Apropos (isn’t that a great word, by the way?!) of the most recent royalty statement that came in the mail, I realized I’ve only ever touched on the topic of royalties here. I think that’s because it’s a complex one with very little outside data or information. All I can really tell you is based entirely on my own experience, but should be helpful nonetheless.

Here, then, are my 10 truths regarding royalties and literary translation:

1. Every translator deserves to earn royalties on her published work.

As creators and copyright holders of a new text, literary translators should be granted royalties as a matter of course. I am absolutely adamant about this and ask for royalties on every book published. Note: I am not always successful, but I do bring up the topic and argue the point. If a work sells well in translation, that is due in no small measure to the translator and he should be compensated appropriately.

The provision for royalties is a standard clause in the PEN American Center’s Model Contract.

2. Translators are rarely offered royalties but publishers sometimes capitulate if you press hard enough.

Even though it is our right to earn royalties, not one standard contract from a publisher has included a royalty clause. Except for the very first book I translated, I have negotiated — hard — for royalties every time. Out of my seven titles (six published and one forthcoming), I have been granted royalties only three times.

As I say, though, in every negotiation I have pressed hard for royalties.

3. There are no established percentages for translators, but 1-3% can usually be won.

When I started negotiating royalties with publishers, I had no concrete information about what percentage to even ask for. After long hours of research and conversations with colleagues, it seemed to me that in North America a translator can earn approximately 1-3% royalties. This therefore was the range I have always put forward to editors.

Royalty rates vary around the world. In some countries, like Germany, they are legislated if a book sells over 5000 copies, but the amount earned is less than 1%.

4. A common argument for not granting royalties to the translator is that the percentage will then have to be taken from the author.

It is my understanding that an author who publishes with a major publishing house will earn anywhere from 5-15% royalties on the original work. He will then earn royalties when foreign language rights are optioned, but the percentage will be even lower. (It’s not a lot when you think about it, and a pretty good argument for self-publishing where the author can earn substantially more.)

However, that question aside, when I have asked for royalties, one answer often given by the editor is that they will therefore have to take my percentage away from the author. This can be difficult because the author and publisher will already have an established contract, which would then have to be amended. Plus, as I just pointed out, the author doesn’t actually earn all that much and may be unwilling to grant a portion to the translator.

The logic in the publisher’s argument is flawed, however, and can be used to make a point. If you, as the translator, are asking for 1% royalties and the author is earning 5% royalties, that means the publisher still gets the lion’s share of 94% and can surely afford to grant you this pittance.

5. When royalties are granted, the fee earned is most often an advance on those royalties.

What this mean is that you receive a fee for translating the work and must earn in excess of that amount to see any additional monies. In other words, if you are paid an initial fee of $10000 to translate a novel and earn 1% royalties on a book that is sold for $20 a copy, the publisher will have to sell 50,000 copies before you earn any money beyond the initial fee.

6. A translator is unlikely to ever see an actual penny from his royalties.

This follows from point number 5 above. Considering that a good print run is 6000-8000 copies, it’s unlikely that a book will sell enough copies to pay back and exceed the advance you earned — unless it is a runaway bestseller like The Millenium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson.

As an example, taken directly from the royalty statement I mentioned at the start of this post, for The Book of Destiny, which was published in June 2009, I have to date earned a whopping $1934.74 in royalties and therefore have about 15 years or more to go with sales remaining steady before I will see anything beyond the advance I received initially. 😉

7. Every now and then you might find a publishing house that calculates royalties on top of your fee.

To be quite honest, I didn’t think a publisher would *ever* consider calculating royalties *on top of* the fee paid, so I never asked for any such wording in my contracts. On a recent contract, however, this was standard in the publisher’s contract, which means I will earn additional money as of the first copy sold for as long as the book is in print.

If I extrapolate based on the royalty statement for my current published works, it is not unreasonable to assume that the book might sell 5000 copies per year for several years, earning me an additional $1000 per year. I’ll take that.

8. How royalties will be reported to you is determined in your contract.

If you manage to negotiate royalties with your publisher, the schedule and manner of reporting will be outlined in the contract you sign. In my case, with one particular publisher, statements are calculated in June and December of every year, with reports issued within three months.

The statements are very interesting beyond the total amount earned. They let you see how the book has done, for example, in the U.S. versus in Canada or for export, and how many returned units there are for each market. I love poring over my royalty statements, even if there’s no cheque attached!

9. Royalties will often vary, with different percentages for hardcovers, paperbacks and ebooks.

When I first started negotiating royalties I was naive enough to assume that the percentage I earned was on every book sold, whatever the format. It was only when the contract came for me to sign that I saw it could vary for hardcovers, paperbacks and ebooks.

There are those who make a case that royalties for ebooks should be much higher for authors. I would agree and include translators, too.

The reality, however, is different — at least in my experience. Even when I do earn royalties on physical books, I earn none on ebooks.

This can — and will — change, but it will be up to us as translators to be aware and to fight for our rights.

10. Despite the above, royalties are a form of recognition in your work and should be fought for.

After reading all of the above, you might say there is nothing straightforward or simple about the whole issue of royalties and literary translation. I couldn’t agree more. But knowledge is power. The more we know about the facts and the issues, the better enabled we are to at least negotiate and eventually receive our due.

Whether or not I receive a single dime on royalties, I think they are essential as an indication that all parties involved recognize that the literary translator is a creator and proportionately responsible for the success of a given work.

Any thoughts on royalties you’d care to share? I’d sure love to hear from you.