Thursday, March 11, 2004

The editions game 

The article on Martin Amis in today's NYT this morning got me thinking, but not about what the article says on the surface. Instead, I pondered the fact that many books, great ones, are not available in every country. And the question is, should they be?

Over the last year, I've lived in New York, London, and Ottawa. That's three fairly large cities in completely different English-speaking countries, each with their own book industries and often, their own editions. In the US--for good reason--it's rare to come across anything but the American edition of a particular novel, unless the bookstore in question has a vested interest in stocking foreign editions (independent mystery shops will do that for collectors and those who must, must, MUST have the true first because they need to read the book, like, now.) The UK is the same way, although occasionally a US edition will pop up if there's some distribution deal in place, which is why ironically enough, I was more likely to find Soho Press publications in London than I was in America. And then, there's Canada. Though it has its own publishing houses, there are so few books that get their own Canadian edition that instead, it becomes a guessing game to see which edition will show up. Peter Robinson has a Canadian book deal with McLelland & Stewart, which trumps all the other publishing houses. Same goes with Val McDermid, who's signed up with HarperCollins Canada, or Kelley Armstrong (with Random House Canada.) But folks like Ian Rankin, Mark Billingham, and Simon Kernick appear in their UK editions, while the US editions of books by John Connolly and Lee Child take precedence. I'm not exactly certain how the awarding of Canadian rights is determined when agents negotiate their authors' contracts, but suffice it to say that there's no universal rule, based on the way such books are distributed. Obviously, books by American authors are far more likely to appear in Canada in their US editions, while UK authors are a toss-up, depending if their US deal was lucrative enough to be bundled up with Canadian rights. And if Canadians have a deal in their native country, you better believe that's what will be stocked in Canadian bookstores.

But of course, the likelihood that a writer's going to have separate publishing deals in each of these countries--and if you add Australia to the mix, as they too have their own publishing industry--is not always high. And really, is this even feasible? If Martin Amis is looking for a US publisher, it's because his books haven't been doing very well. What's successful in one country won't necessarily translate to the next (both figuratively and literally, especially if you're talking novels in translation where British English and American English can be so varied that it often requires two totally different translations!) and when there are already hundreds of thousands of novels published per year, how important is it, really, to ensure that a country gets its own edition of a novel?

The whole idea of separate editions seems to me somewhat problematic in the age of the internet anyway. I alluded to the fact that certain bookshops will stock the "true first" at the behest of customers who want to read it now, before their home edition comes out. One of my biggest pet peeves is the time delay that often occurs between UK and US editions--especially because it's almost always the US publisher that delays publication. There was a huge gap in publishing Rankin's last book, RESURRECTION MEN, in the US. Its UK release was January 2002, with the US release in February 2003. True, one of the things that delayed publication was his switch from St. Martin's to Little, Brown, but by the time that book was out in New York, well, it was old news, so much so that the paperback edition had been out for ages in the UK and Canada. Allegedly, the publication dates will converge as time goes on, but why had there been a delay in the first place? More "egregious", if you will, is when a new author's book gets delayed US publication. I brought up Billingham and Kernick because right from the start, their debut novels were released in the US a year later (Billingham with William Morrow, Kernick with St. Martin's Press.) Why do this? It's one thing if the US deal was delayed, but at least in Billingham's case, he was on board with Morrow way back in late 2000/early 2001, only a few months before SLEEPYHEAD was due to be released in the UK from Time Warner UK. Sure, one can spout all the usual reasons--marketing, proper placement, time to get everything together to make a book more successful--but when customers know they don't have to wait a whole year to get a book, especially when it's a click away via Amazon UK or a favorite specialty bookshop, then what's the point in waiting?

And then, of course, there are authors who will never get an American deal unless something drastic changes, and vice versa. Take Martina Cole. Her books are phenomenally successful in the UK; it's really a toss-up as to whether she or Ian Rankin sells better at this point. But because her books are so very "regional" because of their Essex settings, salty language and brutal demeanor, they just don't have a chance at doing anywhere near as well in the US. Her success, then, can't be translated. On a lesser scale, it's like why some of the better selling amateur sleuth or cozy novelists aren't anywhere close to inking a UK deal. Their idea of "cozy" is Ruth Rendell or Stephen Booth, because the word has a completely different meaning. So for those who are big fans of the genre who happen to be British, again, they aren't going to find home editions of said books.

So what's the ultimate point, then? I guess it's that each country has its own closeted little industry, and when there are so many ways to bypass this, it seems almost archaic. I don't want to wait for my home edition if I don't have to. I read a lot of UK crime fiction (and UK fiction in general) and I'm not going to sit around waiting for a North American edition if it takes ages for one to be available--if at all. For publishers to be so willfully clueless to this fact is to be blind. And by opening their eyes, maybe it means that they don't have to be so aggressive about acquiring authors who are, well, already published elsewhere. So bringing it back to Martin Amis, so he doesn't get a US deal (although frankly, I'm sure he will now that Lindgren's article has appeared.) But those who want to read his next book will find a way to do so, because it's easier than ever. So I say open the publishing world up, make it more global. People can fight about which edition looks better, which they want to own. Me, I just want to read a book as soon as it's available.

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