When I relocated part-time to the UK last year, there were many mysteries to figure out: Why so many tea breaks, and how does one brew it in the Orwell fashion? Where does one find canned pumpkin come Thanksgiving? What’s a knees-up, and what does it mean to get trolleyed there? I’m still as baffled as Bill Bryson, but at least have had the opportunity to learn a lot more about the publishing scene over here.
First, a brief, oversimplified history: English-language publishing began in London, with British publishers exporting their books to the colonies, and you still see that history reflected in book publishing contracts, with English-language rights in former colonies like India, Sierra Leone, and the Falkland Islands falling under British exclusivity. Exports matter more to British publishers, whose home market is smaller (there are five times as many potentially book-buying Americans), but America – now that we’re no longer a colony ourselves! – has interest in export markets as well, and its publishers have begun to fight back for certain countries (Singapore, Malaysia, and Jamaica seem to come up quite a bit).
Exports aside, the smaller market in the UK means British publishers need to time publication optimally; ideally this means near-simultaneous release with the US edition. This allows effective use of any US publicity, but more importantly, because the modern world makes borders leaky, publishing after the US release can mean losing a lot of sales. There are exceptions to the rules, but trying to get a book published in the UK after it’s been out in the US market is an uphill battle – something that isn’t as much of a challenge in reverse.
Related to market size, having a smaller pie to slice, editors in the UK are quite sharp and specific about what they are looking for and what gaps they need to fill on their list. Of course, both US and UK publishers need to be strategic about what they publish and when, but the constraints feel tighter here.
Speaking of specificity, the packaging and presentation of books seems more literal here: titles reflect exactly what’s inside the story or give big hints at its issues. Likewise, cover art seems much more direct, too: British covers may depict a major event in the book, and it seems I see more figures and images of the characters on British book jackets.
Finally, and perhaps subjectively, I have a sense of an American can-do attitude that is mirrored in its publishing scene – more, “yes, how can we make this work?” over a British, “no, that will never work.” (Of course, market size makes one cautious, too.) There’s a thriving indie scene in the US, reflected in its varied indie publishers and treasured indie bookstores. There are fewer indie bookstores and presses in the UK, but that’s changing, and the ones here are fantastic: Galley Beggar Press, Myriad, Haus Publishing, September Publishing, and Fitzcarraldo Editions are a few of my favorites. (There are also amazing things coming out of Ireland – I’m obsessed with Stinging Fly Press, for instance — which deserve more than just this parenthetical aside.)
Recognizing that the American publishing market is as robust as our appetites, I hear from many British writers that they’re eager to work with a New York agent to tap into the US market. Likewise, authors in the US have asked about querying UK agents. For the most part, I would suggest to authors to first approach an agent in their home country, both so you can more easily develop a relationship with them, and to ensure they know your market. Though Britons love their American television, food, and writers, and Americans in turn eat up the BBC and have a long history of admiration for British writing, it is logistically easier to promote a US author in the US, and vice versa. This is both in terms of book tours and – especially for nonfiction – because an author typically has built a larger audience and platform in their home country. The exception would be if the subject matter is particularly British- or American-centric – say, an Englishman writing a narrative history of the Twinkie, or an American biographer of Humphrey, the cat who lived at 10 Downing Street beginning with Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. (Those ideas are totally up for grabs, by the way.)
Both the US and the UK have associations of agents who adhere to a standard of ethics, with searchable directories; the US version is the Association of Authors’ Representatives, and in the UK it is the Association of Authors’ Agents.
One big similarity between US and UK publishers (and readers, I hope) should be obvious, but is worth stating: on both sides of the pond exists a hunger for fresh, original voices, where exciting storytelling meets quality writing. And it is ultimately those exceptional books that find their way to readers, despite market challenges.