‘You humans are odd,’ Peirene remarks. ‘You love to find a scapegoat’. We are walking along Farringdon Road towards the tube station after a publishing industry event at the Free World Centre. Peirene is clearly on form, swinging her hand bag as she continues her analysis. ‘And once you have found your scapegoat, then you no longer have to deal with the problem. ‘ A cold wind blows straight into our faces. I pull my scarf tighter around my neck. Unlike Peirene I am in a somber mood.
The evening was a mixed blessing. Speakers blamed publishers in general for the homogenous book market in the country. If publishers published more foreign fiction, so people claimed, the British reading culture could be saved. The publishers are at fault, they are apparently not doing their job properly. I’ve heard this accusation before. Usually I don’t take it personally, after all the Nymph and I are doing exactly that, publishing foreign lit. But that night got to me. A well-known translator stood at the podium demanding that publishers should be ‘hit around the head.’ And the chief executive of a leading reading organization merely shrugged his shoulders when asked if his wonderful events – where publishers contribute free books – lead to increased sales. ‘I don’t care about book sales,’ he replied.
Well, the bottom line is: sales matter. If publishers can’t sell books, they won’t be able to continue to publish any books, let alone foreign literature.
Publishing foreign literature involves huge expense. Consider writers advances, translation costs, editing, subediting, proofreading, text setting, another proofread, book design, printing. The publisher has to pay all of these bills up front – often as much as two years in advance of publication. Even for a slim Peirene book, such costs easily add up to thousands. Yes, there are generous cultural organisations that help cover the translator’s fee but they only pay once the book has been printed. Moreover, after the launch, the publisher only receives money five months in arrears to insure the distributor against returns. It’s a huge financial balancing act.
I suddenly stop in my stride. I turn to Peirene. ‘Tonight made me so angry. At least people in the book industry should appreciate the publisher’s task. We have sleepless nights worrying about cash flow, we ensure that translations read well, we stand outside supermarkets hand selling these books.’ For a second I catch my breath. ‘I am amazed you can still dance along the pavement swinging your handbag.’ I shake my head and bury my face even deeper into my scarf.
Peirene grabs me by the arm. ‘I am proud of you. In the ancient Greek world, you and your publishing colleagues would have received golden laurel wreathes. Come on,’ she takes my hand. ‘Maybe we can’t celebrate in a temple with marble pillars, but at least we can dance our way to the tube station.’