The Up and Down of Ebooks and the Future of Literature in Translation

A couple days ago, the Frisch & Co. Electronic Books blog ran a long piece about “Why I Publish Ebooks, or the Future of Literary Translation“: 

frisch_headIn it, E.J. Van Lanen — I believe it’s E.J. Van Lanen blogging here — explains his decision to run an e-book only, translation-focused publishing house. There are upsides:

[I]f you can manage to keep your other up-front costs low — rights, translation, discovery — or move them to royalties as well, you can publish books very inexpensively (again, assuming publishing fairies). Since your initial costs are low, you can afford to publish whichever books you like, without needing to have worry about subsidies — instead of being a necessity, grants become very nice, you don’t need to rely on them to make your publishing program work. You can distribute your books world-wide, increasing your potential audience beyond the US and the UK; your books would be available to anyone who can read English.

But there are downsides, too:

[A] portion of $3 per book is not a big number, so it’s necessary to be, or to remain, a relatively small publisher; there are no established marketing methods—like sending out physical review copies, for example — and your readers are in many, many more places, meaning you have to make a bigger effort to find them; the size of the market for ebooks of translated literature is a complete unknown (though I imagine it to be a growing one); it’s uncertain how reviewers will treat the books; etc.

Arabic literature (in translation), like other literatures in translation, already has a major publicity problem. When people shout from the hilltops that there’s very little Arabic literature in English translation — well, there is, actually, a decent amount of literature available. But who knows about it? Who sees it?

This might be compounded by ebooks (how does anyone find out about anything if it’s not Dan Brown or Harry Potter?), but the idea of making books available to a global audience of English-language readers certainly appeals. On a given day, ArabLit readers are coming from the US, UK, Egypt, UAE, Italy (yes, lots of Italians), Canada, Germany, Lebanon, France, India, the KSA, Morocco, Australia, Jordan, the Philippines, Tunisia, Sweden, the Netherlands, Israel, and Spain — that’s our top 20. (Qatar, Turkey, and Algeria, you almost made it.) If there are ArabLit readers in all those countries, surely there could be readers for new fiction in all those places, too.

I’m still a holdout in that I don’t physically love the experience of reading ebooks, but I’m nonetheless committed to walking on, seeing what possibilities and pitfalls lurk around the corner.

Thanks to translator Alex Zucker for sharing the post.