My *S.A.M. is back from the Bologna Book fair and is feeling quite happy to be back in the U.S. with his proper pillows (apparently all of Italy is pillow-deficient). He did have a good time, and had some interesting things to say on international markets and what sells to them — generally things with universal subjects and themes. He adds, “The Europeans are a fickle bunch and they aren’t interested in issue novels in the way American houses still are–and of course, books that are too American in feeling and subject, like the Vietnam War or slavery, just won’t travel over the Atlantic. Fantasy is still of great interest, but so are mysteries, thrillers and just plain wonderful books. Anything unusual, whether historical or whimsical, also seems to have caught their attention…”
From my own tentative research into the topic, I have realized that selling something to both American and international audiences concurrently is a big challenge. I recall being disgusted with J.K. Rowlings’ publishers for leaching the British-isms out of the Americanized Potter epics, but that’s what most non-American publishers seem to feel the need to do in order to attract American audiences. And what do we do to work more equitably with the rest of the world? Not much, unfortunately. Last June’s Library Journal noted that the 2005 Bologna conference had quite a few Canadian books, however, which garnered interest in international houses. These books, the author says firmly, did not water down their Canadian content.
Many international writers are writing work that is more “gritty” (there’s that strangely definition-free word again) than their American counterparts. American writers of YA fiction don’t often come from a political point of view, because for all of our democratic status, writing about our political system is, in a word, difficult. (I take that back — writing is easy, as many a rabid blogger can attest, it’s that pesky “getting published” thing…) A writer chronicling the cultural revolution in China, the horrors of the Holocaust or the deprivations of any nation’s war in a sort of fictionalized non-fiction style has been popular at past Conferences. Fiction which embraces a culture is also well received – for instance, just writing about what it is to be Fijian in Fiji, and in the world away. For more American works to receive wider readership, perhaps the focus of the YA international literature must be more about internal validation and personal goals that are germane to everyone’s growing up, and less about cultural divides like a first cars and huge Proms or experiences which involve something uniquely American – like lots of material possessions, disrespect of adults, and money for individual use. American publishing houses are going to have to take risks, too, and present readers with longer, more challenging fiction that seems to be more the norm in the UK and other places. (Places like Bloomsbury Press seem to have that idea well in hand.)
It’s a difficult question, how to write to be acceptable all over the world… You can’t, not really. We can hardly write to be acceptable to everyone in our writing group, much less the State or the Nation or the larger planet. The best thing you can do, I guess, is hone your voice. Be unique. Then, begin with a really good book…
*secret agent man