Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Two great nations divided by a common genre?

So I'll freely admit to scrap-booking with the screen-capture facility on my laptop accessories. My view is that this 'being an author' thing is likely to be as fleeting as it was unexpected and I need to snatch these moments and put them in a dusty e-folder to bring out when the commotion has died down just to convince myself (and potential grandchildren) that yes, that really did happen.

One high point was this - topping the Epic Fantasy chart on US Amazon:

This, sadly, though was a one-off, on the back of being kindle deal of the day - generally my performance on the US charts has been solid but not spectacular.

In the UK this:

is far more common. True, Prince of Thorns was only outselling A Game of Thrones (at the same price) for a couple of days, but all three books have been in the top 20 best sellers since Emperor of Thorns was released.

And this brings me to my title. The Broken Empire trilogy has sold well in the US but it has sold MUCH better in the UK. To put that in focus - I've sold as many books in the UK as I have in the US, and the populations look like this:

Now I've heard tales before of authors who were hits in one country and not the other. David Gemmell for example sold a bazillion books in the UK (he's great, read him), but in the US ... not so much.

On the other hand Lois McMaster Bujold I'd never heard of until recently and apparently has sold a lot of books States-side, but rather few in Great Britain.

Are these random events or do they reveal some fundamental difference in the fantasy markets? Is this difference driven by some national characteristic? some taste gene? the perception of the genre locally?

A mystery! Answers on a postcard please.


  1. The biggest thing I used to notice between fantasy books in the US and the UK is that the US books had almost universally awful covers (terrible art, as many different fonts as possible, ever colour imaginable) where as the UK versions were generally at least passable. I think these days it's not quite as bad, although that might be because I don't look at covers so much now that I read everything on the Kindle.

    As for the differing sales for Legend and Cthurse Chalioofn (this proves my point about covers!) I imagine it's more to do with the fact they pre-date the whole ebook thing. There's a whole load of authors that had been around for a long time but I'd never heard of because we just didn't get their books over here I remember the big city chain book store had a specific book case set aside for imported fantasy books with a whole load of US authors I never saw anywhere else on them (along with covers designed to make you blind or have a fit).

    1. The cover issue may also be related to the perception of the genre and the demographic of its readers. On the small scale however, I've got the same cover art in both US & UK.

  2. I noticed the same thing whilst checking amazon.com and amazon.uk. I think there are two aspects here:

    1. British writers generally do better in UK and American authors do better in USA because they have country-specific cultural references, language, settings, etc.

    Take GRRM. Five years ago in UK hardly anyone heard of GRRM (pre-TV-show time) but his books were already popular in USA.

    You are a special case. :D I understand that you weren't born in UK, but you live here, your books are set in fantasy-Europe, they are initially released in UK, etc. You have British identity.

    2. Book sales are driven by marketing campaigns (like any other sales), by different companies and different people in different countries.Some of them do better than others.

    PS: all of the above is just my opinion.

    1. Hello, just wanted to provide a bit of balance to your comment as I disagree with both your points (please dont hate me. :)). Also I dont understand the concept that a British author would be chosen ahead of a US author...im more likely to chose a book based on reviews etc. I probably wont find out their nationality untilafter ive bought the book.

      Ive been aware of GRRM for years now and I always had the feeling he was a big deal with UK fantasy fans, same applies to Steven Erikson (though he did live in the UK for a time). Always popping up in reviews and recommedations.

      As for your second point I have never bought a book due to marketing. Reviews and recommendations are much more powerful (in my opinion). Id also say I dont see a huge amount of fantasy books (grrm excluded) being marketed...maybe a sticker in Waterstones but thats as big as ive seen...

  3. I think, living in Canada, I've always been fortunate to experience the best of both worlds. While they're not quite as prevalent today, growing up there were just as many UK titles in our bookstores as US ones (something to do with tariffs, taxes, and territorial rights). In fact, when it came to genre fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, and horror), we got the UK edition far more often than the US one. It wasn't until I started getting exposed to the US editions of my favorites that I realized how fortunate we were.

    Even to this day, I'm amazed by how many online acquaintances have never heard of an author I always assumed was a 'big' name. In almost every case, if I check the paperback, sure enough I'll find a price in £ and a UK publisher.

    I think a lot of it has to do with culture (and cultural heritage), education (especially literacy rates), an understanding of history, and society in general. Fantasy has always been something very 'British' to me, and I suspect that same sense is what drives the difference in sales.

  4. In my own little experiment selling my book through Amazon kdp I have 7 times as many books sold in the UK as in the US and also there is a noticeable difference in the return rate in favour of the UK. Does this suggest my book has a country specific appeal?

    We could hypothesise about the possible difference - do the Americans prefer less ambiguous gung-ho kick-ass heroes while the UK prefer introspective tormented heroes? Does it reflect the difference in the style of films we make - eg America made Ghost with Patrick Swayze, UK made truly madly deeply with Juliet Stevenson. Do we see a difference in world view reflected in our literary tastes, American self-assurance versus UK self-deprecation?
    Or is it simply a matter of the cultural base from which you write - while the prophet may not be welcome in his own land, the author is.

    I suppose the test would be to get a random selection of books from a) those that sold disproportionately well in the US but not in UK and b) vice versa and then see if a blind test reader could correctly identify which list they come from. I'm guessing a 100 books or so for a statistically significant sample.

    Do you think I'd get a grant to take a year off work and read them?

  5. I am American born and raised and only happened to come across your 'prince of thorns' because I was in the library one day looking for an author that I had never heard of before. This is somewhat common for me. I like to read from many different authors as a way to enhance my own creativity in my storytelling. I am a avid rpg gamer and need to read for inspiration sometimes. I don't know if this helps with the conversation but thought I'd give my two cents worth anyways.

  6. There seem to be a lot of UK authors that don't come over here, or intermittently (e.g. Neal Asher). It seems to be a different culture, too. Book covers suggest this, too.

  7. FWIW, my novels are published simultaneously in the UK and US and sell about the same* in each (proportionate to the population), despite being set in England. Maybe it's because I chose a period - 16th century - that's popular with the Ren Faire crowd, or maybe it's just good marketing by my publisher!

    * With the caveat that I sell a lot more ebooks than paperbacks in the US

  8. I will give some an examples before I try to explain how these differences happen and add a third nation to the mix, Germany.

    Steven Saylor - do you know him? Famous in the USA for the Roma Sub Rosa series. I dunno how popular he is in the UK, but in Germany he is an unknown. His books were published but never picked up steam.

    Raymond E. Feist. Granted, his late novels weren't all that good anymore. But he never faded completely away in the USA, while his last novels were no longer translated to German as sales dwindled.

    Then there is the German author Markus Heitz. He wrote a fantastic SciFi series that was (only) moderately successful. Then he wrote a less ambitioned and IMO far worse series called "The Dwarves". "The X of the Dwarves" from Fate to Revenge became the title scheme for these books. They were definitely not his best works by far.

    But guess what, spectacular success in Germany and these books got even translated. It isn't a bestseller in the USA. #148,955 in Books might be good or average or not so good (no idea), but the books sold and those who read them rated them mostly high.

    I think the success of this particular books is due to the Lord of the Rings movies. "The Orcs" by Stan Nicholls were also not spectacular but got quite some readers due to topic being popular at the time.

    German Fantasy/SciFi readers tend to read a lot of translated/imported books from the USA and the UK. With the rise of ebook readers some, like me, might have decided to read the English originals after a while.

    I think it depends mostly on publishing rights and what actually gets published and how well it does get translated and promoted. More than on cultural differences and preferences. Those are also important, of course.

  9. I realize this is askew from the real subject of this entry but... this: "My view is that this 'being an author' thing is likely to be as fleeting as it was unexpected." Please don't say that you don't intend to publish more work. The Broken Empire series was written so beautifully, and the fantasy genre quite simply needs more writers like you.