By Eric Selland, legal, financial, and literary translator, poet and editor of an anthology of Japanese modernist and avant-garde poetry

Robin Birtle gave a very detailed presentation covering the history of e-books and the devices used for reading them, as well as the current condition of the e-book markets in the U.S. and Japan. Most of the presentation dealt with the ins and outs of the e-book market as well as various technical issues, then in the last section Birtle suggested a model by which translators might take advantage of new opportunities presented by e-books.

One thing is for certain – the e-book market will continue to grow until it becomes the dominant form of publishing. Books will always be around, but the most common way of accessing various kinds of content will be via the e-book. The key to e-books is the reader itself, the device used to download content and then read it. Ease of use and type of reading experience offered is what will make an e-book reader successful. Applications are not very important except for perhaps in the case of anime or other visually oriented content. For text, things should remain simple. At the moment Amazon’s Kindle dominates the market with a share of 60%. After Amazon, the Rakuten Kobo is doing fairly well. There is also Barnes & Noble, the i-pad and various smartphone versions. The reader needs to offer a comfortable reading experience similar to a book. An individual’s library can be stored on the server of the maker of the reader.
(Note: Birtle considers the Kindle the best reader available at this time.)

There are still various issues facing the e-book market. There is the question of pricing and who sets it (pricing is now set by publishers), and there is a tense relationship still between and publishers. In the U.S., sales tax is also an issue ( does not want to collect sales tax from states such as California which demand it). Some independent publishers are selling e-books on their own.

The important factor with e-books is that independent authors can take control of the publishing and distribution process and collect income directly from readers rather than going through a traditional publisher. This is essentially the same factor which is helpful to translators as well, since translators who deal with publications of various sorts often work as second tier authors. Traditionally, the publisher has acted as “gatekeeper” in selecting what they consider to be the best quality literature or the most marketable content. The problem with this approach is that since publishers need to make money, this means that there are a lot of good manuscripts that don’t get published. There has always been small press or vanity press to handle this situation, but now with e-books, it is even easier for independent authors to self-publish and retain control over the entire process.

Birtle predicts that in the near future most publications will be handled by e-books and traditional books will remain as a niche market. Social networks will also have an important role in promoting and disseminating publications (often by author pages of independent authors). Many in the e-book industry are also focused on the social aspect of reading where readers share their interests and what they are reading via social networks or book related websites. Major change in the publishing industry is expected due to the democratization of publishing via e-books.

Japan’s e-book market is a bit behind the U.S. but is expected to grow quickly. There are a large number of reading devices available, but there are also too many formats, which confuses things. But Rakuten Kobo seems to be gaining dominance. The main barrier in Japan is that publishers are still skeptical about e-books, and the relationship with is tense. That said, the response in the case of some publishers is to publish their own e-books. So the market is quickly developing. As the situation develops there should be opportunities coming up for E-J translators, since so much more is translated into Japanese than the other way around. E-J translators have a chance of gaining more business directly from publishers dealing in e-books.

Finally, what Birtle describes as opportunities for translators is essentially an entrepreneurial opportunity. Because of the open-endedness of the e-book market and the ability to take complete control, this means a translator could translate content she finds interesting, then publish and market it independently. There is also the option of finding an established e-book publisher who would be open to marketing a translated work. This is of course not for everyone. If you’re hoping to find e-book related work that is available right now and will pay you a good rate which will help pay your rent next month, then this may not be the thing for you. But it really opens up the options for people involved in literary, scholarly, and other non-fiction translation. Translators pursuing the above have already been taking on projects on their own and then taking the responsibility to sell the book to publishers. The e-book market simply provides a whole new range of options for getting something published and sold while avoiding the complexities of dealing with traditional publishers, who most often turn up their noses at translated works, assuming that they won’t sell. Translators can maintain their own relationships directly with authors, handle the publishing and publicizing end on their own (or find others to help), and come to an agreement with the author as to how income will be shared. There may be cases where an author has the funds to pay a translator up front for work done as well.

This was an intensely information-packed and highly professionally done presentation, though possibly frustrating for some individuals, not only because directly translation related information was somewhat sparse and left till the end, but was also as open-ended and in a state of development as the e-book market itself. However, this is an area which on a number of levels should take on more importance for translators in the future, so this is all highly useful information. The presentation did spark some debate on the JAT e-mail list as well, and this should also be a positive sign.

There is also a report by Matoko Tsutamura on this seminar in Japanese.