What Do Publishers Want (from Books in Translation)?

At this year’s London Book Fair, Bloomsbury’s Bill Swainson moderated a panel of Jane Lawson (Transworld), Laura Barber (Granta), and Chad Post (Open Letter Books) on “What Publishers Want”:

Briefly, in their five-minute talks, Transworld’s Jane Lawson — the most commercially minded of the three — said that she’s always looking for “a platform.”

“Is there a voice, is there a story, are there characters, and most importantly, is there a pitch? If I were to explain this book in one minute, will I have persuaded that person to read this book?” Lawson said. “So there always has to be something a bit quirky and a bit different.”

Lawson added that they’re also interested in “rights income,” which means they’re looking for “authors published in their own language but not published anywhere else in the world, especially not in America.”

Unsurprisingly, she said, “I’ll be looking for authors who perhaps speak English. We’re all very publicity-driven.” So: “If we can bring an author over to the UK, and if they can enchant an audience, and blog, and write pieces for the Guardian and the Times and wherever, we’ve got ourselves a platform.”

She said they also “love books that are banned.”

Laura Barber, of Granta, said she was “looking for the kind of writing that might be read in five or six or seven years time.”

Barber said she’d probably already heard 30 or 40 books in translation described to her in the first few days of the fair, and that she had to keep in mind what a colleague once told her, that, “You publish things four times, not once.” You must “publish” the work first to yourself, then to your colleagues, then to the sales team, then to the outside world. “Each time, the story has got to be very strong.”

Barber said that she also publishes “books that are not best-sellers, but are great literature that need to be published.”

Chad Post, of Open Letter Books, was the least commercially minded, as he said Open Letter has a more educational mission, giving  access to books that readers wouldn’t otherwise have to “if left up to market forces.”

“We are genuinely looking for books that are unlike American writers in many ways.”

They went on to discuss more, and answer questions from the audience: The whole 50-minute session is above.