A guest post by our founder, Lyssa Chiavari
Last month, for our fifth anniversary virtual author panel, we asked our readers to submit questions for us to answer live. We tried to answer as many questions as we could during the video, but there was one question that the authors thought would be a good one to answer with a blog post rather than as part of the panel. So I’m here today to answer that question! The question was from Natasha, who lives in Latin America and asked: Why does it take so long for books to be published in Spanish (or other languages)? In particular, Natasha noted that sometimes it can take up to two years for books to be translated, by which time spoilers for the book can often be found online.
The answer to this has a lot of moving parts. The biggest factor is that most books are not published by the same publisher worldwide. Even in the English-speaking world, different countries often have different publishers—hence why our own Intisar Khanani is releasing A Darkness at the Door with Snowy Wings Publishing in the United States and Canada, but Hot Key Books is the publisher in the United Kingdom. When it comes to non-English markets, it will almost certainly be a different publisher putting the book out in Spanish than the one who published it in English, and it will also be a different publisher for German, and Chinese, and Czech (all real examples—read on and you’ll see!).
Typically, when an author sells a book to a publisher, they will either grant worldwide rights or regional rights, depending on the terms of the contract. Additionally, the contract will stipulate whether worldwide rights are simply for English, or if they are all-language inclusive. If the publisher has been granted all-language worldwide rights, the publisher will then be the one to negotiate with other publishers around the world to get the book translated. If the author has kept those rights, they or their agent will be the one trying to get foreign publishers to buy the rights. Regardless, the usual situation will be a foreign publisher buying the rights from someone, be it the author (directly or through an agent) or another publisher.
In these scenarios, the foreign publishers often will be waiting to see how a book sells in the English market before they decide whether they want to spend money on translating it. Because translated books will be more expensive for the publisher than publishing a book that was originally written in their regional language (since they don’t just have to pay for the cover design, typesetting, printing and so forth, but also for the translation itself, as well as a few rounds of editing and proofreading to make sure that translation isn’t full of typos and grammatical errors), it’s a big investment. They’ll want to ensure that they’re likely to make that investment back, which means they’ll want to watch the performance of the book in English.
(The same thing goes for books written in other languages that get translated into English, of course.)
On top of that watch-and-wait time, there’s also the fact that the act of translating itself takes time. Unless a book has been acquired by foreign publishers in advance of its publication in English, the translation part doesn’t even start until after the book has been published in English. It’s a time-consuming process that will add even more wait time to a book’s publication in other markets.
In cases where a book has been self-published (or published through a co-op publisher such as SWP), the author will hold all the rights to the book, which leaves them with a few options. They can work with an agent to try to sell the rights to foreign-language publishers, or can negotiate directly with the publishers themselves. If their agent is able to sell foreign-language rights, the process is similar to the one outlined above, including the amount of time it takes for the book to be published.
So now that you know the general process, here are some specific examples of how it played out for foreign-language editions of SWP books and some of the variables that affected their release times.
The first example is When Darkness Whispers by Heather L. Reid. In this case, SWP was approached by Alpress, a publisher in the Czech Republic, before the book’s publication by us in 2019. However, this was actually not the book’s first publication—Alpress had previously attempted to negotiate with the book’s original publisher, who held worldwide rights to the book when it was first published in 2013. Because the book had been published before, Alpress was already confident in their investment and thus was willing to move on it before it was republished in English. Heather’s agent negotiated the deal with Alpress and the book was ultimately published in Czech as Dřív, Než Tě Uspí Démoni—but not until earlier this year, eight years after the book’s original publication!
In another example, Starswept by Mary Fan was published in Chinese as 星空深处 by China Yan Shi House in 2019. In this case, Mary worked with the publisher directly, and there was significantly less lead time than the process typically entails. Still, thanks to translation time, edits, typesetting and printing, it ultimately took almost two years from the book’s original publication in English in 2017 before the book hit shelves in China.
Another option indie authors have is to instead finance the translation themselves and self-publish. Some authors choose to do this because they prefer not to work with agents or traditional publishers, and still other authors will go this route because their agent or publisher was unable to sell the rights to foreign publishers. This, however, is expensive, and is also time-consuming. Dorothy Dreyer chose to release the Curse of the Phoenix duology in German under the Snowy Wings Publishing imprint; however, because of the time and expense involved, the first book, Abstieg des Phönixes, did not release until August 2021, four years after the English release of the the first book.
And even if you cut out all the other denominators, time is always going to be an issue. For example, as a native Spanish speaker, Selenia Paz plans to one day translate The Leyendas Trilogy into Spanish herself. However, even without having to pay a translator or negotiate rights, translating a book into another language is always a time-consuming process, and with the other commitments authors must juggle, it simply can’t be done overnight.
Thanks so much to Natasha for submitting this question. I hope that this was a helpful answer!
About the Author
Lyssa Chiavari is an author of inclusive speculative fiction for young adults. Her short fiction has appeared in a number of publications, including the anthologies Magic at Midnight: A YA Fairytale Anthology and Perchance to Dream: Classic Tales from the Bard’s World in New Skins, both which she also edited. Her first published story, “The Choice,” was named one of Ama-gi Magazine’s Best Fiction of 2014. Lyssa lives with her family and way too many animals in the woods of Northwest Oregon. Learn more about her at her website.
Lyssa Chiavari says
Another variable I forgot to mention is reader recommendations! Cornelia Funke’s books were first translated into English because a German reader living in the UK wrote to a UK-based publisher, telling them that Funke was her favorite author and asking if they’d publish Funke’s books in English. Likewise, historical fiction author Elisabeth Storrs just shared in her newsletter that her Etruscan books are to be published in Italy because a reader wrote to the publisher expressing interest in an Italian translation. So if you are a reader in a non-English marketplace and there’s a book you’d like to see in your language, contact publishers based in your country and let them know. Reader endorsements mean a lot, so you never know—you might just be the deciding factor!