Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Inside New Books in German

Everybody knows New Books in German, right? The UK's most fantastic vehicle for promoting literature written in German? To English-speaking readers, translators and publishers? Via two online and print issues a year? Edited by the amazing Charlotte "Energy Bundle" Ryland? Funded by Austria, Switzerland and Germany?

Good. Well, I happened to be in London at the same time as their editorial meeting, and I kind of invited myself along. The idea is, German-language publishers send the cream of their crop to NBG, and a crack team of experts selects about sixty titles that they reckon could work on the British market. Of course nowadays they cooperate with the German Book Office in New York so the American market is covered too. Anyway, the sixty books are sent off to sixty readers who each write a short report on their respective merits - but the idea is to be tough so that not just any old guff ends up in the magazine. And the editorial meeting is there to decide which books to feature on the pages of NBG.

But what actually happens behind the closed doors of the Austrian Cultural Forum in Range Rover Central, London SW7? I hear you ask. Ah, well let me enlighten you.

This time there were a record eighteen attendees, a bit of a mixed bag. According to the website, "editorial advisers are brought in for each issue, including a literary agent, a publisher, a translator and a bookseller." That's quite funny actually - but maybe you had to be there - because there was rather a wealth of translators, including - gasp! - Anthea Bell OBE, which nearly made me faint. Luckily there was a tea break for fawning purposes. There were also representatives of a number of cultural bodies, who were great because if there was an Austrian author, for instance, you could ask: Do you know them? Are they OK? And they'd say: Weeeelll, ye-es, not my cup of tea but very popular, or Ohhh, yes, fabulous, or: No, he's a complete vainglorious idiot.* Also, having a bookseller there was great because he knew what people actually buy in bookshops - and what they don't. Of course we translators had something to add too, although it was mostly anecdotes about how terribly nice the writers are.*

Anyway, we waded right in and voted on which books to take, covering children's and young adults' fiction plus non-fiction and fiction for adults. And I found myself talking rather a lot, no doubt unnecessarily, in an attempt to legitimise my presence in some way. But in fact most people had very sensible opinions and it was an object lesson in human nature. There were the eternal optimists, the passionate waverers, and best of all a couple of excellent Eyoreish sceptics. Just so nobody thought they were doing the world a favour.

And then there were the issues to consider. Can you expect kids to take an interest in long-dead political systems in foreign countries? (Probably not.) What percentage of non-fiction titles dealing with Nazis is OK? (Not 100%.) Does anyone give a monkeys about experimental fiction? (Perhaps not but it's still cool.) Are we topheavy on the crime front and low on love stories? (I made that one up but there were some questions of balance raised.) Then there was apple strudel. And then we went to the pub.

What's the point of the whole lot of you reading sixty-odd reports and putting together this very attractive magazine? I hear you ask. Ah, well let me explain.

German-language publishers benefit in a major way if their book ends up in NBG, mainly because it means publishers translating that book into English are entitled to funding. Which means they're more likely to do so in the first place. What doesn't happen is that Amy Editor curls up with a cup of cocoa and a copy of NBG and chooses which German book to publish this season. You still need to call Amy Editor's attention to your book, but its profile will be that little bit higher. Also, people will be that mite more aware of your author, so they're more likely to invite her to the UK and the US for glamorous lecture tours and the like. What you don't want to do, as a German publisher, is submit your third-most-exciting book of the season, on the assumption that your whizz-banging humdinger is going to sell like hot cakes and doesn't need any help. Every book needs help to make it into English. NBG is there to ease the way - and also to showcase just how fantastic writing in German is.

Of course it's not just the book reports. New Books in German is also a useful resource for finding out what's been published recently, and each issue also offers feature articles. This upcoming one is a bit heavy on the pieces written by me, but that's just a coincidence and won't be a regular fixture. I wouldn't want to annoy people. Oh, and they also organise a big flashy party during the London Book Fair, which I shall be attending this year. I already have a new dress and some bargainacious shoes.

* Not really.


David said...

Just curious, was there much discussion on differing tastes in the US and UK? Is is assumed that if the Brits like a translation it should sell well in the US?

kjd said...

Hi David. Well, we had some feedback about what titles the German Book Office likes, and that tended to sway our opinion. But I don't think any of us would presume to know what works in the US. Not that guessing what might work in the UK is an exact science either...