The global publishing community is already looking ahead to the coming Frankfurt Book Fair. You meet authors, partners, colleagues, and friends there. You talk, complain, praise, discuss, and share. You feel an equal part of this book-loving family. But is it really so idyllic?
Nowadays, when everything is just a click away, people around the world have come to expect the latest installment of great TV series such as The Handmaid’s Tale or Game of Thrones to be delivered to their screens more or less simultaneously with the original release, together with corresponding subtitles in Croatian, Macedonian, Serbian, Slovenian.... There are many people involved with the production, and the security risks are extremely high, but still—the magic happens.
It is therefore somewhat surprising that in book publishing we’re witnessing a discriminating practice that has become increasingly common in recent years. In fact, this is now a sort of a status symbol, which divides major from merely big or important authors. At my Slovenian publishing company, Mladinska Knjiga, we still receive Mr. Barnes’s or Mrs. Hawkins’s or Mr. McEwan’s or Mr. Nesbø’s or Mr. Walliams’s new novels way ahead of publication (Mr. Nesbø even kindly provides the complete English translation for those who are not translating from Norwegian!), whereas this is not the case with authors (brands?) such as Dan Brown, John Green, or J.K. Rowling. Even Harper Lee’s second novel, Go Set a Watchman, was strictly embargoed until publication of the English edition. And now Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments faces the same issue.
The reason given is always the same: security. We were told by Atwood’s agency: “If this manuscript leaks, the consequences are huge, and therefore we have to have a strategy that minimizes the risk.”
A strategy? Some (well, most) of us are obviously not trustworthy. But there’s more. Initially a universal practice, this “strategy” is not without exceptions now. For example, the German version of The Testaments is scheduled for simultaneous publication with the original—so is the Spanish one and the Italian one. Is this then just a variation on a good old theme of “paying more” ? (One wonders how much of this is known to authors themselves, all fine people, who are usually sincerely grateful to each of their publishers from all around the world.)
The Booker shortlist was just announced, and it includes The Testaments. This is great news. It means that the book is good. But what it also means is that the jurors were given the manuscript ahead of publication, too. How did security procedures work in this case? I would rather not speculate, but let me just say that this only made us even more furious.
I’m sure we all agree that every business is based on trust. If you don’t trust your business partners, then why bother at all? In the case of The Testaments, we were particularly disappointed because we had initially been promised the manuscript in March (just enough time to publish more or less simultaneously), only to later be told that we’ll have to wait until September 12.
Why is this so crucial? We will lose the global promotional momentum and lose face in the eyes of our readers, booksellers, and librarians: the book is published, so where’s the Slovenian version? Most of them will think that the publisher is rather sloppy and slow.
The bottom line: we will sell less. And this is as important for German publishers as it is for Slovenian, Slovakian, and Icelandic publishers. Literary bestsellers are extremely rare. Therefore, one must seize every selling opportunity, and publishing simultaneously with the original edition is an especially effective one.
Sure, there are those houses that will hire multiple translators to finish the translation in two weeks, enabling the hasty publisher to publish the book just in time for the Christmas season. But would you really want to see or read the result? Margaret Atwood is a very fine author, one of the best. Her books deserve a committed translator and proper editorial dedication. And this takes time. So here is another factor that speaks against this strategy—the author’s reputation is at stake.
It’s my firm conviction that this strategy should be urgently reconsidered. Security reasons should be taken seriously, but they should not be used (in)discriminately. All publishers should be treated equally, no matter how big the territory. And last but certainly not least: the new Margaret Atwood book is coming; we should all really be full of positive anticipation instead of losing time and nerves over such strategies.
I really don’t know what Margaret Atwood knows and thinks about all this, but she once wrote these simple, yet strong words: “I hope that people will finally come to realize that there is only one race—the human race—and that we are all members of it.” If everybody in the publishing community understood what these words really mean, we could all look on our Frankfurt days with (even) more positive anticipation.■
Andrej Ilc is an editor at Mladinska Knjiga, one of Slovenia’s largest publishers.