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Follow the money? Melville House, Amazon and the Best Translated Book Awards

October 29, 2010 | 11:26 am

Noaweber_cover Indie publisher Melville House will not be participating in the Best Translated Book Awards, it announced Thursday on its website, in protest of a grant the nonprofit awards received from Amazon. Amazon's grant will enable the awards to provide two winning authors and their translators each with $5,000.

That's not an insignificant amount of money for a translator or a novelist. Nor is Melville House's withdrawal insignificant: The publisher's novel "The Confessions of Noa Weber" won the Best Translated Fiction Award in 2009.

"[I]t’s clear to us that Amazon’s interests, and those of a healthy book culture, whether electronic or not, are antithetical," wrote co-founder Dennis Loy Johnson on the company's website.

That may not be as clear to everyone else. Although there are many in publishing who will quietly admit to frustrations with Amazon, the behind-the-scenes business practices can't obviate the company's cultural place. Amazon built the first viable e-commerce platform by selling books, and has brought e-readers into the mainstream by throwing its weight behind its Kindle -- as a company, it is fostering book culture.

But the exact shape of that book culture does not appeal to Johnson. In an e-mail to The Times, he continued, saying that "the overwhelming majority of translated literature in America these days is being published by independent publishers and sold by independent booksellers. Amazon's predatory practices are obviously damaging to those enterprises."

Is it fair to connect the business practices of a company to its charitable giving? There are certainly companies that have done bad whose charities have done good. Henry Ford was notoriously anti-labor and anti-Semitic, but the Ford Foundation, established with Ford money, now contributes hundreds of millions of dollars annually to better the lives of people -- of all faiths -- around the world.

Perhaps the core of the issue is how independent the charitable giving is from the business itself. Businesses can set up entirely separate foundations, as was done by the Ford family, or a charitable-giving fund, with a board of directors that can act independently from those involved in the day-to-day running of the business. The underlying question seems to be, is the company trying to do good in a field it knows, or is it using charitable giving as a way of forwarding its interests, to the detriment of others?

Exactly how Amazon's charitable giving is connected to its business is hard to discern. Like many other things at Amazon, there is a notable lack of transparency (The Times asked for, but did not receive, clarification on the firm's charitable-giving program).

Typically, a major corporation with a charitable-giving program makes clear how much is given, how to apply, and who is in charge. Take Citibank, which puts everything online: Its foundation gave $65.8 million in 2009; its grants are made "by invitation only," but the guidelines for those grants are nevertheless online, as are lists of its staff and board of directors. Amazon, by contrast, has only a list of its literary grant recipients that omits financial information that Citibank makes clear; a simple form to "nominate" a literary nonprofit for an unspecified amount, using no more than 50 words in the description, is a far cry from the long application form and process Citibank details.

In March 2009, Amazon's charitable-giving program -- such as it was -- came under scrutiny from Seattle's The Stranger and from Slate, which wrote, "there are lemonade stands that donate more to charity than Amazon.com does." At the time, the company had, to all appearances, made zero charitable donations, despite having announced 2008 revenues of $19.17 billion, with $645 million in profit.

Since those concerns were raised, Amazon's charitable giving to literary organizations has surfaced. Its current giving page lists 31 literary nonprofits that have received grants (although it does fail to include when the grants were made, or for how much). Many of the grant recipients have been serving their communities for decades -- the 92nd Street Y in New York, Minneapolis' The Loft, the Seattle Arts and Lectures series. None of the 31 organizations, which have long records of finding charitable support for their efforts, has raised Johnson's concerns about Amazon as a funder.

In boycotting the Best Translated Book Awards, Melville House, a dedicated publisher of works in translation, appears to deny the authors and the translators of his books the chance to benefit from Amazon's largess. If Amazon's charitable giving is somehow suspect, if the lack of transparency or the company's history do imply a nefarious self-interest, should any organization that accepts Amazon's funds be boycotted as well? Would Melville House discourage its authors from appearances at any of those reading centers, or from other beneficiaries -- the AWP conference, run by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, or the PEN American Center?

And what about looking at it purely from the recipients' side. Could a translator of a novel published in, say, Estonia really be destroying book culture by accepting a $5,000 grant for their work from Open Letter, the University of Rochester and Three Percent, which present the 4-year-old Best Translated Book Awards?

In fact, Open Letter's Chad Post says authors and translators of books published by Melville House won't be ruled out. "[P]anelists are reading and evaluating all titles that were published in the previous year. There is no fee for submissions, and any original translation published in the past year is eligible," he told The Times. "If, in the future, a Melville House title is selected for the award, it will be up to Melville House and their authors and translators to decide whether or not to accept the prize money."

Although Johnson is focused on one '70s mantra, "follow the money," some may remember another anthem from the era: "Take the Money and Run."

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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