Friday 30 May 2014

Fantasy - crossing the border.

 On the face of it there's little difference here. The same book, two languages. Similar covers. There are actually slightly more native Spanish speakers in the world than English speakers so both markets are large and of similar size.

In fact the only noticeable difference is the title. In Spanish it's a rather generic 'Prince of Evil'.

I found out this week that there won't be a Spanish King of Thorns or Emperor of Thorns. I got paid my advances but Principe del Mal didn't sell well enough for the Spanish publisher to want to sink the extra cost of translation in, so they cut their losses.

Why did a trilogy that has sold over a million copies world wide and is still going strong sell not much more than 0.1% of that number in Spanish? National taste? Marketing? I really don't know.

What I do know is that it's a sobering fact. If I were Spanish my books may very well have flopped and I would have disappeared from the shelves with scarcely a whimper.

I've no deep insight to offer here, just questions to offer up. Did a butterfly beat its wings one way in Spain and another in the UK/US? Is success so ephemeral? Or does a road trip of a few hundred miles from London to Madrid really bring around some deep seated difference in reading preferences?

One surprising wrinkle is that much of the Broken Empire trilogy is actually set in Spain! How many fantasy books can you say that for?

My books have been published in 25 languages and in some translations they sell very well. In Brazil (where they use the titles I gave the books) the Broken Empire trilogy have sold many tens of thousands of copies in hardcover. They sold well in Hungary, Poland, and in France. Less well in Germany and Italy. Who knows why? I can't give a full list though as sales figures from overseas publishers are as rare as very rare things (*).

(*) I save the good analogies for books.

UPDATE: The Spanish rights for the trilogy have all reverted to me, so it could be sold, along with The Red Queen's War trilogy and the Book of the Ancestor trilogy whenever a Spanish publisher shows interest.

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  1. It's probably a whole host of things. Perhaps the integrity of the writing didn't hold up under translation? Perhaps cultural differences meant that the audience didn't connect to it as much? The marketing was less substantial or just not as successful? The title turned people off? It didn't have as much coverage by reviewers and/or bloggers? Another point to think about is the readers' engagement with you through this blog, social media, events ... unless those Spanish speakers also speak English, none of that is reaching them.

  2. I would say that there are a large number of spanish speakers who read books in English regularly, and therefore have already read it in the original (much better, in my opinion)

  3. ¡I'm spanish and I'd read Prince of thorns and loved it! I think the marketing in Spain was awful, and spanish publisher didn't make it well. I'm a blogger and made a review of the book in may 2012:
    Don't know what spanish publishers expected but I know the other people the read the book liked it as I did.
    Is so sad that I can't finish to read the trilogy in spanish :(

  4. I have to agree, not everyone is reading the translation (I surely didn't) and a bad translation can make a huge difference.
    I don't know about the Spanish version, but at least I can assure that you got lucky with the German translator. He's well known and, for example, translating Terry Pratchett since the beginning.
    (Though the German title is just as generic as he Spanish one - translates as Prince of Darkness - sad, very sad...)

  5. Sometimes you cannot figure out why some authors/books don't sell well in another country. Steven Saylor e.g. never quite made it on the German market and his translations were good and I really have no idea why. He even fit into the popular genres at this time.

    But often you can blame one or more of these things:

    1. Title/Cover: The "Safehold" series by David Weber e.g. got some renown in English, but in German the books were split in multiple small books and called "Nimue Alban" after the main character who actually acted as "Merlin Anthrawes" for over 10 years. I guess I have to explain, Nimue is only some kind of robot with the memories of the original Nimue and to better work in the Safeholdian society she picked a male body and name to better fit in and became Merlin Anthrawes already on the very first pages. So the Germans have a Safehold series about a Nimue Alban who barely gets mentioned for over a decade and believe it is Science Fiction but then get shocked when they realize it's SciFi but mostly placed in the Age of Rifles/Sail on an earth-like world.

    2. Another chance to fail is the translation, but your German translator is really awesome.

    3. Again, the cover by which you should never judge a book. ;) Yours isn't too bad, but for some Chalion series novels by Lois McMaster Bujold they just used the Song of Ice and Fire covers with small images of the heads of major Game of Throne characters. Now that was awful! Not even close to any character in the novels

    Ever more people also rather read the original and are lost for the native language market, but I think that's still not a major influence at the moment.

    Regarding different mentality and reading habits, I think that's definitely true but mostly English authors have shaped the Fantasy genre and translations abound. So what you write is actually not that alien to foreign readers.

    In the end one can really believe in the Butterfly Effect. Maybe it would just have taken one great review and it might have turned out differently.

  6. Why would you waste time, effort and future marketing budget on redoing the cover slightly differently?

    Also, the sword on the Spanish version is a bit naff (Americans: lame), and would put me off (a bit).

  7. As a native Spaniard (from Barcelona), I always found translations not to be fair to the original work. I've bought all 3 broken empire books in English (audiobook) and loved them the way they are, I am not sure I would get the same feeling with the Spanish version.

    For instance, I'm reading 1984 in Spanish right now and it is an example of a poor translation IMHO: there are sentences that I feel are literal translations of English and, in Spanish, they sound strange as they're not commonly used.

    I have also to admit that, after years or reading technical books in both Spanish and English, I've grown a distaste for translated books in Spanish as they're translated by non-technical people and they tend to translate every single word, technical or not. But this is my opinion, mileage may vary among other Spaniards :).

    PD: Mark, do you know why Prince of Fools is not available in audible for EU mainland? I can find one version in and another one in for the US, but when I search using a Spanish billing address I find none. Any idea why and which version will be available? Thanks

    1. I don't, Jordi, sorry. I've never had any communication from the audiobook people - I get my info from Amazon just like everyone else. Your best bet is to ask Harper Audio - on twitter (@HarperAudio) or online (there's a customer service tag at the bottom). Good luck!.

    2. I actually like Mark lawrence's books. What I don't like is English. In my country we are forced to take only English and my mother tongue is no longer represented in academics, even though Afrikaans is a fully-developed scientific language. So yeah, I hate English, going to learn Spanish, French, and German so as to not be forced to read in a language that is killing my own.

  8. Hi, Mark.

    It's the first time I write here, so nice to meet you! :) I own a Spanish review/news blog called La Espada en la Tinta ('The Sword in the Ink', if you prefer), and the afwul management your books had in Spain are often matter of discuss (here, for example:

    It's not a matter of translation (answering to Josh), becasuse I usually read in English and I enjoyed 'Príncipe del mal', never realizing of translation problems.

    Certainly, the spaniard editor (Minotauro) has not taken advantage of Prince of Thorns' sucess, due to a remarkable lack of advertisement related to the first book and the remain in the series. There a lot of fantasy literature fans that even didn't know the book and never heard of it, and this is obviously an epic fail because years ago Minotauro were one of the most promising publishers in Spain.

    It's a fact and a common attitude that some series that finally get published in Minotauro are abandoned, some times at the first book, others at the second (leaving the third one in complete oblivion). In some strange cases a series is finished, so buyers (and readers) tend to avoid the beginning of a new series, even if it is a very succesful one like 'The Broken Empire'. That climate of distrust leads to a very low sales index, and so on...

    You say that the second book in the series was paid (I'm sure it would haven benn translated like 'King of Evil' or something like that), and I am not surprised at all because there are other similar cases in which a series have been abandoned even when the translation (or cover art) has been paid. It's like Michael J. Sullivan 'The Riyria Chronicles' series: third book in the series cancelled even when traslation were on the way.

    It's a big problem with most series, and I could give you a whole buch of them, more than fourty or fifty that have benn abandoned (believe me). This is not a problem of spaniard fantasy literature readers, but of publishers and marketing priorities, prices (is more expensive a book in Spain than in Usa, for example) and other reasons. Publisher's fault most of the times.

    Finally, I cannont finish this post without contratulate you for 'The Broken Empire'. :) I read the first book in Spanish, and as you can imagine, I read in English the next ones (and I'll do the same with 'The Red Queen's War').

  9. There are several reason I write in English and one is the market. Sure, historical fiction is popular in Germany, but mostly the sort with female MCs and lots of Romance. I write more along the lines of Cornwell, Scarrow, Robert Low and their ilk, and while those are often avaliable in German translation, there are no original ones.

    It's even worse with Fantasy. If your name is not Wolfgang Hohlbein, German Fantasy won't sell. German translations of English Fantasy, on the other hand, sell like hotcakes.

    And even if I managed to get my books published in German, chance they would be translated into English is very slim. So I better write them in English to begin with.

    OK, and now I better go and do some more writing. My speed rivals GRRM, I'm afraid. :)

  10. Umm, well.... I am Spanish and, having read your books in English before I even knew there would be an Spanish version (and I fucking loved them by the way) I think I can tell you what the biggest problem was: THE TRANSLATION. Like, really, it was awful. It's not so much that the meaning of the sentences didn't come across as it was how they were adapted to spanish. Let me elaborate. You have a characteristic way of narrating (repeating words and structures, for example) that makes your books really interesting, and the Spanish version completely butchered it. I nearly cried when they translated "getting angry now. I don't like to get angry. It makes me angry" to "I aswered, more and more furious. I don't like getting angry, it makes me mad" or "old enough to slit you open like a fat purse" to "old enough to slit your neck open as it was a full purse" I mean....neck? full? full of what?

    One may not notice the horrible translation without reading both versions. But really, forget about the marketing, I couldn't get past first two or three chapters in Spanish. BUTCHERED.

    1. This is also Publisher's fault. They usually don't use good translators but cheap translators, and they use proofreaders only half of the time. It's their way to "save" money, and they don't realize that a bad product sells worse.

  11. I´m a Spanish reader, though I read the trilogy in english as the books were released. I would say that a lack of marketing from Minotauro is to blame here. However, we are sinking right now in a dire economic crisis and unemployment is really hurting book sales. Taxes have risen and people have less disposable income so that would explain why this series hasn't sold enough.

  12. Your update it's just what i was loooking for. I read "El príncipe del mal" in spanish and was years ago. Minotauro had that mitake with every saga that dosn't sell as they consider well done. In Spain are lot of readers bored about that situation and don't buy a book until the serie is end. Here we're legion of fantasy readers and writers, but editor aren't so good. Hope we can really read King and Emperor soon. Thanks for notice.

  13. Hello!
    I'm spanish and I was read Prince of Thorns and loved it.
    The work of the spanish publishers is horrible but I know that with other publisher the book will be a success. I hope you can publisher the rest of the triology in spanish and I would like the spanish publication of the The Red Queen's War series. All the world says that you are a excelent autor and it's time that Spain meet you.
    I hope can read your book in spanish soon :)

  14. Dame esperanzas de ver esta saga traducida a mi idioma porfavor ;-;
    Y por lo que sé. La traducción que hay hasta ahora comete la atrocidad de censurar las groserías.
    Porfavor, por piedad… dame mi príncipe de las espinas en español ;-;

  15. Yet another Spanish reader. I read nowadays in English mostly. I'm afraid it's a bit of a vicious circle. The Spanish SF&F fandom is much smaller than other countries (our cultural storytelling tradition tends towards realism more than fantasy). The figures for a sales success here would seem very low compared to figures in English. I'm not a publisher, but apparently the low sales figures mean that to be profitable, the price has to be relatively expensive. Also, because the market is not so healthy, many English books do not reach us, or when they do the translation is not the best, or the series are discontinued because of low sales. That makes fans mistrust and they tend to read in English if they can, which is cheaper, or wait until trilogies and such are published entirely. And piracy made possible by ebooks and eInk readers does not help. All that only makes sales even lower and so on. You have to realize, no one can live here on writing SF&F. All SF&F writers here need a day job to survive, and the very best ones tend to move on to historical fiction or YA or other genres where they can make a living. This difficult editorial situation does not help the readership grow.