Today I presented my first webinar session at Proz.com. It was called Translators and Self-Published Authors ― A Partnership for the New Digital Publishing Age. If you unfortunately missed the live presentation, a recording is currently available for purchase at the website.
There were about 30 attendees and we talked about the steps you can take to reach out to self-published authors and find a collaboration opportunity to translate their books. We also talked about some specific challenges that I myself had while working on some books, from language-related issues to title choices and touchy subjects.
We ran out of time in the end of the session, but I received a copy of all the questions that were asked by attendees during the live presentation and am answering them all in length here.
How do you usually approach a new author?
I use the many channels mentioned in the presentation. Basically, I believe translators need to educate themselves about the author's work before initiating contact. This way, you can find out if you're a good fit―that is, if the author writes about things you're interested in, and whether the material has the potential to be successful in the target market, according to market trends you've been observing among readers of the target language.
Do you have any advice for what to say or not to say? Should I just ask very briefly if they would be interested first and then go into details?
I have a cover letter template that I use when I first contact authors for a potential collaboration. I introduce myself, tell them where I found out about their work, and what potential I believe their work has in the target market. From then on, it's all about discussing how we can work together and moving on with the negotiation process.
What is the most common fees/royalties model you negotiate with authors?
It really depends on the agreement you have with the author. Some will release all rights to you, so you keep 100% of royalties. Most of them are more comfortable with a 60-40 or 55-45 percent split. Some will put for something closer to 70-30 or even 80-20 percent. It's all a matter of analyzing your comfort level and whether the arrangement will be beneficial to you. Keep in mind you can always ask for 2/3 or 1/2 of your regular rate up front, and a less equal royalty split of 80-20 percent.
Based on your experience, is it better to work for a good pay up front, or a low pay plus royalties?
It's always great to be paid up front, or at least set up installments for your clients―in this case, a self-published author―to make payments as you work on the project. That way, you know exactly how much you'll be paid for your efforts, as in the traditional sense of all other translation projects. However, if you decide to use a lower rate + royalties approach, you have to keep in mind that you're "gambling" a little bit. What I mean is that you'll most likely not make your desired rate per word or per hour and hope that the book sells several copies and you can collect royalties on your translation. Simply put, some authors make it big; others don't. If you find that rough diamond, your royalties will well exceed what you would otherwise have been paid if you went the conventional way. So, as long as you're aware of the risks, a + royalties option could make more sense.
If you are working for royalties, how do you find out about sales numbers?
You must indicate in your contract that you need a copy of quarterly reports, so you can see how many book units were sold and calculate your share of the royalties according to the rates you've agreed with. Authors have access to this report, which is provided the publishing platform of their choice, so make sure you're both on the same page and have created a solid collaboration based on mutual trust.
When publishing a translated book to the Kindle market, do you generally publish the translated book through your own amazon account or through the author's account?
It all depends on the arrangements you have made with the author. In the rare cases when authors release all rights to the translation, the translator would be responsible for releasing the book to the market. Otherwise, whether the author is paying your full rate or splitting royalties with you, the author will be in charge of that.
What would you suggest to get good sales on the book? Are there any options besides free promos?
It's all about word of mouth, really. Think about how things work the other way around: Aren't you more likely to buy a product (i.e. a book) if someone you trust recommends it to you? The same is true in this case, whether you translated or wrote the book. Offering a book for free for one weekend, for example, is a good tactic to drive downloads and, consequently, put your book on a more visible place of best-selling books. You should also encourage readers to leave a review about the book and, in the specific case of Amazon, readers can also suggest genre classifications, which increases the chances that your book will be highlighted in a given genre other readers might be interested in. We'll be covering more hands-on approaches in Part 2 of this webinar session, when we focus on self-publishing your own books and/or translations.
Since I haven't translated any books before I find it difficult to estimate how long it will take. How long did it take you to finish the translations?
It's all relative. Do you know your output for regular translations in terms of how many words you're able to translate in a given hour or day under ideal circumstances? It can be quite similar to that. It also depends on whether you've read the entire book in advance and already have clear images in your head, which you'll now need to put into words in the target language. Or maybe you like reading the book as you're translating it, so you're really in the reader's shoes and will react the same way a reader would as you find out about all the plot twists, which is an approach that helps you be more spontaneous in your translation and not over-analyze everything until you get started on the proofreading round. Sometimes a book is so well written that translating it comes easy to you; other times, the author's writing style may be so different from what would be expected in the target language that it will slow you down when you try to reproduce that same style in your translation. If you're translating a book about a subject or genre you're familiar with, it may come very easily to you as well; however, some books may have subplots or settings that take you out of your comfort zone, so you may find yourself investing more time into research in order to make sure that your translation rings true to readers familiar with those activities.
Do you set a deadline with the author beforehand?
We do, but it's somehow informal. I talk very honestly about how the technical translations I do will take precedence over the book translation projects I take on, simply because businesses usually work with a very tight deadline, which the translation of self-published books don't have a set agenda, as it would be the case in a traditional setup, when a publisher needs your translation done at a certain date because there are other people involved in the process who need the output of your work in order to move forward with the project, including editors, proofreaders, designers, and marketing staff. Besides, if an author is unable to pay your full rate, you'll only be hurting your business if you turn down better-paying projects in order to meet a certain deadline on projects of this nature. The best thing is to keep an honest, open communication with the author, so you're both on the same page.
What would you recommend if I wanted to translate a Portuguese-to-English book that has already been self-published in Brazil by a small publisher? Should I seek legal advice? (Scenario: the author is family, but he passed away last year.)
First of all, you need to double check the arrangements made with this small publisher. In other words, whenever there's a publisher involved in the process, they most likely have signed an agreement with the author and hold some, if not all the rights to that book. When books are truly self-published, authors are the ones in charge of making their books available to the public, so they are the only ones who hold the rights to the material and you can negotiate with them directly. In the specific scenario you mentioned, if the author is your relative, check if his/her estate is in charge of copyrights and royalties and negotiate with them. Laws are different in each country, but I believe in Brazil a book only becomes part of the public domain 70 or 75 years after the author's passing. In other words, until then, you could not translate the book and publish it yourself, because you'd be violating the author's estate, which is usually operated by a spouse, child, or someone else who was appointed in a will.
Has any of the books you translated been published physically (not as an e-book, I mean)? If so, did you or the author pay for it?
Self-published authors are usually in charge of making publishing decisions. I believe most of them have put the translation up as both an ebook and print-on-demand paperback copy. As a matter of fact, authors have the option of not paying for anything upfront during the self-publishing process, unless they decide to order a proof copy before they finalize the process or hire the publishing platform staff to work on other items, such as cover design, ebook conversion, marketing, etc.
How about copy editing? Of course we edit ourselves, but a book needs another set of eyes to go from great to excellent.
I completely agree with that! For my into-English book translations, I hired a dear friend who is also a copyeditor, so she could review my work and serve as a test reader. However, when that's not in your budget, one valid approach is for you to step away from the book for maybe a couple of weeks, so you can get some distance from your translation and review it with the eyes of a reader.
What do you do about cover design?
If the author is in charge of redesigning the cover with the translated title, and quite possibly with the addition of your name, all you need to do is provide the respective information. However, in the event that all rights are released to you and you're the one responsible for all publishing aspects, you'd need to redesign it yourself or hire a designer to do it for you. We'll actually talk a little bit about cover design in Part 2 of the webinar, when we focus on some specific details, such as how to choose cover art and design something that will grab the attention of your target readers.
What were the specific challenges you had to face when translating through BabelCube?
I personally wanted to try the BabelCube platform to find books written in Italian and expand my resume to the Italian-to-Portuguese and Italian-to-English language pairs. However, I was well aware that their format allows for royalties only, so I had to manage my time and see this project as more of a hobby than a guaranteed source of income. It's the "gambling" thing I mentioned above. If these books make it big, you get a steady revenue from your royalties; otherwise, it's a valid experience. You can read more about how BabelCube works on an article I wrote back when the platform was launched.
Is your work with self-published authors a significant portion of your workload?
Unfortunately not at this point. I try to sign contracts with self-published authors that allow me to be somewhat flexible. My technical translation work is still what really pays the bills, so I have to work about 6 hours per day on material that comes from recurring clients, and reserve about 2 hours a day to work on literary projects. On slower weeks, I can increase my literary translation hours, but I am still looking forward to having books as the main chunk of my schedule.
RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She is the author of "Tools and Technology in Translation ― The Profile of Beginning Language Professionals in the Digital Age," which is based on her UCSD Extension class. Rafa has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, a collective blog about translation and literature, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS), a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.*