Readers Ask
Every now and then I will present questions that readers of Intralingo have sent regarding different aspects of literary translation, along with my answers. I’m hoping you’ll weigh in with your thoughts in a comment as well!

Lisa,

I just read your post on royalties and it’s 100% apropos at the moment for me. I have just agreed to do a second book for a publisher I have worked with in the past. The first time I had no royalties. My understanding is that they never grant anyone royalties. But, I want to try.

Any tips on how to phrase my request?

Thanks,

D.

~~~~~~

D.,

Whether or not you end up getting royalties, I do think it’s important to at least ask. I’m glad you want to try and encourage you to go for it!

There are two elements involved in asking for royalties. First, you’re asking for something that will benefit you. Second, it’s an opportunity to do a bit of client education. Let’s take a look at these individually.

Benefit to You

If you are granted royalties, there could be a financial benefit to you. (Note that I don’t say there will be a financial benefit; that depends on many factors, including whether or not you will get royalties as of the first copy sold or only after you have earned back your contract advance. Any amounts earned also depend on how well the book sells.)

I also believe that getting royalties brings professional recognition. Indeed, that might be the more important point.

Now, because this is something *you* want, it’s important to asknot demand. I usually phrase it along the lines of: “I’d also like to know whether royalties might be possible.”

Here’s where the client education part comes in…

Client Education

After inquiring about whether the editor or author will consider granting royalties, I usually set out my arguments for wanting them:

* This is my profession and one I take very seriously. The implication or outright statement here is to let the client know that he will get nothing but the absolute best from me. I don’t do this simply for fun or personal edification. This is what I do. It is who I am. I am a professional.

* Translation is essential to the author/book’s success in the new language. I want the editor/publisher to know that we’re both on the same side. Our aim is to bring foreign works to another audience and have the book sell well. One way to ensure this happens is to respect the translator’s work, to acknowledge the role that she plays.

* It’s not about the money; it’s about recognition. When I ask for royalties, yes, I hope there will be some personal gain from doing so. But I do it for more selfless reasons, too: I do it for the profession as a whole. Translators deserve recognition for their contribution to a book’s success.

All of these arguments apply to justifying my contract price, too, by the way.

By asking for royalties (and asking, and asking, each time I get a new contract) and encouraging other translators to ask, my hope is that eventually it will become common practice. If we don’t ask, we won’t get royalties as a matter of course — not yet, anyhow. But if we all ask, we might get royalties as a matter of course — one day.

As I say, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I usually press the point, gently, as contract negotiations continue. A no could become a yes! 😉

There’s a fine balance to pressing the issue, though. That’s something you’re going to have to determine for yourself. It will all depend on your relationship with the editor, the author, and their initial reaction to your question.

Good luck with it!