Friday, 6 December 2013

Two Uncles or Not Two Uncles

Last night I attended a very open and friendly panel discussion kindly organized by Transfiction, which was about money in the era of digital publishing. The speakers – (digital) publishing people – talked a little about Amazon and their frustration at being unable to work around it. I won’t go into great detail about that except to say that I’m trying harder not to buy books from Amazon now.

What I found most interesting was a discussion about payment models. I asked why e-publishers are using different payment models to print publishers for exactly the same services, i.e. translation and editing. The answer, essentially, was that they don’t have enough money to pay advances.

Volker Oppmann was one of the panelists, and told an interesting story. He set up the publishing house Onkel& Onkel in 2007 with a loan from his two uncles; hence the name. Apparently he paid it back recently after selling his other business, Textunes, to Thalia. My friend Nikola Richter (Mikrotext) said that new publishers don’t have the backlist income that established (print) publishers have, but that small publishers of all kinds pay smaller or no advances. I would argue that this is not necessarily the case in the UK, but we weren’t talking specifically about the UK. And Zoe Beck of Culturbooks said that what e-book publishers are investing is their time, which amounts to money. They’re experimenting to find ways to pay translators (I assume editing is done for free by members of the team) such as 100% royalties up to a certain cut-off point. They’re also, as far as I understand, only commissioning translators for short books.

The situation is difficult for me to deal with, as a professional translator. On the one hand, I’m excited by all these experiments and the idealism with which they’re being undertaken. Nikola pointed out that e-publishers are bringing out books of unusual lengths and with unusual content that otherwise wouldn’t be published at all – although Zoe (an author and translator as well as a new publisher) didn’t reflect on e-publishers’ role in her own point that writers are earning less through royalties now that publishers are bringing out more books. Although I see it as a good thing, more choice, including digital reading matter, means smaller shares of the pie.

On the other hand – and what comes next is not going to make me many friends, I suspect – I see translators as less attached to the literature we produce than the writers themselves are. My work contributes to the quality of the product but it’s not the only factor; the writer thinks up the plot and the characters, for instance. So while it may be acceptable to an author that she will be paid after the fact and depending on how well her book sells, I personally am not willing to take that risk. While my task is a creative one, I am usually commissioned by publishers to translate books they have selected. According to my logic, they should then assume the financial risk for that decision. I personally am not in a position to work without being paid a fixed sum to compensate for my time.

E-only publishing in Germany is at a very early stage. The way I see it, at the moment people are starting their own e-publishing houses with a great deal of enthusiasm but very little capital. It now seems possible to publish without borrowing money beforehand, because the costs of printing, storage and physical distribution have fallen away. And so the other costs – writing, translation, editing, design, etc. – must be got around too, by means of “investing time”.

Again, I’m torn. I think it’s a good thing that people without two uncles willing to lend them money can publish books. But if in doing so, they require others to assume part of the publisher’s traditional risk, my worry is that only those with two uncles willing to subsidize their creative lifestyles will be able to participate further down the line. I say this as a person with three uncles, none of whom is in a position to lend anyone money. And I say it at a time when we’ve actually achieved a situation in which someone like me can make a living, more or less, out of literary translation.

My hope for the future is that e-publishers will end up making enough money to use the payment models employed by traditional publishers. My worst fear in this respect, however, is that traditional publishers will pick up on these new payment models and try to use them too. In my disaster scenario, that would mean that translators (and editors, writers, designers, etc.) without two uncles could only afford to work on books that promised high sales figures. And that would not be good for literature.


zoebeck said...

I feel somewhat accused of not having the guts to risk bankruptcy. What we do is, we give writers a chance to be read, and to be seen, and to earn money with texts they could never sell otherwise. We don't talk anyone into working for free. We are very transparent with everything we do. And I think I said it over and over again that I know full well that people need to earn money in order to eat and pay their rent. But we all have to find new models of how we can continue with our work.

kjd said...

I'm trying quite hard to be fair because I really do appreciate what you're doing, from an artistic point of view, and because I have a tendency to make moral judgements based on social envy. And as I said, it may be OK for writers, whose primary motivation often is simply to be read. What I didn't say is that it may also be OK for some translators, who are in a financial position to take risks. I hope I've made it clear that I'm stating my personal opinion in relation to my own circumstances.

I also appreciate the fact that you're only getting short books translated, so that translators invest less of their time. But I felt the point had to be made that these payment models will not work for many people who earn a living out of translating, editing, etc. I wish you all the best for the project - and especially that it begins to return on your time investment and enable more stable payment models. I think that would be in all our interests.

Nikola Richter said...

I think publishing is changing quite a bit - bankruptcy is hovering also hover the big players. But instead of accusing or rather demanding the small publishers to pay royal royalties (when what they do in the first place is to save diversity on the market in the shadow of the BIG FIVE) - shouldn't we rather talk about monopolies on the market, how to get bigger as collectives and then better earn our livings? It is a long road, I guess, but we're all on it. Also you, Katy, as I know how supportive you are of us new digital publishers.

Helen MacCormac said...

There's an interesting article by André Gstettenhofer on e-book publishing at:

Essentially, he says: we don't yet quite know where we're at. One thought is that we are not the Generation to decide - he believes it will be the real digital natives who take the whole thing in hand, and he doesn't mean people who grew up with a computer. He talks about the post 2007 babes who don't know a world without it all, and he talks about writing and authors and what might work.
At present , it seems to me, that a lot is going on. The old recommended ways (which aren't all that old) don't actually work as well for new writers and translators. What if e-books could be a good way to help new writers and give young translators a break? It could be a good way to get to a first full-length publication, for example. What's the point of insisting on pay if you can't.
At the same time, it's good to know that poeple keep phoning and asking for translations, no matter what.

Jürgen Bürger said...

Ich bin mal muttersprachlich: Als Übersetzer und Wannabe-Verleger fand ich den Artikel sehr informativ und, ja, ich hoffe, auch hilfreich. Gerade im Kulturbereich tut man gern, als wäre Geld so ziemlich das Allerletzte – und beißt dafür im stillen Kämmerlein in den sauren Apfel der Wirklichkeit. Ich weiß aus eigener Erfahrung und von zahlreichen Freunden aus anderen kreativen Berufen (womit nicht das gemeint ist, was gemeinhin so als "Kreativwirtschaft" läuft), von Musikern, bildenden Künstlern, Schauspielern, Journalisten, Autoren und auch Übersetzer-Kollegen, wie eminent wichtig auch das Thema Honorare, Tantiemen, Gage usw. ist, um wirklich "kreativ" sein zu können. Was ich damit sagen will: "Neue" Geschäftsmodelle für den Literaturbetrieb sollten eine faire Beteiligung aller Akteure mitdenken und zumindest mittelfristig an Einnahmen für die Beteiligten, vor allem due Urheber, denken. Wir haben die Chance, diese Welt ein klein wenig mit zu verändern. Es liegt an uns …

R said...

(apols if this is a duplicate - system seems to have eaten my original comment!)
You've hit on some very important points here. I'm also a full-time professional translator with no other source of income. I have one foot in the commercial translation world and one in literary translation. You addressed this point in your piece, but I think it bears emphasising: The nature of my involvement in book projects is fundamentally different from that of the author. By and large, authors write because they have something they want to say. It is the author who provides the initiative for the original book. When a publisher approaches me to do a translation, though, they are commissioning me to do a job of work. Make no mistake: it is work. It is how I earn my living, and I make no apology for expecting to be paid a fee commensurate with my skills and experience. I realise that not everyone will be able to afford my services. That's perfectly okay. So by all means, e-publishing startups should pursue their creative/artistic visions, so long as they understand that their payment models mean they're going to be restricted to working with moneyed hobbyists and keen-but-inexperienced n00bs. There is a certain similarity with the phenomenon of unpaid internships, which has been discussed in the UK media a fair bit recently (including implications for social mobility, etc).

kjd said...

R, your point about the restrictions imposed on publishers using these models is spot on!

Henry Holland said...

Katy, many thanks for this post, v. useful for me as I'm going to be co-hosting an evening on Amazon & digital publishing at the Writers' Room, Hamburg, 7th February. R's statement on the restrictions epublishing startups payment models impose in terms of which translators epublishers can work with, is however untrue and offensive. "E-publishing startups should pursue their creative/artistic visions, so long as they understand that their payment models mean they're going to be restricted to working with moneyed hobbyists and keen-but-inexperienced n00bs", says R. But EJ Van Lanen with his Frisch & Co works with exactly these payment models under discussion, at least for some of the translations he commissions (i.e. much higher than normal cut of royalties in lieu of fixed fee.) And to dismiss Michael Mitchell or Bradley Schmitt, just to take two examples of the kind of translators he's working with, as either "moneyed hobbyists" or "keen-but-inexperienced n00bs" simply does not fit. (If my understanding of EJ's payment model for translators is not yet precise enough, then it would be great if EJ could provide a much welcome clarification, by posting a response here.) As to the way you contrast the differing motivations of authors & translators, R: I find it a disturbing false dichotomy. When you say "By and large, authors write because they have something they want to say", you imply that having something they want to say through the translation is not a big motivation for translators. Why would any translator bother to do anything as difficult as literary translation, whether for good money or for no money, if they didn't have something they wanted to say with the translated text?

kjd said...

Henry, I don't really want to go into the details of specific publishers' payment models here, but I do agree with R on the issue of wanting to say something. When I translate the words are mine but the content is the writer's. If I have something to say I will say it myself. Yes, literary translators may be drawn to certain books because of their particular content, but in many cases we're just trying to earn a living.