New Spanish Books Interview with Andrea Montejo
A native of Colombia, Andrea Montejo graduated from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. She started her career in publishing at Harper Collins in New York, where she was one of the founding editors of Rayo, the company’s Latino and Spanish-language imprint.
In the almost ten years since leaving behind Rayo, and launching your own literary agency, how has the market for translations evolved?
It has changed a lot. I launched Indent at a time when translation was still relatively rare in the United States—at Rayo, part of our program focused on translating works from Spain and Latin America into English, but it was still a rare occurrence. At the time there was still the belief among US publishers that American readers were turned off by the idea of foreign surnames and a “translated by” mention on the cover or title page. But in the years since, there has been a definite shift: more and more works in translation are being published and some have even gone on to become bestsellers such as Elena Ferrante, Stieg Larsson, Joel Dicker, just to name a few. Publishers have started to publish works in translation the same way they would publish English-language titles—with similar marketing plans, publicity, strong print runs—and this, I believe, has contributed to much of the recent success. Publishers aren’t treating translated books like special exceptions; they’re being treated just like any other book they publish.
What steps would you recommend to a Spanish author trying to get published in the U.S. market?
The first step is getting an agent. While Spain and Latin American publishers are, in general, open to the possibility of working with authors directly, very few American publishers will consider authors who are not represented. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have an American agent; most Spanish agencies I know are well versed in the art of submitting to American publishers, but you absolutely must have representation. What matters most is finding an agent who will know what editors your work will potentially connect with. And obviously, find someone who is passionate about your work.
Another very helpful point is commissioning a sample translation of your work. While there are more and more US editors who can read Spanish (or other foreign languages) there are still many more who can’t, and it’s tremendously helpful for them to be able to get a first hand impression of the work. In considering works for translation, American editors rely on heavily on trusted reader’s reports but a sample translation of 5-10 pages will give them an idea of an author’s style and tone. Now, needless to say, the longer the translation, the better! I am always thrilled when I have a fully translated manuscript since it means I can submit it to a larger group of editors, including those who don’t read Spanish or don’t usually publish works in translation.
Would publishing short essays and stories first in magazines and periodicals to raise author visibility be a good strategy?
Absolutely. This is how many English-language authors first get published and it’s a great way to get an author’s voice out there. There are hundreds of literary magazines in the United States that publish fiction and some will even pay a small fee for publication. When it comes to presenting an author’s work to a publisher it’s great to already have a portfolio of work published in English, it gives the author a “track record” of sorts. That said, in order to make this happen, the author needs to pair up with a translator who will be able to get the short story or essay into English for submission to periodicals. While book editors are well equipped to consider works in translation based on a reader’s report and/or a sample, magazine editors will want to see the full text in English. I cannot stress enough the importance of working with a talented and reputable translator who will be able to give the work all the texture and nuance of the original text. A mediocre translation reflects poorly on the author’s work and it can make a huge difference in how an editor considers a piece for publication.
What would help you identify interesting authors from Spain?
In looking for Spanish or Latin American authors that might have potential for the US market, there are several factors I look at. First, and foremost, I am a reader so I look for good writing, a good story, something I can connect with. And something that I think will travel. This may sound silly but for me, if there isn’t that connection then I can’t do the work that follows. Second, I look at what distinguishes this book from the pack. Is it the sales track? Has the book sold incredibly well throughout the Spanish-speaking world? A good sales track in Spanish doesn’t necessarily mean a good sales track in English but it definitely helps in positioning a book for the US. On the other hand, there may be books that have sold modestly but what really makes them stand out is the fact that they have received extraordinary critical acclaim. Another factor I look at a lot is foreign rights: Has the book been translated into other languages? How many? For American editors it’s easier to consider a book that is on its way to becoming an international phenomenon; more so than a book that has done well in its country of origin alone.
What steps would you recommend cultural ministries take to increase the visibility of their authors within the U.S. market?
I think the translation grants are a huge step in increasing visibility in the United States, especially when it comes to literary fiction. While the larger houses are, for the most part, able to absorb the costs of translation, for the smaller independent houses that are truly at the forefront of publishing literature in translation, the ability to get a translation grant may very well determine whether or nor they can take a chance on a book.
It would be great, also, to support the promotion of the book be it though a travel grant for the author to come to the United States for events and media, or through publicity outreach to American media and organizations.
How important is it for a foreign author to take an active role in promoting their work in the U.S. market? How important is it for the author to speak English?
If in Spain it’s already important for an author to take an active role in the promotion of his/her book, in the US it’s even more so. Nowadays you can’t expect the publishers to do all the work and to be honest, you really shouldn’t. When a publisher decides to publish a book, no matter how wonderful and successful it might be, it’s taking a chance on that book and the author needs to work in tandem with the publisher in order to make the publication the biggest possible success. That means doing interviews, events, but also posting on social media writing articles/opinion pieces, and reaching out to readers through every possible mean. In that sense, it’s very important, and very helpful, if the authors speaks English and feels somewhat comfortable speaking about his/her work in English.
Is it easier for an author to publish his/her book in English if it has already been published in Spanish in the United States?
It’s a question I get a lot and I would say there is absolutely no relation between the two. Spanish-language publishing in the United States is a very particular market: it’s geared to the 55 million Hispanics in the United States. However, one must keep in mind that these 55 million Hispanics are a very particular group: while they come from 20 different countries they have their own media: newspapers, radio and television. And while a large percentage of Hispanics read and consume media in English, the Spanish-language trends hardly ever translate into English-language trends. If a book —or a TV show or a movie, for that matter— does extremely well in the Spanish-language market, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will do well in English. For example, the #1 bestseller in Spanish in the US right now is a book called Jugosa y fit by television personality Claudia Molina. She is widely popular in Spanish however English-dominant Americans have probably never heard of her.
However the trend does work in reverse: much like with any other language in the world, when a book does well in English, it’s success will carry on into the Spanish.
What advice would you give a Spanish author with regard to the U.S. publishing marketplace?
My advice would be to be smart about how and who you publish with in the United States. For so many authors publishing in the United States is the Holy Grail of publishing and it’s understandable why—the US is one of the largest book buying markets in the world and so many blockbuster trends originate here. But in my opinion, it’s not a goal that should be attained at all cost. My advice is to be as selective as possible when it comes to choosing where you are going to publish your book. Your dream might be to publish with one of the major American publishing houses but if you are a literary author, you might be better off working with a smaller independent publisher that will really get behind your work and get your book into the hands of its natural readers. At the same time, if you write commercial fiction, find a house that will be able to give you the type of promotion you are going to need to break out in a highly competitive market. Find out who publishes books you admire or feel your work is comparable to and go after those publishers first.
What are your projections for the percentage of translations in the U.S.?
I have neither the data nor the expertise to make such projections so I will leave this questions in hands of the expert on the topic: Chad Post, the brilliant editor of Open Letter Books and the Three Percent blog, a must read for anyone interested in the state of translation in the United States. According to Chad, who has been keeping track of how many translations are published every year in the United States, in 2008 (when he first started this exercise) just 360 titles were published. In recent years, that number has risen somewhere between 500 and 600 per year. While percentage-wise, it’s still not a number comparable to that of more translation-friendly markets such as Spain, France, Germany or Italy, it does represent an increase. And while an uptick in the number of books translated into English is reason enough to be optimistic about the future, where I see a true shift is in the way American readers are being introduced to works in translation: While it was once rare for a major newspaper to review a work in translation, translated works are now popping up in major literary supplements and “Best Books” lists in publications throughout the country. While it’s wonderful that more books in translation are being published in the United States, to me, what truly makes a difference is that they are finally—and truly—making their way to American readers.
In the New Spanish Books Website you'll find a guide to current Spanish titles with rights available for translation in the US, complete with reviews of titles selected by a panel of experts from the US and up to date information about the Spanish publishing scene, translation grants, Spanish literary prizes, recent translations, news and events in the US and more.
Read more here