Publishing

Know Thine Audience

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At Sustainable Scholarship conference, academic librarians and publishers discuss why understanding readers is more essential than ever in the digital age.

Beyond the Three Percent

In 2007, before releasing its first title, Open Letter Books, a literary press based at the University of Rochester, began running a blog called Three Percent. The title comes from an estimate of how large a share of the annual U.S. book output consists of translations. If anything, that figure may have been a little high even at the time. Given the continuing surge in the number of new titles published each year (up 14 percent between 2009 and 2010, thanks in part to print-on-demand), the portion of books in translation is almost certainly shrinking. Whether or not globalization is an irresistible force, provincialism is an immovable object. But Open Letter, for its part, is dedicated to doing what it can. The press brings 10 foreign-language books into English each year (most of them novels) and Three Percent tracks what is happening in the world of literary translation. The blog also sponsors the annual Best Translated Book Award, now in its fifth year.

As it turns out, the latest work from Open Letter was originally written in English. The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading is an e-book consisting of material that Chad W. Post, who is OL's publisher, has culled from his blogging over the past four years. (“Some were speeches that I had to give and wrote them first for Three Percent,” Post said by e-mail. “Two birds and all that.”) It can be downloaded from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $2.99 -- with all of the profit going to pay translators. You could read all this material for free online, of course, but that would be miserly.

So cough up the three bucks, is what I’m trying to say. It goes for a good cause -- and besides, the book is a good deal, even apart from the low price. The pieces have been revised somewhat, and arranged by topic and theme, so that the whole thing now reads like a reasonably cohesive attempt to come to terms with the developments in book culture during the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. As John B. Thompson showed in his study Merchants of Culture (Polity, 2010), dealing with any particular change in publishing requires you to grapple with the whole system -- the vast apparatus of production and distribution that connects writer and public. Translation is one aspect of it, of course, but it links up in various ways with the rest of publishing. While Post was making his running assessment of the state of literary translation, he also had to think about the new ways we buy and consume texts. One of essays is called “Reading in the Age of Screens,” which indeed could be an alternative title for the whole book.

Notification that the book was available came to me last week via Facebook, which is amusing given Post's definite ambivalence about the "all digital, all the time" tendency of contemporary life. "In the digital world," he said in a note, "we tend to stick to what we already know we want, reinforcing certain patterns, and losing some of the serendipity that a lot of readers point to as a huge influence on their life." True, and yet I did buy the book and start reading it (on a screen) within a few minutes, and was able to ask the author questions later that afternoon. The lack of serendipity was not a big problem.

One of the things I wanted to ask Post about was the peculiar role of academe in regard to translation. University presses undoubtedly account for a larger share of each year’s crop of translations than trade publishers do. At the same time, the actual work of bridging language barriers has long been undervalued as a form of scholarship. An uninspired monograph generates more institutional credit than a much-needed translation. The Modern Language Association began taking steps in a more encouraging direction a couple of years ago, when Catherine Porter (a prolific translator of books from French) was its president. And this spring, MLA issued guidelines for evaluating translations as part of peer review. But without stronger institutional recognition of the value of translation, the American tendency toward literary isolationism will only get worse -- apart from the occasional surge of interest in, say, Swedish mystery fiction.

According to a database kept by Three Percent, academic presses bring out roughly 15 percent of the translated fiction and poetry appearing each year. “I suspect this figure would be much higher if we tracked nonfiction works as well,” Post told me. “As it stands, nonprofits, university presses, and independents account for 80-85 percent of the published translations.” He mentioned the presses of Columbia University, Texas Tech, and the University of Nebraska as examples of imprints bringing out excellent books in translation. But talking with literary translators working in academe means hearing “a bunch of terrifying stories about their translation work interfering with getting tenure, etc.”

Even so, there are young professors interested in the study of translation -- “and surprisingly,” Post said, “I know at least a few who are being urged (and evaluated) by their departments to continue translating." At the same time, the classroom is a front line in the effort to overcome resistance or indifference to the rest of the world’s literature. “It always shocks me at how few books from France, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, etc., that students read during their studies,” he says. “It's as if American and British authors exist in a bubble, or as if students are just supposed to find out about the rich history of world literature in their spare time.... I think it would be ideal if more international works were taught in classes, giving students a chance to explore the issues of translation and helping defuse the trepidation some readers have when approaching a translated book.”

Open Letter works with the program in literary translation studies at the University of Rochester. Students “take a theory class, produce a portfolio of their own translations, and intern with the press.” Post admits that the trends in the publishing world do not point to a future in which translation will be a booming field. Thanks to "depletion in the number of bookstores (especially independents), increased focus on the bottom line, [and] the immense increases in the number of published titles," the portion of translated books "will remain around 3 percent, or even decrease when you start counting self-published titles.” At the same time, a number of small presses with a commitment to publishing translations have emerged over the past decade or so, besides Open Letter. They include Archipelago Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, Europa Editions, Melville House, PEN World Voices, and Words Without Borders.

Calling it an issue “as fraught as it could be,” Post notes that Amazon is not only “funding a lot of organizations involved in translation, but they've started AmazonCross, a publishing enterprise focused exclusively on literature in translation.” In 2010, the online bookseller gave $25,000 to the University of Rochester so that the Best Translated Book Awards could begin offering a cash prize to the winning authors and translators.

Someone willing and able to spend the money “could make a huge difference in the landscape for international literature in a short period of time,” Post told me. “This doesn't have to be a corporation at all.… I think that over the next decade, as more small presses come into existence thanks to advances in technology, changes in distribution methods, and general dissatisfaction with a lot of the stuff coming out from corporate presses, the audience for international literature will continue to increase. There may not be that many more titles being published, but the publishers doing this work will get more and more savvy at getting their titles into the hands of interested readers, academics, reviewers, etc. -- people who aren't put off by the idea of reading a translation.”

That last part is, in the final analysis, the real crux of the matter. Even when books do get translated, they are sometimes promoted very poorly. In The Three Percent Problem, Post refers to one university press that seems committed to describing the foreign novels it publishes in terms that are strangely unappealing. Without naming the press I can confirm that the complaint is all too valid: the publisher's catalog always makes the books sound desiccated, lugubrious, and inaction-packed.

It's the kind of thing that reinforces what Post calls "the overriding prejudice" about books in translation: "that they won't sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc." The only cure is for enthusiastic readers to communicate among themselves, to strike a spark of interest.

Author/s: 
Scott McLemee
Author's email: 
scott.mclemee@insidehighered.com

Wards of the Court

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A sharp split over digitized versions of "orphan works," as well as anger over Google's books project, led authors' group to sue major university libraries.

Journal Submissions

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Publishing one's own work is essential in most academic areas. While some fields continue to put a lot of weight on books, writing journal articles is important in an increasing number of areas. The logistics of journal submission are not obvious. Nonetheless they are yet another aspect of academic professionalization that seems to go unaddressed in many graduate programs. In this piece I cover how you go about picking an appropriate journal for your paper and how you prepare it for submission.

U.S. Official No 'Textbook Rebel'

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There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that the U.S. Education Department's Hal Plotkin will appear at a protest on textbook prices today dressed in a 10-foot-tall mascot costume as "Textbook Rebel."

Fair Use Face-Off, Canadian Edition

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A defection from a major copyright clearinghouse by Canadian research universities echoes concerns in U.S.

The Secondary Cost of Digital

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Could the rise of e-textbooks mean the end of markets for less expensive rentals and used editions?

British Libraries Push Back

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Research institutions demand price cuts before they will renew package deals.

I've Been Pirated

All right, I admit it. Like many hopeful authors, I had been Googling my own book. To see if it had been blogged lately, or mentioned by someone at the White House. As usual, nothing new turned up. But then I saw something odd on the screen: a picture of my book’s front cover, but with a Slavic title. What was this?

My book was about a celebrated trial by combat in medieval France -- a duel to the death fought before the king in 1386 by two Norman nobles, Jean de Carrouges and Jacques Le Gris, over Le Gris's alleged rape of Carrouges's beautiful young wife. I spent years researching the story, eking out travel grants to visit archives in France, and tracking down the original documents in Paris; like any author, I felt protective toward my work.

At first, when the Slavic book cover showed up on my screen, I thought it was a joke. But the image linked to an online bookseller in Croatia, and to details about the publisher, translator, number of pages -- and price. Clearly, it was for real.

My next thought was that maybe my publisher had licensed a Croatian edition and forgotten to notify me. Besides foreign-rights sales in some larger territories, there had been smaller deals in places like Estonia and Hungary. Perhaps the Croatian edition, evidently published some three years earlier, had just been overlooked. I got in touch with my editor, who said that the publisher would look into it.

Several weeks later, my editor wrote to say, "You’ve been pirated!"

On learning the news, I felt a mixture of betrayal and pride. Yes, my book had been sold in a foreign country for several years without my receiving a dime of royalties there. But how many authors could claim to have been pirated in Croatia?

My publisher, I subsequently learned, had located the pirate in Zagreb and sent an ultimatum: cease and desist, or sign a contract and pay up. They signed and paid. Not much money was at stake, but I’m grateful to my editor and publisher for going to bat for me -- and for authors' rights in general.

*****

Other odd things have happened since my book first appeared over five years ago. A few months after publication, for example, amid some early film interest, I got an e-mail from a total stranger, saying, "I’ve heard about your book. I haven’t bought it yet, or read it, but I plan to borrow it from the library. In the meantime, do you want to keep the film rights?" The request was so bold, or idiotic, that it annoyed me even more than the later piracy in Croatia. If the guy had asked me in person, I might have punched him.

A few months later, I received an e-mail from someone in France with the same last name – Le Gris – as the squire who was accused of rape in 1386. Oh no, I thought. They've heard about my book, and they're mad at me for dragging the family name through the mud all over again. But the note was friendly and led to further exchanges. A little over a year later, back in Paris to research a new book, I had a very pleasant lunch with one of Jacques Le Gris’s descendants. He didn’t even seem to mind that my research pointed to the likely guilt of his ancestor. Now, if only I could have lunch with a descendant from the other side of the celebrated case.

A little over a year ago, I received a package from France. In it was a self-published novel about the Carrouges family, neatly inscribed to me inside. Its scope was larger than my nonfiction book, but it recounted the 1386 crime and the celebrated duel at some length. Paging through it, I soon saw that it contained material I had quoted from rare documents that apparently the author had never consulted, and even many of my own descriptive phrases. The novel had a list of sources, but it did not include my book.

A novelist, of course is free to write his or her own version of the story – but not using my words, even translated, without acknowledgment. I considered taking action, especially since a translation of my own book would soon appear in France. What should I do first? Write a letter of complaint, pointing out examples of the borrowing? Write my editor again? Or write directly to my French publisher?

On reflection, however, I decided that the best thing to do in this case was absolutely nothing. Attacking a vanity-press publication might simply advertise it to readers who had never heard of it before. And it would distract my French publisher’s efforts to promote my own book. Besides, how would it look in France if an interloping American went on the warpath against a native author who had novelized the local patrimony, even if borrowing someone else's words to do it? Not good. The French might very well side with the author, not me. All considered, it was best just to leave the matter alone.

My book duly came out in France and was very kindly reviewed in a number of major newspapers, and even on Radio France. I’ll never know what would have happened if I had acted otherwise, but I think I did the right thing.

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