BookExpo2017: The 'Elena Ferrante' Model

"I'm very happy that at one of the first conference sessions of the show this year, we are able to discuss something that would have been very, very unlikely just a few years ago. And that is how many of the most successful international translations of literary fiction over the past years have come out of independent publishing houses," moderator Ruediger Wischenbart, BookExpo's director of international affairs, said to open Wednesday's Global Market Forum session titled "The 'Elena Ferrante' Model: How Independent Publishers Excel in Promoting International Literature."

Panelists included Michael Reynolds, editor-in-chief of Europa Editions; Stephanie Valdez, co-owner of Brooklyn's Community Bookstore; and translator Esther Allen.

"I think that the number of independent publishers in America who are publishing works in translation has grown," Reynolds observed. "Over the past 10-12 years since Europa was established, there have been a great number of publishers founded that are devoted to works in translation.... Repeatedly we've seen successes at these houses."

Where does the next Ferrante come from? "It's a big world out there," Reynolds said. "There's a lot of writing; there are a lot of stories. There's quality in all genres.... I think one of the great paradoxes of the publishing industry is that successes are sui generis. They tend to be exceptional. They seem to come out of nowhere. At the same time, while every success is a success unto itself, we are very attached to the idea of trying to replicate that success. And it's one of the great tensions in the industry.... Going forward, successes are always going to seem like something new and they're always going to seem like they came out of nowhere and that they weren't based on any particular model or formula. It wouldn't be any fun if there were a formula or secret recipe."

The translator has become a more "pro-active figure in this whole equation that we're talking about, which is not an image of the translator's role that would have been in evidence even 25 years ago," Allen said. "We can't really talk about what's happening in this burgeoning translation market without mentioning a kind of new role that has emerged for the translator as the person who goes out and seeks work that is necessary to be translated.... Increasingly we have a population of translators who are genuinely motivated by a sense of vocation; who are out there in the world looking for these things and who understand the power that a translation into English can have."

Noting that her booksellers handsell translated works as they would any books they love, Valdez said, "I think things really change for us when we have probably three or more booksellers read and support a book.... The conversation becomes more exciting. When we get behind the book as a store, that's when sales really change. And that's where we start changing our language from 'Oh, you might like this' to 'We love this book and it's a must-read.' That's what turned the tide, for instance, for Ferrante, where we've sold almost 2,000 copies, which for us is quite a lot."

Citing the increased popularity of translated genre fiction as an example of the market's health and range, Reynolds expressed hope that, "in a certain sense, the reception to works in translation is normalized as much as possible. I'm very keen on that coming to pass in this market--that we eventually stop having panels like this and just talk about good books that are out there and that come from abroad." --Robert Gray

Powered by: Xtenit