Crime writer Simon Beckett wrote a few days ago in The Guardian that he’d had no idea he was the best-selling British novelist in Europe until statistics were announced last month. Not a surprise, really, because in Britain no one has a clue who he is.
The Sheffield author of a detective series about a forensic anthropologist (hard to define, but it involves a lot of descriptions of decomposing bodies in gruesome detail, which’re rather well done) recounts his astonishment that he plays to big crowds, in particular in Germany.
I can vouch for this. I saw him in Hamburg at a festival at which I also appeared last year. He read before a crowd that filled a hall the size of an aircraft hangar and which treated him as if he were Brad Pitt. I was quite surprised by the women rushing his signing table. I'm not German -- I hadn't the foggiest notion who this fellow was.
Meanwhile, at home acquaintances approach Beckett wondering if he can make a living from writing, unaware that he’s sold millions of books. Unaware, because hardly any of them are sold in the UK.
Beckett’s article highlights a phenomenon among writers – not just in the crime genre. I come across quite a few novelists from the UK and the US who’re best sellers in European countries, but can’t get more than a handful to turn up for readings in their home countries. I think there’s more to this than differences in national reading tastes.
Though Beckett claims to be bemused by his situation, I think it can be explained by the differences in the ways books are sold in the US/UK and in Europe. American and British bookshops (and publishers) see their business as being carried by a few blockbuster books. A New York Times Magazine profile of James Patterson last month highlighted this trend and the effect it has on other non-blockbuster books. Anyone not on the blockbuster trajectory can find it hard to set up readings in stores and almost impossible to get journalists (tv, radio or print) to do interviews.
When I’ve traveled in Europe, however, I find myself touring smallish bookshops which consider it a necessary part of their business to host writers. Then there's a broad array of literary festivals, too. In each city, there’s a wide range of media ready to do interviews, even with first-time authors. Consequently a book not of the blockbuster type can attract publicity which – in the US and UK – would rarely be given to anything but a blockbuster author whose name you (and the journalist concerned) already heard a thousand times.
I suspect this won’t change soon. Why not?
For one thing, booksellers are more conservative in their ordering than ever. Largely due to the economic crisis – which resulted in Barnes and Noble having a dreadful 2009 – and insecurity about the future of publishing in an e-book age, big stores are ordering ahead only for one month at a time, rather than the three months or more publishers are accustomed to. That makes it hard for publishers to plan a big print run for all but the sure things.
As if things weren’t bad enough in publishing, the situation is compounded by worries in the journalism world. It’s hard for a journalist to take a stand against market trends these days. I’m a former journalist and I can state categorically that if there’s one group of people with more qualms about what the future holds for their industry than publishers, it’s journalists.
So how to get around this? Well, if you're a reader, why not follow the German bestseller lists? Here's one put together by Die Welt and the French-German arts channel Arte which recommends the best new crime novels each month. You'll find a broader range of reading and books which might surprise you. You'll also be ahead of the sales figures back home and be able to get a front row seat at the scantily attended readings of the next Simon Beckett.