This is the first newsletter of 2023. Happy New Year. Here’s part one of my response to a reader’s question about the publicity and promotion of literary translation works.
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A very happy new year to all of you. May 2023 bring us all that we strive for and hope for.
A few days ago, I received this question from a translator with a new book out. With their permission, I’m sharing it along with my response because I get this question more often these days and I’d like to organize my own thoughts too. Let me add upfront that I still consider myself a learner within the publishing and translation ecosystems so I share all of this in the spirit of sharing my learning rather than any well-tested or one-size-fits-all guidelines. As always, please take what works for you and discard the rest.
This is █████, from █████, India. I’ve come across some of your work recently (and was recommended your newsletter) and have read a little about your difficult but successful journey to getting published, both in translation and as an original writer. (Congratulations on that!) As someone who’s just published his first books of translations, I’m writing to ask if you have any advice from your vantage as a published and well-recognized translator.
Like I said, my first book was just published, in █████. Titled █████, it contains my English translations of █████. The book was published by █████ and became available for purchase in █████ – though it has not yet seen an official release.
Now, unfortunately, █████ is severely negligent about promoting their books and so it has fallen to me to do all the heavy lifting needed to get the book “out there”. That’s something I am willing to do, but I was wondering if you had any words of wisdom for me. For example –
1. How best do I promote the book?
2. How do I get the book reviewed in well-recognized journals and newspapers both in India and abroad? (For now, I am expecting reviews of the book to appear in █████, █████, █████, and █████. But I would like to at least try to get more global publications like █████, █████, etc. to review it. Is there a chance?)
3. How can I use the publication of this book to find a better, more-invested publisher for my next book of translations (for which I have several ideas)?
I’d be very grateful if you could answer these questions, Jenny. For some reference, I am including links to my translation website and to the book’s page on █████’s website.
A happy new year to you and yours! I hope it’s joyful and prosperous. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
All Good Things Come in Threes
First, let me say that I don’t recommend reaching out to writers or translators before you’ve established a genuine connection with them first. I’ve shared posts and tweets about some ways to approach this. That said, this particular case is totally fine because, with this newsletter, I’ve had a standing open invitation to fellow translators and writers to connect and reach out via my website. This reader followed my requested protocol and sent a gracious note with the requisite information. This is why I’m taking the time to respond carefully and thoroughly in a two-part response. The first part below is more about general book promotion. The second part, which will be more specific about literary translations, will follow next week.
Second, the reality is that translations are a tough sell in any market. More so if they’re from under-represented languages or relatively unknown authors or translators. So we have to be more strategic and focused with our efforts. Otherwise, our book is going to drown in all the other book noise out there (especially so if we don’t have the big publisher machinery behind us.) And that’s going to mean a lot of wasted energy and time. With two books published in the US, one in India, and works in four separate anthologies, I’ve learned things the hard way through trial and error or, as I often say, trial by fire. I believe that, with each book, I get more efficient. And, certainly, I get more clear with myself about what I’m willing to do for book promotion and where I draw the line.
Third, I’ve discussed this topic in varying degrees in previous newsletters. So, if time allows, do go through some of them as well. I’ve also done the occasional Twitter thread on this kind of stuff. One example is below. But this is an inexhaustible subject and, no doubt, we’ll be returning to it often.
To me, everything starts here. I used to have a marketing mentor in my former corporate career who said that if someone says their target audience/consumer is “everyone”, they don’t have any idea. Your translation is not for everyone. If you’ve got this far, you have some thoughts already on the ideal readers for the work. Find out which media venues they read and where they meet (physically, digitally, socially.) If you haven’t already done so, start frequenting these spaces and get to know them well because that’s where your efforts need to be focused. Also, spend some time brainstorming beyond the obvious news and social media venues—for example, consider educational institutions, book clubs, cultural (versus only literary) festivals, and even recreational spaces. Get a comprehensive list together.
Three things to keep in mind about readership
a) A particular type of reader might frequent multiple spaces for different reasons. Each “reader+venue” combination is a separate segment and may require a different approach mode.
b) Ideally, this groundwork should be done several months before the book’s launch date. Meaning, you should already be connecting with some of your potential readers with sincere, personal interactions before you approach them with your book.
c) Interactions with fellow translators, writers, critics, or journalists in various spaces aren’t really the same as interactions with potential readers. Certainly, all of these folks can help with interviews, social shares, and other kinds of collaboration or support activities that increase discoverability. But, oftentimes, they’re not really our target readership. We’ll talk about the importance and methods of literary networking and citizenship separately.
As you’re developing ideas for where to find and approach your readers, think about specific messaging around your book. What makes it stand apart from other works out around the same time and in the same year? What are some key points you’d like readers to take away from the book? Again, you’ve likely thought of some of this when you pitched the book to your publisher. And your publisher has spent some time thinking through the positioning/messaging as well. But you really want to hone this now for each readership segment you’ve identified in point 1 above. Have a set of four to five talking points. Keep these simple but substantial enough that you can address them in different formats at different venues. The idea is to understand how you can guide and manage the narrative around your book. We’ll talk about different ways to convey these message points separately as well.
Three things to keep in mind about messaging
a) The message points need to be about the book’s value and relevance to its readers (“what’s in it for them?”), not about yourself or even the author.
b) If possible, connect the message points about your book to topical issues of interest (literary or otherwise.) Do this in sincere ways and not simply to piggyback onto something zeitgeisty. The latter may get you some quick short-term wins but won’t be sustainable if you’re working toward the long game.
c) Don’t shy away from raising controversial points but be prepared to back them up with evidence and substance.
In the corporate world, we called these marketing assets or inventory. I’m using a less loaded term here. I mean all the material you can create or put out there so readers and media venues can find you easily. Some of these are obvious—for example, a website with a dedicated book page and contact details. Some may not be so obvious—for example, a downloadable one-pager or a brief video trailer about the book, author, and translator. Look at other books like yours and see what their authors or translators have provided. Go beyond the usual—for example, maybe consider a free, downloadable reading guide for book clubs. Get creative—for example, if the book is about a particular place or culture, maybe include a set of interesting links that readers could read, listen to, or watch at their convenience.
The above resource examples are what we call “owned” media versus “paid”, “earned”, or “shared”. Let’s take a few moments to discuss this PESO model (created by Gini Dietrich) as well. You can google and read a lot more about it. Here’s my quick primer specifically for the publishing world.
The PESO Model for Book Promotion (okay, this one is in fours)
P = Paid Media
This is where you pay for ads at either news or social media venues. In the US, you’ve seen these book ads or sponsored content running at places like Lit Hub, Electric Literature, New York Times, etc. In India, I haven’t seen as many book ads on news sites or even in print publications. They’re all pretty expensive and will likely cost more per venue than your entire first royalty check. Generally, the publisher pays for these because they can buy in bulk. You can also pay for ads at smaller venues (for example, we offer sponsorship spaces at Desi Books for South Asian writers and translators.)
Looking for book recommendations? Check out my ongoing book lists.
There are social media ads on Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Instagram as well. I have never used these so I can’t judge the efficacy. And the few book ads I’ve seen there tend to be for more commercial books versus literary ones. So I’d do plenty of research before investing money here.
Bookselling sites like Amazon, Bookbub, and Bookshop (in the US) also provide advertising options. Again, I’ve never used any of these so please do your homework.
Google ads is another option and one I have never used so I’ll leave it there.
In general, paid advertising can be effective in terms of increasing visibility if you pick the right venues (see point 1 above) and you have the right messaging (see point 2 above.) And you still need to create resources for this kind of media. In the book world, and especially for translated books, I don’t see this as the best approach unless you’re already a celebrity and the book is just one of your many “brand products.” Also, native advertising, where the ad is more in line with the rest of the venue’s features, works better for books.
E = Earned Media
This is getting your book into news publications whether in various lists (“most anticipated”, “best of”, and such), topic-driven features, reviews, interviews, or as excerpts. Typically, your publisher needs to manage this because journalists and book reviewers don’t interact directly with authors and translators to avoid conflict of interest. If your publisher does not have the resources, you might consider hiring an independent book publicist. Note: this can be a huge minefield so I recommend doing a whole lot of research before hiring such a person.
Direct pitching works well for book-related essays of your own. Take a look at essays out there by other translators and you’ll definitely get some ideas for your own. This is labor-intensive work, of course. But you’re also building your writing resume and credibility with such work, right?
Beyond traditional news media venues, there are also smaller literary magazines and independent book bloggers. You can pitch directly to them but make sure you check their credibility and expertise. Also, check their websites for guidelines and consider the kinds of books they tend to feature. And give them enough lead time. Most of these folks work with small volunteer teams or as solo creators. If anything, they need more time to do your work justice. Provide as much information as you can from the resources you’ve created. One caveat: If some literary magazine or blogger is asking you to pay to be featured but not being transparent with their readers that it is then sponsored content, I’d have concerns about their integrity and credibility.
For the book world, I’d include literary events, festivals, and conferences as earned media because, typically, you get invited to these if you’re making the news cycles. Event organizers need to ensure attendee numbers and sponsor funding too. Choose carefully because not all of these events are helpful. Some are looking to make money off the unpaid labor of authors and translators for little else in return besides “exposure.” Follow the flow of money as you do your due diligence and you’ll see what I mean. That said, physical events are still among the best ways to get books sold. And, in my experience, it makes all the difference to have the right panel topic, moderator, and discussion partners.
Earned media offers, typically, the best reach and credibility. But it is also the hardest one to crack because book coverage keeps shrinking and so much of what exists continues to be about the buzzy books backed by big publisher machinery. This is why I suggest focusing more on the next two.
S = Shared or Social Media
This is the most direct way to engage with your potential readers. There are authors and translators who share daily posts on these platforms and have large followings. I don’t know how many books this helps them sell but I imagine it must be working for them or they wouldn’t be doing it so much. There are also some folks who have a knack for virality through controversy or, well, titillation. This is less “social” media and more “performance” media but, of course, each to their own.
That said, there are some excellent examples of folks who’ve worked for years to create meaningful literary communities. I’ve also seen where a small group of authors or translators will band together to co-promote. In general, when you’re sharing something that has relevance and value for your readers, they will connect and interact with you more. If unsure, see what the authors and translators you respect are doing that resonates with you and follow their lead accordingly.
The main thing about social media is to remember the “social” part. Treat others like you want to be treated. Be mindful of what’s acceptable with respect to tags, mentions, DMs, etc. Don’t spend the majority of your time simply promoting your book as people will soon tune out. There are also some best practice guidelines out there for authors and translators in terms of both frequencies of posting/sharing and customizations for each platform.
Decide what you’ve got the time and energy for and remember that there is also a significant cognitive load with this kind of work beyond creating and sharing stuff. No one can be everywhere all at once so focus on the platform you’re most comfortable with. Above all, define your boundaries and stay consistent with your messaging.
As an aside, I’ve found social media more useful for connecting with other authors, translators, and media venue editors rather than with book-buying readers. This has helped me with getting my essays or reviews published but not so much with book promotion. Your mileage may vary.
O = Owned Media
This is stuff you own and manage—for example, a website, blog, or newsletter. There are lots of guidelines out there for how to create and manage these so we won’t get into that level of detail. But, as you can see from my own work, this is where I focus more of my time and energy because it feels more meaningful. My newsletters are part of my translation and writing practices. They’re also a form of literary connection and citizenship for me.
There is a cost and time element to the resources you can create here. But, in a way, your website or newsletter is the foundation for all of the above. It’s the first place people can find you and your work day or night. So it makes sense to invest a certain amount of effort here. This is also almost entirely within your control and can be done right away even if you’re not too tech-savvy.
As with all such things, creativity, consistency, integrity, and sincerity go a long way. Don’t spam people’s inboxes and don’t just focus on selling your book without providing any other value. Be respectful of your readers’ trust and time.
Three things to keep in mind about resources
a) I’m not a fan of book swag like stationery or decorative items. Some books do lend themselves well to such giveaways. And it’s nice to hand something physical to folks who show up to in-person events. But only invest in this kind of stuff if you believe it will get your readers to buy and read your book and share it on. Some folks believe that even a social share of a photo of the book’s cover image on a T-shirt is good advertising because it’s still reminding people about your book (in the marketing world, we call this “product placement.”) Your call but I don’t see this helping much with literary translations for adult readers. I’d rather have readers share about the book itself rather than the image of its cover on some other object.
b) The resources you create need to be easy to find. Don’t bury them on your website or spam people with them.
c) All such resources need to be consistent with the messaging you’ve crafted around your book in point 2 above so that it will attract the attention of the readers you’ve identified in point 1. This may seem obvious but, well, I’ve seen some major disconnects between what a book is about and how it’s marketed or promoted.
Now, I know there’s a lot of information here. And, for the most part, I’ve kept it generic enough. Next week, we’ll wrap this up with a few translation-specific and tactical suggestions for how to prioritize and manage what you choose to do from the above. One last reminder for now: writing (or translating) and publishing, with all that it entails, are two different things. The latter requires business-minded approaches if we are to do it well enough.
In the meantime, let me know if you have any questions, thoughts, or suggestions about any of the above in the discussion area below.