In less than a month, Grail of Stars, the final book of my Pendragon Legacy quartet for young readers about King Arthur’s daughter, will be published – at least it will be published here in the UK. But not as yet in the US, since this series is considered “too English” for the American market.
Well, yes... this series is based on the legend of King Arthur, who was inescapably an English king and/or warlord, if he existed - of which there is some doubt. But King Arthur is killed in battle the day before the first book begins, so my series is actually about his daughter Rhianna Pendragon, a purely fictional character, and her three young friends – also invented by me, one of whom is a fairy and decidedly un-English (though I have to admit he’s not exactly an American fairy, either!)
And yes, as a traditional background for Rhianna’s quest, I did place my Camelot in Somerset on Cadbury Hill, and I located one of the gateways to the enchanted isle of Avalon a few miles away at Glastonbury Tor – although Avalon itself, being fairyland, could be anywhere, even in America. Other ‘English’ scenes are my battles, one of which takes place at Hadrian’s Wall (so possibly our northern cousins would dispute that), and there are plenty of dragon capers around the Welsh valleys in the third book - again not really English. Some of the action in the books takes place on the shores of Avalon, and the fourth book takes my characters across the sea to the Grail Castle - another enchanted location, and maybe somewhere you can reach by boat from English shores, which leaves things wide open, though my bet’s on France.
But I can see what American publishers mean. After all, this is not the first time one of my creations has failed to travel across the Pond. My Seven Fabulous Wonders series - a mixture of fantasy and history based on the old gods and monsters of the time - also failed to sell to an American publisher, since although these books are not English, they were considered “too European” for the American market.
|The Great Pyramid at Giza, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (my own painting).|
They were maybe even a bit too European for the English market, according to a recent survey reported by the Daily Mail. Apparently, only 61% of the British population can name one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the most popular choice being the Great Pyramid (though asking which of the three pyramids at Giza is the actual Wonder might reduce that percentage - if you're curious, it's the oldest one on the right, also the largest, the tomb of Khufu). Only 21% can name a second Wonder on the list, and a mere 6% can list all seven. In fact, an embarrassing 12% of Britons today cannot name a single one, and consider these monuments listed by the ancient Greeks as the wonders of their world to be boring! I suppose the clue is in that word “ancient” – those largely vanished old temples and statues have a bit more competition now that we have so many more modern wonders to marvel at. Also, remember, the world of the ancient Greeks was based around the Mediterranean and Persia, which did not include America.
If you are a US publisher, you'll probably gently remind me at this point that publishing decisions are based on other factors than geographical boundaries, that it’s an increasingly cut-throat business, and everyone is watching the bottom line these days. All of which I understand – I’m no starry-eyed debut author, and I'm not picking on our American cousins by any means, since the same could be said of books that do not travel to China, or even fail to make the short hop across the channel into modern Europe - although in their case there is an extra cost involved with the need to translate the story into a different language. Happily, my Seven Fabulous Wonders did eventually make it into 12 languages, perhaps proving their European appeal, and the Pendragon Legacy is making a good start with French and Turkish deals agreed and others hopefully in the pipeline.
Yet it seems this failure of fantasy stories (which are essentially fairytales, and therefore ought to travel quite easily) to cross geographical boundaries is not a recent thing. I bought this book from a second-hand bookstall the other day, because I fell in love with the beautiful cover:
It is a collection of the original fairytales by the Brothers Grimm, who lived in 18th/19th century Germany, and contains some of perhaps the most famous fairytales of all time. There are detailed notes on the stories in the back, and I was particularly fascinated by the “omitted tales”, and the reasons they were thrown out of this collection at some stage.
These omitted tales include:
The Nightingale and the Blindworm, Puss in Boots, Simple Hans, Bluebeard, Okerlo, and Princess Mouseskin were all omitted in 1819 because of their French origins. (Any historian out there hazard a guess as to why?)
The Hand With the Knife was omitted in 1819 because of its Scottish origins.
The Castle of Murder was omitted in 1819 due to its Dutch origins.
The Faithful Animals was omitted in 1850 because it came from a collection of Mongolian tales.
And a couple of other reasons not really to do with geographical boundaries, but more with culture:
The Children of Famine and Saint Solicitous were omitted in 1819 because they were too much like legend. (Um, King Arthur's daughter, are you listening?)
How some Children Played at Slaughtering, The Stepmother, and The Children of Famine (doubly unpopular, that one, it seems.)
As you've probably noticed, the omitted tales include some of our best-known fairytales such as Puss in Boots and Bluebeard, so clearly fashions change over time, and also change when stories cross geographical boundaries. How Some Children Played at Slaughtering could even be an early forerunner of The Hunger Games, one of our most popular YA series today!
So maybe I should not be too upset by “too English” and “too European”, or even "too historical" and "too gruesome"? I am after all an English author and have always felt more European than American culture-wise, even if we do share a language. Perhaps that is why my muse is drawn towards European legends and history? Also, writing something European does not necessarily mean it won’t be published in America – it just has a harder time over there. For example, my Alexander the Great novel from the horse's mouth I am the Great Horse, which one American reviewer (the 2 star one if you follow the B&N link) slammed as unsuitable for children due to its gruesome battle scenes and suggestion of homosexuality, had a hardcover American edition. It did not in the end make it into paperback over there – although I am happy to report this book is now available worldwide as an ebook (see below), crossing geographical boundaries at the click of a key.
The main downside of such labels, of course, is financial. The American market, love it or hate it, is essential in terms of making a living at this writing business. I am now in that scary space between books when I need to decide what to write next, and embarking on new work that I know is going to slam into a geographical wall is probably not the most sensible thing for my career right now.
Of course, in hindsight, I could have set my Greek gods and monsters from the Seven Fabulous Wonders in an American summer camp (like Percy Jackson), or put King Arthur’s daughter and Avalon in space (like the other Pendragon Legacy), shaking off their “too European” and “too English” objections at the outset. No doubt the same approach would work for many other English or European ideas. But they would have lost some of their essential culture and soul along the way. The book that is really begging me to write it next – the one I started last week, meaning to do an hour maybe and ended up writing into the night – is set in ancient Rome. European history again, arghh! I haven’t dared tell my publisher about it, because I do have more American-friendly fantasy series idea, although in the wayward manner of my muse I’ve not written a word of that one yet.
I just know what my editor is going to say...
Katherine Roberts writes fantasy and historical fantasy for young readers.
Visit her website for more details www.katherineroberts.co.uk
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