Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Guten Tag! My trip with the German Book Office.

Riky Stock holding a 
very special German cheese.
Back in April, Riky Stock, director of the German Book Office in New York reached out to me with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—to join a group of children’s book editors on a trip to Frankfurt and Hamburg to meet with German publishers and agents.  The German Book Office hosts this annual trip for editors to experience the wonders of beer, brats, and books in hopes of building a bridge between our two countries, for both American books that could succeed in Germany and vice versa.

My fellow editors for this year’s trip included Stacey Barney from Putnam/Penguin (and one of the founders of CBC Diversity!), Sheila Barry from Groundwood Books in Canada, Grace Maccarone from Holiday House, Ben Rosenthal from Enslow, and Reka Simonsen from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Our group had a great vibe, and by the end of the trip, we had our fair share of inside jokes and insightful discussion about books and, in particular, why foreign translations are so difficult for the North American market.
YA bookshelf at 
Thalia Bookstore

The CBC Diversity Initiative is committed to bringing diverse experiences to our book market, and this includes stories told from a non-American point of view. After learning some eye-opening numbers about the German book market, it’s evident that while the American perspective is pervasive worldwide, we in turn are reluctant to embrace stories from other cultures.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • 24.8% of all new fiction titles in Germany are translations—and more than 70% of those are books from the US and the UK. Meanwhile, in the US, only 3% of all new titles are translations.
  • The biggest bestselling series in Germany mirror the American market:
    • Harry Potter
    • Twilight
    • Hunger Games
  • YA and children’s translations into German have almost doubled in the last five years.
  • In 2011, a total of 46 German translations were published in the U.S.

The Tolino
at Thalia Bookstore
America’s influence on the German book market is very strong. Trailing the US trends by about a year or two, it has followed the growth of YA to the latest in genre fiction. Even the German bookstores echo the American style.  We visited Thalia, one of the largest book chains in Germany, and it was a mirror image of Barnes & Noble, from the massive YA section to the pervasive in-store promotions of their new e-reading device, the Tolino, (an e-book platform and device created by four major German retailers to compete with the Amazon Kindle).  And the market is also following the U.S., first with the book chains replacing the indie stores, followed by the downtrend of the retail book market as Amazon’s market share grows.

Patrick McDonnell's
The Monster's Monster,
in progress at Aladin Verlag.
The dearth of international translations in the U.S. children’s book market can be attributed to many reasons. First, there’s the added cost of hiring a translator. Often the foreign publisher is unable to take on the risk of translating an entire book for the American editor to consider, which makes it difficult for us to judge a book for acquisition. In turn, the U.S. publisher needs to take into consideration the added cost of hiring a translator if we do want to bring the book to our list. Also, there’s the ever-growing number of aspiring children’s and YA authors in the US—we’re already inundated with submissions, so seeking more projects to consider from foreign publishers adds to our pile and to our work hours.

There are solutions for these challenges though, if we look for them. For translation expenses, the German Book Office offers information on where US publishers can submit applications for a translation grant.

Main lobby of Thalia
Further, while the added costs can be difficult for smaller publishers to take on, larger, corporately owned houses should be able shoulder the added cost of a translator ($10,000 - $15,000). Yet from my editor group, only the small, family-owned publishers (Groundwood, Enslow, and Holiday House) had recently bought German translations.

As for submissions, if there’s a will, there’s a way. One example comes from Alvina Ling, who was being about bringing books from Taiwan to the Little, Brown list. She sought out Jimmy Liao, a celebrated Taiwanese picture book author and illustrator, and published three translations in the US: The Sound of Colors, The Blue Stone, and When the Moon Forgot.

The last obstacle we can overcome is the perceived lack of interest in other
Cornelia Funke:
US/German success story
countries and cultures.  Children are more interested in a good story than an exact reflection of their own lives and experiences. Why else is fantasy so popular?  We don’t ride bears or time travel, yet children love stories that have these unique points of view, and that should apply to international stories as well. Let’s not forget that Pippi Longstocking was originally published in Swedish, and German author Cornelia Funke is a prime example of an author who was able to make it onto the New York Times bestseller list.

Other Takeaways?

I wish the German market could be more like us because… 
  • The German school and library market is much smaller, due to lack of funding. Fifty percent of print sales are through the retail market, and literary awards are less influential.
I wish the US market could be more like theirs because… 
  • Their market has a fixed book price, protected by law. Only publishers can approve book discounts. This is one reason why books are seen as collectible objects and people are proud to own them—always good in my book!

1 comment:

  1. WOW. We really do need to get over the perceived lack of interest in each other; I find that most translated books I read are a fab addition to our American bookshelves.

    Great report - I can only hope for more translations to wing their way across the water.