Some days you get lucky. It just so happens that 2 articles appeared in my inbox that provide a peek into what differentiates a strong selling book from a phenomenon. Summer is the perfect time to make this assessment. Since June some of the biggest names in books have released their latest. There are those who won’t head out on vacation without the latest John Grisham or Daniel Silva in hand.
Publishers Weekly is the arbiter for what is selling and how many are sold. Each week the list has the ranking, number of weeks on the list, copies sold that week and calendar sales year-to-date. Grisham’s Camino Island has been on the list for 7 weeks, always at #1 or #2. Over 400,000 copies have been sold already and almost 25,000 last week alone. Now that’s a blockbuster!
Farther down on the list at #8 is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. It was published 10 months ago, in September 2016. Towles has a strong following and the book debuted on the list, but not even in the top ten. Since January, over 160,000 copies have been sold but it only takes a bit over 6 thousand to be in the eighth position for the week. Publication of the paperback has been delayed since hardcover sales remain so strong.
When I’m wearing my book group facilitator hat, I often seek out reviews of books written in the country in which the story is set. As an American, it’s difficult to tell how true the cultural tone rings and the reviewer’s perspective is invariably different. Since I’ve found these foreign newspapers’ book sections I’ve noticed something. There are many, many excellent titles that never make it to US shores. And the same holds true in reverse. (Interested? Here’s the web version of the Guardian‘s Bookmarks weekly email)
International publication rights are closely monitored and may be very restrictive. This week the message came through to me loud and clear. First, there was a contest for a pile of summer titles, only open to US residents. All the titles were US editions and could not be mailed across borders where the rights may be held by other publishers. For example, a novel may be published here by Penguin US, and not published in Canada for another 6 months.
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction was announced this evening in London. Created in 1996 in response to the dearth of women on the shortlists for the major British literary prizes, it was originally called the Orange Prize. To be eligible, a book must have been published in English in the UK by a UK publisher within the previous year. Titles could have been published in another country previously if this was its first publication in Great Britain. This year’s winner is The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney, published April 9, 2015, in the UK by John Murray Publishers. Tim Duggan Books, a Penguin Random House imprint, will release it in August in the US.
What does it really matter if a book has a delayed release in another country? Often it doesn’t matter at all. But many books, including winners of major national literary prizes, never receive foreign publication. A few years ago I was fortunate to hear Ishmael Beah speak about his novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, at the Library of Congress National Book Festival. He mentioned how hungry the people of Sierra Leone are for books. The rights for publication in many African nations are bundled with European rights. The combination of smaller, poorer markets and high transportation costs result in few top name books making it into their shops. According to Beah, entrepreneurs make semi-annual trips to the US to buy up by the pound container-sized loads of “remainders” that stock the shops and book stalls throughout much of Africa.
Those of us with ready access to a neighborhood bookstore are so fortunate. Professional booksellers are always on the look out for upcoming titles to tempt the patrons. Many are affiliated with IndieBound which provides curated book lists and marketing materials to member stores. They also maintain an online locator and archives of booklists by month and interest. Some even have relationships with foreign publishing houses to make very special orders possible.
Whether you are traveling to the beach or a distant continent, take the time to seek out local bookstores. Ask about titles that have won literary awards or are of particular local interest. It may be the unknown gem you can share with your friends. And don’t be surprised if the American bestseller you brought with you looks completely different in its foreign version. To many of us, a book is a book is a book. But on the printed page, it is big business.