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Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Saturday, 6 January 2007

Commentary: 2 simple reasons why a substantial proportion of homemade British fiction don't make it to the American bookstores.

by Susan Abraham


Nothing constitutes itself in gold. Least of all, I would think from my studied observations of the British publishing industry which has evolved over the years to engage in a rollercoaster ride that's faster than a rising tide. Today's news may well be tomorrow's attic hoard and yesterday's information could already prove ancient history.

In this vein too, it is doubtful that every author's journey is the same or that the misfortune or hardships that faces one author in London could so easily slip another aspiring one's lucky day.
Some face difficulties with agents and publishers but go on to win prizes and make good sales while others who are landed with agents and publishers easily enough may find their books on the wrong side of a bookshop!

In other words, no two books are born alike!

I don't think pessimism is keen on holding two hands at once and there will always be optimism where wisdom rules over folly. And I don't think from observations & studies, that where success failed one cynical author, it would also fail the next one.

2 Reasons why my American friends may not find the British fiction I write about in American bookstores or libraries.


When a book is published in the UK, especially having been commissioned by a literary agent or publisher, rights have to be sold separately in the US.

This explains why the majority of Bitish literary agents hold associate offices or partnerships in New York. And why many agents these days also hold full-time staff who deal only with foreign rights. Same goes vice-versa. An American publisher will have to sell rights separately to the UK to have a British edition published.

If no rights of manuscripts published in Britain, have yet been sold in America, you may find it near-impossible browsing for a specific title in the US bookshops.

The process may take about a year or 2 years, if either party across both sides of the Atlantic, is interested.

Insurmountable edits may account for the delay. Spelling differences like the word color (US) & colour (UK) or vocabulary like elevator (US) & lift (UK) all have to be addressed & subsequently edited.

Note: Which is why too, you may have noticed a few British agents refusing to see American manuscripts, as stated on their websites.

Book jackets also have to be changed as what attracts the British reader may not captivate the eye of an American.

A book boasting 18 translations may hold 18 different book jackets with different shades, colours or motifs - each thought up carefully, to lure the specific country's promising book audiences.


An author friend in London won a couple of literary prizes a few years ago for writing a popular family saga. This was well-received in the States where her agent had sold rights, first thing. But she wasn't as fortunate with the next book. The novel was a turnaround from the first; it held a violent plot with torrid sex scenes and was narrated with a daunting stance. She deliberately chose to do this; my rebellious friend.

The American publisher who had bought rights to her first 'safe' novel was horrified. She immediately thought of the buying audiences she would lose in the large southern States which were considered a conservative Christian belt. It took lots of persuasion from the agent to sell the manuscript for American rights.

It would be different if my friend wrote thrillers from the word go. But then she would have sold to a different publisher and not have been encouraged to write sagas. Specific audiences are built with the purchase of the first novel that bears a certain theme and many publishers fear shaking this apple-cart unless an author volunteers a pen-name which then creates a new roomful of audiences.

Languages play a big part too. My writing style and use of language shows up my work as standing a far better chance of attracting a British publisher and not an American one. So if something sounds too much on England's homeground, - even with certain cultural aptitudes, themes & subjects, history & folklore, or the use of accented dialogue etc. - then it's harder to sell that novel's rights into the American market.

Thank God, for online bookstores.

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