Faithful readers of this newsletter and attendees at the 58th ATA Annual Conference will know that Springer published my translation of a book by Poincaré in May 2017. The editor of this newsletter suggested to me that readers might be interested in hearing about my experience finding and working with a publisher. To tell that story, it is best to start at the beginning.
In March 2014 I started translating, from French into English, a book by Henri Poincaré that is considered a classic in the field of mathematical physics. I chose to translate this book because of my personal interest and with the goal of better understanding what Poincaré had done. That means that the translation was not commissioned or done under contract. I had no idea then whether it would even ever be published. I did however know that it could be published because there were no questions of copyright ownership on the original work; Poincaré died in July 1912. I also did enough checking to know that I could work in Microsoft Word and if necessary could do a conversion to LaTeX (a typesetting system popularly used in academia, especially in the sciences) if that was required for submission to a publisher.
As months and months went by and I kept coming back to work on the translation, I started to develop ideas and strategies for where and how the book would be published. I decided that I would not contact a publisher until I had a complete translation that I had edited on-screen. Also, I decided that self-publishing the translation would be a last resort; because of the specialist knowledge required to understand the material I was translating, it was clear that my target market would be academic and that I would need a publisher with access to that market—self-publishing would be a significant market barrier. To narrow the list of potential publishers, I looked for academic publishers that had already published books about Poincaré or his work. That led to a core list of the American Mathematical Society (AMS), Princeton University Press and Springer. I also had an informal discussion with a translator who had been an editor at Harvard University Press; that led to some good advice (more on that later) and the decision that the Press was unlikely to be interested in the book. After looking at websites of other possible publishers, I also added Cambridge University Press, Cornell University Press (I’m an alumni) and MIT Press to my list.
In March 2016 I finished a pass of on-screen editing of the complete translation of the book. I prepared single-page proposal letters for acquisition editors at the six publishers on my list. I tried to indicate why the book was relevant for them to publish and why it was worth publishing. I also stated that I had a complete manuscript that I was willing to share. I heard back from Cornell quickly: “We are not interested.” I also heard from Cambridge University Press fairly fast with some nice words about impressive effort and scholarly importance, followed by “It doesn’t fit into our catalog.” I also received an acknowledgment and promise to look at my proposal from Springer.
I heard from the AMS in June. Their management committee decided they were not interested; they thought it wouldn’t sell enough copies.
At about that time I prepared a version with Poincaré’s original work and my translation on facing pages that I had printed at Staples and I started editing it. While I was doing this editing, I also made notes in the margin (in a different color ink) of things I wanted to include in an “It’s in there!” section of the preface.
By August, about five months after I sent out the proposal letters, I had not heard from Princeton University Press or MIT Press at all, and had not heard from Springer beyond the editor’s acknowledgment that she had received the submission. I sent follow-up emails to MIT and Springer and a revised paper letter to Princeton. The following day (yes, really) I got a paper letter from Princeton responding to my original submission from March and indicating that my book didn’t fit their publishing plans. I got an email message from MIT apologizing for the delay and stating that they were forwarding the proposal to a different editor. I also got an email from the same editor at Springer apologizing for the delay (dealing with personal issues) and promising to look at the proposal.
In September I finished editing the paper copy and transferred my edits into the electronic copy. I never heard back from MIT Press. I started looking more at what was involved in self-publishing.
The next month, I got a second letter from Princeton University Press praising the scholarly importance of the project and apologizing for not having room in their catalog for such a worthy project. A couple weeks before the ATA Conference in San Francisco in 2016, I sent a third email to the editor at Springer. This time I got a real reply: “We are interested. Please fill out and return our submission form.”
I should emphasize that at this point, I had not sent my translation to any publisher. All discussions were based on what was in my proposal letter.
Finding a publisher took patience and persistence and then more of both.
When one story ends, another begins.
I filled out and returned their form. Beyond obvious questions like author, affiliation and completion schedule, it asked for key marketing advantages, my bio, a brief description of the book and a description of the target audience. (After one back-and-forth round of edits, the last two were used on the back cover of the book and the bio appears on the book’s page on the Springer website; except for the copyright page, pretty much everything in and on the book is my writing!)
And then I waited.
Just before Thanksgiving, I sent a follow-up email and was told that the proposal had been sent to the editor of a book series. The reasoning was that “books that are part of a series sell better.” (The book became volume 443 in the Astrophysics and Space Science Library.)
And I waited.
On December 6, I was sent a contract. I read it and compared it to the PEN model contract for literary translators (available online). I considered the advice that I had been given by the former Harvard University Press editor. Based on that I asked for:
- More: A higher percentage for royalties, more free copies for me.
- Escalating royalties: When the total number of copies sold reaches certain levels, the percentage for royalties goes up. The first bracket is 2000 copies sold.
- Reversion of copyright if the book goes out of print (see PEN clause 13).
- A commitment that my name would appear on the cover, and on the title and copyright pages (see PEN clause 11).
The contract already provided that I would have the final review of the page proofs of the book (see PEN clause 4). There was a good bit more in the contract but it looked reasonable. They didn’t offer an advance against royalties, and I didn’t ask for any. I also asked what they would do for marketing the book and how many copies they thought it might sell.
At this point things started to move fast. They replied the next day with a revised contract that included the higher percentage for royalties, all the free copies I asked for, and a schedule for the escalating royalties. (I didn’t ask for a particular schedule, but their proposed sales numbers and percentages looked okay.) They said that because they used a print-on-demand technology the book in effect would never go out of print and therefore a reversion of copyright clause was not meaningful. They said they couldn’t put anything about where my name would appear into the contract, but provided a sample cover from another book translation and said they would follow that example; they also agreed to review the cover design with me. (In the end, I was pleased with where and how my name appeared.)
The contract then went through a round of signatures and everything was done and signed within two weeks after I first received the contract.
I submitted the manuscript the day after the contract was signed and mostly things went pretty fast and smoothly from there.
Right away Springer asked for a list of head words for an index (and I provided two, one for persons and one for concepts) and a list of references cited by Poincaré. Producing the reference list was an interesting challenge, because Poincaré provided in-line references that ranged from incomplete to obscure descriptions. I had already looked for and at some while I was doing the translation; others I had thought wouldn’t be interesting. It is amazing how many scanned images of 19th-century books and journals are available on the internet. I found all the references without having to visit a physical library to look through rare books.
I was shown a couple drafts of the cover design and was consulted on some changes in the wording I had proposed for the subtitle of the book. I really liked the picture of Poincaré they had picked, my name was in the place and size I expected, and I easily agreed to the changes in wording.
In the manuscript I submitted I maintained page breaks so the page numbering matched Poincaré’s original work. Obviously this made editing easier for me. I asked the editor that the page breaks be maintained in publication. The outsourced layout service said that wouldn’t be possible and the editor didn’t argue the case for me. At the time I was disappointed; I had liked the bilingual layout (on facing pages) of the paper copy that I edited during the summer. I came to like, and now prefer, the layout without the page breaks matching the breaks in the source.
About March, I got copies of the page proofs (in PDF) and the manuscript that had been converted from Word to LaTeX and edited. I was able to use Word to compare the manuscript I had delivered to the edited one that was returned. There was very little editing and nearly all of it involved systematically applying the “house style”: They eliminated all contractions and added Oxford commas, and in the equations, they made the d (which stands for “derivative”) non-italic. They had not removed the page breaks correctly, leaving paragraph breaks that should’ve been closed up when the page break was removed. The page proofs had a small number of questions at the end of each chapter (e.g. “Where’s equation 4? The numbers go directly from 3 to 5.” Answer: “There was no equation 4 in the original and I didn’t renumber the equations.”)
More importantly, there was a serious problem with the formatting of many equations; most numerators and denominators in fractions were much too small, in many cases making parts of the equations unreadable. In the cases where I looked at the equation layout in LaTeX, I didn’t see any problem; I believe the issue was in a global option used by the layout service that wasn’t included in the file returned to me. I demanded that the problems with the page breaks and the equations be fixed and a new set of page proofs returned to me. The project manager at Springer agreed with me and I was copied on some emails with the supervisor of the layout service, who was persuaded to provide new proofs.
I got the new proofs in about a month and things went smoothly from there.
I was absolutely thrilled when the box with the author’s copies was delivered, unannounced, in early May. It took about 38 months from the time I started the translation to the moment I was able to hold the published book in my hands. The thrill still hasn’t worn off.
Bruce D. Popp, Ph.D. is a French into English scientific and technical translator.