Not lost in translation
It’s an author’s dream come true -- making the bestseller list week after week, traveling on a multi-city book tour and relishing in a bit of literary fame. For Steven Carter, an L.A.-based self-help author, that dream has come true -- only in Brazil.
Two of Carter’s books, “What Smart Women Know” and “Men Like Women Who Like Themselves,” originally published in 1990 and 1996 and co-written with author Julia Sokol, have remained on the bestseller lists of two of Brazil’s biggest publications, Folha de S. Paolo and Veja, for 95 consecutive weeks.
“It’s the last thing in the world I expected,” said Carter, who lives with his wife in Los Angeles and currently serves as dean of administration at Yo San University, a Chinese medicine teaching center in Marina del Rey.
Carter, who has published 20 books, didn’t find out these books were on the bestseller lists until he received a royalty check from a Brazilian publisher in the mail.
“I immediately knew it was a mistake because it was a check for $60,000,” said Carter, who had sold the international rights to his books years before but only now has cashed in on it
The self-help and spirituality market continues to boom in the U.S. -- in 2007, it pulled in more than $600 million in U.S. revenue, according to Simba Information, a Connecticut-based market research firm. But only certain American self-help books do well in the international market.
“It’s really interesting what happens culturally,” said Amy Hertz, who edits self-help and spirituality books at the Penguin Group. Hertz says it’s mind-set and cultural similarity that pique interest for books in international markets again and again.
“You would think England and America would work well together,” Hertz said. More often, though, U.S. books tend to do better in Australia, Hertz said, with Brazil and Germany following close behind.
Hertz isn’t surprised by Carter’s success in Brazil; during a trip there last year she stumbled on a book she had worked on, “The Female Brain” by Dr. Louann Brizendine, which was in the bestseller section of a bookstore at the Sao Paolo airport and had been translated into Portuguese and given a different cover.
“It’s so interesting that Brazil not only has caught up to self-help but also to [books on] eating disorders,” Hertz said.
Carter’s Brazilian publisher, Marcos Pereira, who with his brother runs the self-help and spirituality publishing company GMT Sextante, said that when he met Carter, he told him that “Men Who Like Women” had not been a major seller in the U.S.
The book, which sold 70,000 copies in the U.S., has sold more than 100,000 copies in Brazil thus far. “What Smart Women Know,” which became a national bestseller in the U.S., selling almost half a million copies, has sold close to 400,000 copies in Brazil.
“We’re a very focused company in terms of our business -- one of the ways we try to find books is to establish what kinds of books would identify with the reader,” Pereira said.
The readers largely are women in their 30s, according to Pereira.
“The role of women in the Brazilian culture or economy has evolved,” Pereira said. “If you think of the U.S. 20 years ago, I think this is happening now in Brazil. In this case, women rethink their role.”
Reid Tracy, president of Hay House, one of the biggest independent publishers of self-help books, says the self-help market abroad is largely propelled by U.S. authors.
“In a lot of the countries, the U.S.-based books kind of support the self-help industry in other countries,” Tracy said. Americans, for the most part, tend not to relate as much to self-help books coming from other countries, Tracy said, with the exception of a few titles.
“The Alchemist,” written by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho and first published in Brazil in 1988, was a bestseller in the U.S. and has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide.
Mark Tauber, vice president and deputy publisher of HarperOne, a spirituality and self-help division of Harper Collins that originally published “The Alchemist,” says success abroad remains a case-by-case possibility.
“It’s not a universal thing for self-help to work abroad,” Tauber said. “A lot of these books do find a very big international audience -- some of it has to do with where authors have advocates or disciples.”
Despite his Brazilian disciples, Carter has yet to learn Portuguese. But he believes that the themes of his books are not lost in translation.
Noted Carter: “There’s something very universal about falling in love, about getting your heart broken.”