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Crossing the Pond
Julia Eccleshare -- 7/24/00
Some British authors make a big splash in the States
while others don't translate

David Almond, author of Skellig, Kit's Wilderness and Heaven Eyes, has just returned from an extensive tour of the U.S. this spring. Unusually successful in the U.K. with his first novel, Skellig, which won both the Whitbread Children's Book Award and the Carnegie Medal and had U.K. paperback sales of over 150,000, his books are strong on character and emotion and written with an engagingly light touch. All easy enough to ship across the Atlantic.

J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, the ubiquitous boy wizard, has also had no trouble in his transatlantic journey, apart from the perceived need for a title change for the first volume and facing charges of occult worship from the more extreme members of fundamentalist Christian sects. The first three titles have now sold over 21 million copies in the U.S., reflecting an easy match with U.K. popularity, where sales of the first three Potter titles are around the 7 million mark. Philip Pullman, too, whose Northern Lights fantasy sequence captured the imagination of children when His Dark Materials: Northern Lights (The Golden Compass, in the States) was published (the same children are now growing desperate for the long-awaited final volume, The Amber Spyglass, due out in October), found popularity in a different way in the U.S., where he was also marketed for adults who enjoyed his original and dramatic stories.
Nick Sharratt and
Daniel O'Leary provided
U.K. and U.S. covers
for this recent
Jacqueline Wilson novel.
These are three examples of recent major British blockbusters that made a successful migration. But not all bestselling British authors fare so well. Jacqueline Wilson, whose sales in the U.K. topped 1 million British pounds last year (second only to the Harry Potter titles), has not as yet hit the big time in the U.S. Her particular brand of social realism, which takes a child's-eye view of situations familiar to many contemporary children--such as a shuttling between two homes after parents divorce in The Suitcase Kid or living in temporary council accommodation in The Bed and Breakfast Star--seem to sound too dark for the American market. At a recent conference, when Wilson was describing the subject matter of some of her books, she gave a graphic account of the shuddering "no, not for us" that had been the response of one American editor.
So what makes some books cross the pond so effortlessly, while others struggle to find a place? Are some books too innately British to survive the journey? Are American children so very different from British children that they cannot enjoy the same stories, or is there a difference of perception in what they can stomach?

"Britishness" is hard to define and isn't in itself a stumbling block, at least in terms of place or social institution. Almond's detailed background of the disused mines of northeastern England in Kit's Wilderness, for example, which strikes a chord with many English readers and gives the book much of its atmosphere, has been readily accepted in the U.S.; the school story setting of Harry Potter, with its roots so firmly in the British public-school-story tradition, has also been wholly embraced. Children seem readily able to reinvent locations, happily imposing their own local geography on top of the unfamiliar one that may be described. Alternatively, the differences may be part of the appeal. Cool, witty American teenagers, with their parties, proms and fast cars, have long captivated British readers.

Resistance from the States, when it comes, is more to moral or social situations that the U.K. market can more readily accommodate. Tom Maschler at Jonathan Cape had considerable difficulty selling U.S. rights to Babette Cole's Mummy Laid an Egg!, a lighthearted and cheeky guide to sex for the very young. "Too explicit" was the general response from American editors, while in the U.K. it was hailed as an important contribution to an open-minded attitude toward sex education. Debi Gliori's heart-tugging picture book No Matter What, a story of the unconditional loves that ties parents to children, was adapted for the U.S. market so that "what happens when you're dead and gone" became the rather more euphemistic "what happens when you're far away." Klaus Flugge of Andersen Press believes that publishers in the U.S. are considerably more protective of young readers than their counterparts in the U.K. Flugge sold the rights for Melvin Burgess's Carnegie Prize-winning Junk, the story of a group of young heroin users, to the U.S.--albeit with some difficulty--but has had no luck in trying to place Burgess's savage and provocative Bloodtide. "It's just too violent for America," Flugge says. "They don't want children to read about these things." "These things" are topics ranging from incest to genetic modification, all within a brutalized dystopia that draws its inspiration from Norse sagas.

It is almost certainly the same protective instinct that has caused Wilson's accurate, if bleak, view of contemporary family life to have taken so long to be taken up in the U.S.--a situation about to be remedied by Delacorte,which has already published three of her novels and is publishing nine additional titles starting next spring, all with the same strong branding devised by Transworld for the U.K. market.

But it is not the content alone that makes a book work either at home or abroad. All books need a considerable amount of publicity muscle and word-of-mouth promotion to get them going, and children's books, with their double selection process through adults to children, need it particularly. Wilson's books have been propelled into the spotlight of success in the U.K. by two things. The first, as she readily acknowledges, is the professional "marriage" between her writing and Nick Sharratt's illustrations. This has been the inspiration for Transworld's branding of Wilson's titles, with their instantly recognizable covers that appeal powerfully and directly to readers of eight and upward.

Having an equal impact on sales has been Wilson's own tireless visits to schools, libraries and children's book conferences, where she is a modest but excellent advocate for her own writing. In a small country with a very small community of librarians, teachers and booksellers, a high personal profile plays a very significant part.

The importance of a presence may also play a part in why there is a noticeable group of British authors who frequently appear on U.K. prize shortlists, or even win them, but who do not have the same status in the States. Gillian Cross won the Carnegie Medal for Wolf in 1991 and has been a runner-up on other occasions, including this year for Tightrope. While she is published in the U.S., she has never had an American tour and d sn't have anything like the reputation that she has at home. Like Wilson, she is a frequent visitor to schools in the U.K. and has worked extensively with the Library Association, which has enhanced her profile. (More recently, the explosive success on TV of one of her earlier titles, The Demon Headmaster, has added considerably to her status.)

Similarly, Geraldine McCaughrean, who won the Whitbread Prize in 1987 for her first novel, A Little Lower than the Angels, and has won other awards, including Smarties Prizes for Gold Dust and Plundering Paradise, has only a small reputation in the U.S. Fiona Kenshole, editorial director at Oxford University Press, publisher of both Cross and McCaughrean, believes that while the physical absence from the U.S. of these authors has a major effect on their sales and status, an additional feature is the initial choice of U.S. publisher. "Serious fiction is often brought by the small, committed houses who are willing to take a chance on a first-time novelist," she says. "As these writers have become successful, it would be easy to move them to bigger companies with bigger marketing budgets, but we try to keep them with the publisher who started them off, which may mean they don't get the same kind of promotion."

The Advantages of Touring

Artists Giles Greenfield and Mary GrandPre
created very different cover treatments for the
U.K. and U.S. editions of the new Harry Potter.
The importance of both presence and promotion is increasingly seen as being a major factor in the transatlantic success of authors. Sarah Odedina, editorial director of Bloomsbury Children's Books, while acknowledging that J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone was likely to succeed in the U.S. on reputation alone (it had won the Smarties Prize in the U.K. before its U.S. publication), says that Scholastic's promotion for the book played a part, too. Odedina is clear that while British authors can sell well in the U.S. on the strength of the book, they need to do author tours if they are to have the kind of household-name recognition that they have at home. As she puts it, "Debi Gliori's No Matter What, for example, has had huge U.S. sales--25,000 to Harcourt and 150,000 in direct marketing--which we are thrilled by, but she isn't 'known' as an illustrator like she is at home. I think if one of her publishers took her over to the U.S., that would change because she is brilliant with audiences."
Such is Odedina's belief in the need for author tours that she had sold the U.S. rights to the much-praised forthcoming novel Witch Child by Celia Rees to Candlewick, partly because of its commitment to take Rees to the U.S. twice--pre-publication and then on publication--to promote the book. "Because Witch Child is set in the U.S., it makes particular sense for Rees to visit," she says. "But it will also make a great difference to her status there."

Authors now need that kind of presence to hit the big time around the world. For all authors, their success in the home market, too, depends increasingly on the kind of marketing muscle that their publisher puts behind them. Mary Tapissier, publisher of Hodder Children's Books, says, "Skellig won through on the strength of the writing and its originality, but Hodder's persistence with it played a part, too. We sent out proof copies and were totally behind it from the start."

And, in a recent article in the Bookseller, Stephanie Nettell, former children's book editor of the Guardian, argues that, "Harry Potter would be nothing more than an entertaining story of magic and adventure for children of all ages but for the marketing of it. The wand of transformation lies on Ros de la Hey's desk in Bloomsbury's publicity and marketing department."

Publishers are increasingly pushing their authors with powerful PR promotions while the importance of the author as speaker-performer is reaching fever pitch, with even the newest of novices being sent out on the book festival circuit to introduce their books to new audiences.

These specific campaigns are unique to the U.K., though, and cannot readily be translated across the world; in this way, it may mean that rights to the publicity campaign and the traveling author, rather than rights to the book itself, are what is being bought. Not that it's come to that yet. Enthusiasm for a great story is still, according to Tapissier, the key reason that books get the promotion in the U.S. that they deserve. "Craig Virden bought Skellig for Random House just because he loved it," she said.

Great stories, promotable authors, marketing pushes--all of these help all books at various stages of the publishing process. But not one of these can propel a book from one market to another and make it successful overseas. There are no obvious rules as to why some books work so well in both markets while others flounder. And there is much unpredictability as to where the barrier lies between what comes across as quaintly British and therefore desirable and what is seen as parochial and therefore nonexportable. There are no clear-cut patterns to follow. British authors, most of whom still dream of being big in the U.S., might do well to remember Enid Blyton who, despite her worldwide success, never cut out a niche for herself in the U.S. But then again, no one could have predicted the international appeal of one very British boy wizard, either.
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