Back in 2003, at the Bologna Children's Book Fair, Colleen MacMillan, associate publisher of Toronto-based Annick Press, and Erica Wagner, children's publisher at Australia's Allen & Unwin, both found themselves pursuing a German medieval fantasy novel called Mimus. Translation costs, both publishers knew, would be especially burdensome in this case, due to the novel's nearly 400-page length. So MacMillan and Wagner hit on a potential solution: sharing the translation's costs and splitting the English language territories—A&U would take Australia, New Zealand and the U.K. (where they have a distributor, Francis Lincoln) and Annick would get North America. By all accounts, the plan was a success—the book won major acclaim—including a place on the shortlist for the U.K's Marsh Award for Children's Literature in Translation, and the German publisher Gerstenberg Verlag was thrilled at direct access to those territories.
Five years on, Annick and Allen & Unwin have collaborated in the same fashion on three other titles—Dark Hours by Gudrun Pausewang, Red Rage by Brigitte Blobel and The Pact of the Wolves by Nina Blazon—and are currently considering another. By pooling resources and cutting costs, these smaller publishers have been able to present a stronger front and make more attractive rights offers. In fact, for Annick and for Allen & Unwin, the ability to approach major publishers in other parts of the world with a world English rights offer is only possible by doing it together. (The current going rate for a children's book translation is 15 cents a word, according to MacMillan, which means that a 70,000-word novel with a fairly straightforward prose style will run a publisher about $10,000; in some cases, there will also be a royalty paid to the translator after a certain number of sales.)
MacMillan says that, in the YA world, many foreign publishers are eager to get into English markets. This kind of collaboration, she says, is especially appealing because it offers a guarantee of a publisher on the ground—as opposed to a distributor—in more than one territory. Getting into all of these markets isn't necessarily a given when a publisher sells world English rights to one big publisher. “What it means for publishers of our size,” MacMillan explains, “is that we can compete with publishers who might have deeper pockets but whose territory is more restrictive.”
Of course, it helps to share a publishing philosophy, which Annick and Allen & Unwin do. Their commitment to translation springs from an emphasis both publishers place on books with diverse cultural and literary values. “Our publishing choices are not driven just by commercial imperatives,” Wagner says. But given the cultural and geographic disparity between the two publishers' audiences, both Wagner and MacMillan do their own copyedits at final manuscript stage in a nod to the conventions of their respective markets. The Australian market, says Wagner, is generally more accepting of international flavors, and in the case of Red Rage, Allen & Unwin kept the German setting and character names, whereas Annick changed those to suit a North American audience.
Perhaps most critically, the duo's work together is built on trust and likemindedness, as well as what MacMillan deems chemistry. It's a fairly informal arrangement, with no written contract, and terms are not exclusive: if there's a book one really likes that the other doesn't, each is welcome to search elsewhere for a partner.
Thus far, all of their collaborations have been German titles, but MacMillan says that's partly just coincidence. “In order to be a player in the field of translation,” she says, “you need to set up a system to allow you to do that.” This means making those connections and establishing those networks, through book fairs and other means, that allow you to find readers you trust—and both publishers have these systems in place for the German market (it also helps that Wagner has a German background). This setup enables Annick and Allen & Unwin to swap reports to see if their readers agreed on the viability of a given project. The publishers also brainstorm on potential translators, in some cases each commissioning their own sample chapter and going with whichever is the stronger. Other cost-saving measures include sharing cover concepts (which isn't always possible given different markets, but MacMillan says they've agreed on every cover so far) and sharing costs associated with any editors contracted to work on the projects.
Word has gotten out, at least among foreign rights people, about Annick's and Allen & Unwin's unusual relationship, but it doesn't appear that any other publishers have taken the plunge into shared translations. That may only be a matter of time. As Wagner points out, today's ease of communication makes this kind of collaboration increasingly viable. It's “a new way of looking at sustainable publishing,” she says.