Three agents and an editor shared the strategies for creating global bestsellers at the New York Rights Fair on Wednesday—reminding attendees that books in translation can earn a massive readership, even though these titles only make up 3 percent of books published in the United States. Through partial translations, synopses, and word-of-mouth, these panelists nurtured international blockbusters
“You just need a great book,” said Barbara Zitwer, owner of the Barbara J Zitwer Agency, explaining how she sold The Plotters by Un-su Kim in 22 different countries. “But finding a book is like finding a needle in a haystack.” Zitwer stressed that the success of Plotters depended on 12 years of working with Korean books in translation and building a “groundswell” of support for Korean literature.
Atria Books vice president and editor-in-chief Peter Borland discovered A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman through a 10,000-word partial English translation. The English-language hardcover began with a modest release, but Atria’s in-house publicity and sales team propelled the paperback to bestseller status with funny video guides to the then-unknown book, extensive book blogger outreach, and independent bookseller support. “From day one, the book flew off the shelves at indies,” he said. “Word-of-mouth is the one thing we know that sells books. With A Man Called Ove, we created an opportunity for that word-of-mouth to take root.”
Claire Sabatie-Garat, a literary agent at The Italian Literary Agency, shared the story behind the hit M: The Son of the XX Century by Antonio Scurati. The book seemed an unlikely bestseller—an 800-page novel about the life of Benito Mussolini—but it has sold more than 160,000 copies in Italy, and the rights have sold in more than 28 countries. “No facts were invented. Only feelings were invented,” said Sabatie-Garat, crediting Scurati’s careful scholarship for the book’s success.
“I spend a lot of time trying to find the right translator for books,” said moderator Gabriella Page-Fort, the editorial director at Amazon Crossing, stressing the importance of a great translator behind every blockbuster translation. She studies a translator’s track record carefully to find the right fit. “It’s very difficult when you don’t speak the language to decide if someone is good, and there’s been controversy around what makes a translation good.”
The panelists agreed that translated literature plays an important role in the global rights marketplace.
“International editors and scouts have been looking more and more toward what will be published in other languages besides English, said Marleen Seegers, owner and foreign rights agent at 2 Seas Agency. She only brought a “tiny” 500-word English synopsis of The Children's Train by Italian novelist Viola Ardone to the Frankfurt Book Fair, and ended up selling the book in 24 international territories. That novel follows a talented violinist who emerges from the crucible of World War II. “The fiction that has been selling is often rooted in history and based on historical facts. People seem drawn to that now more than ever,” Seegers said. “Hopefully things will have a good ending, like this book. People want to be hopeful.”