Each year ALTA welcomes hundreds of translators, editors, booksellers, and readers to a celebration of literature in translation at our annual conference. For many decades, the bookfair has been part of this gathering, showcasing books translated from around the world by ALTA members.
We have recently received public and private expressions of frustration with the management of the bookfair, specifically around the lack of availability of certain titles.
Just as the conference has grown and developed over the years, so has the bookfair. In its earliest days, ALTA members were encouraged to bring a copy of their translations for an exhibition: books were not for sale, but for display only. In recent years, ALTA has partnered with a local bookseller in each city where the conference is held: ALTA collects book requests from translators attending the conference, while the bookseller orders titles, transports books, and staffs the bookfair.
The truth is that finding a bookseller willing to run the bookfair has consistently posed a challenge, namely because the bookfair is a phenomenal amount of work. It requires the bookseller to special order hundreds of titles (over 600 titles were requested this year), transport books and set up the display, staff an additional location over the weekend, and then return hundreds of unsold items. The labor involved, not to mention the credit required to place such a large order (over 1300 units this year), makes this unfeasible for most bookstores, particularly independent bookstores running on tighter margins. The high percentage of special orders, and low percentage of stock sold at the conference (between 35-50% in recent years), are further barriers.
For many years ALTA’s bookfair ran at a loss for the bookseller, and as a result, it became increasingly difficult to locate booksellers in new cities willing to run the bookfair. In an attempt to address this, in 2017 we introduced the following guidelines and criteria for requested books:
“Requesting a book does not guarantee that it will be available at the bookfair. Please note that titles must be published within the past five years, returnable, and distributed in the U.S. Due to our agreement with the bookseller, some books are unable to be requested due to their distributor, even if they fulfill the above requirements. (This could be due to a book having a “short discount,” or other significant shipping costs.) We make every effort to include as many requested books as possible.”
The goal of these criteria is not to exclude titles, it is to ensure that the bookfair is a feasible endeavor for a bookseller, both logistically and financially. A thriving literary translation community is made up of translators, editors, publishers, and booksellers. Asking another booksellers to partner with us at a loss to them is not something we can conscientiously ask them to do.
This year, the ALTA bookfair is being run by Barnes & Noble at the University of Rochester. Every book request received by ALTA was conveyed to the bookseller, and the bookseller attempted to acquire every book. The resulting available titles are a reflection of what was possible and feasible for the bookseller to acquire; when the bookseller was unsuccessful at acquiring a specific title, it is not because the book was not selected by ALTA, or was deemed lacking in merit. Usually, unavailable titles have to do with the bookseller’s relationship to the distributor in terms of shipping and returns, which books are in stock with the distributor, etc. Needless to say, ALTA has no control over the terms set between a publisher and distributor.
Nor does the availability of a given press’s books at the bookfair reflect the esteem in which ALTA holds that press, or small independent presses in general, who we recognize have long been champions of international literature in translation.
We encourage individuals who are interested in learning more about the practicalities and economics of bookselling to attend the session on “Bookselling and Translation” from 10:45am-12:00pm on Sunday, November 10, in Highland D, and to come to the General Membership Meeting from 1-1:45pm on Saturday, November 9 in Highland A.