English vs. The World

There is so much wrong with Philip Jones’s “English writers outperform rivals” post on The Bookseller.com, that I’m not even sure where to start . . .

I’ll get to the actual content of the article in a minute, but first off, what is up with this title? Since when did English writers have “rivals”? Is there some sort of secret literary tournament going on that I’m not aware of? If so, I hope there’s at least some good smack talk going on: “Take that, Spain! We will dominate you and your florid prose, fine wine, and beautiful beaches once again with our English wit and neo-realistic family dramas.”

Granted, there is a Writers Football League (apparently dominated by the Hungarians), but in this case, Jones is actually talking about international bestseller lists. Over the past year, Rudiger Wischenbart has been tracking bestseller lists in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK to analyze trends in translation flows and popularity. Through the information he gathered, one can see how Steig Larsson’s books traveled through Europe, or how Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog (a huge success here), only made the bestseller lists in France, Germany, and Spain during the past twelve months.

What’s really interesting, and what Rudiger opens his report with, is the fact that English books don’t top, or even dominate this “mega-bestseller list:”

Analyzing bestselling fiction authors and their books’ performance in seven major European book markets over the past 12 months (April 2008 through March 2009, Top 10 in France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK) presents a stunning landscape of probably unrivalled inner cultural diversity, yet under strictly European colours – and with books written in English representing only a surprisingly small island in comparison to other European languages.

The top 40 writers divide into 13 writing in English, and 27 writing in other – European – languages, with Swedish (8), French (6) as the strongest, beating Dutch and German (each 4), Italian (3), Spanish (2), and Brazilian Portuguese (1).

Before finding out about this report, I would’ve assumed that 25-30 of the writers on the list would’ve been writing in English . . . Both Americans and Brits are champions at exporting out titles around the world, selling rights to dozens of countries, and invading the overall cultural landscape. So to find out that less than half of the bestselling authors wrote originally in English (including authors from India, UK, and America, three rather large countries) was pretty surprising to me.

But look what Philip Jones does with these same statistics:

English writers continue to outperform their rivals across Europe, according to an analysis of the top 10 international fiction bestsellers published by book trade magazines, including The Bookseller, Germany’s Buchreport, and France’s Livres Hebdo, over the past 12 months.

“Continue to outperform their rivals.” Classy.

I know better than to expect anything more from a trade magazine, but a bit of analysis about these findings, such as the “One Country Block Buster Phenomenon”1 would be a lot more interesting than some chest-thumping, pro-English, totally banal statements.

1 From the study: “Close scrutiny of the analyzed data show ever more telling results. Of the top 40 writers, 25 made their (heavy) splash in just one country. In return, only 2 English and 10 non-English writers could make it to the top of bestseller lists in 3 or even more countries with translations of their books. (In fact most of these local block buster titles had been translated into other languages, but were not successful to the point of getting into the top segment of the charts.) This illustrates to what extend book markets are still centred on a predominantly domestic readership.”

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