Instinct, Energy, and Luck: An Indie-Publisher Roundtable on Literature in Translation

Jeremiah Chamberlin

Evans: I very much agree with Michael that discoverability and promotion are the main difficulties we face, although I’m not ignoring the fact that editors at both small presses and major houses would identify the same challenge. Could any of us ever have enough readers? We made a very conscious decision early on to keep our list small so that we could continue to build the audience for our backlist and have every title we publish be a frontlist title.

In some ways I feel the literary community is coming around to translated literature, and the field has certainly grown in respect and readership since Olivia Sears started the journal Two Lines more than twenty years ago, but it still feels that we’re relegated to second class, that our books need to be classified in some category other than merely “books.” I love that organizations like PEN and Chad’s Best Translated Book Award exist, but I don’t understand why these translated books need to be distinguished from books written in English when it comes to awards and reviews. I don’t want our books to be “translated” books or “international” books, but just really good books. End stop.

I think some of this comes from a strategic mistake of the international-lit community years ago, when many translated titles were marketed as being “good for you” literature—marketed as books that would broaden a reader’s horizons. Some of it is ignorance about the artistry and skill of translators. Some of it, perhaps, is merely a type of systemic high-minded xenophobia. I think battling these challenges both within this smaller community of translation presses and within the slightly larger pool of literary presses and readers is essential to continued growth and sustainability.

Epler: I agree, and also, I think the main concern is finding readers for amazing books. Not necessarily flooding the market with more and more translations—as if that vision of emulating the flood of new English-language titles will get anyone anywhere. Say we wanted to have the German ratio of translated titles. Really? If we approach 40 or 50 percent, then we would have, say, 100,000 new translated titles annually. That also seems crackers. 

Schoolman: I’d say the most mysterious [issue] is how to survive. Someone should write a how-to book on the subject. How to keep our authors and translators writing, and how to stay afloat as a press when what trickles in doesn’t always amount to what’s flowing out in various directions. Because the dimensions of the industry—publishers, booksellers, librarians, reviewers and bloggers, distributors, readers, writers, agents, translators, educators—are changing so rapidly we need to find new ways of collaborating.

It’s an ongoing challenge to figure out what each book needs—they all have different needs and are born in different circumstances. It’s a creative process that involves instinct, energy, and luck. The most elusive question remains, How can we get our books noticed, and read?

Post: The publishing business can be really infuriating, and the fact that the main business model for the past few decades has been one of acceleration—acquire more presses; publish more books, faster; make them available quicker—is a good example of that. The field has created a glut that might have some benefits—more voices being published—but also ends up with a “throw shit at the wall and see what sticks” way of promotion. For presses like the ones here, we need to be more innovative and interesting to cut through the six-figure marketing campaigns and seven-figure advances.

What are some of the means by which you have tried to break into the market as independent publishers?
: First and foremost, when I think of our five presses and how we distinguish ourselves from most of the others, I think of the cover design. Archipelago is maybe the most distinct with the square format, but four of us all use covers that go together as a sort of set. And although New Directions doesn’t have one overriding “look,” there are subsets, like the Pearl series, and an overarching sort of feel to the look of the books. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but it’s helped us in getting people to recognize the press and to be able to know right off the bat that they’re looking at an Open Letter title when they see it in the store. My hope is that a good experience with one of our books makes a reader more willing to pick up the others, trusting that we won’t lead them astray, even if they haven’t heard of the particular author. And being able to identify our books at a glance should, theoretically, help that.

This is also in line with why we offered subscriptions right from the start. Although the content and styles of the books range widely, they somehow fit together and look nice on a bookshelf.

Evans: I agree with Chad that it’s important to develop a strong, identifiable brand—though I loathe that word—and that also extends to the voice of the press. One of the things I love about the presses in this roundtable is that each has its own aesthetic in acquisitions as well. In addition, with each book we try to find and target what we call the “one bigger pond” of readers. We don’t want to just step into the biggest ponds and always be the smallest fish holding out to land the cover of the NYRB, we want to step into the slightly bigger pond and see if we can wreak a little havoc as medium fish. We’d love to have that breakout title, but a lot of presses have gone under waiting for their Roberto Bolaño or Nell Zink.

For most titles we also put aside a little bit of money to try…something. Whether [it’s] a funky mailing to bookstore buyers, some extra ARCs to target academic or library sales, special events with new partners, whatever we think will work best with the resources we have for that title, with the idea that we’re also trying to make new connections for the press as a whole.

Subscriptions have been essential, as has been our nonprofit status, which lets us take some risks on books and marketing as we build the press—we’re the new kids on the block so we’re still in a period of experimentation. I certainly agree with Barbara that more and more books is not the answer—not only in translation—and I think trying to “create” readers sounds like a pretty tall challenge; I’d rather just poach readers of contemporary American literature for translated literature.

Epler: Long ago New Directions was heavily branded by the old black-and-white paperbacks, but now it’s less so. I think I can detect a sort of spectrum of design for our books, but I imagine that’s pretty much in the eye of the beholder in this case. I’d say more that New Directions tries to always bring out books of a certain quality and originality, to maintain among book buyers, booksellers, reviewers, and readers a sort of sense of what you’ll be getting if you pick up a New Directions book, which we hope is real art and deep pleasure.

However, I think this is so much more a preoccupation of publishers than of readers, who tend to follow writers, rather than thinking much about which house is bringing the writer out. I think it helps a lot if you can stick with authors and really represent them in English, and over time keep building their body of work here, which is a long and costly process but can really work, and result in a strong audience. Live events and getting the author and translator here is also key, as are appearances in magazines.