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I just finished to read the Indie Author Survival Guide by Susan Kaye Quinn. Full disclosure: I love this book. I think every indie writer should read it. It’s a treasure chest full of advice, encouragement and plain useful stuff that nobody should miss. If you don’t own it already, don’t waste time and get yourself a copy.

Since I admire Quinn’s enlightening work so much, it caused me great pain to read stuff like this:

I recently signed an innovative, revenue-share contract to translate Open Minds into German. There were no publishers involved, just an agreement between myself and the translator. Because it’s revenue-share, the translator (who is based in Germany) is incentivized to help tap the German market, making contact with bloggers and reviewers.

[…]If you’re a well-selling indie, you can finance all of the costs of translation on your own, but I actually think there’s an advantage to doing the revenue-share: my translator is making a business out of translating and then promoting his translated works. He’s a fellow indie author, just an ocean away.

Very cool.

My reaction in a nutshell:

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Translators are not “fellow indie authors”. They are service providers who, well, provide services. One-time services that should receive prompt payment, cash. Treating them as anything else shows a lack of knowledge at best, a lack of respect at worst.

The “Translate for Royalties” model (“TfR model” from now on) has been gaining ground for a while. More and more authors have been experimenting with it, and a few websites began advertising it as a “free” way of reaching new markets. I believe it’s an unsustainable model that shouldn’t be encouraged, else it will result in the death of book translations (no kidding). There are two main reasons for that.

The first reason is simple: when you come to me, a translator, with a TfR proposal, you do not come bearing gifts. You come bearing risks. In fact, the TfR model is a way for an author to take a business venture (the translation) and put all the risk on their so-called “partner”. Think about it for a minute. You are telling someone to work for weeks or months, not for money, but for the promise of an unknown amount in royalties. How much will the translator earn in six months? In a year? Will that be even remotely close to their normal rates (and even in that case, will it be worth it to wait six months or a year to collect the money)? Or will the whole job turn out to be a waste of time?

Fact is, 50% of not enough is still not enough. If, at the end of the year, the translated edition of your book ends up earning us $10 in royalties (this happened; see below), for you, the author, it’s $5 in your pocket that you didn’t have before. For me, the translator, it means receiving $5 as compensation for weeks or months of work.

Would you work for weeks or months in exchange for $5? Unless we’re talking about volunteer work, I don’t think so.

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“But I cannot know in advance if the translation will sell or not!” Sorry, but it’s not your translator’s problem. They provide a one-time service and should be paid for their time and their expertise, just like your editor and your cover designer. Come think of it, I’ve never heard of an “edit my book for royalties” model or a “do my cover for royalties” model. I wonder why.

The second reason has to do with marketing. Translators are not marketers, they didn’t study marketing and cannot be expected to improvise it. It’s completely unfair to have someone market your book for free after they already translated it for free. What are you doing to help your collective success? Nothing. While the other person is doing everything.

If that’s a relationship, I’m gonna call it an abusive one.

(no, “I wrote the book!” is not a valid excuse. The book was already published and earning you money before you decided to have it translated. You didn’t write the book specifically for your translator, so you didn’t contribute to this “partnership” at all)

The success of the TfR model would spell the death of professional translation. I’m sure of that. In a world where the income of a translator were completely uncertain (it already is quite unstable, given that it’s a freelance job), very few people could afford to translate full-time. Soon, the only translators available on the market would be young people living with their parents, and the partners and spouses of affluent people who could afford to support them. The average quality would drop, and the scarcity of freelancers available would cut the quantity considerably. It wouldn’t take long before everybody figured out that being a translator just isn’t worth it and abandoned their glorified hobby for a real, lucrative job.

The end.

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How do I now all this stuff? Because I’ve experienced it. I used to offer a hybrid, cash advance + royalty sharing model (notice that I was still asking for cash up front) and I actually worked for six months on a website that promotes the TfR model (no, I’m not linking it, and I just removed their name from this post. I don’t want to give them traffic). I lost count of the words I translated during those months, but I’m sure I was well past the 500,000 line. Eleven months after I begun, do you know how much I earned in royalties for translating all those words?

$243,18. Most of which from the only two books that actually sold.

That’s an average of $0,00048 per word (and I’m being conservative with the word estimate). Less than a twentieth of a cent. But, hey, I helped authors reach new readers, right? Right?

My point is: if you want to be translated, but can’t afford to, seek out translators willing to do volunteer work. Because that’s what you’d be asking them to do if you offered them a TfR contract. At least be honest about it.

Otherwhise, if you’re seriously interested in reaching foreign markets, invest money. Find a good translator and pay their fees. They will still be interested in doing a good job (to get more work from you and to build up their reputation) and you will have paid honest money for honest work.

Nobody should be forced to work for free just to satisfy your vanity.

P.S. The saddest thing about Quinn promoting the TfR model is that, in other parts of her book, she insists that indie authors need to “invest time and money in editing/copyediting/cover art for [their] book”. Looks like we translators are children of a lesser god. The Survival Guide is still a great book, though, so buy it. Seriously.

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