Electronic literature

Only a few years ago, reading books on electronic devices seemed a far-fetched idea that only science fiction fanatics could take seriously. In these same few years, however, things have radically changed. Increasingly affordable and attractive e-readers have been introduced by large multinationals, billions of pages have been digitized, e-libraries have been set up, and in some countries e-book sales have already reached a competitive level. The common assertion that we are witnessing a revolution in publishing that can only be compared to the invention of the art of printing, is certainly not exaggerated.


The electronic revolution has far-reaching consequences for the international copyright situation. For the first time in history, books can be permanently available all over the world, and the Google Books project already gives a glimpse of what authors can expect: instead of their permission being asked, their work will be made available in digital form unless they take action. On the contractual level, publishers will tend to propose buy-out or long-term agreements whereas authors will prefer to keep their digital rights or sign short-term licences. Literary translators, being authors of their translations, will have to try to limit the scope and duration of their contracts, but they are bound by the agreement between the publisher and the original author. Most likely, writers with some reputation will not only try to exploit their e-rights themselves, but also directly contact foreign translators, thus bypassing traditional publishers.

Current situation

The current situation in Europe for literary translators is far from univocal. As a March 2010 survey (http://www NULL.ceatl NULL.eu/current-situation/digital-rights/) among our member associations has pointed out, huge differences not only exist between European countries with regard to the nature and volume of electronic publishing, but also with regard to remuneration. Some countries don’t have any e-books or printing-on-demand yet, while others are nervously experimenting with the new media. In some countries digital publications are (for the time being) considered as by-products of traditional publishing that do not need any special agreement, while in others serious negotiations between publishers and translators have started, sometimes leading to interesting results like the creation of a third category beside primary and secondary rights.


In view of these differences, general recommendations cannot be given. It is clear, however, that literary translators will have to guard against buy-out contracts and any kind of agreements taking away their e-rights for a song. This is why CEATL insists on three basic rules to be applied in the translator’s contract:

  • The cession of rights should be limited to the rights the publisher has acquired from the original author or publisher.
  • The cession of rights should be limited in time (a reasonable period would be between two and five years).
  • Every single exploitation and every use of the digital book, in whatever form, should be remunerated. This remuneration should ideally take one of the following forms:
    1. a lump sum for a fixed number of downloads or a fixed period of time;
    2. a share in the profits as part of the secundary rights;
    3. a royalty on either the net retail price or the publisher’s net returns.