If you’re a Slovenian fan of J.K. Rowling, and you’re eager to get your hands on the first available copy of her forthcoming novel, The Casual Vacancy, you’re probably going to have to read the book in English. This will also be the case in Italy, Finland, and several other countries. The reason is that Rowling’s team has made an unusual move: they are delaying the delivery of the manuscript to a handful of foreign publishers over concerns about piracy.
Rowling’s worries about piracy—and her attempt to stop it—have been quite public. (She famously refused to allow the Harry Potter series to be made available in a digital format for years, citing piracy concerns.) Now, with Rowling’s first adult novel, which publishes in September in the U.S. (as well as in the U.K., France, and Germany), her agency is taking it a step further: to tamp down on the possibility of the book being ripped and shared, the manuscript is being withheld from publishers in territories considered high risk for piracy. The move has raised more than a few eyebrows in international publishing circles. Some publishers are worried about having to scramble to get translations ready for the holidays, while others worry that more blockbuster authors may now try to follow in Rowling’s footsteps.
Zoe King, an agent and partner at Rowling’s literary agency, the Blair Partnership, said the novel is being withheld from some houses until its U.S. pub date—September 27—to “minimize the risk of the manuscript being leaked.” Adding that the move is something the agency believes is “in both the author’s and publishers’ interests,” King said the reason some countries are receiving the manuscript earlier has to do with where “security” is deemed the strongest. “We have agreed to let publishers in some countries publish simultaneously with the English-language release, as some publishers are better able to handle the security demands of a simultaneous release,” she explained, via e-mail.
Andrej Ilc, editor at the Slovenian publisher Mladinska knjiga (which acquired translation rights to Vacancy), said his house is struggling with the schedule. “We will most likely be forced to employ more than one translator and abnormally speed up the editorial and production process to publish in time for the Christmas season,” he said. “Her agent would like to establish her as a quality author for adults, but at the same time this is forcing publishers around the world to break all the rules of good translating and editing.”
Jill Timbers, a translator of Finnish books into English, recently wrote a blog post about the situation in Finland. Writing for the Web site Intralingo, Timbers said that the Finnish publisher of Vacancy, Otava, is giving its translator only three weeks to turn around an edition of the book in order to hit the holiday deadline. This, she said, has caused a stir among translators and others. “Some translators argue that it’s good [that] bestsellers are translated into Finnish even if time pressure means the level of the Finnish isn’t top quality. Others predict that soon ‘entertainment literature’ will not be translated into Finnish at all.”
Denise Bukowski, who runs an eponymous agency and regularly sells international novels to American houses, said Rowling and publishers are “right to be concerned about piracy,” but noted that their approach will probably do little to stop it. “It can happen at any time, particularly after the legitimate translated edition is in the marketplace.... Withholding the manuscript does not prevent piracy.”
There might be other effects of the move. In addition to the impact that delaying the manuscript may have on the quality of translated editions of the novel, it may also affect some publishers’ sales. As Bukowski noted, the early availability of the English-language edition will likely be a boon for the book’s U.S. and U.K. publishers. “[They] will greatly increase sales of their editions in the open market and will do their best to capitalize on this turn of events,” she predicted.
Chad Post, publisher of the University of Rochester’s Open Letter Books (which publishes, almost exclusively, English-language translations of international books), said he’d never heard of a situation like this with a fiction title. He was also more blunt than Bukowski. “It seems totally insane and stupid,” he said, referring to the agency’s decision to withhold the manuscript. He then added: “And it could easily result in subpar, rushed translations.”
Ilc is also concerned that what’s happening with The Casual Vacancy could become the rule, instead of the exception to it. “It not only concerns... just J.K. Rowling’s novel, but it also sets a precedent for other global blockbusters in the years to come,” he said.
Rüdiger Wischenbart, an international publishing consultant (who occasionally contributes to PW), said delaying the manuscript may backfire on Rowling. While some publishers are concerned that other marquee authors will want to follow Rowling’s lead, Wischenbart thinks what happens with The Casual Vacancy abroad may prove a situation for other authors to avoid. “I would expect that there is a significant likelihood of The Casual Vacancy becoming a stunning example of a failed effort to transform the global author brand of J.K. Rowling.” At the same time, he added: “It may become a case study to help us understand the current reach (and competition) of English versus local translations of top-of-the-line titles.”