Who Has the Larger Audience?

Courtesy of louisemore.wordpress.com

A couple of days ago my husband and I were having a ding-dong – I mean a civilised debate of course – about which writers have a larger audience worldwide: English-speaking ones or those from other countries?

I was arguing that American crime writers, for instance (talking about a genre that I know a little about), have a large audience back home, plus they can be easily exported to the UK, Australia, Canada and so on.  Additionally, European publishers and readers are much more likely to translate American crime fiction, while US publishers and audiences are more reluctant to try translations.  For instance, looking at bestseller lists for crime and thrillers across Europe, I find similar stats for the Top 20 at any given time. In France only a quarter are by French authors, about half are by English-speaking (largely US) authors, and another quarter by other Europeans.  In Germany, slightly more German authors (about a third), but again half are translations from English and slightly fewer translations from other languages than in France (predominantly Scandinavian). Italy, by way of contrast, numbers about one-third European translations in their Top 20, plus one-third Italian, one-third Anglo.

What is the picture in the US, meanwhile? Well, things have moved on, apparently, from the notorious 3% problem, i.e. that only 3% of all publications in the US are translations.  It seems that nowadays, out of approximately 15,800 new titles being published each year, 300 or so are translations. Which brings the percentage total up to 5.2%, yippee! Of course, I am not comparing like with like, as this is translation across all genres, rather than just for crime fiction. Every crime author hopes to crack the US market though, that’s when you know you’ve hit the jackpot!

Certainly in the UK, there has been a boom in translated crime fiction, particularly of the Scandinavian persuasion, since 2005 or thereabouts.  So much so, that it sometimes feels like publishers are scraping the bottom of the barrel, as for every outstanding author like Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell or Karin Fossum, there seem to be some real duds being foisted onto the British public as well.  However, if I conduct there too my admittedly unscientific sampling of bestselling paperback crime titles at any given point in time, what do I find? 1 or 2 out of 20 are translations (sure enough, Scandinavian): everything else is English – and by that I mean about 60% American.

translationglobeMy husband dared to suggest that the quality of the writing might have something to do with it.  You know what you get with an American thriller, it’s pretty standard, just like a Hollywood blockbuster.  That sounds to me like consistency rather than quality, but I suppose some readers are less willing to experiment. They prefer the tried and tested.  Clearly, though, the marketing, translation rights teams and PR all work better state-side – they probably have much bigger teams to handle it all.

‘But,’ argues my numerate and oh-so-scientific husband, ‘The European publishing market overall is bigger. See here, I googled it and European publishing houses report 22 billion euros revenue, while the US is only 15 billion $.’

I think that may have something to do with book pricing, so I’m not even going to go there.  But the point is that Europe of course is a much more segmented market, so you need to be translated into several languages to make a killing there.  And the final clincher is: Europeans get translated by other Europeans (and a teensy bit in the US), while Americans travel everywhere. Cultural imperialism is still alive and well.

Without forcing you to take sides in this conjugal dispute, what are your thoughts on this topic?  Do you think readers in other countries are more open to trying something new, unfamiliar? Do you think the slick Anglo-Saxon model of crime fiction is taking over the entire world? What are some of your favourite recent discoveries in translated fiction, anything that surprised you?

16 thoughts on “Who Has the Larger Audience?”

  1. Fabulous and thought-provoking article, Marina. If I had a good answer, I’d hold the holy grail to publishing success in the US, LOL. If something comes to mind, you’ll be first to know. Really enjoyed hearing how you and your OH develop your ding dong… sorry, intellectual debate. Great stuff!

  2. I thought it was thought-provoking too. As someone who lives in the US and knows people who have published here, I can tell you that a lot of my author friends get excited when they sell translation rights to their novels as it will widen their audience. I can’t comment on the other end because I haven’t read anything that’s been translated into English. I need to remedy that. I will take a look at your blog and see if I can find a book that intrigues me.

    1. See, that’s exactly what I mean! I think publishers also presume that they know that the US readers will not read books in translation… but that is actually depriving them of a wider choice. A good story is a good story, regardless of where it was written and whether it features American or English spelling etc.

      1. Exactly! I have a friend in Australia who I have proof read for. He is a fantastic writer. There is one thing I have to watch myself with when I proof him though. I tend to want to change his spellings, and I remind myself that he doesn’t spell everything the same way I do, but it still means the same thing.

  3. Well, it might be because in Europe, we’re used to meet different cultures, different kinds of people from different countries. So, yes, we might be more open to differences in reading. In US, there’s a lot of people from different countries too, sure, but they’re all Americans eventually 🙂 It’s so easy in Europe, after a few hours to be in a country so different from our own (imagine German people in Italy!) and we learnt to appreciate those differences, right? So, I guess that could explain why Europe is more willing to try authors from other countries.

    1. And don’t forget that many of our European authors try to emulate American authors, so obviously there is quite a lot of admiration for them. (Or is that just for their sales figures?)

  4. I’ve heard this too, and read recently that one of the problems is that there aren’t nearly as many multi-lingual literary scouts (those who can read widely in the other language, finding books to then be translated in the US) than there are literary scouts who do the reverse (from other countries, reading US books to then translate to their language).

    Last week I was actually following the Book Festival going on in Lima, Peru, and was surprised by how many of the big sellers were translations of US bestsellers, especially compared to how many were Peruvian publications (many by authors I’d never heard of because they’re not marketed here). The same can be said for the influence of US film—Hollywood dominates a lot of the international box offices, and going to the theaters in Latin America, for example, you might see one or two domestic films for every five or six American blockbusters. It’s a hard problem to analyze because the question becomes: is US culture really that popular by demand, or because our film and publishing industries possibly have more budget, marketing money, and the advantage of a language spoken far more widely?

  5. Thank you for your very interesting comments – and very true they are too. I had never thought about the literary scouts in the US not having the language abilities to detect that promising foreign talent, but that is probably one of the reasons too. At the same time, I remember reading an article (which I, sadly, cannot find again) about how much cheaper it is to buy the rights to a very good foreign writer rather than start bidding for a mediocre US writer.

  6. It’s an interesting debate. I don’t have enough info to hazard an opinion. But speaking for myself, I’m less inclined to try translations of non-English authors, just because I think way too much might get lost in translation.

    1. I used to worry about that, especially in poetry. But there are so many good translators out there now, that sometimes they actually add to the original work, rather than detract from it.

    1. Admittedly, usually our arguments are more about taking the bin out or double-booking ourselves and no one is available to pick up the kids from school…

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