SELF-e And The World’s Authors: Is English Our Lingua Franca?


‘Keep Calm And Study English’

“Since the smashing success of the first Harry Potter novel—which was a No. 1 bestseller in Germany in its English version at one point—we have evidence of English, as a reading language, to be a global phenomenon.”

Rüdiger Wischenbart is the Vienna-based publishing consultant who produces the Global eBook Report and directs the annual Publishers Forum in Berlin, Europe’s largest non-English-led publishing conference.

The international prominence of English and its implications in the book world, Wischenbart says, isn’t limited, as might be expected, to professional or science reading. “Many chain bookstores around the world,” he says, “carry English sections, and not only dedicated to travel guides and airport novels, but offering a fair representative choice.”

And a striking parallel is being reported by the BiblioBoard team working with Library Journal on the SELF-e program, which gives indie authors access to the US library system for their books.

To begin with, SELF-e is seeing remarkably robust submissions from non-US writers. The criterion is that a self-publisher or small press submitting a book to SELF-e must deliver that book in English. And while it might have been assumed that US-based authors would be the fastest and busiest in making submissions, only the state of California has more SELF-e submission on record so far than the international realm. (U.S. writers select a state in which their submissions are based. Non-U.S.-based writers choose “Outside U.S.” during the process, effectively creating a 51st state of international independent books.)

What’s more, however, the SELF-e team is seeing a remarkable range of non-English linguistic provenance among the thousands of submissions coming in.

At least 23 percent of international submissions to SELF-e, all books in English, have come from non-English-speaking countries, representing five of the world’s seven continents.

Countries leading the way include India (where Hindi is the official language), Italy, Mauritius (where more than 70 percent of the population is reported to speak French), and The Netherlands.

No wonder that when I was waiting for gelato late one autumn evening near Bari in Italy during Elizabeth Jennings’ Matera Women’s Fiction Festival Writing Conference, I looked down at the counter and found an advertisement for Language School di Rosanna Maragno: “Keep Calm And Study English.” (On the reverse: “keep calm e prova una lezione gratis“—”keep calm and try a lesson free.”)

‘Pinch Yourself’

Vancouver-based publishing consultant Thad McIlroy is the author of Mobile Strategies for Digital Publishing and the co-author with Renée Register of The Metadata Handbook, two highly regarded industry manuals.  As a speaker in the Novelists Inc. Conference’s First Word program in October, McIlroy was quick to remind independent authors that those working in English have many, many markets available to them before they need to even think about opening up non-English territories.

“The numbers always astound me,” McIlroy says in an interview for this article. “In fact, if you’re an author working in English, you look at this and pinch yourself, thinking it can’t possibly be this big.

“People think about Chinese and the growth of China and the growing power within the Chinese publishing market. But there are thought to be more people learning English in China now than there are people speaking English in the United States.”

Corroboration for this strong interest in learning English came quickly at the Novelists Inc. event where Jim Bryant and Scott Beatty of Trajectory—which holds ebook distribution contracts with some of China’s largest retail and publishing platforms—talked about an interest among Chinese readers in books that use some or all of a list of about 300 English words. That list, Bryant and Beatty say, has been created by Beijing as a guide to the most important keywords for Chinese English speakers to master to begin approaching a practical use of English.

“And when we look at English being spoken both as a native language and as a second language worldwide,” McIlroy says, “the number we’re using now is about 1.5 billion.

“Another way to think of this is to say that one in five people in the world population is speaking English, either natively, as a second language, or as a foreign language.”

McIlroy is hesitant to declare that we’re moving toward “a world of English.” Like many of us, he travels to parts of the world in which no English is regularly spoken. “Always a good reality check,” he says with a laugh. “There are really people getting through a whole day speaking Spanish.”

But on the other hand, most of us who frequently travel internationally have had the experience of finding English in the most unexpected places, at least in the main metropolitan centers.

Whatever may be the trends in spoken language, it’s clear that the bookish universe is being sharply energized by English-language markets. One of the strongest tip-offs: translation.

Trends In Translation: AmazonCrossing And Hispabooks

Respected as the leading appraiser of translation activity in the publishing market today, the University of Rochester-based Chad W. Post maintains his Three Percent site as the seat of his Translation Database, our key source of information on the topic.

In an interesting article this month, Post talks of finding that his original estimation of translation output by AmazonCrossing was far below its actual performance. “A PR person for Amazon told me that I was missing a ton of AmazonCrossing titles. Eventually she sent me a list of all the books they published in 2015.”

The new picture Post puts together places new emphasis on the lead held by AmazonCrossing—which is an imprint of Amazon Publishing or “APub,” not a self-publishing element of the company. Post counts some 549 titles released in translation in 2015, 468 works of fiction and 81 of poetry. This output is generated by 151 publishers, he writes, and the original works represent 48 languages by authors in 79 countries.

When he looks at the top publishers of translations in 2015, however, the standout message is, Post writes, that AmazonCrossing’s output is triple that of any other publisher’s:

What obviously stands out is Amazon, sitting up there with 75 titles—three times more than the next press. Three times! They make up almost 14% of all the translations included on their own. That’s incredible.

In footnotes to his article, Post notes that while in the ascendancy in translation, Seattle seems peculiarly quiet about so much good work. AmazonCrossing, headed by Sarah Jane Gunter, now holds an admirable lead in translation—and in October during our interview with Gunter at Frankfurt Book Fair, the company released a $10 million grant to facilitate a handsome new open-submission policy. But frankly so much good work does seem to be getting a rather muted presentation from the company. Post:

Sure, there aren’t many outlets reviewing translations at all, and I’m sure there’s a widespread bias against books coming out from Amazon, but I also don’t think they’re doing all that they can to get the word out within the existing community of people interested in international literature…Maybe they don’t need to, instead relying on direct marketing to readers. But I feel like more could be done, and it’s sort of unfair to some of these books.

For our purposes in looking at the plethora of English in the world market today, it’s worth noting that while American authors are gaining wider readerships in non-English territories thanks to AmazonCrossing’s work, many of its lead offerings are coming into English. Some of the best offerings for English-language readers include Chinese author Feng Tang’s smart Beijing, Beijing translated by Michelle Deeter, and the unsettling, lyric Nowhere To Be Found, the latter longlisted for the prestigious 2016 PEN Translation Prize. It’s written by the author Bae Suah and translated from the Korean by Sora Kim-Russell.

Many will watch for the English debut in late January of author Amabile Giusti with AmazonCrossing’s When In Rome, translated from the Italian by Sarah Christine Varney.

And note that there are many more efforts to bring books into English from other languages.

Wischenbart supplies us with a robust example, the Madrid-based Spanish-into-English publishing house Hispabooks. While AmazonCrossing is making its mark in part by offering romance and other genres alongside literary work, The four-year old Hispabooks headed by Ana Pérez Galván and Gregorio Doval focuses on “literary fiction which really makes a difference.”

Special care goes into the design and presentation of the Hispabooks catalog, with engaging cover art and strong translation. For example, here is last year’s Antón Mallick Wants To Be Happy by Nicolás Casariego, translated from the Spanish by Thomas Bunstead.

In pointing to Hispabooks, Wischenbart says, “In the past few years, an increasing number of publishers from non-English countries have started to distribute some of their literature directly in the English language, with digital helping in the exercise. And I am not surprised if self-published authors do follow the practice, too.”

And as new and bracing as we may find this at times, Wischenbart reminds us that all is not terra nova here: “Let me add candidly that bilingual reading—in a reader’s mother tongue, and in a foreign language—isn’t a terribly new phenomenon at all. Think of all readers across the Commonwealth, for whom this is just normal. It was the same across Europe in some countries with French.

“In Romania under communism, the literary elite in Bucharest knew everything about the French Nouveau Roman in the 1970s. And a century ago, all across Central Europe, the well-educated read, also, in German.”

And what, then, can we make of this rising tide of world literature aimed, via SELF-e and other means, into the English-language markets?

This Guy Is Publishing The Book

Publisher Tom Chalmers’ Legend Press in London is publishing a novel by William Thacker in 2016 titled, yes, Lingua Franca. Okay, not quite the same subject: when we use the phrase, we mean a language deployed over a vast swath of the world population, a commercial tongue, an uber-language. Thacker’s book has a richly darkening turn to it: Lingua Franca is “a naming rights agency committed to renaming every UK town after a corporate sponsor.”

While we await the May release of the Thacker book, Chalmers—in his role as CEO of the IPR License international rights platform— gives us two points to contemplate in our considerations of the “flight to English” we seem to see in books today.

“First, despite some growth in Germany,” he says, “and a few other non-English-language speaking countries—plus the start of increased translation services for authors—the self-publishing boom to date has been in English-language books: in particular in the US followed by the UK. Therefore it’s no surprise that there is great demand for services such as SELF-e, which require English-language texts. And many self-published authors are looking to ensure they have their work available in English.”

This, of course, is an important observation and parallels the multi-lingual releases of some albums by singing artists. Many years ago, Italian Eros Ramazzotti was recording albums in both Italian and Spanish editions. That trend has only expanded and authors, like musical performers, do well to make their work accessible to multiple territories.

“Secondly,” Chalmers says, “in the traditional publishing market there are still barriers to fully opening the translation market. Although, with the Chinese government pushing to export more Chinese content globally and some other non-English language markets seeing growth, the English-language market share is likely to remain the same or decrease a little over the coming years.

“However, one trend that will strengthen it is increasing partnerships between English-language publishers, such as ventures between US, UK and Australian publishers, which are becoming more frequent and take advantage of the today’s global connecting capabilities.”

Digital Bridges

Chalmers is right, of course. Even in the largest publishing houses, we see interesting new developments in international book sales.

For example, when interviewing Judith Curr, publisher of the Simon & Schuster Atria Books division for The Bookseller ahead of her appearance at our FutureBook Conference in London, she told me that Atria has a tradition of releasing books across many territories “on the same day and in the same edition.” This is innovative in the traditional publishing world and is made easier by the distribution capabilities of the digital dynamic.

Linguistically, it seems, Curr may have been ahead of many of us for some time on the primacy of English: when her company began rolling out Rhonda Byrne’s global hit The Secret in 2007, every translation carried the logo-styled title in English. In non-English markets, the translated title was added below.

Wischenbart takes the high view: the arrival of English as the book planet’s language is evolutionary, ongoing, unfinished:

“We have seen exports from the UK growing steadily for a good decade,” he says, “not so much from the US though. And we have a number of countries, especially in Europe where translations from English have felt growing competition from readers going directly for the English original. This is the case for Denmark, Sweden—and also The Netherlands, even though anecdotal insights from Dutch colleagues have it that overall English-language sales among Dutch readers have not grown dramatically in recent years.”

As so frequently, though, we’re stopped from having a clear picture, and exact numbers on books, especially digital books, in any language are simply not to be had. The proprietary claims to sales data made by the major retailers keep us, as The Bookseller’s Philip Jones likes to say, studying our markets “by candlelight.”

“What happens really, in detail,” Wischenbart says, “we don’t know. Because a huge market share of English reading—and especially so when it comes to ebooks—goes through the pipes of Amazon, and to a lesser degree Apple, Kobo and Google, who all are famous for not sharing sales data.”

But if the rapid response of authors from so many countries to the SELF-e offer of free access to the vast US library system is any indication, along with new and accelerated translation and digital marketing capabilities, it does look as if the question of a lingua franca for the world of books can be answered “yes”—in English.


SELF-e, a joint offering of Library Journal and BiblioBoard, is a client of Porter Anderson Media.