Aliefka Bijlsma was born in the Caribbean but has lived all over the world. She is an author and screenwriter who is also an e-publishing pioneer in Holland, where she now lives. Her most recent novel, The Consul General’s Wife, came out as a free e-book achieving 50,000 downloads, after being published conventionally. One critic compared the book to Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece Under the Volcano. I talked to her about her plans to e-publish an English translation.
You’ve published two novels in Holland, had a play performed, a screenplay produced – why are you taking this step into self-publishing?
Basically: because I can! My second novel, The Consul General’s Wife, was published eighteen months ago in Holland. It did well, but these days if you aren’t an immediate bestseller bookstores will not keep stocking up on your book. As an author, the moment you have been launched you already feel yourself disappearing under the mountain of monthly releases. I felt really dissatisfied and frustrated, as I had invested so much into this novel. I had even moved my husband (at the time) and two-year-old to Brazil in order to research it. And to then have to sit back and watch my book fade away… A Brazilian publisher picked up the rights, and that was about it in terms of foreign interest. I figured I could keep moaning and complaining but why not try doing everything I could myself? The beauty being that these days as an author you actually can, now that self-publishing is an option. Mind you, I could have never done this without there being a publisher to start off with, for reasons that will become clear below.
How exactly are you going to be e-publishing the book?
First and foremost through Amazon. Amazon makes it so easy to do and generally speaking, people who buy on Amazon love reading. I like the thought that I’m selling my book on a platform for people who genuinely appreciate literature. That way it doesn’t feel like I’m simply throwing it out there for grabs. Obviously, the huge challenge I’m facing is how do I make sure those Amazon Kindle owners know about and find my book? It’s as hard to be noticed digitally as it is in print, no illusions there. I firmly believe that the most important part of all this is making sure you’re delivering quality, especially when self-publishing. I myself am confident enough to do this because it has already been officially published in Holland. I’m hoping that in part, the content will work its magic. For the rest I’m going to do everything within my means to bring attention to The Consul General’s Wife. Through twitter, facebook, emails to everyone I know who speaks English and so on, approaching blogs, and doing some shameless self-promotion. The fact that people have invested in the translation makes doing all this easier. Doing nothing isn’t an option, I simply have to!
I’m interested to see what will happen when Apple steps up to the plate. If the timing is right, I’d definitely consider putting it on the Apple self-publishing platform too. When I launched The Consul General’s Wife as a free eBook, I specifically targeted iPad owners by making news of it through Apple communities in Holland, such as iphoneclub.nl and ereaders.nl. It’s been downloaded 50,000 times since. Definitely worth investigating!
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a writer organising the publication of a translation of their own book. How does it feel to be a pioneer?
Both scary and liberating. I was a pioneer in Holland for putting my published novel out there as a free eBook too. It generated heaps of attention and discussion. I was the “first Dutch author” to do this. Wasn’t I ruining the market? Wasn’t I creating expectations amidst consumers that valuable things should be for free? Quite a few people were not amused, especially not the bookstores. Which was insane when you think of it, because 50,000 people had downloaded my novel, know my name, chances are they’d like to buy a printed copy too. But only if they’re reminded of it when entering a bookstore. But none of the bookstores picked it up. Bookstores were “against eBooks” is what they said. It really is baffling, because they could have used it to their benefit.
I do really want to stress though, the main reason for my giving my eBook away for free was a very simple one: I wanted to reach readers. And it’s the same with the translation. I just want people to read my book, that’s all! I spent four years of my life writing it. This is what I gave up my career as a lawyer for, and more. I’d actually give this translation away for free too, if it weren’t that I feel a moral obligation towards investors in making sure they get their money back.
But being a pioneer is scary. When you do things other people haven’t done before, people love to warn you you’re going to fail. “You do realize how hard it is to sell 10,000 books?” I suppose they worry for me. But yes, I do realize, thank you very much.
I believe you’re financing the translation of your novel by crowd funding. Can you explain a little how that works?
I needed to find €9,000 to cover the costs of translation. The beauty of doing this as an eBook is that in theory there aren’t any other costs involved. Along the way I’m going to need people to help me design the cover (with a new English title) and all, but I’ll be giving them royalties for that.
I felt awkward having to ask one person to invest the full €9,000, so I didn’t pursue that route. Then two things happened: the Dutch government decided to cut down on subsidies for the creative sector, including the literary sector. The government started advocating that creatives should find their own way, look for private funding and that kind of thing. In other words, it started feeling more normal for creatives to seek private funding. Next, my free eBook hit the 50,000 download mark. It had been getting good reviews by bloggers and so the idea to have it translated gained momentum. A Facebook friend suggested I split the €9,000 up into equal bits. Great suggestion! I posted it up on Facebook and within 48 hours I had found enough people interested in participating. Most investors are stepping in because they love the feel of the plan, it’s a statement in a way. It’s modern and exciting.
The offer I made to the crowd-funders was this: they each participate with €500. I told them I’d sell the book on Amazon for $2.99. Every cent earned first goes back to the investors, in equal shares pro rata their participation. After they have been fully paid back and other unforeseen costs have been covered, then come the royalties. The pool of investors get 20% net-revenues, and the 80% is shared between my publisher, the translator, myself and anyone else I may need assistance from along the way. I’m lucky to have a publisher who is facilitating all this. My publisher had to license the rights for me to do this, and she’s been a good sport. We limited this adventure to the worldwide distribution of the English translation, only as an eBook and for a period of 5 years.
Obviously, the translator is crucial in a project like this. How did you find yours?
I am extremely lucky to have found Kate Brown who was willing to do this. Kate Brown is a (screen) writer who lived in Holland for a long time and who I already knew from the film-scene. She recently moved to Berlin. She often translates screenplays from Dutch to English. By chance, she was in-between jobs and felt excited by the plan. This is going to be the first novel she’s translated, but there’s not a single doubt in my mind that she’s going to do a great job. She knows my work and style and is an excellent writer herself. Kate is blogging about her experiences translating my novel here.
If it turns out I need an editor in final stages, I’d use the services of Cheri Magid who I’ve worked with before. She’s incredibly good too. I highly recommend her as an editor. This is her website: www.thewritedraft.com
I do firmly believe that if anyone considers doing this, it’s essential to invest time (and if necessary: money) in finding professionals who understand your writing and are as determined as you are to perfection. Like said before: it all starts by providing quality. The book has to be good. Surround yourself with skilled people. For example, make sure you study the translator’s work, don’t simply take the first one available or the cheapest.
Why is it important to you to have this book translated into English?
You’re right, it is very important to me. The reason being: I was raised all over the world and my former education was 100% English. However now, after 20 years of having lived and worked in Holland, my English has gone rusty. I only dare write short blog entries in English on www.aliefka2day.com. Having this book translated is an emotional decision, more than a rational decision. All my friends and acquaintances in countries like Ghana, the US or England (yes, lived there too) can then read it if they like. Also, I feel the themes I write about have international appeal.
Traditionally, UK mainstream publishers argue that Brits aren’t interested in books in translation (unless they’re Scandinavian crime novels, of course!). What makes you sure there’s an English-speaking audience for your work?
The answer to that is very simple: I’m not sure. Not sure at all. I’m very much aware of how many brilliant English and American authors there are out there. And of how closed that market is to people like me. I try not to think about it too much as it scares the hell out of me. l’ll have to wait and see. Would it help, do you think, if I scream off the top of my lungs that The Consulate General’s Wife has been compared to Under The Volcano? Looking at it the other way: this is when, potentially, authors have the chance to prove publishers wrong. By self-publishing the books publishers ignored and (hell, why not) suddenly making millions. “Yes we can.”
Are you excited about the possibilities opened up by e-publishing?
Very much so!! Like most authors it initially freaked me out. I felt there were all sorts of things going on “out there” but had no idea how to position myself within that. It seemed I was missing out on so much. My use of the digital platforms came simply from personal desire and need, and not from thinking in terms of gain. And once you dip your toe in, you realize how endless the possibilities are, how exciting they are too. I only wish publishers in Holland would start seeing the digital developments as possibilities instead of as threats. Once that happens, publishers and authors can become partners in crime and everyone will benefit. I am convinced of that.
Thank you so much Roger, for this interview!
You can find links to all previous Adventures in e-Publishing here.