The New York Rights Fair opened with a panel discussion that shattered the old publishing myth that American publishers ignore foreign books.
The four panelists on the “International Blockbusters: Behind the Success of Four Global Bestsellers” discussion dissected their campaigns that made foreign books successful in the United States. The panel was moderated by Grove Atlantic senior editor Peter Blackstock, who will publish the in-translation title Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata in June.
Panelist Madeleine Milburn illustrated how her Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV, and Film agency helped make U.K. author Gail Honeyman’s novel, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, a breakout hit. “I saw Eleanor as a fantastic character,” said Milburn. “Like Jack Reacher, Harry Potter, or Romeo and Juliet, you always remember the character. If you can start with that, you can start a trend.”
HarperCollins won the 8-way U.K. auction for the book, and the publisher printed over 3,000 review copies to build attention over an 18-month prepublication campaign. “We had entire publishing teams championing the book, determined to make it the biggest book of 2017,” she said. It all paid off around the world: the novel sold in 38 additional territories worldwide, with U.S. readers buying nearly a quarter million copies across all formats. The book had one final important booster: “Reese Witherspoon cried buckets when she read it,” said Milburn. The actress optioned the novel and added it to her influential Reese’s Book Club in June 2017.
In contrast to that major publicity push, Oslo Literary Agency rights director Even Råkil spoke of the strategy for the release of The History of Bees by Maja Lunde, a 2017 book that sold 100,000 copies its first year in Norway and quickly spread around the world. “Social media buzz was the ground for our success,” he said. “No ads, no commercials. But [the publisher] was constantly feeding journalists early and generous material. They gave readers information about the book through channels the readers trusted.” Touchstone published the novel in hardcover last summer, and the paperback hits in June.
Curtis Brown Australia agent Clare Forster described the success of The Dry by Jane Harper. The novel was a bestseller in the States, and was published by Flatiron in January 2017. Forster thought Harper’s book tour had really helped the book take off In America. “This made a huge difference. People could see what a charming person she was,” she said. The book was also optioned by Reese Witherspoon, as the actress’ influence surfaced once again during the panel discussion.
MalaTesta Literary Agency foreign rights agent Monica Calignano concluded with an invitation. “U.S. publishers should come to the foreign book fairs more often,” she said. “It’s a great way to get to know the market.”
Blackstock added: “A lot of American editors don’t get to go to the international book fairs. Foreign relationships bring you these different kinds of opportunities—that’s a big part of the history of publishing.”