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Epublishing and Literary Translation – How can they work together?

Epublishing is steadily growing as an industry, and ebook sales have risen by 5.3% over the last few years in Germany. What does this mean for literary translators who translate from the German? As part of The Fiction Canteen – a series of literary events at the Alte Kantine Wedding in Berlin – Transfiction brought together a group of epublishers, translators and writers to talk about the gradual shift to ebooks in Germany. The participants in this panel discussion "Amazon – and then what?” were:
  • Volker Oppmann, founder of the platform LOG.OS and publisher at Onkel und Onkel in Berlin.
  • Nikola Richter, founder of mikrotext, a digital publisher specialising in short digital texts, as well as a blogger, curator and writer.
  • Amanda De Marco, founder of Readux, a publisher of (mostly) translated literature based in Berlin and a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives.
  • Zoe Beck, co-founder of CulturBooks, an ebook publisher of both original works and translations.
  • Nerys Hudson, former bookseller and project coordinator at Dialogue Books, an online space for literature, specialising in connecting stories and readers.
All of these epublishing professionals have considerable achievements under their belt. They are multi-talented entrepreneurs, some of them working as publishers, writers and translators at the same time. They all share a keen interest in good quality literary fiction and have recognised the potential of a marriage between digitalisation and innovative, original writing. And they all contribute to Berlin’s muchpublicised, thriving epublishing scene. Our discussion focused on Amazon’s impact on the book industry and also considered payment models for translators and writers who work for epublishers. The context was mostly confined to the present situation in Germany where estimates put the market share for ebooks at around 6.3% of total book sales by 2015, up from around 1% in 2011.

Window shopping
To begin the discussion, I asked about the panellists’ attitude towards big industry players like Amazon and Apple, including whether they had any ethical problems with a platform like Amazon. Most agreed that Amazon is an indispensable part of their sales strategy as new ebook enterprises. At first, Amanda experimented with selling her Readux books through other channels and dispensing with Amazon. com in order to generate a higher percentage of revenue via direct sales through her website. But it didn’t pay off. ‘You can avoid Amazon,’ she said, ‘but you won’t be doing yourself any favours.’ Nikola agreed: somewhere between 60-70% of mikrotext’s total ebook sales come from Amazon. Nonetheless, at readings and events she always tries to point readers towards independent bookshops or platforms like, which operates like a traditional bookseller, or Ratings on Amazon also constitute a measure of a writer’s success, not least among writers themselves, as Zoe pointed out.

Nerys, in her capacity as a spokesperson for Dialogue Books, explained how Amazon is able to put any kind of competition out of action simply by acting faster. ‘In an ideal world,’ Nerys said, ‘both [independent bookshops and Amazon] should be able to exist.’ But Amazon does not support the creation of stories in the same way that an independent bookshop tries to, and does not work to promote cooperation between translators and authors. To add insult to injury, she often saw readers at the Dialogue bookshop using it as a place to scan for good books that they later purchased on Amazon. Amazon’s selling point, in her opinion, is quantity. Quality, on the other hand, as Volker Oppmann added, may mean something different in digital publishing than its definition in classic print publishing. A reader may perceive quality as the instant ability to receive a book on an e-reader or in the post – in other words, easy access and quick delivery – rather than a wellconceived story, thoughtful editing and a beautiful cover. In Nikola’s opinion, it is also the moral responsibility of the consumer to decide where to buy their books and to develop an ethical stance, not just the publisher.

Financial issues
We then moved on to the question of finance in the era of digital publishing. When asked about overheads in epublishing, Amanda said that it is a misconception that the cost of printing is the largest component of all book production costs. What remains unchanged is the cost of building up new authors (which is much more difficult in an ebook environment) and the fact that ebook sales, as Zoe pointed out, are still nowhere near as high as print sales. In fact, as Nikola pointed out, the 5.3% increase in ebook sales figures is largely referring to genre fiction – vampire and fantasy stories, erotic literature and so on, rather than what she called ‘proper fiction’, the kind of writing that mikrotext, Readux, Frisch & Co., Dialogue and CulturBooks are interested in.

There’s no way round it: money is tight for new epublishers, often making it impossible to pay advances to translators. And this is where the problems between innovative epublishers and literary translators start. In answer to why ebook-only publishers were less able to pay advances, Nikola said that in the first year of mikrotext, she has not only done all the work herself – work that in a larger publishing house would be spread over a PR department and editorial staff – but she has also invested her own money in the project. Translators’ advances would have entailed an even greater financial burden. Zoe, in her role as a publisher at CulturBooks, briefly touched on models where the translator receives all of the revenue generated by his or her translation until a certain fixed sum is reached. But she said she had no idea whether this would actually work in practice. In other words, the translator has to be prepared to take a certain financial risk by taking a lower fee and a larger proportion of the share in royalties.

It might look for the moment as if epublishers of literary fiction and literary translators have yet to find satisfactory ways of working together until those epublishers have been able to build up their backlists, or until translation grants and prizes are awarded in equal measure to ebooks, for example. But in fact, literary translators and enterprising epublishers make natural allies. We know that ebooks are not going to be just a peripheral product in the future but a much bigger part of the publishing industry, and so the time is ripe for a dialogue on how literary translators and epublishers can work together.

Working relationships
To this end, I talked to two translators about their working relationships with both new indie epublishers and the print platform AmazonCrossing. The first commented that there was nothing obscure about the epublisher’s payment model: payment terms were stated in an upfront contract and consisted of a mix of a fee, a higher than usual share in royalties and third-party funding from a public body. The work with the publisher, as he described it, had the advantage of all three parties – translator, writer, and editor – working in close cooperation, and thanks to the digital format the turnaround times were impressively quick. The major downside was that he thought the book might have reached a wider audience in print due to readers’ likely reluctance to buy an ebook from an author they’re not familiar with.

In spite of various negative accounts of translators’ experiences with AmazonCrossing that are doing the rounds, the colleague I spoke to was positive about the fact that Amazon gave her a leg-up in the business and did a conscientious job of editing her work. She found there was plenty of face-to-face contact with staff members at Amazon, softening the myth of a faceless corporation that does not have phone numbers. Interestingly, she feels that her higher royalties cut and lower upfront fee has paid off in the long run, and has evened out to be roughly on a par with a standard contract.

The Fiction Canteen discussion and these later conversations have raised many questions without easy answers. But perhaps they provide a starting point for anyone contemplating a future in literary translation: Do translators need to develop their own ethical stance and make sure they stay in touch with booksellers and publishers to work out their own moral code of practice? Doesn’t a lesser-known literary translator have to make sacrifices similar to start-up publishers and work on commercial ebook titles to fund more creative projects? Are translators ‘artists’ or merely a service industry?

The good news is that, among the torrents of ebooks that are washed onto the internet each day, there are some original, innovative and exciting new projects being published by dedicated professionals. And this is worth supporting in any way possible. And secondly, as a literary translator, it seems as if one has the luxury of choice, at least on some days.

Lucy Renner Jones studied German at UEA and lives in Berlin. She is a co-founder of Transfiction (transfiction. eu) together with Jenny Piening and Karen Witthuhn. Transfiction specialises in cultural, theatre-related and literary translation.