Judging a book by its cover

This one coverIn a digital world, how much does it matter for a book to be beautiful, to be physical, to look good and feel good on paper in addition to being brilliantly written and edited?

It is crucial. This I’m learning from recent experience in publishing a print book after two decades working in digital publishing.

Two years ago I published A Form of Resistance  as an electronic book using the Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) platform.  A Form of Resistance was originally written and published in Spanish as a print book in Madrid as Una forma de resistencia, by one of Spain’s leading poets Luis García Montero. With Luis’s generous support, I translated a selection of the short, poetic essays in his original and used the KDP tools to develop it into an ebook. My goal was to introduce English language readers to Luis’s beautiful writing and keen insights into human nature. The work was well-received with some glowing reviews. But many friends and colleagues said they wanted to hold this work of art in their hands to read it. They wanted to linger with the tactile experience that would form part of a creative reading experience.

A lot of work goes into translating and publishing a great book like Luis’s.  There are rights negotiations, the translation itself – a delicious and arduous process – editing (hire a professional!) and formatting. You’ll need to learn to use new tools, even on relatively easy platforms like KDP and CreateSpace, the Amazon company that helps you create print editions. You need an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), a pricing plan, a marketing plan and a distribution plan. In short, you need to do yourself, or pay someone else to do everything that whole teams of people do at traditional book publishing firms.

Cover design is a crucial part of that plan. It comes toward the end because a great designer actually reads the book and creates a visual interpretation.

I turned to my friend Wendell Minor, a superlative artist and designer, who is so accomplished it is nearly impossible to write a summary of his life and work. Wendell and his wife Florence, a book author in her own right, have been dear friends for some 30 years. And they are giants in the world of picture book publishing and book cover design.

Their  friend the Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough wrote about Wendell in the preface to Art For the Written Word: “Wendell Minor is an exceptionally gifted, almost unimaginably prolific American artist …. In the world of publishing there is no one quite like him. Indeed his value to the whole world of books, to publishers, editors, authors, book-sellers, and to millions of readers who care about books, can hardly be overstated.”

Wendell’s visual genius is a perfect match for Luis’s verbal genius. What Wendell has done with his  outstanding cover design for A Form of Resistance  is visually translate the ideas in the book. Each design element he selected subtly communicates and reinforces themes woven throughout the book.  Wendell not only read the book but researched the author, read the background material on Spain, understood the context of how and why Luis wrote his essays. When you read the essays you’ll go back to the cover and find the themes there.

With this beautiful print edition,  A Form of Resistance comes into its own. I hope it will find a new audience of poetry lovers, Spain aficionados and all those who cherish a great book that is beautiful inside and out.

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World Literature Today publishes newest García Montero translation

Thank you @worldlittoday for this lovely presentation of my translated excerpt from Spanish poet Luis García Montero’s novel Someone Speaks Your Name.


I’m so glad that Luis’s work is getting such a wonderful reception in prestige U.S. literary magazines such as World Literature Today. Thanks as well to Professor Cynthia Steele at the University of Washington for her insightful feedback and suggestions as I worked on this translation. It was great fun to work on and even more fun to see it published.

If you read Spanish I recommend you buy the whole book Alguien dice tu nombre which is available in an Amazon  Kindle edition. http://bit.ly/alguiendicetunombre

And if this excerpt whets your appetite for more García  Montero in English please check out his wonderful collection of fun, charming essays called A Form of Resistance.


This is also my translation work. It is available as an ebook, but soon coming out in print with – I am absolutely thrilled to say – cover art designed by the renowned, award-winning illustrator Wendell Minor. www.minorart.com. Stay tuned for that!

I can also recommend the first full anthology of Luis’s poetry in English The World So Often. It was  translated by Katherine M. Hedeen and  Víctor Rodríguez Núñez and published by Salt in the U.K. but is available on Amazon in the U.S.  http://bit.ly/worldsooften

I applaud the passion and dedication of small independent publishers like Salt who are helping bring great literature in translation to global English-speaking audiences. http://www.saltpublishing.com/

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New Year, New Direction

Can a hobby become a career? For me, there’s only one way to find out.

I’m very pleased to announce I’ve been accepted as a doctoral candidate in the PhD Program in Hispanic Studies at the University of Washington’s Division of Spanish and Portuguese.

This is thrilling on many levels.

I’ve always wanted to pursue a doctorate in literature, but my journalism and digital media career pulled me in a different direction. Literary translation has been a hobby for me, until now. I’m betting this PhD, focusing on translation and book publishing in the 21st Century, can help me explore this exciting new path.

How did this happen?

The University of Washington had demonstrated, yet again, its great capacity for developing innovative degree programs that attract a new breed of doctoral students for a changing world.

Specifically, the PhD Program in Hispanic Studies has two elements that caught my eye.

First is a commitment to something called public scholarship which is the notion that higher education should have robust ties to the community and not remain an activity carried out only behind privileged walls of campuses. A certificate in Public Scholarship from the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities is built into the PhD Program in Hispanic Studies. From the perspective of my background in digital media this has a lovely open source ring to it.

Second is recognition that technology has transformed not just industry, society and the arts but also the educational experience. The PhD Program in Hispanic Studies offers the option to write a traditional thesis or develop an alternative project like a film or a digital project.

That’s where my interest lies. I’ve loved the last two decades I’ve spent working in a journalism industry spinning with digitally-driven change. More recently those same digital forces have been wracking the book publishing world in a similar whirlwind of opportunity and loss.

For me the opportunity lies in a growing industry of literary translation. The way we tell stories and consume stories has changed in a globalized world with instant digital communication and socially driven communities of interest. Combine that with the ability to order almost any book any time right away on an Amazon Kindle or one of its competitors and the opportunity is instantly clear.

In London, my home until about a year ago, the literary translation activity is dizzying. There is the British Centre for Literary Translation, the London Book Fair Translation Centre, the Translators Association of the Society of Authors and the Emerging Translators Network. I’m a member of these last two. They are great organizations as are their American counterparts the American Literary Translators Association and the Emerging Literary Translators of North America.

“Demand in literary translation reaches an all-time high” is a fascinating piece that starts to capture part of what’s happening. http://www.todaytranslations.com/blog/demand-literary-translations-reaches-time-high/  Much of it is caught up in the economics of book publishing and the proliferation of new small non-traditional publishing houses, as well as self-publishers. I am a self-published literary translator as well as having my work published in the old fashioned way by professionals online and in print.

To be honest, I’m not sure where this doctorate is going to lead. Perhaps I’ll teach, or win more translation contracts or work with one of these interesting new small book or online magazine publishers who focus on world literature. But in the meantime, I am enjoying campus, my peers, my professors and my students. I’m hoping to revive this blog as a place where people of similar interest in literary translation and 21st Century book publishing can share ideas.

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Does translation matter?

In the world of literary translation Edith Grossman is a rock star. On a recent evening in London her fans, including me, packed into the London Review Book Shop in Bloomsbury to hear her talk about her book “Why Translation Matters” and the art of giving voice in English to great novels and poetry written in Spanish.

Grossman’s name looms large in the publishing industry. If the work of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Marquez has changed your life, you may have her to thank. She translated many of his books, including “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “The General in His Labyrinth” and “Living to Tell the Tale” (though she did not translate his most famous work “One Hundred Years of Solitude”). She has also translated Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes.

In 2003 she published a new translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote de la Mancha” to glowing critical reviews and awe from anyone who has read that work in the original early 17th Century Spanish.

We were all dying to know, how did she do it?

Well, she said, it did take her almost two weeks to translate just the first line of the novel, probably the most famous line in all of Spanish literary history. “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, …. ”

And then she revealed to us the secret sauce. Translation is an “aural process.” She spent those two weeks repeating that opening line to herself out loud in Spanish and then testing, out loud, various versions in English. She did this in her house, and out walking in the streets to the stares of passersby, until she found a combination that gave the right voice in English to the phrase.

Her goal, she said was to give the English language reader the same experience of the words that the Spanish language reader would have in Spanish.

“Translators are like actors who speak the author’s lines like the author would if he could speak English,” she said.

Sounds easy. It’s not. It took her two years to translate the whole book and she sometimes spent days on a single page. “Cervantes was like Captain Kirk. His use of language was going where no one had gone before. He created a new literary language.”

Grossman’s resulting “Don Quixote” is said to be the definitive translation to English.

Grossman is 77 years old, a soft-spoken, white-haired New Yorker from the Upper West Side. But she pulls no punches about her craft. She wrote “Why Translation Matters” because she wanted to fight back against what she called “real attacks” by reviewers and publishers on the art of translation.

“Faulkner claimed he read “Don Quixote” once a year,” Grossman said. “Faulkner was every Latin American writer’s favorite author, especially Gabriel García Marquez. Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie were influenced by “Quixote.” That line of influence would have been impossible without translation. It allows authors to communication with each other across time and language.”

“I don’t buy that for a second” she says of the idea that translators can “betray” the author by mis-interpreting the original work. “Translation expands the language you translate into. English is enriched because you are introducing concepts and ideas that have not been used in English before.” She said only 3% of books published in English each year are literary translations and laments the loss by omission of great works of literature to English-language readers.

Grossman fielded another question often asked of translators. Why do you translate (i.e., why don’t you write yourself?) Her answer was inspiring.

“I love writing but I often can’t face the blank page.”

We can all relate to that.

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My experiment in eBooks and self-publishing

I’ve just published my first book. It’s my translation from Spanish to English of Form of Resistance, by Luis García Montero, a brilliant and award-winning poet, novelist and essayist from Granada, Spain. 

For years I’ve been writing about, teaching about and working with digital tools that are transforming the news and publishing industries.

But this is my first foray into the world of eBooks and self-publishing. It’s been hugely satisfying so far. I loved doing the translation work with Luis’s support, finding and working with my book editor and cover designer, and ultimately signing up for the Kindle Direct Publishing platform to make this work available to the biggest potential audience worldwide.

I’ve written about Luis’s book in a previous post on this blog.

While Luis’s work deserves to be a best-seller, poetry in translation is not a genre that typically lends itself to that category. My goal with this project was to expose Luis’s writing to English-language audiences and to experiment with this fascinating and empowering process of becoming your own publisher.

by Luis García Montero, translated by Katie King

It started with a class at the Guardian in London on how to self-publish.

The two-day weekend course was brilliant and made the point that most self-published authors probably don’t get: if you want to self-publish you have to replace the work publishing houses normally do. And that means it takes a village to make sure what you produce is good. You need a book editor, a copy editor, a proofreader, a cover designer, and someone to format your book for ePublishing platforms. You need to purchase an ISBN, art (possibly), a promotional website (unless you have tons of time to do it yourself), and your print collateral.  You need to choose an eBook publishing platform. Amazon is the biggest by far and is easy to use. There are other platforms, but I went with big and easy. I’m too busy to even think otherwise for now.

And then you’ll have to invest time and energy to promote your book.

That’s where I am now. Preparing to launch my book into the world and let people know about it. All the social platforms are teed up.  But I’m also a big believer in face time. So I will be spending the next three days at the London Book Fair, networking, meeting book industry specialists and attending presentations at the LBF Translation Centre. Literature in translation is a major trend, and I mean to listen to many of the brilliant people who are leaders in that trend.

I will be tweeting about what I see at the London Book Fair and the experience of following how many people either buy or borrow the book.

Tip: during the Book Fair, meaning starting tomorrow, I’ve turned on a setting that allows Kindle owners to borrow my book for free. It’s all an experiment. Stay tuned.

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MOOCs are free but you must invest time

First, a confession. I am among the 95 percent who don’t complete the massive open online – and free – university courses (MOOCs) so easily signed up for. I have registered for three, but I’ve only really been able to dig into one. That one is the University of Edinburgh’s course on E-Learning and Digital Cultures. The four-week course just started yesterday. I read the introduction and some of the Week One text material on my iPhone on the Tube into London yesterday morning. Tonight, after an already long day, I’m opening it up on a laptop to take a closer look.

The course is excellent, cleverly interactive, engaging and very community focused. It’s also going to be a lot of work if I want to do it right.

No surprises there, I guess. But I still have the same question: is it worth having massive numbers of people registering who will only get a tiny bit of benefit? It’s still too early to tell.

Here’s why I like this particular course on the Coursera platform. First, it’s well resourced. There are five instructors listed as creators and leaders. It’s also got a real-world equivalent, a group of in-person post-graduate students at the University of Edinburgh who are helping collate commentary on the course discussion forum and the course Twitter feed, but also learning about the learning that’s going on online. They are using social media in a targeted, clever way with a YouTube channel, a Google+ page, and a Twitter-fall for their hashtag #edcmooc. They are deploying a very interesting tool called synchtube.com (am I the last to know?). You can watch the course videos on your own or you can watch them on synchtube at a scheduled time as an event and chat with other students as you watch.

Week One kicks off with a “film festival.” After a short text introduction there are four videos, three of them animated cartoons, from two to eight minutes long. Somewhat odd and abstract, the videos and questions after them are structured to make the student think about the difference between the glories of technology – utopia – and the horrors of technology – dystopia. You watch the videos, and are prompted with questions to comment on Twitter or the discussion board.

That is followed by a long reading list, which the instructors say focuses on the early days of e-learning, 1998-2002. That dates me, since I led a great team of journalists and educators in launching an online news-as -education publication in 1994.

Nonetheless, the reading list for this course is academic. These are not just fun videos. The theme of the articles is Technological Determinism. Does technology condition social change? Hobbes and Rousseau are quoted. There are footnotes and related links. This is where the hard, but rewarding, real work comes in; where you read and absorb new ideas and then try them out in writing or discussion.

Fortunately, I have all week for this reading assignment before the class meets up on Google Hangout on Friday to chat about what it all means.

It may seem obvious, but the big lesson is that to get the most out of the MOOCs you need to make time for them.

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“MOOC-ing” around with higher education

If you work in journalism or academia, you don’t have to listen very hard to hear a big buzz around the very latest trend in learning. It’s MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. They are free online university courses from the world’s most elite universities and it is easier to register and take part in some of them than it is to sign up for a new email account.

Earlier this month, the New York Times declared this “The Year of the MOOC” after a handful of new companies and organizations surged in prominence in the last six to nine months. This in turn sparked a flurry of articles wondering if this was the end of higher education.

The truth is online learning itself is not new. Even MOOCs aren’t new. The non-profit Khan Academy claims on its website to have delivered 212 million lessons from its collection of 3,000 free, self-serve instructional videos since it launched in 2006.

But in general over the years the content quality and ease of use of online instruction has been a mixed bag. I recently spent a couple of hours trying to install and load a program required to take part in an online course about new trends in social media for journalists. The program didn’t install properly even after a number of tries and gummed up my operating system until I succeeded in removing it from my hard drive. This kind of thing can be irritating if there is a course fee, especially if it’s a big fee. (Note – the course owner has not acknowledged my emails requesting a refund).

Good functionality, easy-to-use and free are just the starting points though. What is interesting about these new courses and the companies facilitating them is that they are truly massive, with tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of people registering from around the world. And what’s even more interesting is how many of the big elite players are jumping in and how quickly.

So, being an eternal student and change junky myself, I decided to jump in and test the MOOCy waters. I created accounts on the organizations mentioned by the New York Times and have signed myself up for some free learning.

This is just a first take, but here’s what I found.

Coursera, 33 universities, 204 courses.

This is a for-profit venture with $16 million in venture capital funding and a business plan to generate revenue, sort of. The Chronicle of Higher Education quotes co-founder Andrew Ng as saying the company is looking to make money from charging a small fee for a course certificate and from connecting qualified students with companies looking to hire. Ng admitted to Chronicle reporter Jeffrey Young that this is unlikely to bring in big bucks. This is a great story from last summer, by the way, and worth reading in full. Young got hold of a copy of the University of Michigan’s contract with Coursera and has highlighted its most interesting bits about business planning and revenue share.

Profit or not, the platform is lovely. It’s simple and very fast and easy to use. Sign up with your name and password and you are done, able to register for any of the courses. There is no software to download or install. The professors vie for your attention with introductory videos about the course and how it will be taught. Different courses have different degrees of platform-rich tools such as group collaboration online, quizzes, interactive features and discussion groups. Most classes seem to have just one professor (presumably with a team of teaching assistants), though a number of them have two professors or even teams.

After reviewing all my options in categories ranging from computer science to business management, poetry to equine nutrition, I settled on “E-Learning and Digital Cultures” taught by a team of professors at the University of Edinburgh. The five-week course starts at the end of January, and the promo promises a movie tie-in – “The Matrix. The course has its own hashtag, so I am anticipating a very social experience.

Here’s what my course looks like:


edX, four universities, nine courses.
This is a non-profit created in partnership by MIT and Harvard University who, according to Wikipedia, have poured $30 million into the project. The other two partner universities are Berkeley and the University of Texas who have just come on board. The nine courses are all highly technical: Introduction to Solid State Chemistry, Introduction to Computer Science, Foundation of Computer Graphics, Quantitative Methods in Clinical & Public Health Research are four examples.


As with Coursera, creating a profile on edX is easier than signing up to a new social media site. Registering for a course is one click. Once you register you get to interact with classmates by posting a video hello. I put my name on the registration for the intro to computer science course which allowed me access to all the materials even though the course ended last week. I quickly glanced through the student hello videos, and they were from right around the world. A number of couples seemed to be taking the course together. I saw some instructional videos, a chat room and slide shows.

After poking around, I unregistered myself from the computer science course with one click of the button. I’ll be interested to see if edX offers anything in the humanities as it goes forward.

Udacity is a private organization developed by Stanford professors, also with venture capital funding. It has 19 courses listed (as of today’s counting), mostly math and computer sciences. I signed up for the introductory statistics course, which is self-directed and looks pretty user-friendly.

Below is co-founder Sebastian Thrun introducing my statistics class. You have to admit he makes it look like it’s going to be fun. How can you go wrong with Lego?


Students can start and finish at their own pace. This is different from Coursera, which takes students through a six-week program in real time.

I’ve also registered for a course with the Knight Foundation for Journalism in the Americas, which has created its own platform using open-source software company Moodle.org. Like Coursera, this course starts in January and lasts five weeks. It is created and led by the award-winning graphics journalist from Spain, Alberto Cairo.


This is probably a good place to mention that charisma plays a strong role when it comes to   MOOCs which are a bit like education as performance art. Professors need to have stage presence and/or really dynamic audio/visual support tools to make these kinds of courses work best.

What will happen next? The New York Times reported that only about five per cent of students actually finish the courses so I may be just another statistic, but I’m going to try this self-directed Udacity course before Christmas. In January, I’ll take the Coursera and Knight courses and see if I can follow through the five weeks on both. But even if I, and my 95% compatriots, don’t quite finish, access and exposure to these top-of-the line courses have to be good.

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