Tag Archives: literary translations

Part 3 of 3: Trends in traditional book publishing

What would you have told the Sisters in Crime of Upstate SC when they asked, “What changes do you see coming in traditional publishing business models and contracts?”

This is the third and final part of the answer I gave when I spoke to the writers’ group earlier this month in Greenville, South Carolina. I tried to keep this list of trends brief and relevant to authors of crime fiction.

Anyone who monitors the trade book publishing news will think of many more innovations, but I couldn’t ramble on when it became time for the event venue to close for the evening. Please feel free to add or comment on the changes that matter most to you.

Trend:

Increasingly, larger publishers expect authors to license publication rights worldwide in a specific language, such as English, or in multiple languages. In the past, dividing those rights and licensing them in each geographic territory into which a publisher’s business extended was common practice, and many smaller publishers continue that practice. The rationale for publishers expanding their territories is that English-language trade book markets outside the United States and the British Commonwealth, plus foreign-language markets, especially in the BRIC countries, are seen as better opportunities for growth as economic power shifts around the world.

Trend:

Now, a single publisher is able to produce and has the means to distribute a book with several editions in a variety of languages, rather than waiting for a foreign publisher to acquire a foreign translation rights license after the book has become successful in the original language. Smaller publishers, naturally, have been more agile and innovative, sometimes forming co-publishing relationships for this purpose. They’ll soon prove the economies, and then larger publishers will follow their example in-house. Listed here are a few of these early endeavors, so you can see what I’m describing:

40k

Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing

Frisch & Co. Electronic Books

Open Road Integrated Media

Stockholm Text

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Go to Part 1 of 3: Trends in traditional book publishing

Go to Part 2 of 3: Trends in traditional book publishing

Working with multiple literary agents

Disintermediation has its merits. I’ve always been annoyed by the inefficiencies of big organizations, so I understand authors’ efforts to find easier alternative systems for book publishing. When I was younger, I spent a decade working in the research and development unit of a rigidly structured bureaucracy—a job that required me to analyze, recommend improvements in, and ultimately document workflow. I learned that the best way to get things done involved either circumventing the established order or understanding it so well that the existing system could be navigated more easily and quickly. I like both routes.

My work in R&D entailed considering the perspectives of every stakeholder in the organization’s undertaking, which included more than just the people within the organization. I took the objective seriously. These days, as a literary agent, seeing the big picture relevant to book publishing comes naturally to me, which is not to say that it’s easy. It’s a very big picture.

Let me give you just a few examples of the complexity when considering stakeholders in the book business, or more specifically, in rights licensing.

For some writers, working directly with multiple literary agents is an advantage. It can be a good strategy for an individual who is the author of scholarly works, technical manuals, screenplays, adult fiction, and children’s books to be represented by a different agent specializing in each category. Specialization and expertise tend to be found together. On the other hand, there are agencies that conveniently handle several categories, and that’s not only fortunate for the agent, it can benefit the author as well. Some editors acquire manuscripts in a variety of categories and will ask questions about all of the titles an agent is handling, so an editor and agent’s initial conversation about a novel could turn into a rights license for a technical title by the same author. Those specific kinds of serendipitous connections are more likely to happen if the same agent is handling all of an author’s work.

For the sake of efficiency, it’s typical for a writer to have a primary literary agent, sometimes called a manager, who serves as an advisor in career matters, a negotiator of book deals, and a contractor with subagents (subsidiary rights agents, or co-agents) to help license dramatic rights, translation rights in foreign territories, etc.

Let’s say an author wishes to eliminate the intermediary and work directly with literary agents in each language rather than having a primary representative who engages subagents. Doing so could give the author more control. It definitely would reduce agency commission fees and keep more royalties in the author’s pocket. The flip side is the extra time it would take for the author to establish and maintain multiple agency agreements. What many writers also might fail to consider is that it’s not a good incentive to curtail each literary agent’s potential earnings while at the same time requiring the agents to interact directly with the author, a business relationship that is more labor-intensive than the role of the subagent, who might never have contact with the author.

In another scenario, an author potentially could distribute his or her individual titles within a single category among various literary agents, so that each title had a primary agent but the author had several, all working in the same language and territory. Seems like a good strategy, causing the agents to compete against each other, right? Well, maybe not. Think about it for a minute.

Many of us prefer to represent a client’s entire body of work, to the extent that we feel capable. An agent invests a great deal of effort in finding a publisher for a debut novel. Many hours are spent explaining the publishing process to an author, who might be experiencing it for the first time. It’s natural for a literary agent to hope that, if a client’s first book is successful, the second one will be an easier and more profitable deal. If each of the client’s adult novels, let’s say, has a different agent, then the agents probably won’t have quite as much motivation to work as hard as they would otherwise. The agents might even find themselves talking to the same editor at the same time, creating an awkward situation in which two of an author’s titles were in competition with each other.

The trend toward disintermediation can be a very good thing. I’m not opposed to it. Change is inevitable, and I enjoy learning new systems. Of course, part of the effects of disintermediation will be hidden, at least initially, and not all of the results will be beneficial. That’s life. I’d like to know how writers would analyze, suggest improvements in, and structure the work of a literary agent these days—that is, setting aside the fantasy of an agent for every writer. It would be nice to have that sort of feedback.

Miha Mazzini in London at the Wapping Project

Wapping Project
“Imagine you’re seventy or eighty—in a word, you’re old. You’ve got no one, you’re all alone. There’s nobody to leave something to. No one to work for. The state gives you food stamps, perhaps a pension. It’s not much, but you don’t need more. You’ve got a roof over your head, an entire house. It keeps you nice and cool in summer and warm in winter. You’re not missing anything. Then, you get a letter that says you can get a million marks in faraway Berlin, if you trade everything you own for something you don’t need. What would you do with a million, if you were in their place? Buy a bigger house? Keep cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter? Buy youth?”

 

The publisher of the English translation of The German Lottery calls the novella “altogether funnier and more kind-hearted than you might expect.” Is he expecting the author to be as well?

Find out for yourself—when Miha Mazzini makes an appearance, along with B.B. Brahic, translator of Apollinaire’s The Little Auto, at the Wapping Project Bookshop in London on Thursday, April 5, 2012.

Tomorrow is the official publication date for The German Lottery, which was translated from the Slovene language into English by the talented Urška Zupanec.

Photo: “The Bookshop Greenhouse at the Wapping Project” by Jack Thurston is licensed under CC BY 2.0

My clients make me happy

Miha Mazzini, photographed by Robert KruhMiha Mazzini ought to be celebrating, but instead he’s hard at work completing a documentary film. Earlier this week, he was awarded a PhD in anthropology. On the heels of the degree ceremony came confirmation that he’s received a Pushcart Prize for his short story “That Winter,” which appeared in the fifth-anniversary issue of Ecotone. The journal’s editor, Ben George, deserves high praise for contributing to the achievement. “That Winter” was the first of Mazzini’s stories to be published in a magazine in the US.

Lest I make such accomplishments sound easy, I should mention that Mazzini’s short stories have been included in a dozen anthologies published in countries around the world. Nor am I accountable for his successes. On the contrary, I’m confounded by my good fortune. Having such talented clients makes an agent’s job infinitely easier.

Bringing translations of an acclaimed author’s work to readers in the English language is a particular pleasure, which Ben George expressed when he introduced Mazzini in Ecotone last year:

Can one “discover” someone who has written the best-selling novel of all time (The Cartier Project) in his native country? Who has written a separate novel (Guarding Hanna) whose translation was long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the largest cash prize in the world for a book of fiction published in English? Perhaps. If you can be a willing penitent and confess your ignorance.

Early in 2012, Charles Boyle, the publisher of CB editions in London, will enjoy the same professional satisfaction when he presents Urška Zupanec’s English translation of Mazzini’s entertaining and satirical novella The German Lottery to readers in the UK.

Yet another English translation of Mazzini’s work will appear in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 4 later this year.

The author-screenwriter-director, who writes in the Slovene language, also works as a usability consultant and until recently turned in a weekly column for his employer’s news portal, SiOL.net. Apparently the word leisure only amuses him.

I could ask Mazzini if sustaining this level of productivity gets easier with experience, but I already know the answer. It doesn’t get easier, but perhaps the challenges of a career as a creative writer are slightly less frustrating when all the obstacles have become such familiar landmarks.