After reading my post about readers’ questions, Gargoyle wrote to me with a question of her own: “How and when does a publisher decide an author, or a particular book, is to be translated? What’s the tipping point?”
Here’s the gist of my answer to her.
To begin with: Many more novels originally written in English (especially by American authors) get translated into European languages than vice versa. English language publishing is a huge machine. And America’s a huge country; it has a lot of writers, and publishers who can publicize their work, sometimes with Hollywood providing additional exposure. Those factors help American authors become known worldwide, which in turn prompts a desire to translate their work into local languages.
The flipside is that American readers tend to like American writers; it’s harder for foreign authors to break into the U.S. than into other markets. For example, in Europe and the UK, Scandinavian crime writers are currently the rage. They’re all over the British bestseller lists, but they’ve barely made a dent in the U.S. On the other hand, Latin American writers can get a big following in America, so a book written in Spanish might have a better chance than one written in Norwegian of being translated into English and ending up on American bookshelves.
And I should explain how the business of foreign translation works. My U.S. publisher, Dutton — which is part of Penguin U.S. — doesn’t own the rights to translate my novels into foreign languages; I do. And Dutton doesn’t arrange for my novels to be translated. Instead, my literary agency negotiates with foreign publishers, who buy the rights to translate my books into their language. They hire the translator and sell the books in their territory, with the name of their publishing house on the book jacket.
Now, sometimes a publisher will offer a writer a contract for “world rights” — that is, they’ll offer to publish a book if the author gives them the right to publish worldwide, in all languages. In that case, the publisher itself then negotiates with foreign publishing houses, hoping they’ll buy the book. And in that case, the main publisher, not the author, gets paid for the foreign sale.
As for how a book reaches a tipping point: buzz, sales, and a great literary agent. Plus a fat helping of luck. If a book or an author gets a groundswell of readership, or reviews, publicity, or whatever, it can spread the word and affect sales in neighboring countries. (And in small countries, it doesn’t take much — selling even a few hundred copies can put a book on the bestseller list.)
It’s all very idiosyncratic. Different countries like different kinds of books. For example, in Israel introspective literary novels are popular, and crime fiction is a tough sell. In other places it’s the opposite. For several years, I had translations in a few languages. And then a couple of years ago the German publisher Heyne bought my books — and German readers are big lovers of thrillers. Once my work became known in Germany, publishers in other countries took a look and are now publishing as well.
And for that I thank not only my terrific German publisher, but the tenacious foreign rights agent at my literary agency, Kate Cooper. She knows editors all over the world, knows what they like and what they’re looking for, and has been a real battler for my novels.
Still, sometimes it’s a crapshoot.
But it’s a roll of the dice I’m happy to take, again and again.
(Photo: from left, German, Spanish, Swedish, Czech, Russian, French, and Hebrew editions of my novels.)