Wednesday 22 October 2014

Royalty-split deals for translators - all aboard the crazy train

I've just had a very very strange encounter with a friend who is trying to build a side business for translating fiction. (We were also discussing her translating a few short pieces for me next year, something I'm shying away from, because I've crunched some numbers and can't currently afford to pay a translator anything approaching fair wages.)
And yes, cost is a big issue, especially for self-publishers and small presses. (M/m has been trying to push into foreign markets, some with decent results, others with awful results: in essence, it's a matter of under-spending and delivering sloppy results.) Cost has definitely held me back so far.
So, to solve the cost problem, some self-publishing people are advocating what they call the "royalty split". It looks great on paper: Translator does all the work, including quality control, editing, proofing, and gets 50% of the net proceeds from Amazon, while the original author gets 50%. Sounds fair, doesn't it?
Except it stinks.
Let's look at a real case that my hopeful translator friend is planning to jump on. I'm strongly advising her against it, and the numbers will show why.
Let's assume a full-sized novel of 80,000 words or about 250 pages. A translator would probably take about 100 hours to turn the book around. I'm pulling this number out of the ether, correct me if I'm far off the mark, but here's a discussion that seems to bear out my estimate.

S/he'd have to be damn amazing to turn in clean copy (most royalty-split deals assume the translator does EVERYTHING, including editing, proofing, quality control of the finished files). So assume we're having an absolutely amazing translator who does a great job in 100 hours and delivers a print-ready, layout-ready book.
The book in question is the second book in a series in a mainstream genre (not m/m), priced at 2.99. 

In my experience, all series "fade", in other words, every next book in a series sells 10-20% less than the one before. 
The current target-market Amazon sales rank of the first translated book in the series is about 800,000.
Based on my sales in the same target market (my book, launched at a similar date, has a sales rank of 50-60,000, which, I just checked, translates to TEN sales a month). Based on the 800,000 number, I expect that other book to sell maybe 1 copy a month. 

The translator of that book may or may not have signed a royalty-split agreement, but the fact is, that book doesn't even sell two copies per month, and it's priced at 2.99. In other words, the translator can't even buy a cop of coffee for her monthly payout. I hope to gods s/he asked for a downpayment or an advance or ANTHING.
Because, at an estimated 1/month (leaving the currency out), it'll take her decades, if not centuries, to get paid a fair wage, which I'd define as at least minimum wage, which is nowhere near what a qualified translator would ask for managing such a project and all the grunt work that goes into it.
The self-publishing advocated (who otherwise make a HUGE amount of sense) like royalty-split because they say it's a "fair" split of risk for the author and translator. 

That's bollocks. There's almost zero risk for the author (if the translation ends up sucking, just get a new word slave), and all the risk is with the translator. It's madness. In my humble opinion (as somebody who's done translating and editing), it's immoral.

At the very least, if you should consider agreeing to such a deal, make sure the author has a track record and actual SALES. And plan for the worst-case scenario: namely, author sells 1 copy a month or less. Make sure you're still OK working for free, because that's pretty likely going to happen.

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