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To Infinity and Beyond (or at least to India)

Business World

Long time readers of Dear Author know exactly what I mean when I say “geographical limitations.” In traditional “trade” publishing which is dominated by U.S. publishers (or U.S. arms of international companies), there are two primary types of contracts as it pertains to geographical rights. Usually an author will sell to the publisher “North American” rights or “World” rights. These geographic denominators indicate where the publisher can distribute a book.

North American means United States and Canada. If an author sells just her North American rights then individuals outside of US and Canada have no legitimate path to purchase the book except by importation of the US/Canada printed book.  If an author sells World Rights, the publisher has the right to distribute but often does not. Instead, the publisher re-sells those rights to another local publisher.

When these “subsidiary” rights are sold, they are sold in a bundle which includes the rights to translate and the right to sell the English language version in that region. Generally, the geographic territories are UK (which for some reason includes New Zealand and Australia), Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Japan, China, India, and the like. Each one of those geographic regions are separate so a book that has been licensed for sale in France may not be available in Spain and vice versa.

A publisher will often pay more if they can obtain World rights because of their ability to sell these into foreign publishing houses. And authors will often hold on to their foreign rights because they can achieve additional advances from foreign publishers for the territory and translation rights.

When digital books gained momentum in the mid 2000s, geographical rights became a hot button reader topic (here and here) because these books were one click away from being purchased if only the reader had a credit card with the right address or could somehow mask her IP address. These books were tantalizing fruits just out of reach what with message board forums, blogs, then twitter and Facebook exploding.

Geographic limitations were an anathema to readers all over. Many small digital publishers gained readers because of their international access. Harlequin has always been available worldwide as well. Enter self published authors. They, too, controlled access and more often than not would publish a book worldwide.

One caveat for both digital publishers and self published authors. The books were in English.

Now we have digital adoption leveling off in the US. Most analysts believe based on the flattening rate of adoption for the past two years as well as the lack of any big technological push (most of the tech world is looking toward wearables and home electronics) will result in a digital adoption percentage of around 40% of trade. (Note, this does not mean for individual authors or genres, the percentage isn’t going to be much more different.) I thought for sure it would end up being a higher digital ratio but for some reason there are a huge swath of casual readers (and power readers) who refuse the lure of digital books or, at least, prefer print books.

The next big expansion will be international territories and foreign language translations. Bella Andre stated this at a recent BEA panel. Courtney Milan is one of the first self published authors I know of who has self published her books in German. Not just in the territory of Germany, but in the German language.

Indie publishing in foreign languages is tough. First you have to find a reputable translator and if you don’t speak the language, how do you know if the translator is any good. Second, you’ll likely have to pay for proofing as well as formatting in that other language.  The cost of that can be four times what it would cost to produce an English version of the book.

If there is any place where I can see huge growth potential, it would be in the international author services market where translators, proofreaders, formatters, and distributors (like US based companies Smashwords and Direct to Digital). Harlequin (and now HarperCollins) as well as Random Penguin both own author service companies. But guess who else is exploring this? That’s right. Amazon.

Rumors are that Amazon is ramping up to explore native based language translations for self published authors. Authors won’t have to deal with the hassle of finding translators, proofreaders, and formatters. Instead, you’ll just check a box to indicate what countries you want to work with and presto, it will happen.

There’s a huge potential for digital growth in non English speaking markets. The question is who will become the anchor for digital first authors. Amazon or someone else?


Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She self publishes NA and contemporaries (and publishes with Berkley and Montlake) and spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com


  1. Mikaela
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 05:24:22

    After reading this post I am wondering if some of the Agents that offers digital platforms/ programs, will launch services to assist their authors with translations?

    Because as you say, there is a lot of potential in International markets. Personally, I think there is a large, untapped market for Urban Fantasy in Sweden. Sadly the publishers don’t seem to realize it.

  2. Kate Sherwood
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 05:56:24

    One of the big reasons I send a lot of my books to Dreamspinner instead of self-publishing them is that DSP has a fairly active translation program – I have books in French, Spanish, Italian, and German, and sales have been quite good! Not as good as the original English, so far, but good.

    If there was an easier way to get self-published work translated, I’d definitely look into it. I think the market is there, at least in the m/m niche. It’s just a question of reaching it.

  3. Lin
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 08:07:04

    Interesting topic.

    I am a book translator (Dutch) for Harlequin, but also several historical romances. I’ve often read a book and thought that there would definitely be a market for it here and thought about contacting the author to obtain Dutch language rights. But as a translator l lack expertise in marketing books and the investment in both time and money would be too high. Since the Dutch language market isn’t very large, earning back that investment is no guarantee. For a freelance-translator like myself the financial risk would be too high.
    Amazon’s initiative could be interesting, especially if they branch out to Holland, but since translators are often at the bottom of the foodchain, I’m not holding my breath.

  4. Darlynne
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 09:54:26

    New Zealand and Australia are included in UK publishing because they’re part of the Commonwealth, at least that’s my understanding. Are the rest of the 53 Commonwealth countries automatically included, I wonder?

    Amazon, I wish I could quit you–or at least spend my money in more places–but when you insist on being innovative and forward thinking like this, the chains that bind me to you only grow stronger.

  5. Jane
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 09:57:57

    @Lin – can you tell us more? How did you become a translator? What do you find to be the biggest challenges?

  6. Nadia Lee
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 10:48:16

    I’m going to try Japanese translation. Of course I also need to figure out how to format for it (horizontal or vertical?), but I’m very excited about it. :)

  7. Carolyn Jewel
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 13:17:46

    There are nuances of foreign language translations that make this ripe for digital disruption for the Big 5. I think the disruption is already underway, but that it won’t happen quite as fast as the disruption of digital publishing in general.

    1. Many of the translations into other languages abridge the books significantly.
    2. In Romance, as I have found to my enormous dismay, the translations being done are flat out bad.
    3. There are now companies out there that have been started specifically for translations contracted by authors, and those translations are of the entire book.
    4. If some of the talk is true, the current business practices of companies that translate Romance are far from fair to the translator or the author.

    So. Consider these points. And consider what will happen to the current foreign translation market as authors who control their foreign rights begin to put out books that faithfully and fully translate the story.

    My prediction is this: as readers encounter these better quality translations, they will be increasingly dissatisfied with what the Big 5 is providing and self-published translations will become increasingly profitable.

    Further, as good translators encounter environments in which they are paid and treated in a more equitable manner, the self-published market will become more robust. This is not to say there aren’t obstacles to overcome. An excellent and full translation is expensive, and that is a barrier for those who do not have sufficient capital to invest. But it’s an investment worth making.

    Some anecdotes:
    2-3 years ago, I got an email from an Italian reader who told me that a book of mine had been translated into Italian and that readers were complaining that the book made no sense and that the translation was terrible. The translation had been made without my permission by one of the Big 5. There was no contract. The company made it right with me financially and returned the rights as well, but the damage was done with respect to the readers who BLAMED ME for writing a terrible book. I read enough French to make out what Italian readers were saying on the two blogs my Italian reader directed me to.

    I then examined some of my other translated works, those mostly in Italian and French, since those are languages where I have a hope of a tiny amount of understanding. And I was not encouraged.

    What I learned after asking around with people who have worked in the translation business was that these translations are routinely massacred. We have this image — or at least I did — of translators lovingly and accurately translating our books. In Romance, this is not true. The German translation of one of my historicals went up on Amazon for sale with no cover and no description. Finally, a cover appeared, and it’s a picture of the paperback that someone took — you can see the surface the paperback was on.

    Authors have this idea that foreign rights are “free money” in that, you sell the rights and see a chunk of change, and then, some time later, even some royalties. We have, by and large, zero insight into how the translation is done or how well the book is marketed.

    I am wary of Amazon providing translation services. I once bought an Amazon Crossings book of a German book translated into English and there were all sorts of language errors. Obviously, one bad experience does not mean they are all but, but I worry that authors will still lack the necessary control over quality, which is not easy for languages we don’t speak.

    Translations are an art. The people doing the translations deserve appropriate compensation for their work, and I distrust any system that hopes to provide cheap translations because how do you do that except by paying the translator less? That’s not conducive to good translations.

    I have now done two translations of my own into German using one of the new companies created in response to the demand from self-published authors. As money permits, I will do more of them.

  8. Ros
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 13:30:33

    @Darlynne: I don’t think it’s anything to do with the Commonwealth – Canada is a Commonwealth country, but they come under North America. I think it’s simply because Australia and NZ are English-speaking markets. Once you’ve separated out the US and Canada, that leaves the UK (and Ireland, I think), Australia and NZ as major places to sell English books, at least traditionally.

  9. Lindsay
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 14:41:03

    Canada comes under NA, but a lot of the time NA is actually US-only — there have been a lot of cases of my trying to buy a book, only to be told “that book is not available in your country” or “a book has been removed from your cart due to geographical restrictions”. For gosh sakes, take my money! I actually have a US address and credit card on my Amazon account and spoof my IP (my husband missed US Netflix and Hulu when he moved here), but that’s just not an option for most Canucks. ARE loses so many sales from me because by the time I have jumped through all the hoops to check out, suddenly books are gone from my cart.

    Books translated to French are in high demand here, but I have a lot of trouble finding self-published authors both originally in French and translated to French. Kobo is sorta-helpful in searching by language, but their search engine really isn’t great. If I’m wanting to read in French I generally have to buy physical or hunt around for the author’s site to see if it’s available there.

    I’d like to know if Amazon does Parisian-French and Quebecois-French too, sort of like EU-Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. I work in a company that uses multiple dialects of French so email chains can get really bizarre to read, and meetings often involve swapping hearing Quebecois to Australian to Canadian to Parisian French. Mental gymnastics! Not to mention people commenting their code in multiple languages.

    I do a lot of work with localization of video games and it’s a similar situation there — if it’s a big company, we localize to seven or eight languages by default, but that’s hard enough with a lot of money and staff to throw at it. Indie games are in the same place of “how do I hire a translator, how do I make sure it stays true to what I’ve written, how do I afford this” and I’d love to see them have broader reach without having to be dialogue-free.

  10. library addict
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 15:48:50

    Somehow I picture any company mass translating books sticking the text in something like Google translate and the translated books ending up with a plot like that childhood game of telephone where eveything gets garbled. Unless the translator is a fan of the particular genre they aren’t going to lovingly translate the text. And I agree translation is an art or at least it should be.

  11. Lin
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 17:05:32

    I have no formal training as a translator, but I did live in the UK for a couple of years and I read and write a lot. Translating books differs a great deal from other translating work; you have to create a story in your native language (Dutch, in my case) that is enjoyable to read, but still respect the author’s original work.

    A couple of years ago I did a trial translation for Harlequin and a publisher of historical romances and that’s basically how I got this job.

    Category romance does have to be shortened to fit a certain number of pages, but in the books I’ve translated I never felt I violated the core of the story. The effort it takes to shorten a story varies per author; some authors tend to use (overly) long descriptions of what a room looks like, and these can easily be reduced to one or two paragraphs. Overly long and/or repetitive internal dialogue can usually be shortened to a couple of paragraphs as well. Whilst I can relate to an author not being overly impressed by seeing his or her story shortened, in my opinion it definitely doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make for an inferior reading experience.

    When I started out, translating sex scenes were quite difficult to translate, because it can easily become too clinical. As I’ve done more books, they do get easier and my list of synonyms for every imaginable body part has become quite extensive :-) I’m always on the lookout for continuity errors as well: even if they are in the original work, if they also end up in my translation, the mistake is mine.

    I do read a lot of contemporary and paranormal romance, but I cannot pick which books I would like to translate. So even while I am a fan of the genre, I sometimes have to translate a book that’s not to my particular taste. Obviously, I still have to deliver a good translation, but translating a book I like does make my job easier.

    As much as I love my job, if it weren’t for my husband providing the main income, I could never make a living out of translating romances. Translating mainstream fiction pays somewhat better, but not much. Ever since Fifty Shades there does seem to be an increasing demand in romance: Sylvia Day, Jennifer Probst have all been translated and published into Dutch, and I recently came across a Dutch translation of Bella Andre (with a regular publisher).

    Today I came across this post by The Creative Penn, which might be of interest to indie-authors considering venturing out to other language markets:

  12. Sunita
    Jun 15, 2014 @ 18:34:25

    This is such an interesting conversation. Thanks for the post, Jane, and to the commenters; I’m learning a lot.

    Some of my Indian relatives have done translating over the years (mostly non-fiction but some fiction), both from one Indian language to another and from one European language to another. In no cases has it paid particularly well, although they are very good and never lack for work if they want it.

    I heard a story about the translation of Piketty’s book into English. Apparently the translator is a very well known, highly sought after scholar, and the work had to be done in a short period of time (for a very long book). He was paid quite handsomely, but the reporter emphasized that this was unusual.

    I hope that the ability of authors and readers to connect across the world will provide more opportunities for good translators and enable them to be compensated the way they deserve to be. It’s a real skill, one that takes years of work to master at a high level.

  13. Janhavi
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 05:31:56

    This article and comments is really interesting. Amazon offering this kind of service should be fascinating to watch.

    I really do hate geographical restrictions- its hard for my mother and friends in India to access many ebooks. Though I have noticed that books by Penguin authors are usually available, I guess through Penguin India.

    Although most books are available in the USA, I still wish I could buy original ebook versions of British or other country books rather than American editions- I prefer the original dialect and slang.

  14. Lexxi
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 07:58:17

    I would love to have my books translated but I would have no way of knowing if the translations were any good until it was out there. And if they’re bad, it’s too late. I’ve heard of authors not realizing the translations were no good until reviews started coming in.

  15. Jill Sorenson
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 16:33:54

    Really interesting to hear other experiences from authors and translators! I’ve had some of my Harlequin category novels translated into other languages. Icelandic, Spanish and Italian I think. The Icelandic looks like a chapter sample book, much shorter than a 60k word novel. So I assume it was heavily abridged. Other language versions I’ve seen are full length. I read (and understood) most of the Spanish translation of Stranded with Her Ex. I thought it was beautifully done. I looked up some words to make sure, and yes. They are mine or close to mine. I have a lot of pride in this. It means a lot to me to have a Spanish translation available, esp because I’ve studied the language and written many Latino/a characters, including the heroine of that novel.

  16. Wahoo Suze
    Jun 16, 2014 @ 18:32:44

    there have been a lot of cases of my trying to buy a book, only to be told “that book is not available in your country” or “a book has been removed from your cart due to geographical restrictions”. … ARE loses so many sales from me because by the time I have jumped through all the hoops to check out, suddenly books are gone from my cart.

    Yeah, what’s up with this? I get the “geographical restrictions” message from ARE, but I can almost always buy the same book from Kobo, usually for more money. If it’s a geographical restriction, why doesn’t it apply to ALL retailers? That seems sketchy to me. And why isn’t Canada included in North American rights? Is Mexico, does anybody know?

    Regarding translations, I went to a panel at RT hosted by self-published authors who talked about translations. I don’t have my notes handy, but a bunch of them did talk about the Amazon service, and indicated that you have to be careful to a) get a competent, skilled translator and not a fraud like that South African “sign language” guy and b) pay attention about the laws in that country, as some of them require that the translators receive royalties for their work. More fair for the translators, more complicated for the self-published author.

  17. Flora
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 07:27:33

    I find it infuriating that Amazon insisted I registered with the US site, not the UK site when trying to buy ebooks in Australia. Amazon UK won’t allow us to register even though the geographical restrictions affect antipodeans in the US and theoretically should not in the UK.

    Now we have Amazon Australia which just means we get to click through several more pages before being denied access.

  18. Jane
    Jun 17, 2014 @ 07:32:37

    The comments here have been so illuminating. Thank you for sharing everyone (and keep educating us). It’s been really fascinating.

  19. Bona
    Jun 20, 2014 @ 16:45:40

    I guess finding a good translator can be something that worries authors that try to self-publish their books in a foreign language. But selling your rights to a foreign publisher does not guarantee you a good quality translation.
    I think Carolyne Jewell says: ‘In Romance, as I have found to my enormous dismay, the translations being done are flat out bad.’ As I read both in English and in Spanish, I do agree. That happens. Many Times.
    But some authors have wonderful translators. For instance, many Kinsale books have been translated by a woman that has also translated Henry James, D. H. Lawrence and Edith Wharton and she is just amazing. With a very high literary quality.
    Generally speaking, Harlequin uses very correct translators for the Spanish books, and they translate a lot of their production.
    On the opposite side, Susan Elizabeth Phillips is usually translated by a couple of women that really lack culture and sense of humour and do not have the ear for the author. She sounds so different to the original! And with Lisa Kleypas, well it’s a hit or miss. When they use the same pair that translates SEP… Better look for the original.
    Recently I’ve read a review about the translation of a ‘Moonlight in the Morning’ by Jude Deveraux and it was simply awful.
    But what I haven’t seen is that the books are ‘abridged’. Badly written in Spanish, yes. But not abridged as far as I know.
    To sum it up – not all foreign publishers pay for good translators, not even to good authors. So if they want to go self-publishing, they have the same chances of finding good translators as any publishing house.

  20. Lin
    Jun 22, 2014 @ 03:49:33

    It’s not a given that someone who translates Henry James will also be capable of translating romance novels. On the contrary, I would say. There is a vast difference between writing literary and commercial fiction, the same goes for translating.

    And I don’t like the fact that a bad review of a translation gets blamed solely on the translator. Basically, you can only do that if the reviewer has read both the original work and the translated version and had a good working knowledge of both language and culture.

    That ‘s not to say I don’t acknowledge the fact that some translations are badly done, but if the original work wasn’ t that good to start off with, there’s only so much we can do.

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