Friday 6 September 2013

Have written a fairytale. Will travel? Not always! – Katherine Roberts

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.

Too English!
King Arthur
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.

Too European!

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:

Too French!
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?)

Too Scottish!
The Hand With the Knife was omitted in 1819 because of its Scottish origins.

Too Dutch!
The Castle of Murder was omitted in 1819 due to its Dutch origins.

Too Mongolian!
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:
Too Historical!
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?)

Too Gruesome!
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

If you are a slightly older reader, you might like to try her Alexander the Great novel,
now available as an ebook from:


Sue Bursztynski said...

You aren't American and can't write American. It's a same, really, that the publishers think everything has to be American, because their readers don't. And when they do get European stories, they feel the need to adapt them(what US film producers did to Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising is unforgivable, but even US fans were angry). You just have to make the best of things and trust that people will buy your books online. Not as good, but something. FWIW, my publishers couldn't get a US edition of my first novel either. They're just selling the Aussie edition over there.

Petrea Burchard said...

The American publishing business is an absolute mess right now. I honestly think they have no idea what to buy or what not to buy, but they must, must, must SELL. And of course they don't have any idea what will sell.

This is why self-publishing is huge here right now. Established publishers are terrified. Whole web communities have arisen to support independent authors and their readers, and as the fuddy-duddy publishers keep spitting out the same old stuff, the indie audience is growing every day.

My book, "Camelot & Vine," is a King Arthur story, too, also set in Somerset. You and I both did our research into history, myth and archaeology, then injected our own imaginations. The publishing industry here (agents and editors) told me, "King Arthur doesn't sell." No one would even read it. Their reaction seemed ridiculous to me, because we have the "Merlin" TV series, countless books about Arthur on, and the biggest TV show, "Game of Thrones," set in a pseudo-medieval setting.

So I took the leap and published it myself. I don't recommend this for everyone because it's a lot of work if you want to do it right. But I'm getting good reviews and proving my point. King Arthur does sell, and I'll bet your books would sell just fine here.

Can I buy them online?

Katherine Langrish said...

I don't understand why US publishers seem to be so worried! Surely the value of reading lies in broadening readers' experience and horizons, rather than limiting them?

Katherine Roberts said...

Sue, I haven't seen the US adaptation of The Dark is Rising, but since that was one of my absolute favourite books when I was about 10, I'm guessing it will feel a bit strange. It will be interesting to see how the film does over here.

Very glad to hear your King Arthur book is getting a good reception, Petrea - I love all things Arthurian! (And yes, you can buy my books online - in fact that's the only place you'll find my backlist titles now, since I reissued them indie when they went out of print.)

Agreed Kath! But Petrea is right when she says publishing is all about SALES - and that applies over here in the UK now, as well as in the US. Broadening readers' horizons does not seem to come into the equation any more. Maybe it never really did?

Ann Turnbull said...

The Great Pyramid.
The Colossus of Rhodes.
The Hanging Gardens of Babylon.
The Pharos of Alexandria.

hmm... not too good. Must go and look them up! and read your books, Katherine.

Momma Bear said...

speaking as an american, the state of literature around here is shockingly banal. every one jumps on the same bandwagon once it's "popular and nothing new ever really gets read. it seems there are no new ideas in america and it is distressing. for those of us who have a clue, as always we look to europe for our books, news, movies, music because american media are boring, misogynistic and outrageously domestic. honestly we seem to be afraid of new ideas lately.
as i said before it's distressing.

adele said...

What a DIDO wasn't published in the USA tho its forerunners, TROYnand ITHAKA did very well over there.. This is because Dido encourages suicide!! I kid you not!

Katherine Roberts said...

"Dido" encourages suicide, Adele? Really?! (I've read it and am still here - even if a bit depressed about lack of American deals for my books!)

It's interesting to hear the views of American readers, and some of my books have sold well over there in the past (Spellfall and my Echorium trilogy), so I wonder if this bandwagon culture is a fairly recent thing?

Ann Turnbull said...

I'm not sure it's that recent. I remember being told by an American publisher back in the 1980s that one of my books was "too English". It was about family life and cats, so I assume it was the slightly different everyday detail they thought Americans wouldn't cope with! More recently my American publishers turned down Seeking Eden, the third in my Quaker trilogy, despite its being set in America, but that was because there had been a long wait for it, and the first two hadn't sold that well. So the reasons might sometimes be valid, even if disappointing for author and readers.

I've read Dido, too, and am still here!

Lindsey Fraser said...

And then there is the reluctance of US publishers to publish novels by UK writers set against a backdrop of American history... That's tripped me up.

Petrea Burchard said...

This is a great discussion. I enjoy reading everything you've all said.

I'm American, too, and I agree with Momma Bear. It may be generalizing - certainly the entire population here is not misogynist, some of us do like good literature, etc. But what sells the most here is Romance fiction, and I don't have to tell you what that is. Much of America retains a Puritan mentality, though I maintain much of THAT is hypocritical (considering there's often a great deal of sex in Romance fiction).

Maybe we have ourselves to blame for the state of the publishing industry. We (as a people) are not voting on education bills. Kids come out of school knowing business but not literature. Things go in cycles. There's always a backlash. I hope the one we seek comes soon.

By the way, Ann, I thought of the same four you did except it was really only three. I was thinking of the library at Alexandria and not the lighthouse! Thank goodness Wikipedia has a nice list.

Petrea Burchard said...

I wanted to add that I recently read "Olive Kitteridge," American and wonderful, also "Swamplandia!," American and wonderful. So good literature exists in our writers, but perhaps new writers get less attention from the publishing industry.

Petrea Burchard said...

I must tell you one more thing, then I'll stop. I told my husband about our discussion. He's a screenwriter, and he once had an opportunity to pitch a script to a French producer. He'd written the story based on research he did while in France.

The producer told him he liked it, but it was "too French."

Katherine Roberts said...

Too French for the French! Love that.

Ann Turnbull said...

I've just remembered that one of my books - an Ice Age story - was turned down by my British publisher, so I sent it to an American one, and it's been continuously in print with them since 1984 and still sells well. But I've never been able to interest a British publisher in it!

Petrea Burchard said...

When they turn you down they try to give you a reason, but there's no rhyme or reason. I wish they'd just say, "not for me."

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

What an interesting discussion! I've enjoyed the post and the comments. Aside from my first book which sold to Scandinavia, I've also been told my books are 'too English'. Not only by American publishers, but by European publishers too. As for my Viking books, apparently Scandinavia 'have enough of their own' and elsewhere 'no one has ever heard of Vikings.' Hmm.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

Also, judging by their films, I'd say that Americans only like stories about Americans saving the world. Apologies to any random Americans I'm insulting here!

Petrea Burchard said...

Marie-Louise, I'm American and I'm sick of those movies, too. I don't even go to films anymore unless they're foreign or independent.

We have a hit TV show here called "Vikings," so apparently we've heard of them. I can't vouch for the show's accuracy, but that never has been what TV was for.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Katherine, if you loved the Susan Cooper novel, don't ever see the movie. Will Stanton(pronounced Stenton with a US accent) is an American boy whose family has moved to England. The Old Ones are all idiots. His age is raised so he can be tempted ... Never mind, don't watch it.

Actually, my bestselling book was the US edition of an education book on archaeology - around $45,000 copies so far, and it even got an enthusiastic child review online. But a week before it went to print, we got an email from the US saying we had to cut a bit about Inca child mummies because it might encourage schoolyard shootings in the US! I kid you not. My editor muttered that she needed a stiff drink.

Katherine Roberts said...

I have been warned, Sue, and will probably give the US Dark is Rising a miss... though I do like some American movies and loved The Hunger Games!

Interesting about your Ice Age book, Ann. I have a YA book about Genghis Khan that keeps getting turned away by British publishers and agents because it's too European/historical - your comment has inspired me to try it in the US, maybe an ebook edition at first... er, everyone's heard of Genghis Khan, right?