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.