Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Ludwig Thoma: Rascal Stories


This is a book written in 1905 that was handed down in our family through the generations. We all received it as children, although it is debatable whether this is a "children's book". Sure, it is somewhat of a coming-of-age story, a (pseudo?) memoir of a teenager around 1900.

For us, it is interesting to read, because it gives a glimpse of life far removed and yet quite familiar. Ludwig tells of his pranks at school, some of which would be unthinkable today. But so would some of the behavior of the adults.

One may be tempted to say that these were just different times with different sets of rules. Yet, Ludwig was clearly punished hard and often for his acts, so the basic sensitivities were not altogether different.

Translating this book had some peculiar challenges. At first glance, it is poorly narrated, but Thoma was clearly a master of the pen. As you read on, you might realize (especially after I told you so) that the style of narration undergoes subtle changes as the narrator ages -  beautifully done, actually. More details in my foreword...

As with my Kafka story, I published this in multiple versions:

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Trump's coming patricide

The Washington Post was wondering today what Ivanka Trump was doing in a meeting with her father and Prime Minister Trudeau, in the White House, at the President's desk, in the President's chair. Well, I mentioned before that Trump, like any banana republican, is clearly aiming at gifting "his" country to his offspring.

All of his actions so far have not been as mainstream as I had hoped they would be. Certainly not the kind of moves you would take to gain maximum approval across the political spectrum. As Spicer said, he is just following through on his campaign promises.

How can blatantly divisive policies fit in with familial succession of power? Would his right-wing shenanigans not hurt his daughter in the long run? On the contrary. This is a classic good-cop-bad-cop scenario, and we have seen it before, in France.

Jean-Marie Le Pen was a strong leader of the ultra-right and turned increasingly rabid in old age until the party was "saved" by his daughter. Marine Le Pen heroically stepped in by committing political patricide. She spectacularly pushed her father aside to give her party more of Le Pen, but this time a nicer, more reasonable version. This move imbued her with an aura of strength that she may not have attained if her father had formally appointed her as a successor. It was high drama that guaranteed free national and world-wide coverage. A move so successful that Marine is now a serious contender for the highest office in France.

This could be a blueprint for Washington: Trump Sr., who has no intentions of running for a second term, would continue to aggravate the left with his far-right agenda. He'll take it as far as he can. If he seems unreasonable or dangerous, so what? He'd just be setting the stage for the country to be "rescued" by the milder, more progressive Trump. As with Le Pen, Ivanka's next role would require her to "defeat" her father in the primaries. She would still be Trump enough to bind her dad's supporters, but female enough to also take a hearty bite out of the center.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Copyright Scammers

I started noticing scammer authors mainly because I signed up with Babelcube, a service connecting authors with translators. As an aside, I have nothing against Babelcube - I think their service is very interesting and if they manage to earn money, all the power to them.

When I had a look around for books I may want to translate, I was focusing on shorter books, because full-length novels seemed too risky and the royalty share appeared too low to make it worthwhile. Among the short books, it probably comes at no surprise that you would find "works" of scammer authors as described in my last post. It certainly makes sense for a spam distributor to find as many translators as possible, because this vastly increases their reach - for free. Remember that spam books only exist as vehicles for links to other spam books, websites, blogs, etc. The more books, the better, and if people are willing to contribute translations, awesome.

Having gained some initial experience with zero-income book translation, I decided to avoid jobs that smelled like pure work and to look for books that would just be fun side projects. Translation for translation's sake. This way, I stumbled over offers to translate Kafka stories. Wow, I thought, here's a publisher who is actually looking for people to (re)translate Kafka pieces. I quickly picked a fun title and gave it a shot applying. I expected some serious vetting - surely, a publisher would not want to distribute translations of some random person. To my surprise, my offer to translate "Investigations of a dog" was accepted immediately, without questions, and without any comments on my sample translation.

I started translating away, having a good time. Of course, even though the story is fairly short, the amount of labor that goes into such a project is quite significant. When I reached the proofreading stage, I started to have some doubts about the lack of communication with the publisher and began to do some research. You can tell that I had approached this as a hobbyist, rather blue-eyed and worry-free.

Who was this publisher, and what right did they have to publish a Kafka piece? It did not take long to figure out that all of Kafka's work is in the public domain, because Kafka died more than seventy years ago. That is why the Project Gutenberg is allowed to publish his works online, for everyone to freely read and download. Anyone is allowed to do whatever they like with public domain works, as all copyright claims have become nil and void.

What the "publisher" I was working for has done is this: he had downloaded the Kafka stories and published each of them as Kindle books. That takes minutes once you know what you are doing. The "publisher" then went to Babelcube and offered "his" Amazon book for translation. Here it becomes somewhat unethical: as soon as a translator submits a translation as the result of a project and the translation is accepted, the translator will contractually have a right to a royalty share, but the copyright for the translation is transferred to the project owner. This means that the "publisher" has gained the rights to a real book without doing any work. While perfectly legal, I still call this intellectual property theft. These "publishers" are preying on unsuspecting translators to hand them the rights to their work, which may involve a substantial investment of time. Fully legal, but altogether unethical, if you ask me.

Since the project owner did not have any more rights to the Kafka story than me or anybody else, I cancelled the project and simply published the book by myself. And now that the project was all mine, it became even more fun, because I could take full control of the process, design my own cover, and publish multiple editions for different purposes.

In any book-publishing project, images and photos are an important ingredient. Here, as with the source text, copyright is an issue - you cannot just swipe a photo from the internet and use it on a cover, for example. Since I did not expect any real earnings, I did not want to spend money on a cover photo. Luckily, it is relatively easy to find photos whose owners publish them for use without restrictions.

As I was looking for pictures, I noticed that photo databases have many very old photos for sale, scans of postcards, pictures from newspapers, and photos from private collections. I had seen that people were using photos of Franz Kafka all over the place, and Wikipedia shows those pictures as public domain items. It turns out that photographs have a more short-lived copyright than written texts. While the latter remain restricted until seventy years after the author's death, photos enter the public domain fifty years after their first publication. This means that many photo resellers are happily selling scans of very old postcards for $10, even though they do not have any rights to the picture. Again, simply banking on the fact that most people do not know about copyrights.

Of course, selling public domain works is just as legal as filling bottles with tap water and marketing it as "all natural spring water". Gluten and cholesterol free. However, I don't appreciate when I am asked to contribute real labor to such an enterprise without full disclosure. That is where mere sleaziness turns into a scam.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Scammer Author

In my brief ventures into the book publishing world, it was quite interesting to learn about the tricks of the trade. With tricks, I mean tricks, schemes, scams, whatever you want to call it. There are people angling for a quick buck all over the place, every step of the way, and every single role in the publishing business can be assumed by a scammer: author, translator, publisher. Here's the first of their stories.

The Scam Author

Self-publishing is easy nowadays, and it comes with virtually zero risk. All you need is a Word document with some text that remotely looks like a book, a book description, an author bio, and it'll take you half an hour to be on your way to your very own Kindle publication - minutes once you know what you're doing. In the olden days, you had to convince some pesky editor at some brick-and-mortar publishing house to enter the book market, but that filter is gone for good.

Nowadays, anybody can publish their junk with minimal effort, and they do. People slap 20 pages together, with recipes or whatever other "advice" they can cook up, and off they go, selling it on Kindle for as low as a buck. If Amazon is given exclusive publication rights, the author gets 70% of the sale price. Who cares if almost nobody buys the book? If only 15 people buy your 1-dollar book, you easily break US minimum wage for your effort (which is a good chunk of money in poorer economies). And Amazon's reach is vast. Authors like this do not have one book, or five books - they go for hundreds and thousands - revamping their shoddy material into ever new books with new titles and published under different pseudonyms.

These junk books tend to have one piece of content in common: a weblink. It is prominently placed among the first sentences, which makes it likely that Amazon's "Look inside" feature will present it. I think this link is in fact the true content, the main raison d'ĂȘtre of these books. They serve as vehicles for backlinks to some website that invariably greets you with subscription form.

If you supply your email address, you thereby give the page owner legal permission to spam you - regardless of whether the sign-up page promises otherwise. If you carelessly allow them to also share your address with "their business partners", it will become very difficult to unsubscribe from all the offers you receive from here on out.

The blog or website might contain ads, or it might contain links to YouTube videos which are again vehicles for ads. While ads may only generate fractions of cents per view, the author gains even if nobody buys their books. All they need is people to be curious enough to follow their links. It's a numbers game.

Shoddy Kindle books are thus just a piece of a much larger scam ecosphere. They work in conjunction with spam emails, blogs, websites that only exist to generate advertising dollars. Whether or not you buy a Kindle download is irrelevant. The authors' hope is that you follow their link, creating traffic for their blog, thereby increasing their Google ranking, and finally increasing their AdSense income.

At first glance, nobody is getting hurt, but this is a real problem. Advertisers do have to pay, and I venture to guess that their target audience is not those random people who are lured into the spam network. Of course, in the end we all finance advertising via product prices, so these scammers are siphoning off money from all of us, fraction of a cent by fraction of a cent. And some customers might actually pay for a download they regret within minutes - that is pure gravy. Finally, the deluge of bad books is diluting quality - it simply makes real books harder to find and wastes all of our time.

Most likely, self-publishing houses will eventually install some sort of quality control, at least to filter out the most egregious cases. Simply relying on reader reviews is not sufficient, just as Facebook's "Like" mechanism is no match for fake news. So, the pesky editors might actually return, albeit in the form of seriously underpaid work-from-home people who have to click through book submissions and are required to give thumbs up or down within a minute or two. Maybe such unenviable jobs exist already, although they are likely being replaced by AI as we speak.