On Publishers Boycotting Translation Prizes

Back when I first started my graduate work at Princeton, the town had a coffee shop problem. We desperately needed one, and coffee shops kept opening up and then going right out of business a few months later. They tended to be all the wrong kind – a bit too elegant for the university crowd, trying to appeal to townies as well as students, and, well, they all quickly went under. Meanwhile we seemed to be the only town in the nation without a Starbucks. Then one day in late 1993 a different sort of coffee shop opened up. It was low-key and had a great vibe. It was big enough that you could usually find a table, but only barely, and it was a great place to study and write as well as imbibe. The coffee was excellent, too, and soon the place was packed round the clock. And just a few weeks after it became clear that this new coffee shop was not going to go bankrupt, Starbucks moved to town and opened up a franchise a quarter of a block closer to campus. And I vowed never to set foot in the place: I saw this Starbucks as not only déclassé and corporate but repulsively opportunistic if not predatory. Enough people agreed with me that Princeton’s own local coffee shop, Small World, continues to thrive.

Just the same way I will still patronize a Starbucks only if there really is no other alternative for blocks around, I will buy a book from Amazon only if I am unable to procure it locally. Amazon has transformed the book industry in ways that are bad for readers and publishers alike. It has driven much of its competition out of business. I was never a big fan of Borders, but still was sad to see it fold, along with who-knows-how-many actually independent bookstores across the country that have bit the dust since the advent of the behemoth. Basically Amazon has done what any big corporation does: its mission is to make money as best it can, sometimes pushing existing laws to the breaking point in the process. I’ve read highly plausible accounts of Amazon bullying publishers into giving it a larger discount than the industry standard given across the board to other booksellers – sometimes with the extra rebate dressed up as “advertising fees.” This helps subsidize Amazon’s underselling of other bookstores. I’ve also heard that Amazon sometimes sells books below actual cost as part of its grand project of cornering the market. When some day there’s no competition left at all, they’ll be able to charge anything they like for a book. Just one more reason to practice solidarity with a brick-and-mortar bookstore near you, or to patronize the IndieBound website.

Like most other big corporations, Amazon has a corporate giving wing, and some of the giving they’ve been doing over the past few years has been in support of literary translation. On the list of beneficiaries are many organizations I know and love. No doubt part of the idea behind this artfully curated patronage is to “clean up” Amazon’s image in the book world. That’s fine, but keep in mind that Amazon is like any other large corporate entity that makes charitable donations: philanthropic giving is part of what corporations do, if only for the tax write-off. And I’m very glad Amazon is supporting these great organizations. Of course, giving to underdoggy parts of an industry that has suffered as a result of Amazon’s corporate practices is also a brilliant public-relations move. But these are two separate transactions: harming the industry and helping it. I’d really really like to see all the corporations in this country better regulated (not just Amazon), but that’s a failure of our government, which is a direct result of the failure of our campaign finance law, which is why we Occupy, and also why you should all be donating to Common Cause and/or Move to Amend right now. Meanwhile, it makes sense that Amazon and all the other big profit machines around us will continue to do what they were designed to do: turn a profit, a big one.

Two years ago when it was announced that Amazon would be underwriting the Best Translated Book Award (giving $5000 each for the author and translator of each winning book), the indie press Melville House, which publishes a lot of translations, announced that it would stop submitting its books for the award.  The reasons were clear: Melville House had long been feuding with Amazon about the discounts Amazon was demanding from publishers (see a follow-up post on the Melville House blog here). I completely understand and agree with Melville House’s position on Amazon’s business practices. On the other hand, by pulling out of the prize, Melville House hurt the translators who work for Melville, probably for not much pay, depriving them of the chance to take home a $5000 bonus if they won the prize, but also of the career boost it would mean for some of them if they wound up shortlisted. As far as I know, Melville House still does not submit its books for the prize (if I’m wrong about that, someone let me know and I’ll add a correction), and I think that is a damn shame. Just for the record, by the way, I have never heard anything even remotely suggesting that Amazon has ever attempted to influence the BTBA jury’s decisions in any way.

A few days ago, BTBA founder Chad Post noted on his blog, Three Percent, that an additional publisher specializing in translations has now pulled out of the prize. What he writes is relatively discreet, but based on contextual clues, I am going to hazard a guess that the press in question is Dalkey Archive. (If I’m wrong, someone let me know and I’ll add a correction.) Assuming my guess is right, I am disgusted and horrified, considering that the vast majority of the books published by Dalkey are works in translation, many of which are heavily subsidized by cultural agencies such as, for example, Pro Helvetia, which is underwriting the entire series of Swiss books that Dalkey has been publishing over the last couple of years. I am particularly displeased that the reason given for pulling out of the award is that it supposedly costs the press too much to submit copies of the books for the jury. Don’t publishing houses routinely send around dozens of copies of each book they publish as part of a normal marketing campaign? If they don’t, the books don’t get reviewed and no one knows they exist, which means publishing a book into a vacuum. I wouldn’t want my books to be published like that. And I also wouldn’t want a publisher I translated my heart out for (probably for not much pay) to refuse to help get me a chance to receive recognition and proper remuneration for my work.

The press-I-think-must-be-Dalkey also mentions, as additional justification for pulling out of the award, that they “haven’t won yet.” Neither have I. But at least I, unlike the poor souls translating for the two presses named above, still have a chance to.

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