Exploring the Foreign Markets for Self-Publishing

Less than a year ago, I came across a Spanish language edition of an erotic novella by an American self-published author. Now, while I don’t speak more Spanish than enables me to order “dos cervezas” when on vacation in Mexico, I couldn’t help but notice the one-star reviews this book had garnered. Luckily, there’s always Google Translate. Moments later, I knew what the problem with the book was: the Spanish speaking reviewers were all complaining that the translation was utter rubbish and made no sense, in short, gobbledygook. In fact, it appeared that the author, who shall remain nameless, had dumped her entire novella into Google Translate or a similar program and then published it.

Needless to say, I knew I could do better than her! Maybe not in Spanish, but most certainly in German, the language I had grown up with before I left Germany at age 19. But not even I was confident or mad enough to believe I could translate my American vampire romances into flawless German. After all, I hadn’t lived in Germany for twenty-five years. While my grammar was still pretty good, I lacked “grown-up” vocabulary, and anybody who’s ever read any of my books knows that I my books contain a lot of adult vocabulary.

As soon as I started looking into getting my books translated, I was cautioned by friends, colleagues, and even my husband. But I didn’t let anybody deter me. I knew the figures: Germany is widely considered the 2nd largest romance market after the US. However, exact figures are hard to come by. There’s a reason for that, Kris Alice Hohls, editor of Love Letter Magazine, the German trade magazine devoted to romance, states. Romances published by certain publishers like CORA, are counted as part of the newspaper and magazine trade, rather than the book trade.

In any case, the US book market was estimated at $27.9 billion in 2011, the German market at less than half of that, €9.7 billion ($12.6 billion). The e-book market was even smaller: 1% of the entire book market versus 6.2% in the US. Could an author really make money in such a market? Was this considered a viable business proposition?

Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare, both New York Times Bestselling Authors, thought it  was worth a shot and pooled their efforts to each get one historical romance novella translated into German. “To test the German market,” Ms. Milan said in an interview in April. They released their self-published German editions in October 2011. Neither author did any marketing or promotion for their titles, however, they credit the fact that they had traditionally published books released around the same time with their rise in the bestseller charts. Even though Ms. Milan confesses, “If I were starting from scratch, I think I would be more proactive about getting reviews in foreign languages, although I’m not sure how to do that. The book didn’t really start taking off until I got the first few reviews.”

Of course, I didn’t know Courtney Milan or Tessa Dare when I started with my translation venture in the fall of 2011. I had to go by my guts, and they told me, I could do this: I could be that author who could make it big in the German market. As I set about putting my translation team together, there were times when I asked myself whether I was just wasting money, money I had made with my bestselling romance novels in the US. Was I throwing it all away for some silly dream of becoming that prodigal daughter who returned home as a success? Was I too ambitious for my own good?

There were trials, for sure. The first book had to go through various stages of editing, before the language was fluent. As Ms. Milan so aptly puts it, “Some people imagine that translation is a mechanical act. It isn’t. Think about all the people in the world who write poorly–clunky language, no sense of rhythm or style or subtlety, misplaced modifiers, unintentionally hilarious imagery…” I dealt with all of that and more. Luckily, I had lots of resources: family, friends from back home, German beta readers. One of them called the translation “stiff” when I was going for “sensual”. Back to the drawing board I went. In the end, it took longer and cost more than I had expected.

But I’m glad I made sure the book was exactly the way I wanted it before I published it. It worked: Samsons Sterbliche Geliebte (Scanguards Vampire #1) hit the top 100 Kindle books on Amazon.de in March 2012. The same month, AmaurysHitzköpfige Rebellin (Scanguards Vampire #2) hit the same Bestseller list, and when I released Gabriels Geliebte (Scanguards Vampire #3) on April 2, 2012, it hit the Kindle Bestseller list the next day, going as high as #66. Currently, my three books, as well as Courtney Milan’s and Tessa Dare’s novella are the only German editions of self-published American authors in the top 100 Romances at Amazon.de Kindle. Will it stay that way or is the competition right around the corner?

In an informal survey I conducted among 35 self-published authors, only 5% had already published a translated version of one or more of their novels. Surprisingly though, 45% are either in the middle of getting their books translated or are thinking about it. That leaves 50% who either are too early in their career to be taking the path toward foreign markets or are not interested in it at all. Are those 50% potentially leaving money on the table?

Possibly, but not necessarily: when translating, editing, and proofing a book can easily cost anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000, an author is definitely taking a financial risk. Not everybody will earn enough to get their investment back. Both Courtney Milan and Tessa Dare did, but while they have recouped their cost, the small profits they have made, have not yet adequately compensated them for the time they invested. While Tessa Dare wouldn’t mind selling her foreign rights, if it doesn’t happen, she will definitely get her books translated, particularly into Spanish. “It’s a potentially very large market that I can’t ignore.” However, Ms. Milan tells me, she would sell rights to a foreign publisher in a heartbeat rather than deal with all the complicated issues related to translations.

The case is vastly different for me: not only have I recouped my investment on my first three books in German within a month after each release, I am now making a tidy profit each month, one most everybody in the US could live on very comfortably. Therefore, while I certainly would sell rights in languages I don’t plan to tackle, my German rights are off limits. I would be crazy to hand them off to some publisher who takes a huge cut when I have already done all the legwork: within a few months, I have built up a following in Germany, have received great reviews and attracted popular blogs who are reviewing my titles. The feedback is overwhelmingly positive. I’m ecstatic about it, so much so, that I plan to release all my full-length novels in German. That’s nine books in total. I hope to have accomplished this project by mid 2013.

With the German e-book market expected to grow to 15% of the total book market by 2015 according to German e-book retailers like Libranda and others, the outlook is rosy. Nina Bruhns, a bestselling romantic suspense and paranormal author who has been in the business for about twenty years, thinks that growth will happen even faster. “When I wrote for Harlequin, royalties for foreign rights made up fifty percent of my income.” She believes that Europe will embrace e-books quickly, particularly German readers. They are tech-savvy and flexible.

Already, Christmas 2012 could see a huge uptick in e-book sales, possibly the same kind of increase the US saw during Christmas 2010. By that time, six books of my Scanguards Vampires series will be available on the German market. And if current sales and trends are anything to go by, it’ll be a very merry Christmas for me!

Copyright © 2013 Tina Folsom. All rights reserved.

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