Here’s another write-up of a seminar from the Literary Translation Centre at the London Book Fair in April.
Rather grandly entitled “What Publishers Want”, the panel was made up of Jane Lawson from Doubleday/Transworld, representing large commercial publishing; Chad Post of Open Letter Books, on the other extreme – Open Letter being a determinedly literary, not-for-profit operation; and Laura Barber of Granta/Portobello somewhere in the middle.
So, what do these particular publishers want in a translated book?
Jane Lawson said that she looks for voice, story and characters. A really good elevator pitch is important – can you catch her attention in one minute? She prefers authors not to be already published in the US. It helps if the author speaks English and if there’s already some kind of platform to base the marketing on. This might be that it’s won literary prizes, or have been banned in its original country, for example.
Laura Barber is looking for writing that will still be read in 10, 20, 100 years’ time. A book that she can publish to herself, then to her colleagues, then the sales team and finally the outside world. It is important to know the audience. (I’ve written down “multiples” but left it so long to write up the talk that I’ve forgotten what that signified. Oops. If anybody was there and can remember, do let me know in the comments!)
Chad Post on the other hand, working within the non-profit model, is looking for books that are unlike anything people would have access too if left purely to market forces. Open Letter books have a dedicated following, a brand loyalty, similar to And Other Stories or Peirene Press in the UK, so it is especially important to know how things fit in with what they have already published. They are also looking for 20th century books that have slipped through the net in English.
Meanwhile, speaking at the Becoming a Literary Translator I seminar, Meike Ziervogel of the aforementioned Peirene said that she is looking for books that read like they were written in English and generate the same audience reaction as the original. For her, the cover note is almost more important than a sample translation (which should be of about 1000 words). The note should explain why you as a translator love this book.
The point about being aware of publisher’s lists is of course vital, whoever you’re approaching. I’ve slipped up here a couple of times myself. It may seem obvious, but don’t take a novel of 1000 pages to Peirene when their page limit is 200, or to Comma Press, who specialise in short stories. However good it may be, and however annoying the label, literary presses won’t take genre fiction, and Bitter Lemon, for example, only publish crime.
The main point I took away from all this is that publishers make quick decisions so you really need to have a sharp focus when approaching them. Know your/their audience and tailor your pitch to their lists. And if you have any other tips or can remember the meaning of the mysterious multiples, do let me know!