Der Überläufer – An Adventure in Translation

My writing has appeared in a lot of different places, including some other languages; my first novel was translated into Dutch, Japanese and German, back in the day when I brought out my fiction through traditional publishing houses.
The Defector, in German

After embarking on my indie or self-publishing project, Amazon started opening Kindle websites in places other than the US and the UK – and one of them was Germany. Ah ha, I thought, I have German editions of both my first two novels, I wonder if I can self-publish them as eBooks?

I was lucky (although it didn’t feel like it at the time) that the German publisher, Delius Klasing had already taken the books out of print. I have a rule to always get a rights reversion letter when this happens – if you’ve not seen one, it’s pretty much what it says on the tin. It’s a letter that confirms that the publisher of your book is no longer publishing your book, and that they accept that as a consequence of a clause (that should be) in your contract – they return the right to publish it back to you.

It’s a complicated way of saying that you can now go ahead and sell the book to another publisher, if you can find one. Or these days, self-publish it as an eBook or Print on Demand edition.

This is how The Defector ended up being published by Random House in the UK in 1996. Then taken out of print, so I could republish it with Harper Collins ANZ in 2002. And then taken out of print again, so I could self-publish it with Smashwords in 2009 and then Kindle in 2011.

I had already got the rights back from Delius Klasing to publish The Defector in German, and as they had already gone to the trouble of translating it I had a big headstart over my plans to make the book available in the other new Amazon Kindle markets – France, Italy and Spain. The problem was that I didn’t own the translation, Delius Klasing had paid for it, and they owned the right to its use.

It was an interesting negotiation, and it took months – but in the end I managed to get them down to an amount that I thought I had a half chance of getting back, and we did the deal. I got a simple letter saying that I had the right to use the German translation of both The Defector and The Wrecking Crew and, eventually, a PDF of the two books in German.

This is where the real work started.

The first stage was to get the books converted into the Word document format that both Smashwords and Kindle Direct need to be uploaded to their eBook service. A small fee to Adobe sorted that out. But once they were in Word, I discovered that the full-justification format that Delius Klasing had used, meant that there were dashes between any word that had been broken at the end of a line - thousands and thousands of them. Oh, and there was another problem, Word wasn’t interested in working in German.

It took a while, and some experimentation, but in the end, I got Word to love German, and found a global search and replace that would find and allow me to get rid of all the dashes. At least I think I did because, as it’s in German and I don’t speak the language, I don’t really know. Some of them should maybe have been there...

Now I needed a title, a blurb and a cover. I’m lucky to have a couple of good German friends, and after some brain storming we settled on a straight translation of ‘The Defector’ into ‘Der Überläufer’. The Wrecking Crew was more difficult, no meaningful direct translation was available, so we settled on Schiffe versenken – which is actually the name of the game that we know as Battleships in England. It had a good ring to it, even to my English ears.

 I returned to my accommodating (see last month’s blog) designers, and got them to do a German version for a small fee. And then I paid the same German friend to translate the blurb, and the front and end matter.  Finally, I was more or less home and dry, I’ve had plenty of experience formatting for both Smashwords and Kindle, and this wasn’t made any different by the foreign language.
The Wrecking Crew in German

I uploaded both books to Kindle Direct’s Select, and then waited until they had picked up a decent (five star) review. I set them to give away for free for the five days allowed by inclusion in Kindle Select, and waited. Both books were downloaded close to 5,000 times and reached the top two of the overall Kindle freebie charts.

When the free promotion was over, The Defector hit #3 on the overall ‘Paid’ chart and was #1 thriller for several days, spending a couple of weeks in the Top 100. The Wrecking Crew didn’t do quite so well, but a couple of weeks after the promotion is over, I’ve earned enough to cover all my costs, and probably cover the time I put into the project too. Now I just have to hope that the books will keep earning for a very long time... and that Amazon open a Japanese and Dutch Kindle store soon. Meanwhile, I have an Italian translation in progress, but that’s a story for another day.

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Anonymous said…
Wow, tackling text in a language you don't speak - now THAT's the indie publishing spirit..!
julia jones said…
This is a really useful post - if a tad awe-inspiring. I've started to eye up the Dutch Belgium and German yachties who visit Suffolk every summer with their families as possible takers for the Strrong Winds trilogy - so I might need to come creeping round to you for more of this eminiently [ractical advice. Thanks very much indeed.

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