Small publisher, book translation, no royalties. Would you do it if this was your first book trans?
Thread poster: Claudia Vale

Claudia Vale  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
French to English
+ ...
Mar 12, 2008

Hi everyone. I was recently offered a book translation by a very small, new publisher (currently just one person) and we're at the contract negotiation stage. While this is my third year as a translator, this is the first time I have translated a whole book and this is the first time they have commissioned a translation project. When I asked for a contract they suggested I send one myself. I consulted the Society of Authors and used their very good model publisher/translator contract.
The rate I was offered was pretty low compared to my usual work but I accepted the job on the basis that a) this is the kind of work I want to get into and it's a fascinating project and b) I was within my rights to ask for royalties - a quarter of the 7.5% paperback royalties (the other 3/4 for the author).
I have now received a message from the publisher to say that as the publishing company is so small, they are not paying the author any royalties and so they could not possibly pay me royalties either. The most I would be offered would be ownership of the translation copyright and I would have my name on the book.
Needless to say, I'm pretty disappointed because I would love to do this job. If this was your first book translation would you do it? The job is approximately 57500 words.


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Clare Barnes  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 01:57
Swedish to English
+ ...
I have done... Mar 12, 2008

My first book translation was almost exactly the same amount of text as the one you've accepted. I also worked at a lower than normal rate and did not get any royalties from the publisher. The royalties weren't a big issue for me as I think I got much more out of the project than purely financial gains - it has led to better paid repeat work and gave me a fascinating look at the world of publishing.

It is your choice, but you need to weigh up pros and cons... besides, if the book doesn't sell well there may not really be any royalties to speak of...

Best,

Clare


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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 00:57
Dutch to English
+ ...
Under-capitalised Mar 12, 2008

First a low rate (which you only accepted because you thought there would be royalties), then no royalties (for what those would have been worth), next you'll be hearing the publisher is so small it can't pay at all.

If the publisher doesn't have enough start-up capital to properly finance even the first project, why stick your neck out?

The job will probably take you out the market for a good month - unless you've been offered a flexible deadline to make up for the paltry rate - and there are already worrying concerns about the publisher's solvency. That's surely going to worry you throughout?

It's not just the potential loss of this project's income - what are you going to do if your other regular clients get fed up, go elsewhere and find someone else?

Your first book will come along if that's what you're set on doing, and yes, the rates are normally a bit lower, but like with any other project you have to wait for those that don't present an unnecessary credit risk. This publisher sounds under-capitalised from the outset. Not a good sign.

[Edited at 2008-03-12 16:25]


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Claudia Vale  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Wow! Two completely different points of view there. ;o) Mar 12, 2008

You both make a lot of sense to me. I suppose it's the uncertainty of knowing when another offer like this is going to come along. I do have regulars but not in the field I want to get into, i.e. literary translation. It's quite a gamble and as always, a question of trust and I certainly don't want to get stung.

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Lawyer-Linguist  Identity Verified
Portugal
Local time: 00:57
Dutch to English
+ ...
Perhaps ... Mar 12, 2008

... the decisive factor is that this publisher is starting up.

Maybe Clare's first experience in book translation was with an established (or more established) publisher?

It's their apparent lack of start-up capital that I regard worrying.

Then again, you should also take into account that I'm a lawyer and so naturally a pessimist, in the sense of always looking for the catch.

Plus I don't have a creative bone in my body, so I don't feel the same passion you obviously do about literary translation.

My days are spent tied up with contracts, legislation, pleadings, judgments and academic texts, which to the untrained eye seem like nothing more than splitting hairs at times. Often tiring, but rewarding in its own way.

Still, nothing like the thrill of something new. I'd love to try literary translation, but its simply beyond me.

PS: Just read Clare's post. I'd definitely at least negotiate what she mentions in that.

[Edited at 2008-03-12 16:48]


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Clare Barnes  Identity Verified
Sweden
Local time: 01:57
Swedish to English
+ ...
more thoughts... Mar 12, 2008

Debs makes very sensible points in her post. When I worked on "my" book I got some up front payment and a generous deadline so that I could continue to work half time with my regular clients as well - are you in a position to negotiate something similar? I know that the publisher I worked with prioritised paying subcontractors over making money themselves (amazingly enough!). Still, the world of literary translation pays poorly compared to "commercial" translation, which you will have to take into consideration...

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Carlos Vergara  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:57
English to Spanish
+ ...
Money may not be the most important issue Mar 12, 2008

I agree with Clare Barnes completely. I have only done a partial translation of a small book and got paid a very samll amount of money, no royalties, but my name appears in the book. This last point was more important for me since it has some value in academics, where I work most of my time.

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Claudia Vale  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Negotiations Mar 12, 2008

I've already negotiated an up-front payment but have been told the deadline is fairly fixed. I would rather just concentrate on this one job anyway, rather than trying to squeeze other jobs in at the same time. At this rate though, I'll have to ask for an extension to the deadline because I haven't been sent the book yet and I based my work schedule calculations on the assumption that I would have started by now.

I've been advised by a publisher acquaintance that the most important thing to negotiate is copyright and I'm told that will be fine.

I appreciate the lawyer's point of view too as I need to hear all the arguments before making up my mind - the negative ones too!


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Alison Anderson  Identity Verified
Switzerland
Local time: 01:57
French to English
Do it in your own time... Mar 12, 2008

Claudia, I would take this project on for the experience and the possible leads to other things it might give ONLY if you can negotiate a long deadline with the publisher that will allow you to continue working regularly and do this in your spare time. The first literary translation I ever did was in the end not accepted because someone else had already done it, so while I was disappointed, it had been excellent practice--and I learned about the industry. And I had a full-time job at the time. So don't jeopardize your regular income. In any event, literary translators nearly always have other sources of income...Good luck.

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Samuel Murray  Identity Verified
Netherlands
Local time: 01:57
Member (2006)
English to Afrikaans
+ ...
My thoughts Mar 12, 2008

Claudia Vale wrote:
b) I was within my rights to ask for royalties - a quarter of the 7.5% paperback royalties (the other 3/4 for the author). ... I have now received a message from the publisher to say that as the publishing company is so small, they are not paying the author any royalties and so they could not possibly pay me royalties either. The most I would be offered would be ownership of the translation copyright and I would have my name on the book.


Different countries have different laws, but in my country you would be entitled to translator's copyright and visible attribution regardless of the payment terms. So these things offered can't really be "offered" -- in fact, they would be yours by right.

As for not paying royalties, well, I believe that any publisher worth his salt should work within the limits of his budget. A one-man-band publisher will have to do things on a smaller scale, unless he is so confident that he'll make a killing that he's willing to risk a lot of money. Since there is only one staff member, this publisher's personnel expenses would be lower than most publishers' anyway.

The reseller takes about 40% of the cover charge, so the publisher gets about 60%, from which he has to pay the setting costs, printing costs, distribution costs, marketing costs, and royalties. If royalties are 8%, he is left with 52% a book. If he can't make it in this business with 52%, perhaps he should look for another job.


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xxxLia Fail  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 01:57
Spanish to English
+ ...
be realistic:-) Mar 12, 2008

Claudia Vale wrote:

this is the kind of work I want to get into and it's a fascinating project a



Which is partially the reason why it's hardly worth the trouble from a financial perspective.

I too would "love" to translate "literature" rather than the article about "workplace accidents" that I'm currently doing but I want to make an honourable living. Which means I value "literature" too much to do it as slave labour and in a rush.

"Literature" - that broad umbrella - doesn't pay. Some day, hopefully, when I no longer have a mortgage to pay, I will translate someone's book for them for free as a labour of love (rather than as slave labour) and provided they give me the time the job needs.

Be realistic: the "big" translators of "literature" are well established as writers or as academics (with some exceptions)


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Claudia Vale  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
French to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Labour of love Mar 13, 2008

Clare Barnes wrote:

Debs makes very sensible points in her post. When I worked on "my" book I got some up front payment and a generous deadline so that I could continue to work half time with my regular clients as well - are you in a position to negotiate something similar?


The publisher has already agreed to an up front payment, my name on the book and copyright ownership for me. I've requested a deadline extension so that I can deliver a "quality, unrushed translation" and am waiting for her response. I have also spoken to a couple of publisher friends who said that the question of royalties, copyright etc is not an automatic right but rather, something to be negotiated. If the author is not getting royalties then neither am I. Carlos makes a good point about money not necessarily being the most important issue. It would be lovely to get a great financial deal but this is my first book and it will be a learning experience and a chance for me to prove myself. I'll have more bargaining power next time.

It's been really useful hearing all the different points of view. I'm sure the cynics will be shaking their fists at me! I'll keep you posted. Thank you, everyone.


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