scapegoat (ND), Mademoiselle Bambu (Wakefield), The Same Night Awaits Us All (Open Letter), Animal Gazer (New Vessel), Transit Comet Eclipse (Dalkey Archive), and Sonka (Dalkey Archive).

Again, these books will sell more copies going forward, but how many exactly? Three times the numbers we have right now? So, like 400? Does that make you feel better?

Before I just puddle out in a mess of anxiety and despair, let’s get some cash numbers out there and try and make this as positive as possible and see what happens. (Again, I’ll be coming back to these January books every few months—and maybe some others—in hopes of getting a clear picture of the revenue side of publishing translations. Which will probably explain why the number of translations being published is bottoming out. But by the end of 2018, we’ll have some new strategies? Hope for the future? A list of suicide cults to join?) Let’s take the revenue numbers I came up with and multiply them by six. I don’t know that the estimated sales I’ve come up with tonight will go up by 600% over the next ten months, but I don’t know that they won’t. So let’s all dream!

So, multiplying these sales figures by six and then by 50% to account for discounts to booksellers (I’m sure most everyone knows this, but we don’t get the full list price when we sell a book, the bookstore needs to get their cut as well), we get these figures:

Average Income for Non-Big Five Presses: $7,881.53
Median Income for Non-Big Five Presses: $1,849.97
Standard Deviation for Non-Big Five Presses: $10,628.76

Well that’s not as hopeful as I was hoping it would be. And that doesn’t event take into account that 26%+ of this income is paid to your distributor. Include that payment, and the average translation (from Jan 2018, which, whatever, if you want to believe it’s a whole lot better, than go for it—delusions are nice) generates about $6,000 in income. Which has to pay for printing, book rights, design, editorial, marketing, and the translator.

There are two main points to be made here:

1) If you’re a translation-only press and don’t have other income, you are fucked. New Directions has a massive backlist and a lot of American writers (Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Tennessee Williams) to both balance out the sales of these books, and to give them the credibility to help their translations get more traction than those from other presses. No one else can be New Directions. And Europa has Ferrante. And crime books, which are at the higher end of this sales spectrum. (There’s a future article to be written about overall publishing strategies. Tip #1: Only publish translations that UK presses have successfully published. See: A lot of Archipelago, New Directions, and Transit Books books.) As optimistic as I used to be about a revolution of international literature and how small presses can make it work (that was back when people actually liked me, not like how it is today, when life is so lonely and filled with defensive despair), I don’t think you can just do only translations and get by—unless you have significant nonprofit support. Duh and or obviously, I know, but still, it sucks that the boom of presses opening up the American literary scene to international literature lasted about a decade. Mostly because the economics of publishing are fucked and the audiences just aren’t there. (Will Evans of Deep Vellum and I went through about a million BookScan data points one afternoon and came up with a lot of sticky facts that I’ll share in another post. They’re not that encouraging.)

2) Translators deserve more money; yet translators getting more money will kill all translations. On some level this is all a zero-sum game. I sympathize with translators treating every job equally—it takes the same amount of time to translate a 300-page book for a small press as it does for a commercial house—but that doesn’t change the fact that the small presses are at a severe sales disadvantage. What’s likely to happen over the next five years—if we don’t have an open and honest conversation about money and strategy—is that most of these smaller presses doing a lot of translations will go away. The New Directions and Europas and Graywolfs of the world will survive—they have money from a lot of other books and donors—but the next rung down will have to either replace some translations with money-making titles (re: commercial titles written by American authors) or go out of business. The more professionalized the industry becomes, the fewer jobs there will be for translators. Or, there will be well-paid translators working for Penguin Random House, and the publishers who want to do great books but can’t pay translators $200/1,000 words (~$18,750 for a 300-page title) will find young, uninformed, inexperienced translators to do the work for them. (Another article idea! How strong of a correlation is there between translator reputation and sales, especially if you account for brand strength and author reputation? As much as the translation community talks about “reading every book translated by X,” once you take away the editorial strength of the publisher choosing to publish X’s translations, this impact is probably pretty low.)

Are you depressed? I’m bummed AF. And this is another article that’s too long to read. So let’s leave my other calculations and apocalyptic prognostications for future (equally depressing) posts, and let’s make some comments about some of the interesting books that are coming out this month, but which I probably won’t have time to read. (For now I’ll skip the four I’m planning on reading, since they’ll get their own posts.)


Encircling 2: Origins by Carl Frode Tiller, translated from the Norwegian by Barbara Haveland (Graywolf)

I was hoping to read Encircling 1 and this sequel this month, but that’s not going to happen. Maybe for Encircling 3: Carl Frode in New York. I’ve actually read a huge chunk of the first volume of this when a different translator had been commissioned to translate it for the UK press that originally published these books. (See above note about doing translations that having already been published in the UK.) Why do Norwegians love their Identity Trilogies? This isn’t that far removed from the Jan Kjærstad books that Overlook and Open Letter published: The Seducer, The Conquerer, and The Discoverer.


Neapolitan Chronicles by Anna Maria Ortese, translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein (New Vessel)

This book should be subtitled “Ferrante, Ferrante, Ferrante!” Translated by Ferrante’s translator, with a blurb by Ferrante, it “helped inspire” Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, and was edited by Calvino. (OK, the last part is both unrelated to Ferrante and more interesting to me.) To cut the jokes, it sounds pretty interesting, and if you’re in the area, I recommend going to see Giovanna Calvino (Italo’s daughter) do an event for this on 3/14 at Hofstra University. I was on a panel with Giovanna once and was 100% starstruck.


Go by Kazuki Kaneshiro, translated from the Japanese by Takami Nieda (AmazonCrossing)

I used to love playing Go. (And loved the movie Go. I’ll bet that doesn’t hold up at all.) Had a special fancy board and everything. I never played enough to cotton on to any legit strategies, but it was intriguing to me because—at the time—there was no way to play online against a computer. I have deep nostalgia for games that you play with your hands on a physical board.

I have no idea what this book is about, but I suspect it’s a love story. About two people who meet in the championship match at their local high-school Go tournament. One of them throws the game by blowing a sente to get the other one to give eyes. They run away together with hopes of starting a family, until one of them starts going blind. Initially they think the blindness is caused by too much Go—those stone can wreck your vision—but then they discover that it’s cancer (always cancer) and that they’re totally fucked seeing that Go professionals have pretty shitty health insurance. So they rob a bank. Using strategies from Go. J-Law plays one of the leads in the Hollywood version.


Banthology: Stories from Banned Nations edited by Sarah Cleave, translated from the Arabic by multiple translators (Deep Vellum)

Again: Comma Press, based in the UK, originated this book. (Open Letter needs to stop creating jobs and paying translators and just jumping on this bandwagon. It would make researching books so much easier, and we would be able to cut expenses by not paying translators nearly as much . . .)

There was a Twitter hubbub after LiteraryHub featured this book, which will hopefully drive sales. Also, Frontier by Can Xue made Emily Temple’s annual post of “If Books Had the National Book Awards Oscars.” That’s cool! And I suspect this is 100% due to Porochista Khakpour writing the intro. Thank you, Porochista!

Unsurprisingly, I don’t care about this article at all. But I do want to point out that my analysis of one-star reviews is way better than this. Then again, we’re up to different goals in our articles: I want to pretend I’m writing interesting analysis, and The LitHub is just punching those clicks. (And tracking like 5,000 times more than I am. By my Excel calculations, they gets 400,000 visits a month, and I get 50, with a median of “Why Bother” and a standard deviation of “Nerd.”)


Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals by J. R. Pick, translated from the Czech by Alex Zucker (Karolinium Press)

I hope this is a children’s book about caring for guinea pigs.


Mere Chances by Veronika Simoniti, translated from the Slovenian by Nada Groselj (Dalkey Archive)

We’ve covered so many Dalkey Archive titles lately. And haven’t even made fun of ______ in the most recent issue of ________! (If you’ve ever worked at Barbara’s you probably know what I’m implying.) Dalkey has created a plethora of models for how to survive while doing new books that don’t sell for shit. (They have two books on the <100 BookScan sales list above AND they don’t do ebooks, because . . . who knows why.) There are schemes legit and sketch in the Dalkey repertoire, but you kind of have to respect them regardless. John made it to the end. Top-notch writers and translators work for them. They never go to ALTA and yet everyone there would rather be published by Dalkey than Open Letter. (We always go, because . . . befriending translators is good for business? [It’s not.]) Actually, come to think of it, they don’t do any of the bullshit that other presses put themselves through. In so many ways, they won this game. Maybe I’ve been asking the wrong questions all year . . . Next month: A deep dive in to Dalkey Archive.


One response to “Context Is Everything”

  1. […] update on the sales numbers from all the January translations + lots of math. (Too depressing right now and the graphs all went […]

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