THE NOVEL PUBLICITY GUIDE TO TRANSLATIONS FOR FICTION AUTHORS
Prepared by Melissa Storm
September 20, 2023
So you’re ready to get started with translations… except you’re not exactly sure where to start. I’ve created this guide to help answer the following questions:
Let’s take these one at a time, and if by the time you’ve finished reading this guide, you still have questions, please reach out so that I can continue to build and grow this FAQ for authors.
Translating my books has freed me from the hamster wheel of rapid release followed by burnout, round and round again. Being able to write a book once and then bring it to readers in other markets to increase my income has made an enormous difference in both my career and my sanity.
I also love that translations are less likely to be impacted by some of the issues that plague the US Amazon store. Holidays happen on a different schedule, and big shakeups on Amazon generally impact the US store, which leaves all my other markets humming along unaffected.
Having more diverse assets in my catalog also allows me to pivot my marketing focus as trends and reader expectations change. This is, in part, the same reason I have multiple pen names. Yes, part of it is because I suffer from “squirrel syndrome” and crave new experiences both in writing and in life. But the other reason is because it just makes good business sense. Women’s Fiction not selling well right now? Let’s focus our promo efforts on Cozy Mystery or Urban Fantasy instead.
The same is true of translations. Some markets will burn hot. Others may need a full series to warm up, or your genre may still be emerging in that country, which means it won’t sell great now but is poised to skyrocket once readers start looking for books like yours.
There’s a lot to consider for sure. A picture’s worth a thousand words, right? So check out my year-to-date as of this writing below.
This is for a year with only one new book release, which frankly bombed hard. Each month, my royalties in France, Germany, and Italy take up a bigger piece of my income pie chart. Also, last month I got 7 KU All-Star bonuses for my translations, which isn’t even taken into account here.
A Quick Word on Kindle Unlimited: Foreign editions are completely separate from their English counterpart. It is fully possible and acceptable to distribute your English books widely and to limit your translations to Kindle Unlimited (or vice-versa).
So why translations? Why not translations?
Not every single book is a hit in every single market, but when it works, it works very well. If you’d like to break free from the pressure to constantly produce new releases or pay the price through greatly diminished royalties, then yes, you should definitely consider translations. I know I’m so happy that I did!
Am I ready for translations?
Moving into translations can be incredibly overwhelming. Not only is there a substantial upfront cost involved, but you’re also trusting your translation team to bring your books to readers who not only speak a language that is unknown to you but also live in a culture that is different from your own.
Your translator will need to make adjustments to your story for cultural relevance and to preserve the artistry and flow of your prose. And if you don’t speak the target language yourself, well, that’s a lot of trust to put in someone you may be working with for the first time.
Even after the translation is completed and the book is ready to publish, you’ll still have to navigate this other language and culture when it comes to marketing and engaging your readers. That first foreign language fan mail can be a trip! And as authors, our words are currency. Do we really want to trust them to Google Translate or DeepL?
What is DeepL? For those not in the know, DeepL.com is a machine translation program that’s been around since 2017. It works similar to other AIs in that it can sometimes be pretty good but is also eerily and very apparently non-human at times. When working with AI-generated text in English, it’s easy enough to edit the output to suit your needs. But when working with output in a language you don’t speak… yeah, that presents a problem.
Returning to the question at hand: Are you ready for translations? Here’s a quick checklist to help you decide. If you can answer yes to all the questions, then you just might be ready to take the next steps.
- Are you comfortable working with languages and cultures outside of your own?
- Do you have at least one book that has generally been well accepted by readers (either according to sales or reviews, or both!)?
- Do you have at least $2,000 to invest in the process?
- Will you still be financially secure if you don’t make back your investment within the first year?
If you’re still reading, that means you probably haven’t been scared away yet. It also means you have the right mindset for working with literary translations. So let’s move on to the next major hurdle–cost.
How much should I expect to pay?
Some authors choose to partner with a subsidiary rights agent or sign directly with a foreign publishing company to produce their translations. This guide is far more focused on authors who want to independently finance, produce, and publish their works.
Which raises an important question: What’s this going to cost me?
And the answer to that varies too. A number of factors impact the cost, such as:
- Language demand
- Expected turnaround time
- Individual translator credentials and experience
- Whether you’re hiring a solo translator or team (more on that later)
- The length of your book
Word of Warning: In my experience, translators who come from a technical background versus a literary one are likely to charge much higher rates. This is partly because they are paid these much higher rates when working with tech, medical, and pharmaceutical companies, and these companies tend to provide shorter source materials and have much larger budgets at their disposal. If this seems like it might be the case, try asking the translator to reconsider their rate for your project. Many won’t, but some will–and I have found some of my best and most dedicated translators this way.
Most translators will charge per source word. Pay attention to the currency when fielding quotes and keep in mind that the exchange rate is likely to fluctuate between the time you receive the quote and when you pay the bill.
Most of my translators take one to three months to finish a 50,000 word book. Editing can take an additional one to four weeks after the fact, and yes, you definitely want to add an editor to your translation team (more on that later).
As a benchmark, here are the average rates I pay per language:
German: $0.05 per word
Japanese: $0.05 per word
French: $0.04 per word
Italian: $0.03 per word
Spanish: $0.015 per word
Editing in any language: $.0015 per word
And factoring in both translation and editing would yield the following cost per project for a 50,000-word book:
If the quote for your project is much higher than my rates given above, you may want to keep searching. Don’t forget you’ll also incur fees for having your cover adapted for the new translated title and for any help you need with formatting, publishing, and marketing.
As to how fast you can expect to earn back the costs of your translation endeavors, it varies widely. Most of my foreign-language editions earn back their production costs within one to three months, but I also have some that have never earned out even years after publication.
On a happier note, I have found that rebranding has gotten those duds to sell at last. So don’t be discouraged and don’t ever give up!
Which market would be best for my books?
I’ve noticed some general trends as I’ve published my three pen names into multiple foreign markets. I’ve also picked up some additional intel by assisting author clients with their ads and seeing the performance results first hand. And I will share some general pointers, but first here’s some homework for you.
Visit the local Amazon store for the country you are considering targeting for your translations. Study the top 100 charts both for the overall bestsellers and for your genre, and ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I see many books like mine in the bestseller charts?
- Do I recognize any of the authors as also-boughts for my books in the US or UK store?
- Do I recognize any of the names as independent authors in my genre?
- How long do books stay sticky in the top 100 before being replaced by another book?
- Are a majority of books enrolled in Kindle Unlimited or not?
- Do the covers in my genre look similar to mine? Or might I need to consider a new design for my translation?
- What is the overall store rank for the top book in my genre? What about for book #50 in my genre?
- How are the English editions of the books ranked 1 and 50 in my genre selling in the US store? What about the UK?
Exploring these questions should help you determine which markets are the best fit for your genre. Keep the differing costs of translation in mind, and also consider that some markets are much smaller than others, which means a book selling well isn’t necessarily earning that much.
General patterns I’ve noticed:
Germany enjoys magic, fantasy, and humor. I’ve had the most success with my cozy mysteries here. The German market is also the most competitive because it’s where most authors start when pursuing translations.
France loves romance! Any flavor, any kind, but especially steamy, dark, and paranormal. France is where I make most of my money, even surpassing the US now. Books that don’t sell in the US have risen to the top of the charts in France (and then proceeded to stay there). If you write Romance, I think it’s a no-brainer to start with France!
Italy has very little competition right now. I’ve found that every book I publish there does a good job recovering its production costs. My cozy mysteries, in particular, really seem to strike a chord with that audience.
Spanish and Japanese are brand new for me, so I don’t have data to share yet. I’ll update this guide when I do!
How do I find a reliable translator?
Everyone’s first inclination when looking for a translator seems to be asking their network either directly or via author groups. This doesn’t typically work out.
Authors doing well with translations tend to hoard their teams like a dragon atop a nest of gold. I have a lot of books already out there and occasionally I even write new ones, which means I’m never going to run out of projects for my trusted translators. Sometimes I do share their information with friends, but doing so means I’ll have to wait for my next book. And when translations are working well for you, you are not going to want to wait.
Asking for referrals in author groups has unquestionably yielded my poorest translations. This could be a coincidence, but given that it’s happened to me twice, I’m not personally willing to risk it again.
So if using your existing network is out, what’s a poor author in need of translation services to do?
Translation agencies are an option, especially if their rates fall in line with the numbers I mentioned earlier in this report. I will work on creating a list of well-recommended translation agencies as a follow-up to this report, so please keep an eye out.
Marketplaces like Reedsy.com are another option to find pre-vetted translators to work on your projects. Just keep in mind, the cost will often be higher to help pay for the service provided by the marketplace, and when it comes to translations, that is not an insignificant chunk of change. It can be worth it, though, to save you the trouble of both finding and coordinating with a translator on your own.
My go-to option is ProZ. ProZ.com is similar to UpWork or Fiverr in that it provides a huge network of professionals that you can reach out to and contract with directly. What makes ProZ special is that it is exclusively for translation services.
This is where I’ve found a number of my translators. Others I have found because they have been recommended to me by my current translators (as opposed to other authors).
Regardless of how you find your translator, here are the steps you should take once you’ve found someone you think you might want to work with:
- Ask them to translate a one-page sample from your book.
- Hire a second translator to review the translation and judge its quality.
- If things look good, establish payment terms and expected turnaround.
- Produce and sign a contract for the work.
- Send your manuscript to the translator.
I generally find a few different translators in my target language and have them all produce a sample of the same page from my English original text. I then have my proofreader tell me who is the best choice based on the quality.
Though I don't recommend asking author friends for translator referrals, they might be a good option for reviewing sample pages. Their translators won’t be pitching for your project and thus can provide unbiased feedback from a trusted source.
Novel Publicity now offers a “Vet My Translator” service, so if you have some samples ready to review, reach out and we can help with this step!
A contract is vital to protect both you and your freelance translator. Many translators already have a draft contract they work with or are able to research and produce one. Each country has its own laws regarding copyright as well, if you want to own your work, make sure you have a contract in place from the very start of your project. I’d share the one I use, but I am sadly not a lawyer and don’t want to open that can of liability worms!
I pay my freelance translators upon successful project completion. The agencies I’ve worked with collect half the fee up front and half upon delivery. I would personally avoid any translator who demands full payment up front or at the fifty-percent mark–too much can go wrong.
When it does come time to pay, I recommend using Wise.com. This site specializes in transfers between currencies, and their fees are much lower than what PayPal offers. PayPal is, however, a good second option, as most people have access to it and it offers protections for the purchaser and the ability to open disputes (if it ever comes to that).
What do I need in order to publish my translation?
I have a rule that new markets have to earn their assets. I didn’t start a newsletter for Germany, for example, until I saw that my books were resonating and consistently selling. There are some things you absolutely need before publishing, but others can wait based on your budget and the market’s response to your book. Here are some quick lists...
- Edited Book Translation
- Adapted Cover
- Translated Book Blurb
- Translated Copyright Page
- Translated Author Bio
- Translated Back Matter
- Market-Specific Landing Page on Your Main Website
Wait and See:
- Market-Specific Website
- Market-Specific Facebook Page
- Market-Specific Newsletter
- Market-Specific Newsletter Welcome Automation
- Translated Lead Magnet
Once you decide to set up these various assets, you need to make sure you use them! That’s why I recommend waiting. Remember, sending a newsletter to a foreign market involves writing something specific for them and then sending it to your translator, paying for their help, setting up the newsletter, sending it to the translator to verify everything is correct, and responding to any reader responses that come in. It’s a lot!
I also know that my foreign language newsletters SELL BOOKS. Like majorly! Even though my lists are on the small side, I can see bumps of a couple hundred dollars when sharing a newsletter with my list of 500 readers. Not too shabby.
How do I market my published translations?
I love marketing my translations! In some ways, it’s harder than marketing my English books. I need to plan in advance so I have time to send my materials to my translator for review, ensuring there are no lingering mistakes.
Like I mentioned above, though, marketing to these other markets works very well. In part, that’s because there isn’t so much noise. The markets have fewer readers in them, but they also have far fewer authors. And many authors who translate neglect the marketing side, which dampens all that promo buzz even more, making it that much easier for your message to be heard.
Social media fans engage.
And ads? They’re also kind of insane. The CPC is low, and the resulting sales are high. This is true for both Facebook and Amazon ads. You won’t be able to scale your budgets as high as you may be used to with US audiences. In fact, I don’t recommend going higher than $20 per campaign for non-US markets on Facebook. But still, there is definitely money to be made here!
One Word of Advice: Don’t serve ads for your translations from your English-based page, especially if your page name includes more than just your name. For example, my author page is called: Melissa Storm, New York Times Bestselling Author. As soon as a German reader sees ads served from this page, they receive a clear signal that whatever I’m trying to sell is not for them. Now admittedly, my Melissa Storm translations have not yet "earned their assets," so I use Novel Publicity's international passion pages to serve my ads. This provides same-language content and support for readers who speak these languages.
- English: The TBR List
- German: Die Leseliste
- French: La Pile à Lire
- Italian: La Pila dei Libri
- Spanish: La Pila de Libros
It’s the little things. Show your readers that you care and that they’re a priority to you. It goes such a long way in these underserved markets.
If you’d like to see some of my translated assets, visit: www.MollyMysteries.com and www.SkPrince.com. Both sites have international flags to switch between the countries. And each country has a link to its Facebook page and a signup for its newsletter.
Note that my Molly Fitz international sites have unique names translated for each country. This is a branding decision I made for Molly, but that I didn’t make for SK.
SK Prince is a super interesting case, because these books do not sell in the US and never have, but they do amazingly well in France. Those SK French translations are my highest earners in my entire catalog. Funny, but at least it’s good funny!
As stated in the previous section, don’t take on too much at once. But when you know that a market is viable for you, investing in these assets can pay huge dividends.
One Last Shameless Plug
I hope this guide has been helpful to you. I’ll end here by letting you know about Novel Publicity’s newest service branch–surprise!–it’s foreign marketing.
While we don’t expressly offer translation services for manuscripts, we can help you with your ads, website, newsletters, social media, formatting, metadata, and graphics.
These new service offerings are based on 3+ years of experience marketing and advertising translations (and 13 years marketing and advertising books in the US). They’re also much more affordable than you might expect.
So if this sounds like something you might like, check out www.NovelPublicity.com/International.
We’d be happy to help bring your books to new readers all around the world.
Thanks for reading!