Years ago I sought the advice of a professional agent from an Author’s Advisory Service in the UK, about a book I was planning to write. I wanted to know whether it would have any commercial value after completion, and most importantly, what the chances were of such a book being published in the UK or US markets. Here’s what she wrote back:
“The British are extremely insular and tend to prefer stories that feature British characters and familiar locations. They don’t take the trouble to learn about other countries and know little of their policies and history. They don’t even like books with French, German or Italian protagonists and these are countries widely visited by the average British tourist.
In the other large English-language market, the United States, matters are, if anything slightly worse. American readers are equally insular and not only like to see American citizens feature strongly, but also expect them to be presented in a positive light in most media presentations. Which is why so many American films now rewrite history so that Americans can feature as good guys on the winning side, even winning battles at which they were not historically present.”
And to think that I paid money for this. This was years after Arundhati Roy had won the Booker prize for her debut novel, The God Of Small Things. This was years after The Kite Runner and The Joke were published. What was she talking about? Did she mean to say that the British don’t like to read Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Dr. Zhivago, Les Miserables, The Brothers Karamazov? Nor books by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Paulo Coelho, Balzac, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Sartre or Schiller, to name just a few? Because the characters do not have British names and the setting, the locale, of these stories is foreign to them? Doesn’t she know that:
“A literary creation can appeal to us in all sorts of ways-by its theme, subject, situations, characters. But above all it appeals to us by the presence in it of art. It is the presence of art in Crime and Punishment that moves us deeply rather than the story of Raskolnikov’s crime.” Boris Pasternak
Now, when we can access information and download books from all around the world with a click of the mouse, allow me to say I don’t buy what you are trying to sell me. Thanks but no thanks.
“The other commercial problem will be,” she continued “a short book costs almost as much in terms of production and marketing costs as a long one. To recoup the costs publishers have to price a short novel almost as high as a long one. And readers back off because they don’t feel that they’re getting value for money. Even well-respected and best-selling novelists such as William Trevor tend to have two novellas published in the same volume to get round the problem.”
Does this mean that the British people do not read Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea because it is short, because they wouldn’t get their money’s worth from the book? How about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie, or Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings?
“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.” Ray Bradbury
May I ask this agent then what the British and the Americans read? And if they do not like or are not interested to read foreign literature, then why do English translations of so many foreign books exist? Doesn’t literature portray life in general? And what is the aim of every artist, if not
“to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life.” William Faulkner
For all you enthusiasts out there seeking help, please go with your guts and don’t waste money on advice which you know deep in your heart is not true. After all;
“The contract between the author and the reader is a game; the game of telling stories, inventing characters, and creating the imaginary paradise of the individual, from whence no one can be expelled because, in a novel, no one owns the truth and everyone has the right to be heard and understood.” Carlos Fuentes