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Beyond the Embargo: Keeping the BTS Book a Secret
It was the biggest translation project of my translator life, and I had to keep it under wraps
I’ve always complained about embargoes and secrets in the publishing industry. What was up with all these demands to keep book titles secret, book covers secret, or even the fact that such-and-such was working on such-and-such? Who cares? It’s just books! Why can’t we just let it all hang out?
One of the things I like about working in publishing—and as a translator, I always think of myself as “working in the publishing industry” rather than, I dunno, being a starving artist in a garret, because it helps me manage deadlines and networking and so on—is that it’s a pretty low-stakes sector. No one is going to die because you missed a deadline, the “dead” in the word is purely metaphorical. No one’s life (really) hangs in the balance of a book. Sure, someone might get canceled or an advance doesn’t come through and you lose your mortgage or whatever, but being in publishing isn’t like being a medical doctor or an investment banker or a lawyer at a big law firm. You come to work, do your bit to put out a nice book, and then you go home to your cat.
For such a low-stakes industry, it was killing me. By February of 2023, I was going out of my mind with work. I’d been a finalist for the International Booker Prize the previous year, and the ensuing tsunami of work that followed such prestigious recognition meant I would be swimming in it until summer of 2024—that’s two years of back to back book translations and public appearances involving transcontinental flights (I live in Seoul, but my market is in Anglophone countries like the U.S., the UK, India, and Australia). I’m not complaining. I’ve been a freelance translator all my adult life, and it’s ingrained in my brain that you row when the tide is high. It’s just that the tide in this case, as mentioned previously, was a tsunami.
So there I was at the end of February 2023, deep in the final stages of the first draft translation of what would become Blood of the Old Kings by Kim Sung-il for the legendary SFF publishing house Tor. I had almost wrapped it up and was about to start on the next book when I was contacted by an editor at Flatiron Books about a project they mysteriously would not name in the email.
I took a meeting with them, mostly out of curiosity. I was told the book was non-fiction, about four hundred pages, and I would have a month to translate it into English.
A month? I was astonished. A book normally takes a year and a half after signing to come out, and that’s assuming things go to plan (they usually don’t).
I asked, “What’s the hurry?”
Apparently, it had to do with the tenth anniversary of something or other and they would need the complete translated manuscript in a month. And by the way, the book wasn’t quite complete yet.
This book, of course, turned out to be Beyond the Story: 10-Year Record of BTS, a book that is essentially a gift from the global superstar music band to their fans. It was also a book so big that it would debut at number 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, an extremely rare feat for a translated book. The something-or-other that was having its ten-year anniversary was their fan club, lovingly named ARMY. Because ARMY’s official anniversary was in July of 2023, Flatiron had to produce a book in what amounted to two seconds in the publishing business.
I said yes. How could I not?
This essay isn’t about the arduous process of translating the book; what I wanted to focus on here is the “secrecy” aspect of the work. The fact that I couldn’t tell anyone about what I was working on quickly became a huge daily inconvenience. I suddenly became extremely unavailable, not just to the industry and to friends and family, but life itself—all the beautiful parks I liked to walk in, all the bookstores I liked to haunt, sunlight, sleep, eating, and sometimes, breathing. My entire life ground to a halt as I was completely and utterly consumed into the BTS content production machinery. But the busy-ness was one thing, what really killed me was not being able to talk about this book. That I was working on what might be the biggest book of my translation career, the absolute crest of the tsunami. I am a naturally extroverted and excitable person, and this was one piece of news I was dying of excitement from. How were we ever going to keep it a secret?
We absolutely had to. Everyone involved with the Korean version of the book had spent years working on this project and kept it a secret from the world all that time. Out of respect for them, and most of all out of respect for ARMY, for whom this surprise gift was intended, we had to work under absolute, fanatical secrecy.
My intrepid co-translators Slin Jung and Clare Richards and I had a groupchat where we never even mentioned the word “BTS” or referred to any of the members by name, in fear of inadvertently leaking the project. The groupchat was called “Project Purple,” and there was much intercontinental wringing of hands over terminology, delivery dates, and why-hasn’t-the-final-chapter-been-written-yet angst. I was scheduled to travel to New York and London on an ill-advised round-the-globe business trip in early April, and when I met Clare at London Book Fair mere days after we had handed in our first draft, I almost burst into tears.
Our colleagues knew something was going on—for one thing, I looked harried all the time. I had no time to go to my optometrist for contact lens refills or to my hairdresser to get my hair done. I looked feral. I delivered a panel talk in London looking like Bigfoot.
“Is everything all right, Anton?” my friends would ask.
“All shall be revealed in July,” I would intone, mysterious as the Sphinx, or Bigfoot.
There are always limits to how far you can take a secret of this magnitude. An ARMY friend at a different publishing company, upon hearing the mysterious news that Flatiron had printed a million copies of a book they refused to name, posted on their “close friends” Instagram Stories that “y’all ain’t slick” and that judging by the release date alone, it was clearly a BTS book. A fan on Twitter inferred from something BTS’s RM had posted that there was probably going to be a BTS book and they had a feeling that Anton Hur would translate it (!!!). A mutual friend of ours sent me the tweet—Jesus! Can they guess what next week’s lotto numbers will be??
I denied everything. I tried not to think about it. I moved on to the next book and tried to ride the tsunami instead of drowning in it.
The “leak” happened in May. I was in New York again, a guest at the PEN World Voices Festival, speaking on a panel with Booker-winner Jennifer Croft, Booker judge Aaron Robertson, and editor at HarperVia Alexa Frank. A few days before my panel, I decided to go see the Guggenheim Museum via Central Park, walking along the reservoir and taking in the beautiful greenery, letting go of the stress of the past few months and, well, feeling pretty glamorous about the whole literary life thing. I enjoyed the museum and was walking down the subway to return to the hotel when a book critic friend DM’ed me on Instagram: he was screaming my name, and there was a New York Times link attached.
News of the book had leaked.
My response was instant panic. First of all, why was my friend sending me the link? Was my name in the article? Was I responsible for the leak? But we had been so careful! I’ll never eat lunch in this town again!
I scrolled through the article and spotted our names: Slin, Clare, Anton. We were outed. The whole secret was outed. The powers-that-be had apparently made a statement, breaking the dam. My new, fragile serenity fled my mind out the subway exit as my DMs and mentions were flooded with requests for a response.
That’s how I finally understood a heretofore unappreciated-by-me truth held so dearly by the publishing industry. I realized, in that moment, that secrecy, for all its stresses, had its advantages after all.
Anton Hur is a celebrated translator of Korean literature. He lives in Seoul.
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