Translation and Electronic Publishing: One Perspective
A guest post by Steven J. Stewart
In the past six months I’ve published two book translations in electronic or primarily electronic forms. I recently published my translation of Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki’s Ajuar Funerario (Grave Goods) with Blood Bound Books, and I also published my translation of Federico García Lorca’s masterpiece La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) through Kindle Direct. My experience so far with both of these has been positive, and I believe that electronic publishing can have a lot to offer translators who are having difficulty publishing their work through more traditional means.
It’s not my aim here to give a comprehensive discussion of translation and online publishing; there are other people out there more knowledgeable than I and better able to do so (for example, this discussion with Anne Trager on PRWeb is concise yet very informative). I’m just trying to give my perspective and show why I’ve chosen to go the electronic route recently.
I actually translated The House of Bernarda Alba six or seven years ago for an on-campus production at the university where I teach. The director, a close friend of mine, wanted to do the play, but he wasn’t satisfied with any of the existing translations. Since the play was in the public domain, I did the translation and it was performed. Just seeing the play performed, my rendition of García Lorca’s work on stage, was its own reward, though within the next couple years I did try to query several publishers to see if any would be interested in publishing my manuscript. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone willing, so the play just sat on my hard drive for some time after that.
Earlier this year, however, I had the idea of publishing the play myself through Kindle Direct. I had previously published a chapbook on Kindle Direct consisting of adaptions I had done of epigraphs from the Bodhicaryavatara of Shantideva, which had been selling a few copies a month, so I knew how easy the process was. I found some top-notch students at my university and had them edit and prepare the García Lorca book for the Kindle and create a professional cover for it. I published the book in April, and since then I’ve sold a couple hundred copies of it to people all over the world.
I’ve chosen to sell the book for $2.99, which gives me about a dollar per copy. It is also available for free through Kindle Unlimited. My translation is currently the most affordable version of the play on Amazon, and until very recently it was the only digital edition of the play available for the Kindle (there are now a couple of others, but mine costs a few dollars less than either of them). I chose $2.99 because I wanted my version to sell, and since it’s self-published I still make a reasonable amount of money per copy at that price. I admit that I do wonder about the pricing, however, and I may experiment with that. Perhaps if I charged more for it, prospective buyers would be inclined to think it was worth more and be willing to pay more. I envision something of a luxury car effect: if such and such model costs so much more, it must be that much better. Though I suspect I have it priced appropriately now: if the Amazon sales rankings mean anything, my version is currently selling better than the other digital versions.
According to my KDP sales reports, most people who have bought the book are from the US and the UK, but I do have an occasional buyer from Spain and elsewhere in the world. And it’s interesting to be able to track my sales as they happen. For example, I saw a small sales spike in late August of this year, presumably due to college students who had been assigned to read the play and ended up choosing my version.
I do think it’s important that I had already established myself as a translator before self-publishing. To tell the truth, I would not expect anyone to buy my translation of Lorca’s work if I were an unknown translator. However, when prospective buyers can see that I’m a previously published, award-winning translator as they pull up the book on Amazon, I think they’re going to be more confident in getting a high-quality translation with my edition.
While I self-published The House of Bernarda Alba, I did find a publisher for my translation of Iwasaki’s Grave Goods. Blood Bound Books is a relatively young small press specializing in horror fiction, a press that’s committed to finding and publishing powerful yet experimental work that other publishers might be afraid to touch. While Iwasaki is a significant figure in the world of Latin American literature, he’s mostly unknown here. Grave Goods consists of 98 horror microfictions (not exactly the most common of genres), and one way that Blood Bound has chosen to market the book is to make some of the stories available for free on their website. The editors of Blood Bound have settled on a model of making electronic books available on their website and through Amazon and doing print on demand through Amazon’s CreateSpace.
One of the biggest advantages to publishing Grave Goods with Blood Bound is that they are able to sell the book very inexpensively. The press is selling the book at great prices, which should lead to more sales. The print-on-demand version of the book only costs $7.99. In my experience, most publishers doing 8”x5” books nowadays are selling them for fifteen to twenty dollars per copy. Going with CreateSpace is one of the reasons that Blood Bound is able to make the book so inexpensive. And while the print version is a very reasonable $7.99, the digital edition from the Blood Bound website is only $2.00 and the Kindle version available from Amazon is only $2.99.
Digital publishing has other benefits besides cost. Marc Ciccarone, owner and publisher of Blood Bound, says that “digital is increasing in popularity. And we can reach markets that were simply not available to us in an all-paperback world.” An electronic book is more accessible, and it can be more of a vibrant, living presence in the world when people can find it, see it, and read it quickly.
It’s still a challenge to promote the book and let potential readers know about it, which is true for e-books as well as print books. It’s clear that, like any author nowadays really, I as a translator must play a meaningful role in getting the word out about my book and making sales happen.
We live in interesting times with respect to the publishing world. One of the few things that is clear is that electronic publishing is here to stay and will continue to grow. And I think that the dynamic landscape of electronic publishing has some great possibilities for translators and for making high-quality work available to readers.