The most challenging part of my project turned out to be copyrights and although not the sexiest topic, it is very important.
If you ask yourself why you should even bother about self-publishing an out-of-print book in translation, maybe because you do not (yet?) have a book with a publishing house, let alone in translation, there are various reasons for this and I am writing about them in part 1 of this article.
Know your rights
If a book is out of print and the publishing house ist not going to publish it again, you have the right to get you copyright back – don’t think publishers are doing you a special favour.
When the German publishing house returned my translation copyright to me, they were then saying I HAD to get in touch with the original Australian publisher to sort out the original rights and my biggest mistake was to do just that.
My attempts to get information from the publisher in question and the original literary agency were mostly ignored – they were obviously not prepared to tell me who the original copyright holder was. Eventually they said they were not in touch with the right holder, although the book was still available as an ebook on at least one platform and I found this hard to believe. I am sure they saw me as a pain in the neck, as I tried to approach them various times in various ways.
To cut a long story short: in the end I got hold of the author’s son myself who is in charge of the literary estate and he retrieved the original rights to self-publish the book from the relevant publisher and was willing to cooperate with me directly. We now have a contract with each other to share any royalties.
I would strongly advise translators and authors to contact each other first and retrieve their rights separately.
I assume it might still be easier for authors or someone else who is entitled to the original rights to receive information regarding the translator than for the translator regarding the author.
If the translator is the most pro-active part in the game, I would recommend to put all your energy into contacting the author/the other party. Don’t waste your time approaching a publishing house or literary agent, if they are not legally obliged to give you information.
Message from Amazon: “We do not let translators self-publish their translated books”
It did not stop with the above mentioned issue, however. When I tried and publish the book on Amazon, the e-mail I got back from them was saying they wouldn’t let me deal with this myself, it should be the author. The author is dead, however, and it would not have made much sense to ask the original rights holder to deal with it, because I was the one who wanted to go ahead with this project in the first place and I know from another experience that publishing platforms are sometimes sending information in German if you have uploaded a book in German and it would have complicated matters enourmously if we had accepted this option. In Germany, Amazon is not as dominant for self-publishers as in the English-speaking world, by the way.
The most important reason why Amazon is so successful seems to be the fact that they have streamlined their processes and they are sending you automated answers, which wasn’t helpful in my case and I had to wait until I could talk to a senior Amazon representative at the London Book Fair, who advised me to open a separate account on Amazon, not under my own name as a translator, but create a new name and act as if you were setting up your own publishing house and this is what I did in the end.
My other platform of choice was Tolino Media, a successful German platform for self-publishers. They are providing a phone number and it was great to talk to someone in person from the start, especially about my (so far?) rather unusual project. They allowed me to open an account in the author’s name, because she is dead and I had sorted out the rights. The Tolino Media website is in German, but if you don’t speak the language and would like to include their platform, you can do so via Draft2Digital.
The whole area of self-published translations is still rather new and I believe there is often some confusion about rights and maybe my problems with the original publishers resulted partly from this confusion. In addition, I can imagine they do not not want to encourage translators to go the self-publishing route. There are many authors who are doing this already, but so far, book translations are still almost exclusively in the hand of traditional publishers.
I believe publishers need not worry, as it is not just about retrieving rights after all. There is also marketing involved and this seems to be more difficult for translators than for authors. In self-publishing, the special author-audience relationship can be a distinct advantage which readers love, but this does not necessarily help translators who are trying to promote book translations, because we cannot answer personal questions regarding writing the book, any background information etc directly in the same way authors can.
Therefore I believe the route I am writing about here is mainly for translators who are also promoting something else that fits, like similar books or services, but if they do, I see no reason why they shouldn’t do it, and in my opinion it would even make more sense if translators approach authors than authors approaching translators – not just when it comes to retrieving rights but translating books in the first place, because they know best what kind of books they think they can successfully promote themselves.
If you have any more questions regarding copyrights that I have not yet answered here then please don’t hesitate and ask me.
Here is a link to part 1 of this article: How to self-publish and out-of-print-book in translation: Why all authors and translators should care about it.
And the German translation is available at a special price for a short time only: