International Literature: A Data-Driven Approach to Prioritizing Diversity

Investment, infrastructure, and influence drive the global publishing industry. Can we develop a data-driven approach to prioritizing the world’s languages to focus investment in new regions to diversify the books being translated?

Amazon’s leadership principles have taught me data-driven decision-making. Across the company results are measured and reviewed weekly, strategies are developed from the data up, and we listen to customers to develop our path forward.

It can be challenging to apply data analysis in publishing, but these tools felt uniquely helpful as I approached a difficult goal: prioritizing new languages for translation. Amazon Crossing combines close reading, editorial vision, and strong relationships to nourish our publishing program. If we want a balanced and diverse list, we need to be intentional with how we choose what to read and with whom to work.

As editorial director of Amazon Crossing, I have the challenge of leading acquisition decisions for an imprint publishing fiction and nonfiction in translation, and with it the responsibility of holding a broad view of what’s happening in publishing globally. With a goal of diversifying our list, I wondered what data might help identify areas for investment in research and relationship-building. The editorial team has connections with a large network of agents, publishers, and literary translators, all of whom surface books and authors for our consideration. Since we launched in 2010, we’ve published 400 books from 23 languages and 37 countries. To discover new regions, languages, and literatures, we must reach out in search of new experts, but where to begin?

Various sources release publishing statistics each year, and, helpfully, Wikipedia editors pull data from many sources to create this overview.1 Publishing output alone doesn’t signal opportunity for English translation, but it could shine a light on blind spots: markets with robust publishing output but no representation in our submission pool. The top 25 countries by number of new releases published each year spans from 440,000 new releases in China to 19,900 in Canada to 14,984 in Romania. (See Figure 1.) To date, Amazon Crossing has published books from 68% of these countries.2 The outliers are countries beyond the reach of the Eurocentric book fair circuit. Perhaps publishing output signals opportunity for future discoveries from India, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Czech Republic, Malaysia, and Romania. Though we haven’t announced acquisitions from India, the Czech Republic, or Romania, we frequently receive submissions from these countries. But in Taiwan, Vietnam, and Malaysia, our Rolodex comes up short.

So, how would we start a new relationship with, say, Malaysian publishers? There are likely to be increased resources thanks to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) selecting Kuala Lumpur as the 2020 World Book Capital. (This itself was likely thanks to Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi’s 2016 challenge to local authors to win a Nobel Prize in Literature by 2057.3) With global ambitions come infrastructure investments. According to the Three Percent Database,4 South Korean literature has seen a marked increase in English translations in the U.S. since Korean President Kim Song-Un’s 2012 statement5 that it was about time his country achieve this glory, with four translations in 2008 and 11 in 2018. Resources such as translation funding, translator workshops, English magazines, international book fair visits, and international editor fellowships to visit Seoul are costly but effective in increasing translation output. (There were no titles from Malaysia published in 2008 and 2018. The Three Percent Database includes only one Malaysian entry, Ng Kim Chew’s Slow Boat to China and Other Stories, translated from Chinese by Carlos Rojas and published by Columbia University Press in 2016.)

Of course, we could engage with resources funded by the Malaysian government should they become available. We could also start reaching out to publishers we can find, but how do we also ensure we’re finding the best books? By using translators, naturally.

Figure 1: Books Published Annually Around the World

Amazon Crossing encourages submissions at https://translation.amazon.com/submissions. We’ve found many of our best books through translators, such as Malagasy author Johary Ravaloson’s Return to the Enchanted Island (November 2019), brought to us by Allison Charette, and Spanish bestseller Paul Pen, an author long championed by translator Simon Bruni (we’re now on our third thriller with the pair, Under the Water, in October 2019). When we stumble onto leads outside our language abilities, we often engage translators to read, assess, and create sample translations to help us consider the broadest possible range of books.

Any reader can lead us to great books: our open website for submissions removes the barrier to entry for those outside our existing community, and language localization further expands accessibility (users can submit in 14 languages). As we reach in new directions, additional language support can help us expand and target our engagement. So, how do we prioritize languages for attention?

Countries have wildly different statistics about literary imports and exports, but there are only a few ways books reach across borders—human networks create a common infrastructure worldwide. But any individual’s network is only so big, and we each choose where to focus our energy. These simple forces are the paths toward translation for any author. We expand our view by learning from different countries to see how resources are invested to maximize cultural diversity, and specifically literary translations. A quick look at UNESCO’s Index Translationum data for the Top 50 Countries by Exported Translations6 shows a strong correlation between the world’s largest book exporters and the most published source countries in the U.S. (See Figure 2.) Clearly, those with export muscles are succeeding at reaching U.S. publication.

To open ourselves beyond this focused minority of well-funded literature focused on driving exports—which often means English proficiencies and submission materials, attending book fairs, and materials out of reach for many—we’re investing in access and visibility. However, the goal is still connecting with individuals. People decide which books are published and, as with so many aspects of life, no matter how much data you have at your fingertips, it often boils down to who you know.

Figure 2: Sample from UNESCO’s Index Translationum data for the Top 50 Countries
by Exported Translations

Path to Global Publication

Authors are writing books all over the world. The lucky ones get a good agent with global contacts, and/or a good primary publisher with a powerful network of foreign contacts to whom they pitch books for translation. Editors all over the world are reading to find the next bestseller, but what languages are they reading in and what are they hoping to find? These are primary filters that block much of the world’s publishing activity from notice.

Publishing is a business, and readers influence the entire cycle with their buying/borrowing/book club selecting—and with their reading. The most talked about books sell the most copies, triggering the chain of events that brings popular books to the world through translation. The bigger the readership, the more investment publishers and booksellers are willing to make to drive further growth.

To illustrate the hero’s journey of international success as an author, I thought it might help to start with a best-case-scenario, if only to spotlight the complexity of crossing publishing borders.

For top names, like Robert Dugoni, a New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal, and #1 Amazon internationally bestselling author, the publishing cycle is virtuous and exhilarating. Agent Meg Ruley at Jane Rotrosen Agency7 gets a new book, reads it, gets the chills, and when it’s ready, business wheels spin quickly. Gracie Doyle, editorial director at Thomas & Mercer, makes an offer for World English rights as well as all the languages where Amazon Crossing publishes translations: Germany, Italy, Spain, France, and China. Sabrina Prestia, foreign rights manager at Jane Rotrosen Agency, gets the word out to a network of subagents worldwide, all of whom know publishers in their markets who are eager to read and publish the latest in the Tracy Crosswhite series. Most of these editors are fluent in English. If the agent is timing the pitch with international book fairs in Frankfurt or London, this work happens in person, at tiny tables on a crowded convention center floor.

Dugoni’s books have been translated into dozens of languages, including French, German, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Slovakian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.8 Editors at each publishing house acquire the book—some having read the novel in English, others relying on the author’s past success rate, and some trusting the word of scouts or readers. Each chooses a translator and works with their teams to create the translated book that ultimately reaches the reader. If the readers love it, the author can count on this cycle moving smoothly for a glorious career.

This path is winding at best even for an author who is already a global brand name. Amazon Crossing is making explicit efforts to reach further upstream to find interesting books. What can we do to find books that are not yet proven bestsellers, in languages beyond the best-funded literatures, and authors who might be marginalized?

Forging New Paths

I would like to walk through an example of a book I acquired from beyond my network, adding Bangladesh to our list of 37 countries published to date and the Bengali language to our list of 23 languages translated. The numbers can feel like a distraction when discussing diversity, but in a data-driven environment like Amazon, it pays to count. And if you’re reaching beyond the world you know, it also pays to be explicit about where you would like to explore.

With this thought in mind, I secured approval to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair in November 2017. Nearly all my meetings were with agents and publishers I had never met. I made good use of the online registry of attendees as I set up my schedule, and I also asked a few trusted colleagues to make some introductions. I met Mitia Osman, publisher of Agamee Prakashani, a top press in Bangladesh, and after a presentation of her catalog I decided to ask: “If I’ve never read a book from Bangladesh, where would you have me start?” I was struggling to interpret titles listed on the catalog pages as possibilities and needed some deeper insight. Mitia wasn’t sure where to lead me, but she immediately mentioned a book that holds special meaning in her own personal canon.

Published on World Book Day, April 23, 2019, I Remember Abbu by Humayun Azad was translated by award-winner Arunava Sinha. It contains a moving foreword by the author’s son, Ananya Azad, explaining his father’s tragic death and his devotion to his work, and illustrations by Bangladeshi artist Sabyasachi Mistry. In chapters alternating between the voice of a child and the diary entries of her beloved Abbu (father), we learn the history of Bangladesh’s fight for independence—a war fought by people determined to protect language and culture—through the experience of one family. Humayun Azad (1947–2004) is regarded as one of the most influential writers in modern Bengali literature. An esteemed poet, academic scholar, critic, and linguist with more than 70 titles to his credit, he was awarded the Bangla Academy Award in 1986 for his contributions to Bengali linguistics. In 2012, the Bangladesh government honored him posthumously with the Ekushey Padak Award. Throughout his career, he was praised for his outspoken critique of fundamentalism and his unflinching support of the Bengali language and the culture it represents.

The author photo Mitia sent me was captioned “rebel against bigotry.” How could I possibly resist amplifying his call for freedom?

So now, we put this gem out into the wilds of publication, taking a great leap of faith launched thanks to two readers’ deep connections to it, striving to spark curiosity so many can discover this book’s capacity to heal the wounds that divide us. It’s one delicate thread in the web of humanity.

Humayun Azad (1947–2004) is regarded as one of the most influential writers in modern Bengali literature.

Filling the Gaps

It’s my hope that many such threads will leap out for the Amazon Crossing team as we develop more sophisticated views on global publishing. We have a range of language skills in-house: from Scandinavian languages expert Elizabeth DeNoma, French and Spanish with Liza Darnton and myself, and a wonderfully diverse array of interested colleagues around the globe. Thanks to the internet and translation tools, we can more easily search across languages than my younger self could ever have imagined, albeit in a coarse and restrained way. Resources like the Publishing Trends International Bestseller list feature (which rounds up a monthly top 10 from various countries), online magazines like Asymptote Journal and Words Without Borders spotlighting a vast array of literature and a wealth of translation and editorial insight, and Book Twitter offer prismatic perspectives with plenty of opportunity to go deep. So, how do we focus our energies?

Beyond assessing the world’s publishing activity to find gaps, we also assess the world’s popular literature to seek trends. In addition to global lists, Amazon Charts tracks the most-read books in fiction and nonfiction, and we monitor the bestseller lists in the U.S. and U.K. marketplaces. For example, the recent Nielsen report9 focusing on growth in translation sales offers both cause for optimism and directional data to guide our predictions.

Business decisions are often made based on patterns of exclusion or overemphasis. We’ll ask ourselves if this fills a gap, or does it land in an overcrowded marketplace that is difficult to distinguish from its peers. As we’re designing a metric, we’re not only trying to identify trends visible in the data, we’re also looking to spot things such as outliers and omissions. Who saw Marie Kondo coming, or predicted a shift from the darkness of Scandi crime to the life-affirming Man Called Ove franchise? I remember when everyone insisted humor doesn’t translate! The data itself offers a point of reference, but we’re still dealing with human hearts and minds, and many breakout successes surprise even those who chose them.

Figure 3: The Three Percent Database

The Three Percent Database, created by Chad Post at the University of Rochester and hosted by Publishers Weekly, is the most helpful reference for seeing what other U.S. publishers are choosing to translate, and to spot both gaps and areas of most investment.

The chart in Figure 3 shows 2017 titles in English translation in the U.S., limited to “original translations of fiction and poetry published or distributed here in the U.S.,” to quote the Three Percent blog. It’s incomplete because there is no absolute way of spotting translations in the marketplace (there would be if all publishers included the translator’s name in title metadata), but imperfect data at least gives us a starting point. The database has a Creative Commons license and all are encouraged to slice and dice the data, and to contribute missing titles. I find it a useful reference for keeping up with what other presses are discovering.

The top countries shown in Figure 3 are perhaps unsurprising, and the bottom of the list may be unsurprising as well. It’s harder to spot those missing entirely: 86 countries saw one or more new translations last year, just 44% of the 195 countries in the world. It’s difficult to focus on invisible literature within the established international publishing network. So, how do we facilitate the growth of up-and-coming markets, and even more importantly, see through all the layers of potential bias and filter systems to reach underrepresented voices?

Comparing top countries for translation exports with U.S. translations released is a crude way to spot opportunities to engage with languages or countries with few or no translations being released in English. There is no reason to assume books from these countries will sell, but if our goal is to build infrastructure, this is a fertile place to start. We know there are publishers investing in local authors, someone we can email and start a conversation, industry magazines where we can feature a call for submissions, and translator talent we might tap to help us expand our scope immeasurably. And if nothing comes of this outreach, if we’re wasting time investigating what people are reading in Malay or Hindi, what is lost? It’s an opportunity cost, but to me these connections prove fruitful whether sales follow or not, and the infrastructure we build could support a future generation’s diverse reading.

Notes
  1. Here is the Wikipedia page listing the number of books published per country per year, http://bit.ly/Wiki-books-worldwide.
  2. To date, Amazon Crossing has not published a French Canadian author, though we have published U.S.-based authors writing in Spanish (Giannina Braschi and Lorea Canales), one Canada-based author writing in German (Bernadette Calonego), and one Australian who identifies as an Indonesian writer writing in English (Tiffany Tsao).
  3. Abrams, Dennis. “Malaysia Wants A Nobel Prize for Literature,” Publishing Perspectives (January 11, 2016), http://bit.ly/Malaysia-Nobel.
  4. Translation Database, http://bit.ly/PW-translation-database.
  5. Rao, Mythili G. “Can a Big Government Push Bring the Nobel Prize in Literature to South Korea?” The New Yorker (January 28, 2016), http://bit.ly/South-Korea-publishing.
  6. www.unesco.org/xtrans/bsstatexp.aspx?crit1L=1&nTyp=min&topN=50.
  7. I’m using publicly available data here, including Publishers Marketplace deal announcements and international Amazon bestseller lists. My apologies if elements of this exercise prove out of date.
  8. From the author’s website: www.robertdugonibooks.com/resources.
  9. Anderson, Porter. “Nielsen Reports Translated Literature in the U.K. Grew 5.5% in 2018,” Publishing Perspectives (March 6, 2019), http://bit.ly/UK-publishing.

Gabriella Page-Fort is the editorial director of Amazon Crossing, where she has worked since 2010. She has helped publish award-winning authors of international bestsellers from around the world, such as Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Laura Restrepo, Johary Ravaloson, Martin Michael Driessen, Dolores Redondo, Oliver Pötzsch, Zygmunt Miłoszewski, and Ayşe Kulin. She was named Publishers Weekly Star Watch “Superstar” in 2017. In her spare time, she is a literary translator from French and Spanish and a musician. Contact: pagefort@amazon.com.

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