Every year, the German Book Office in New York invites a different group of North American editors on a jaunt around Germany. This year they've brought over people from independent publishing houses and given them a packed schedule of visiting German publishers in Berlin and Frankfurt, looking at books and schmoozing with Germans. Yesterday, I was invited to their "all-day conference on the topics of new German literature and digital publishing". Actually I was invited to the first two-hour session, which was about translation, but I stayed all day.
It was exhausting. We all sat around a very large table and talked about translation from our various perspectives, which are a little different. So I learned that some German publishers are bringing out fewer translations now that they have to pay translators higher royalties and grant them higher shares of subsidiary rights, but others are just biting the bullet. The editor I was sitting next to was quite unhappy about it, but then I'm unhappy about the fact that German translators are still poorly paid, so we agreed to differ. One American editor said she couldn't possibly buy a book before reading it all the way through, which means sample translations are of limited use to her, but I think everyone got the message that it's not commercially viable for a German publisher to pay for a full translation into English on the chance that someone might buy it. Others are happy to work with readers, whom they have to trust, however. A reader has to have their own taste and also has to understand the publisher's taste and interests, and has to sum up the plot in case there are holes in it. So it's hard to find people to do that, especially as it's probably the worst-paid job ever. I quite enjoy writing reader's reports but I have to admit it's always tempting to big up a book in the hope of getting a translation commission out of it. I don't do that though. No, really.
One editor had just signed a Berlin-based writer whose forthcoming book I'm also in love with, and dashed out over lunch to meet him. Apparently he's very tall with amazing eyes and can fill a room with his presence. I envied her quite a lot. Another reads German himself and got as excited as I am about a classic novel that's been re-issued in its uncensored form. Or at least I hope so.
I talked about why the editing process is different for translations into English, because my editors rarely understand the original. We all agreed that those meddling writers shouldn't usually be involved in the translation process – it just upsets them too much. And I learned that editing and translating debut novels are similarly fraught. I suppose that should have been obvious in the first place. Fraught was the word of the session, in fact; many of the editors around the table seemed to feel slightly uncomfortable about translation, with the exception of those who publish nothing but translations. I think that's probably because they have to let go of the reins and trust the translator, who then goes away for months before they know what exactly they're getting. Yes, it would be scary.
Later on we talked about trends in German publishing: what on earth counts as non-fiction, why there are so many incredibly long novels, what about philosophers and is their work more than self-help, have creative writing schools got out of hand, are the Germans fascinated by death and bowels, and why do they feel the need to invent fake foreigners? Talking about trends is always tricky, but what I liked about this session was that it (and the others) was moderated by Ed Nawotka from Publishing Perspectives, who didn't come to the table with his mind made up. At previous events on similar subjects, I've often faced German experts who have everything neatly packaged beforehand and don't leave much room for discussion. And then we talked about digital publishing, by which point I was rather tired. But that was OK because we were in a room full of professionals, who were quite open about their likes and dislikes and how much money they're making out of what.
There was some extra schmoozing tacked on the end with all sorts of other Berlin publishing people and then the group was whisked off to dinner. Here they all are in flattering light, getting upset about Hachette's acquisition of Perseus.
I enjoyed myself. I've met groups of editors from an international programme before and that's always been slightly intimidating, especially because they often seem more intent on getting to know each other than on getting to know the German publishing world, if you see what I mean. This group was more focused and friendlier and more willing to share. I hope they get a lot out of their trip, and obviously the German Book Office and I hope they'll snap up German titles and sell their own titles back. Many thanks to the tireless and ever-stylish Riky Stock for the invitation!