Some authors are now retrieving their copyrights of out of print books and become self-publishers. But what happens to book translations that are no longer in print?
The current situation
If you are an author, you may feel lucky if a foreign publisher is publishing your book in translation. And for me as a translator for German publishing houses, it was always a great feeling once a new book that I had translated came out and I could see piles of them in many bookshops. Most of the time, however, these books disappeared as quickly as they turned up.
Translations are a lot more popular elsewhere than in English-speaking countries, and publishers often like to take on successful foreign books for translation. A book that is already successful as an original minimizes the risk and there is sometimes a big marketing push when the translation first comes out. But bookshops have limited space and there will always be new books that need to be promoted. In addition, foreign authors can’t usually help as much with marketing as domestic authors. Threfore it doesn’t come as a surprise that many of these translated books go out of print after a while. Up to now this has usually meant the translation was lost forever.
As I have learned a bit about self-publishing by cooperating with self-published author J.F. Penn, I was curious to find out whether I would be able to self-publish one of the out of print books that I translated in the past.
Book translators normally own the translation copyright by law, but most of the time they have to sign it away to the publishing house, at least in Germany, otherwise they don’t get the job in the first place. Therefore my initial step was to contact the German publisher in order to retrieve my copyright. After a while, they sent me a letter confirming they didn’t intend to publish the book anymore and they returned the translation copyright to me.
I knew that I needed to come to an agreement with the author as well, but she had died, I couldn’t get hold of her heirs or her former agent either and I wasn’t sure how to proceed, so I asked the UK Translators Association for advice. They said I needed to find the original copyright holder in any case, otherwise I could still infringe their rights, even though the author was dead and I have now contacted the original Australian publisher and asked them whether they know about the rights and I am also trying to find other ways to search for the original rights holder.
Self-publishing out of print translated books – a model for the future?
Whatever happens in my case is not the main issue here. The author is dead, which makes everything a bit more complicated than usual, but I would like to point out your options, whether as an author or as a translator.
Let’s bear in mind that it is necessary for the original author (or rights holder) to come to an agreement with the translator, who needs to hold or retrieve the translation copyright, and both should agree on how to split royalties as well.
By the way: Nowadays I would not want to give away any rights for good anymore, only for limited time periods, if at all, because due to ebooks and print on demand, books might theoretically never go out of print and I suspect it will be more difficult to retrieve rights in future.
I have contacted many people in the industry, including a large number of translators, and none of them knows of anyone who has used the approach I have mentioned so far, therefore it looks as if this idea is still new – but nobody discouraged me either! Why should we not make use of our rights after all? If you have heard of any case, however, where someone has already done what I am trying to do or if you have any other thoughts on this matter, I would love to hear from you.