The Bookseller Comment: Another country

Having your books published outside your home country is rife with both challenges and opportunities.

Check out my latest opinion piece for The Bookseller in full below – or the original here.

It should be straightforward – you have a story to tell; you find a publisher, get a contract, write the book; and then it’s published. But it is not, or not always.

It turns out the country where your book is traditionally published can matter as much as the fact you have had a book published at all – and I should know, because I am a UK-based author whose first book, N-4 DOWN: The Hunt for the Arctic Italia was published in the US.

I call it the Waterstones Effect: A brief chat about my book with a potential UK reader is followed by a question like: can you buy it in Waterstones? I then reply: “No you can’t, but you can buy it from Barnes & Noble or Amazon for next-day delivery, it is in stock on, and it’s on sale in independent bookshops.”

Their eyebrow twitches. The story they were gripped by moments ago is forgotten, and we are suddenly having a good pop-up briefing about the publishing industry, price points, and why I don’t have a British publisher.

I am not alone in experiencing the Waterstones Effect. “Yes, it’s the number one question I get asked,” says Amanda Hellberg a bestselling Swedish author living in Britain, whose seven women’s popular fiction books are published by Bonnier in Sweden. A Crinoline Christmas (Jul i Krinolin) was the number one fiction paperback bestseller in December. “Followed by, why don’t you write in English? Why don’t you have an English publishing house?” Hellberg tells me that a writers’ group she applied to join a few years back was hesitant to admit her because none of her novels are available in English.

Writers lead an insecure life. It feels as if the globalised publishing industry has been brought closer together by Covid, and writers’ lives transformed by new technology, but writers must stay confined within their national borders when it comes to their publishers. Interestingly, the Society of Authors doesn’t have any information on the number of UK authors who have their principal publisher in other countries, yet authors are clearly waking up to the good reasons there are to pitch their books to publishers outside their home market. When I signed my contract with HarperCollins pre-Covid, I struggled to find anyone else who was in a similar situation. This side of the pandemic it is relatively easy.

My story is that I first found an agent, who happened to be American, and that naturally led to the decision to pitch my non-fiction proposal to New York publishers. I was then incredibly lucky to work with an editor at HarperCollins to develop a new proposal based on one paragraph in the original pitch, and whose first edit was a line edit. Then Covid hit New York.

Interestingly, the Society of Authors doesn’t have any information on the number of UK authors who have their principal publisher in other countries, yet authors are clearly waking up to the good reasons there are to pitch their books to publishers outside their home market

The size of my advance was larger than I would have expected in the UK as a first-time author because the market is much larger, and it certainly brought the dream of being a full-time writer that bit closer. However, I didn’t feel the benefit given the time it took to get the finished manuscript onto the bookshop shelves, which is typically longer in the US than UK, and made worse by Covid. It also brings with it the pressure to sell a load of  books.

Other reasons range from wanting to work with a special publisher or address a specific audience, through to wanting to address subject matter that has a greater appeal in another market, and work in a more or less commercial publishing culture.

It might be that an author doesn’t feel confident writing in a second language; or that their only hope to get a traditional book published is to write in their second language. It might be the need to escape the weight of their home; or that they have a story they desperately want to tell and just won’t take no for an answer.

American author John J Geoghegan’s proposal for his third book, When Giants Ruled the Sky: The Brief Reign and Tragic Demise of the Rigid American Airship, received great feedback from New York publishers but was rejected because it wasn’t expected to sell enough copies. “It was incredibly discouraging because I had fully expected to be published in America,” he tells me. “But it is a story that spoke directly to me – and I couldn’t let it go.” So Geoghegan decided to approach British publishers, and he received an almost instant response from specialist independent publisher The History Press. “So why is an American author publishing his book in Britain? I would say because they clearly understood what I was trying to do.”

Yes, of course there are disadvantages to this. The one that is usually mentioned is that it will be harder to market your book so far from your home market. Others include the tax arrangements, currency fluctuations and cultural differences (a Zoom call with three brilliant New York publishing professionals made me feel very British). However, the reality is much better, thanks to the new technology Covid ushered in. My book was well supported by the excellent marketing team at HarperCollins in New York and it was launched by a virtual lecture at New York’s The Explorers Club to around 600 people. It received good coverage in the US media, including a breakthrough review in the Wall Street Journal. Yet all this great publicity didn’t have the same cut-through in the UK without good reviews in the British media. Similarly, Hellberg receives plenty of coverage in the Swedish media, and virtual events have proved ideally suited to a country whose population is so dispersed.

Other authors have had to rely on their own platforms and networks in both markets, which has made a great deal easier by the same technology. British social entrepreneur and writer Zaid Hassan chose independent US publisher Berrett-Koehler to publish his book The Social Labs Revolution: A New Approach to Solving our Most Complex Challengesbecause of its unique collaborative approach and a desire to reach a global audience. Hassan then studied book marketing. Without any support, he designed a global book tour of 20 cities on four continents in one year. “When I decided to do this, I didn’t know if it was going to work, but it did,” he says.

I asked Justine Solomon, founder and director of Byte the Book networking group about this. “It is important for authors to find opportunities anywhere they can, and to use their networks to help,” she says “The pandemic has also had the effect of making the world a little flatter with the advent of platforms like Zoom. I know of authors who have struggled to be published on either side of the Atlantic, and have found success self-publishing.”

It is important to remember that, as a writer, you bring benefits to a publisher in another country. Amanda Hellberg calls it the “immigrant experience”. She believes her experience of living in the UK has made her more confident, more able to spot a gap in the market and then seize the opportunity. “I was inspired by the huge trend in romantic Christmas films and books in the UK and US, which wasn’t a huge thing in Sweden,” she says. “Now the stories I tell in my books are like an international high-production-value costume drama, with a unique twist – that they are set in a gorgeous, wintry Scandinavia.”

Mark Piesing will be talking to his agent Erin Cox about the Path to Publication at a virtual Byte the Book event on March 2nd, 3-4 pm GMT.

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