The Who’s Who of Book Translation: 7 Important Players You Should Know about

Book Translation

Translating a book into another language exposes it to an entirely new market. This is extremely valuable for both the publisher and the author: both increases the book’s potential revenue and extends its reach to a global audience. Publishing a book in English makes it accessible to 360 million native speakers, plus the billion people who speak it as a second language; but publishing a translation to Mandarin, for example, exposes it to an additional potential audience of 955 million! Of course, that book can’t reach an audience without good distribution; thankfully, the publishing industry in China is thriving — topping even the USA in the number of titles printed in 2015 (470,000 titles versus 338,986). The publishing industry of Germany brought in 5.4 billion Euros in revenue in 2015, and 40% of the books it publishes are translated — meaning that the rights holders who profit from those sales are located in other countries.

In other words, translating a book is well worth the investment. Here are the important players in the industry.

1) Publishers

A publisher, of course, is a company that produces books from the editing through the printing stage. Traditional publishers sometimes acquire translation and foreign rights as part of a book contract; sometimes, those rights remain with the author. A publisher seeking to translate a title to which it owns translation rights may work with a foreign rights agent (see below) or sub-right the sales to a foreign publisher, and split its profits with the author. Percentages vary by contract, of course, but the industry standard is 75% of net proceeds to the publisher and 25% to the author.

Traditional publishers interested in acquiring foreign literature and translate it into their own language hire readers and/or scouts (explained below) to seek appropriate titles.

Authors who retain foreign rights may hire a translation service and try to market the book to a foreign market themselves; however, the book is very unlikely to find its audience without good contacts and marketing in the target country. A more viable option is to sell the rights to a foreign publisher (independently or through a foreign rights agent) who can market and distribute more effectively.

2) Readers & Scouts

Readers and/or scouts are hired by publishing companies to read foreign literature and recommend titles that the publisher may want to acquire and translate. Readers receive assignments, while scouts actively seek books for their publishers.

3) Literary Agents

Literary agents are the gateway to the major publishers, since most major publishing companies won’t consider unsolicited or “unagented” submissions. Literary agents pitch manuscripts to editors and negotiate book contracts for their authors. They take a commission for their services, usually around 10-15% of the author’s royalties.

Many literary agents will also represent a book to publishers overseas—sometimes working with a “co-agent” abroad or with a foreign rights agent (explained below). Agents generally take a higher commission for this service, usually around 15-20%.

4) Foreign Rights Agents

Agents who specialize in foreign rights representation are called foreign rights agents. They take a commission for their work (as above), but their expertise, contacts, and familiarity with the target markets put them in a unique position to effectively pitch and sell a book to a foreign publisher. This means they’re likely to help bring in greater revenue from foreign sales that more than make up for whatever the rights holder might lose on the commission.

5) Translators

Obviously, translators are responsible for translating the book into a new language. They may be hired independently, or commissioned by a publisher that has acquired the rights to the book.

6) Distributors

Distributors are the companies that sell the books to booksellers and libraries. Major publishing companies act as their own distributors, while smaller presses and self-published authors use distributors such as Ingram Content Group, Alibris, or Small Press Distribution in the USA; 66 Books or Bertrams in the UK; Diamond Comics or India Book House in India; Libri GmbH in Germany; Logista in Spain, etc.

7) eBook Platforms

eBooks are far more cost-effective and convenient than their dead-tree counterparts—especially considering there are virtually no production costs (beyond the initial formatting, editing, and design) or shipping costs. This makes them especially convenient for breaking in to a new language market overseas. The most well-known eBook platform in the USA is Amazon Kindle, but other digital booksellers are popular as well, such as Kobo, Apple iBooks, Google Play, etc. Not all platforms support all languages, and some are more popular in some countries than others, so make sure to do your research before selecting one.

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