How to Become a Bestseller in Europe: Write in English, German, French and…Swedish?

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Top 15 European Fiction Authors of 2009

By Rüdiger Wischenbart

This may sound like an odd question to ask: Are books diverse? Sure! With hundreds of thousands of new titles published every year in the US, over 90,000 in Germany, and a “Long Tail” of millions of titles available to readers and buyers online, there are more books distributed and, arguably, read than ever before in history. That said, are people reading a greater variety of authors and books? Or is it all Stephenie Meyer, Dan Brown and Stieg Larsson? How diverse are the books represented on the bestseller lists –- really? This was the question I had in mind to answer when compiling my “Diversity Report 2009.”

Looking at bestsellers in particular, casual observers might assume that they are the same everywhere, with a a huge predominance of English-originated products, pumped simultaneously into all major retail channels, with sales fueled by huge marketing budgets -– thus “homogenizing” (or, to phrase it more bluntly: flattening) all the rest.

Crunching the numbers reveals that these assumptions are mostly plain wrong. Only the very tip of the iceberg of bestselling fiction in Europe falls into the “the winner takes it all” kind of a pattern. The top three European fiction writers of 2009, based on data from seven major markets, were unsurprisingly, Stieg Larsson, Stephenie Meyer and Dan Brown.

So, yes, score one for assumptions! However, the truth of popular assumptions stops there.

One Third are English Translations

On average, 1/3 of the top bestsellers in fiction across various European markets are translated from English. This is a lot, but considering that 2/3 of translated titles in Europe originate in English, the ratio leaves open lots of space for local differences.

Interestingly, this 1/3 ratio applies to the vast majority of countries, with minor variations, from countries West or East, old or new member states of the European Union, with large or small populations.

Only two countries are exceptions: the United Kingdom, of course, as it is not only an English language territory, but also one with a particularly poor record of translations. The other is Sweden, which has an especially broad culture of translation and a relatively small population of Swedish speakers.

But analyzing bestsellers, translations and translation comes with many more surprises.

There exists an entire culture of highly successful European bestselling authors who do not write in English, and yet they have a broad mainstream readership in a number of countries. Their styles and literary complexity are highly diverse, as are their stories, topics, and cultural as well as linguistic backgrounds.

Nordic Crime Way

The most astounding recent example comes, of course, with the Nordic Crime Way that started decade ago when Henning Mankell hit the bestseller lists in Germany and Austria. Following Mankell came a lengthy list of other bestsellers with difficult-to-pronounce names, such as the Norwegian Jo Nesbᴓ, Iceland’s Arnaldur Indriðason, and, of course, Stieg Larsson, whose “Millennium” trilogy has become nothing short of a global phenomenon.

But success for Larsson was never a foregone conclusion. Initially, although the books were released in Germany by Random House, readers at first seemed disinterested and the first volume spent just a short stint on the bestseller list. It wasn’t until their publication in France, by independent house Actes Sud, that they took off and the three fat volumes hit bestseller lists across Europe. Surprisingly, even in England, where another indie publisher — Random House defector Christopher MacLehose at Quercus Publishing –- was savvy enough to snap up the rights.

How is it that this unusual Swedish author was able to join the ranks of an extremely small global elite of authors that includes JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, and Dan Brown? There is no quick answer. Only one thing is certain: Larsson’s success has opened a floodgate of Nordic crime writing, leaving writers and their translators pleased and, more than likely, a little bit perplexed that they are in such high demand.

Beyond Larsson

More interesting is perhaps to track the many other largely unexpected non-English success stories of the past few years. They include a story of Barcelona from centuries ago (Ildefonso Falcones’s The Cathedral of the Sea), a learned Austro-German reflection on the lives of a mathematician and an explorer (Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World), the fictitious autobiography of a Paris concierge, spiced with “deep thoughts” and quotes from a philosophy quiz (Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog), an Italian Mafia tell-all disguised as a novel (Roberto Saviano’s Gomorra), and a slippery, erotic self-examination from Germany (Charlotte Roche’s Wetlands).

What seems apparent from this list is that despite all this apparent diversity, books translated from just a handful of languages appear to be able to achieve a broad mainstream readership in translation, win awards, and rake in the euros. These gateway languages can be big (French, German, Spanish), medium sized (Italian), or even small (Swedish, Norwegian, even Icelandic).

And while prized literary works can be written in Hungarian or Polish, and can find, in translation, enough sophisticated readers in Germany, France or Sweden to be picked up established by literary agencies in Berlin or in Paris, short of winning a Nobel Prize, they are unlikely to be pursued by big dog agents in London or New York. Selling in the high four or low five figures in Germany and France is not incentive for agents and publisher to try and take an author global.

That said, being from a more far-flung country or culture is not necessarily an obstacle, provided one writes in one of the aforementioned gateway languages. A decade ago, Arundhati Roy, from the Indian province of Kerala but writing in English, secured a London agent and published The God of Small Things, arguably the first truly global novel of this new kind. Small Things opened new roads and channels, and helped the various intermediaries to sharpen, or more properly to re-invent, their tools for hyping a new author: doing the deals, auctioning the rights, and getting the snowball quickly rolling on a truly global scale.

Of course, we are told by many experts from the book markets that “translations do not sell,” or that readers are no that interested in what’s new. It’s no coincidence that Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan, was able to attract readers with two novels about his shattered home land — The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns by doing so in English.

So what do we learn from this?

In my view, and reflecting on numbers and the career path of a broad range of authors, it is evident that:

  • There is a lot more diversity on offer out there than all those concepts of ‘cultural homogenization’ would suggest.
  • Readers seem to embrace such diversity much more readily than the gospel of the rights markets pretends, and…
  • With the digital innovation reducing the cost of physical warehousing and shipping, and making information even about niches widely available, reading can become much more interesting in the near future, provided that this huge potential is developed, and cultural riches are not hidden arbitrarily under an odd mix of old conceptions and simple ignorance.

DOWNLOAD: The entire Diversity Report 2009.

VIEW: The complete list of the top 50 bestselling fiction authors in Europe in 2009.

PLAN: To attend a discussion of the Diversity Report 2009 at the London Book Fair, on April 19, 2010, from 2:30 to 3:30, at the Centre for Literary Translation. Confirmed speakers include Susanna Nicklin (The Marsh Agency, The British Council), publisher Christopher MacLehose, as well as the authors of the report.

DISCUSS: Why is Nordic Noir so popular?

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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.