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Monday
Jun252007

Conversation with the World

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Conversations about translation continue this month. Some have come to me by email, opening new doors.

Laura Hansen, owner of Bookin' It in Little Falls, Minn., wrote in response to last week's column about translated mysteries with a recommendation: "I might add Dog Day by Alicia Gimenez-Bartlett (trans. by Nick Caistor), set in Barcelona, as one I enjoyed and recommend."

She shared what we'd call a "cool idea of the day" here at Shelf Awareness: During the past two summers, Bookin' It offered "a spin-off book club from the Reading the World list; the first year reading three novels and the second summer three travel memoirs. We took this summer off, but after reading the article I wish we had done mysteries in translation for this year. Maybe next summer!"

Hansen added that the world reading group "was lovely because we were able to meet away from the store, at my home on the river and a member's cabin at the lake. It attracted about half of our regular contemporary fiction book club regulars. One book I wanted to include in the first year of the world book club was Orhan Pamuk's Snow, but it wasn't out in paperback at the time. I think it is stunning."

Chad Post, one of the founders of Reading the World (and currently developing Open Letter Press at the University of Rochester) informed us he will soon be "launching a site dedicated to international lit called Three Percent. We work very closely with students from the developing literary translation program, giving them internships, helping them to do sample translations for the web, etc. Our focus is on 20th and 21st century international literature from around the world. Cosmopolitan literature, books that stimulate and provoke readers by doing something unusual and interesting. Books that will last. Known authors like Dubravka Ugresic, and new voices that should be known."

Jaime Starling of Stone Bridge Press confessed that our reference to translators' names vanishing from book covers "made me check the covers of our own translated mystery novels (Tokyo Zodiac Murders and crime novel The Inugami Clan), and they actually do feature the translators' names. Then again, most of our translated books do."

Rebecca Passick of Milet Publishing drew our attention to a Milet reference title, Outside In: Children’s Literature in Translation, edited by Deborah Hallford and Edgardo Zaghini.

So much that is good about the book business involves such conversations, and when I think about that word in connection with the Reading the World, I remember a man named Charles Tuttle and a brief conversation I had with him a couple of decades ago.

Tuttle, who died in 1993, was a native of Rutland, Vt., a small city where I lived for many years. He had served as an American soldier in Tokyo after World War II, and fell in love with Japanese arts and culture. In 1948, he established Tuttle Publishing to introduce this world to American readers. In 1971, he was named Publisher of the Year by the Association of American Publishers, and was awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by the Emperor of Japan in 1983.

It's not an exaggeration to say that I began reading the world in the 1970s because of Charles Tuttle. A significant part of my introduction to translated work came from a small bookstore Tuttle Publishing had in its Rutland office. It was there that I purchased my first copies of The Izu Dancer & Other Stories by Yasunari Kawabata, Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima, Seven Japanese Tales by Junichiro Tanizaki and so many others.

I once met Mr. Tuttle quite by chance on a golf course. We played a few holes together before I found the courage to thank him for the new doors he had opened for me. It was a brief conversation about how I learned to read the world. I think he understood.

One of the books I bought from Tuttle Publishing back then was Zen Art for Meditation by Stewart Holmes and Chimyo Horioka (1973). It rests on my desk as I write these words, open to page 90 and a Soseki haiku, translated by "Mrs. Yasuko Horioka":

    Butterfly! These words
    From my brush are not flowers,
    Only their shadows.

Read those shadows, too.

Friday
Jun152007

Translating Mysteries into Handselling Success

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, June 13, 2007

During Reading the World month, we should acknowledge a sector of the publishing world that has been quietly integrating translated works onto bookstore shelves and into readers' hands for several years.

As a bookseller, I've watched this happen, read some of the authors and talked with customers who've been reading the worlds of mystery and suspense without realizing that translation was an issue.

Recently, I executed a drive-by translation hit at the Northshire Bookstore, where I quickly nabbed--without even trying hard--Before the Frost by Henning Mankell (translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg), Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason (translated from Icelandic by Bernard Scudder), Shadow Family by Miyuki Miyabe (translated from Japanese by Juliet Winters Carpenter), Have Mercy On Us All by Fred Vargas (translated from French by David Bellos), The Patience of the Spider by Andrea Camilleri (translated from Italian by Stephen Sartarelli) and a new edition of The Hotel Majestic by Georges Simenon (translated from French by David Watson).

Many of these books are on displays or feature staff recommend tags. In other words, they are selling.

Is it a mystery that translated suspense novels seem to have found a niche? An investigation seemed to be called for, so I brought in two of the best mystery handsellers I know for questioning--Northshire Bookstore's Louise Jones and Sarah Knight.

Like any great detective fiction team, they chose to respond as partners:

Do literary fiction publishers have something to learn from the way mystery publishers have marketed translated works? I realize some houses do both, but does one hand know what the other is doing?

"Mystery readers are interested in the work itself--characters, plot, locale. They read mysteries for entertainment, provocation, and to learn something new--whether it's a quirky plot, the background, the sleuth's day job, or a different landscape--so they're eager to read novels set in other countries. Perhaps it makes them more exotic. Do our mystery readers care that they are in translation? We've never had anyone comment on this. The only difficulty is with a few clumsily written mysteries and that might have been because of the bad translator."

When you handsell translated mysteries, does the word "translated" enter the conversation?

"No. We may say they are set in a foreign country--for instance, an Icelandic mystery by the author of Jar City--but we discuss the quality of the book. We assume they know it's a translation, but it doesn't seem to be important. Sometimes a customer wants us to order the book in its original language. For Greek classics, yes, the translator is important."

Are the foreign settings and characters in mystery fiction actually a draw for readers rather than a problem to be solved for publishing folks, as seems to be the case for literary fiction?

"Customers who travel like to read mysteries set in the countries they have visited. Many of our customers find the foreign mysteries interesting because the political, social and cultural backgrounds are so different; for instance, those set in China and Japan. On the other hand, we have many customers who are emphatic that they want stories set in the U.S. or in Great Britain, but it isn't a problem; it's personal taste."

Do you think fiction readers associate "translation" with "literary" and would prefer something they feel might be more accessible?

"They may feel that if the publisher went to the trouble of having a book translated, then it is a high quality, or 'literary,' novel. And it often is. Also, most of the mysteries in translation that we carry--and are popular with our customers--are in trade size and are published by 'literary' publishers: Vintage, Soho (they were early with translated mysteries), Harcourt, Picador (Holt), Grove, Penguin, Vertical, and also St. Martin's and Delta (Bantam). Some are from special mystery book divisions and some aren't. Referring to your first question, maybe the different divisions don't talk and each doesn't know what the other is publishing. Stranger things have happened."

A clue worth noting for future reference is that not one of the books I picked up lists the translator's name on the cover. As a rule, translators have been relegated to the title page, though even this is subject to change. The advance readers edition of Javier Sierra's upcoming suspense novel, The Lady in Blue, lists the translator (James Graham, for those of you keeping score at home) only on the copyright page.

What does all this mean? The investigation continues next week.

Tuesday
Jun122007

Turning Pages to Let the World In

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, June 6, 2007

We're Reading the World this month. You should know that. Maybe you do. During June, this column will focus on translated work from a variety of perspectives. I won't preach because, even though I try to make a place in my reading life for translated work, I could read more than I do.

Perhaps the best place to start would be the beginning, June 1, when I attended BEA's "Publishing Literary Translations: Reading the World Update." Moderated by Chad Post of Dalkey Archive Press, the panel included Esther Allen, executive director, Center for Literary Translation, Columbia University; Steve Wasserman, agent with Fish & Richardson and former editor of the LA Times Book Review; Barbara Epler, editor-in-chief, New Directions; and Karl Pohrt, owner, Shaman Drum Books, Ann Arbor, Mich.

Esther Allen cited the "absolutely massive quantities of export and very little import" of books in the U.S. as both startling and deeply problematic. She said that "only 20% of the world speaks English," yet "exporting books in English is a $3 billion industry, while translating books into English is viewed as not as important."

Steve Wasserman said, "I don't speak another language, so I'm in so much debt to translators." But he also expressed concern about the minimal attention being paid to translation, adding that "globalization is being driven by a provincial population. I sometimes think that no book in English, however mediocre, goes unpublished in America. We exist as a nation given wholly to our own navel-gazing."

He told a story from his tenure at the Los Angeles Times. He had chosen to run a feature about the Penguin Classics edition of the poetry of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, but some resistance to the idea caused doubts. When he took a lunch break, his waiter, a man who'd been educated in Mexico, noticed the book's cover and began speaking enthusiastically about her work and reciting lines from memory. Wasserman's decision was made in that dining room.

"Sometimes," he said, "your readers are ahead of your minders."

Wasserman asked Barbara Epler to recall an example of an unknown foreign author who achieved success here. She mentioned W.G. Sebald and Rings of Saturn. "When I received the translation, it was remarkable," she said, adding that one of the first manuscript readers had cautioned, "I wouldn't advise you to publish this book because it's too intellectual for Americans."

Generally, however, initial readings were positive, and a key ingredient turned out to be sending an early copy to Susan Sontag, who did some passionate handselling of her own, calling book review editors and anyone who might help the cause.

Case by case, author by author, and book by book, the possibilities exist, but how does a publisher like New Directions survive and sometimes thrive when so many other houses resist translated work?

"Because we're so small and because we've been doing it for so many years, we think it's possible," said Epler. "I don't think many editors can risk publishing a book that sells only 500 copies. You know you're taking a loss. You're taking risks. An editor is at risk with an American book, so they're at twice the risk with a foreign author. And some of the chain stores are really allergic to translations."

On the other hand, "It's the land of opportunity if you have the kind of publishing house that has the patience," she said.

New Directions is one of 10 publishers (and numerous bookstores) participating in Reading the World. Karl Pohrt hopes the initiative will continue to grow. "We'd like to be able to bring more publishers into the program," he said. "And maybe do a Reading the World for young people." During BEA, he formally asked the ABA board of directors to consider partnering with Reading the World.

"I prefer to use the term world literature over translation," said Pohrt, who also addressed the common objection that reading translated work is more difficult and tends to put American readers off. He pointed out that genre readers approach such challenges enthusiastically and drive a profitable segment of the book market: "I think about science fiction, for example. People are often dropped into a world where it takes a hundred pages to figure out what's going on."

Ultimately, the bookseller in him saw the best solution: "I've been selling books for 30 years and I still believe that you sell them one book at a time."--

Wednesday
May232007

Hard Lessons, New Hope for Aliens & Alibis

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, May 23, 2007

On December 31, 2006, Deb Andolino and Gary McCammon closed the doors of Aliens & Alibis Books. While her faith in bookselling remains strong as she works to build an online business, Andolino is frank about why faith alone wasn't enough.

She says the strengths of her bricks-and-mortar operation included appearance, great handselling and a carefully selected inventory. She tried to stock "as many titles as we could from the smaller presses and highlight some of the midlist authors from the major presses. Our customers liked our ability to recommend new authors based on what the customer had read before. The store looked good. We used oak bookcases and had a couple of comfortable recliners. We tried not to use the bottom shelf of the bookcases so customers didn't have to sit on the floor to see what books we had there."

She admits, however, that lack of business acumen proved to be a major liability: "We should have gone to some classes to learn more about inventories, budgets, etc. Unfortunately, a love of books is not enough; you also have to have a solid grounding in finance. I wish I knew then what I know now, which is the cry of any failed business person."

Andolino regrets "not listening to my 'inner voice.' That little voice kept telling me we were in trouble, but I ignored it for a long time. I told myself that we were so good we couldn't fail. And arrogance was a factor because we were the only store of its kind in the Southeast. I listen in my mind to some of the things I said and shudder."

She advises anyone planning to open a bookstore to "get the best grounding you can in business and finance if you don't have it already. Plan to have at least three times what you currently have in savings to tide you over the rough times."

Despite her rocky ride, Andolino's optimism for the bookselling life is undiminished: "If you can, go ahead and do it. So many people say, 'I've always wanted to open a bookstore but . . . .' Gary and I can say, 'When we opened our bookstore . . .' and remember all the people we met--customers and authors. The Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA) is especially supportive, as are the science fiction booksellers."

Andolino hopes that over time she can establish a strong bookseller's presence online: "We haven't had a large number of buyers yet, but the ones who do buy are either getting the collectibles or new books. I think the new book buyers are not close to an independent mystery or science fiction dealer. There aren't a lot of us out there either as regular stores or Internet stores."

To attract that targeted readership, "Web Maven" Kim Malo says she designed the Aliens & Alibis website so that "maximum accessibility" takes precedence "over pretty but often annoying bells and whistles. I'm not a big fan of a lot of Flash, JavaScript, etc. Too many of those sites look like a web designer trying to justify their fee rather than something to benefit the person browsing the site. I have a high speed connection and I still sit there tapping my fingers as some sites' dozens of images load, having to wait too long just so I can navigate their site . . . or, as is often the case, not waiting."

Malo's design goal for Aliens & Alibis was to create a site that was "clean and accessible, not requiring too many clicks to find things. I've added a bunch of appropriate terms in the metaheaders to get the site picked up on searches. Listing the books on the pages where they are crawlable--particularly rare collectibles--is a way of getting people to the site through their searches for books and authors."

Andolino believes that her bookstore can have a successful future online. "I would like for Aliens & Alibis to become known for good quality, collectible books," she says. "I also would like our newsletter to be considered a good source for new and midlist authors to talk about their books. They need all the publicity that they can get. Beyond that, we are just taking things as they come. Who knows what technology will show up in the next few years that might change our direction? I've learned it's not wise to set anything in stone."--

Thursday
May172007

Bookstore Moves from Bricks to Bytes

Shelf Awareness: Wednesday, May 16

The story of Aliens & Alibis Books in Columbia, S.C., is equal parts cautionary tale and tribute to entrepreneurial spirit, spiced with a generous dose of passionate bookselling.

The short version of the story goes something like this: In May of 2005, Deb Andolino and Gary McCammon opened Aliens & Alibis. "It was the result of my son's and my passion for reading," said Andolino, "and the frustration at not being able to find many books by the authors we like to read. Gary is the science fiction and fantasy guru and I am an avid reader of mysteries with some fantasy thrown in."

Their shop was located in a northeast Columbia shopping mall that "the owners were planning to bring back to life. Unfortunately their CPR for the mall didn't work."

A year later, the bookstore moved to a main road in southeast Columbia. There was more traffic, but it sped by at 60 mph. "Since we were set back from the road, it was difficult to see us at that speed," said Andolino. By the end of the year, "we weren't even coming close to breaking even." They closed last December.

That's the short story, but it is not the end.

Aliens & Alibis Books is still in business online, an ever-evolving venture and adventure for Andolino.

"After we closed the doors, we decided to keep our website active," she said. "We currently send out a newsletter every two or three weeks, listing new books and allowing a forum for new authors to talk about their books. We've had very good feedback about that. We also have an online inventory that includes collectible mysteries, such as early Perry Mason, Nero Wolfe, Dell Mapbacks and those wonderful Gothics--the ones with the pictures of the terrified woman standing in front of a mysterious mansion. Business is a little slow but is building--and our expenses are a lot less."

Her initial attempt at a website debuted in May 2005. "At first I thought that I would be able to create a website," said Andolino, who had spent more than 20 years as a computer programmer. "I neglected to remember that there is a big difference between a large, mainframe computer and PCs."

Fortunately, she found her ideal "Web Maven" in Kim Malo: "We were incredibly lucky to find Kim, who also does the web site for CrimeThruTime," said Andolino.

According to Malo, "Deb had posted to the CTT list about looking to get some pages online back in May 2005 and I volunteered to help. We had a basic website up about two weeks later. Just some pages of photographs of the cats, contact info and some links--basically the online equivalent of a birth announcement paired with a business card."

Inventory/shopping cart options were added later. Malo said the first step "was creating tables of inventory that were browsable, but also adding a site search function--no actual shopping cart yet, but instructions and a form to let people e-mail to buy. That got the bookstore up so it might appear on Google searches and to give people an idea of what Deb had, while allowing us breathing space to work out details about shopping cart (which one, how to handle shipping costs, etc). That was around January 2006."

A PayPal shopping cart and Constant Contact newsletters were integrated a few months later. "Constant Contact allows me to monitor whether the newsletter is being read," said Andolino. "I periodically post a request to email lists such as CrimeThruTime and DorothyL to remind authors to send me information to put in the newsletter. We usually get a few additional contacts at that time. Most of my e-mails have the website URL at the end in a .sig file--just to remind people that we're still around."

What is life like as an online bookseller? "I can sell books in my pajamas," Andolino joked, but quickly added, "Unfortunately we are not selling enough for me to do it as a full-time job. There are those pesky things like mortgage payments, phone bills, etc., that need to be paid."

If the online bookstore is a part-time effort thus far, Andolino doesn't regret the road she has traveled to this point: "It was a rough ride, but we met some awesome authors and a lot of great customers. Gary and I agreed that we would do it again--even knowing the outcome."

Next week, we'll explore the bricks-and-mortar lessons learned and virtual strategies being applied at Aliens & Alibis.