3 June 08 | Chad W. Post

I participated in two translation panels on Saturday at BEA—one on funding for translations and the other on marketing.

The morning session on funding was organized and moderated by Caro Llewellyn from PEN America (and director of the PEN World Voices Festival) and included star translator Michael Henry Heim, Michael Reynolds from Europa Editions, Morgan Entrekin from Grove/Atlantic, Riky Stock from the German Book Office, and myself. This was a very useful and productive panel that will be available on the PEN website sometime in the near future. (When it is, I’ll definitely link to it, just as I plan on linking to the mini-videos the GBO/Frankfurt Book Fair shot about the fair.)

There was some talk about how books get selected and published, how translators struggle to get publishers to pay attention, and what the GBO does to help make this process easier. One of the things that everyone seemed to agree on was that the next logical step in cultural funding was to help market these titles rather than simply paying for the translation. It’s important to get money to offset translation costs—that’s a huge additional cost and without subsidies I suspect a lot of translators would be paid an embarrassingly tiny amount for their work—but helping cultivate an audience for these works will pay off big in the long run.

(One can idealistically imagine finding more readers for a particular title, then books from a particular country, then international literature as a whole, resulting in publishers viewing translations as less of a risk, thereby publishing more of them to a hungry crowd of readers. I know that’s idealistic and unlikely, yet if we ignore the cultivation of an audience if favor of simply offsetting core costs, I think we’re missing the entire point of publishing.)

The afternoon panel was less focused—my fault entirely as moderator—but was a great discussion featuring Megan Sullivan from Book Dwarf and Harvard Bookshop, Jeff Seroy from FSG, and Dedi Felman from Words Without Borders. (Gregg Nations from ABC’s Lost was going to be there, but is under a media blackout following the season finale. Which makes sense cause damn, I wouldn’t be able to refrain from badgering him about moving the island, Jeremy Bentham, and everything else that went down last Thursday.) The level of engagement among audience members (and the fact that we were all able to drink beer during the panel) really helped liven up this late-in-the-day event.

Jeff’s comments about how they marketed The Savage Detectives and what they’re doing for 2666 was fascinating to me. (As I told him afterwards, I think Jeff’s one of the most brilliant publicists out there and I could spend a whole panel simply interviewing him.) In a very real way, 2666 may be the “Big Book” of BEA 2008 that I claimed didn’t exist in my last post. Jeff said the response has been overwhelming and that they gave out 400 copies (!) of the galley at the book fair. I know print runs smaller than that . . .

He was incredibly honest about facts and figures related to The Savage Detectives, revealing that in the catalog they put the initial print run at 35,000-40,000 and that based on advances in the mid-teens (16-17,000) the first printing was in the low-20s. All of which is remarkable. The Natasha Wimmer essay was a huge help in creating a context for reviewers to approach the book, as was the website they specially created for this book. Jeff gave both New Directions and FSG editor Lorin Stein a lot of credit for helping make Bolano take off, even saying that three-in-one paperback set was an idea of Lorin’s.

I’m never sure how to judge if panels are successful or not. Frequently, panelists are repeating things they’ve said several times before, whereas audience members are new to all these ideas. As a result there are two different perceptions of how things went . . . One of these days, as a sort of pragmatic experiment, I’d love to have a real roundtable in which 5-6 publishing people get together to discuss a particular issue or subject without ever addressing the audience. This would allow for the conversation to move beyond what’s been said before, and could be really interesting for both the panelists and anyone who comes to watch. Things could really grow out of such a discussion, sort of like when Michael Henry Heim suggested we get Reading the World stickers to put on all the RTW books . . . BEA’s not the place for such a roundtable, but maybe at a university . . . (I know this isn’t a particularly new idea, but in publishing, it doesn’t seem to happen very often, and I think it could be incredibly useful and interesting.)

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