Samantha Steele, Assistant Literary Agent at the French Publishers’ Agency, explains the world of literary translation and how she got her start in the field. Then, she invites you to follow in her (and many other great pros’) footsteps!
Unlike a lot of young publishing professionals, Samantha Steele knew she wanted to work in publishing early in her college career. In fact, she even knew what she wanted to do within the industry, and as a student at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study she designed a specialized major around her passion: literary translation. During a full year abroad in Paris (she’s bilingual), Samantha interned in the rights department of a French publisher, learning as much as she could about the passage of rights from one publisher—and one country—to another. Then, as my fellow intern at Scholastic, she focused on the editorial side of the bargain, reading countless queries in French and making recommendations for titles to acquire and translate. Now, as an Assistant Literary Agent at the French Publishers’ Agency, she combines both of those skill sets in one amazing job.
If you’re a fan of world travel, you read widely across cultures (or you’d like to start reading more widely), and you’re still looking for the right publishing role for you, you might just want to consider following in her footsteps!
Samantha raves about her job. “It’s exciting to sell a book in translation. It’s empowering to bring something from another country to America, to extend the lines of cultural communication a little farther. [At the French Publishers’ Agency,] we live and work in this kind of in-between space. We are not of France and we are not of America. We exist as a branch between the two and as such see things that no one else does. We are aware of two worlds at once, and that is both very cool and very weird.”
Like most publishing employees, Samantha’s hard-pressed to define a “typical day.” On any given morning, you might find her reading submissions from French publishers; writing pitches to American editors; meeting with agents, editors, scouts, and translators; corresponding with French foreign rights agents; helping editors apply for grants to fund translations; drafting contracts; processing royalty statements; attending editorial meetings; creating catalogs of the agency’s current titles; or all of the above. She also supports the office staff by working with interns, fixing the copier, running errands, and all those other typical early-career duties.
Since such a huge part of the job involves working directly with the text—or, sometimes even harder—singing its praises to editors who haven’t been able to read all of it, I asked Samantha how she feels about the books she works with. “Oh, the biggest perk is the books!” Samantha tells me. “Translated books usually stand out from the current publishing scene. That is the fun and the interest in publishing them: to add spice and diversity and a little flavor of the unknown.”
Are you sold yet? If you want to work with foreign rights in any capacity, Samantha recommends developing an in-depth understanding of each of the markets with which you work, both in America and abroad, so you can judge how a book would fit into each. But you don’t have to have worked in publishing abroad to gain that understanding. You could study and intern abroad, or even be brave enough to take your American-market knowledge with you to another country, and learn their culture on the job there.
But a career in foreign rights isn’t without its challenges, Samantha warns. “It’s hard to sell a book across a language barrier and a cultural divide,” Samantha confided. “They follow the cultural norms and literary traditions of another country and so may seem strange or unusual, and this can make it difficult to find a place for them on American bookshelves.” Agencies and foreign rights professionals, along with invested editors and authors, often struggle to get these books the attention they need from marketing and sales teams.
And the biggest challenge to acquiring a foreign manuscript is also the most rewarding: actually reading the manuscript. Most editors aren’t able to read entire submissions in a foreign language—either because their language skills are too rusty, or because their time is too limited—and the process for translating a book is often too expensive to be completed before a sale is guaranteed.
And of course, as publishing as a whole shrinks, so too does translation, one of its more expensive niches. But nonetheless, Samantha assures me that young hopefuls can count on this wing of the industry sticking around. “The digital revolution has actually given back to translation; websites like Words Without Borders, Three Percent, and Publishing Perspectives have sprung up to support literary translation, giving translators and foreign authors the praise and press they deserve.” And some agencies, the French Publishers’ Agency among them, are even reaching out to new talent and offering resources to help them succeed.
Along with the German Book Office, the French Publishers Agency will host a happy hour this month in an effort to encourage networking between young publishing professionals and veterans in the field of literary translation. The event will be held on Tuesday, August 30th. For more information and to RSVP (Elisabeth Watson and I will be there, and hope to see you!), contact Samantha at publishingtheworld at gmail dot com. Be sure to bring your (possibly bilingual) business cards and plenty of questions.