Finally, the Bookseller addresses one of my all-time favorite pet issues of the publishing world: how is it that one book can be a phenomenal success in one country but tank elsewhere – or never get published at all? Think of, say, Richard Powers selling almost 300,000 copies of THE TIME OF OUR SINGING in Germany when before his National Book Award win he was selling in staunchly midlist literary fiction numbers. Or Martina Cole being the top-selling novelist in the UK for years on end, but she hadn’t been able to get a book deal in America until only very recently. Many of these disparities have to do with lack of global appeal (Cole was thought to be a tough sell based on her very Essex-centric voice) or foreign rights agents not being pumped up enough to sell certain properties over others, or the commensurate buying foreign houses not enthusiastic enough to buy. I could go on.
Katherine Rushton focuses her piece specifically on Diane Setterfield‘s THE THIRTEENTH TALE, a big success in the US (staying on the NYT list for weeks on end) but faring far less well in the UK. 14,000 copies sold is fine for a debut novel – but not one that Orion shelled out 800,000 pounds for. So what happened? Well, the Sesalee Hensley touch helped, as did Atria‘s non-stop marketing plan (it worked to earn out the $1 million-plus advance) and the jacket cover worked gangbusters in the US but didn’t go over in the UK, but the true key may be this: publishers point to the book’s romanticized portrayal of England as the key to its raging success in the US, and say that is also precisely what let it down in the UK.
“It encapsulated England in the way that only Americans think of England. Americans love that quintessential English writing, but it is quite mannered in a way,” says the publishing director of one major house. Chatto & Windus publisher Alison Samuel liked the manuscript but thought it was out of touch with real-life England. “There are two incidences towards the end where they drink cocoa. I haven’t drunk cocoa since I was a child. That picture of cocoa-drinking England only appeals outside England.” Or as another rival publisher put it: “It was pretty terrible. There was one review which was very fair and called it a ‘gothic stew’.”
Further down the piece really contrasts UK and American approaches, and prognosticates on the fortunes of Jonathan Littell‘s LES BIENVILLANTES, which will be out in 2008 from Chatto (UK) and HarperCollins (US): “It will do very well,” says one rival publisher. “Nazis sell.” But she predicts less of a take-up in the US. “The American [publishers] saw it as much smaller than we do because they thought it was too European, and it probably wouldn’t appeal to their Jewish audience.” Yeah, no wonder she wanted to be anonymous on that quote…