With just three weeks to go until the publication of my new novel, Heaven is a Place on Earth, the demons have begun whispering in my ear, telling me all the reasons people might find not to like it. Not that I need demons to remind me! You just have to scan a few Amazon reviews to find that lots of people have loads of reasons for hating everything anyone does. (There’s even one poor demented soul on Goodreads who has been through every book and short story I’ve ever published – even things that are out of print and only available second hand – and given them a 1-star “review” comprising the identical gibberish. But then, Goodreads is the badlands of the literary Web.)
What the demons have been whispering of late is that books not set in the US don’t sell well over there. This is probably an urban myth put around by anxious publishers whose sleep is spent in nightmares about eroding bottom lines, clutching desperately at any superstition that might bring them better luck. They tell it to writers, urging them to switch a book’s location from Stowe-in-the-Wolds, England to Deadhorse, Alaska, because, well, Americans don’t like to read about foreign places, do they? I’ve had this same advice myself, from a Big 5 publisher, who suggested I move the setting of one of my novels from Brisbane, Queensland to, say, San Francisco, California. I said no, I wouldn’t. I have more respect for American readers than that. Besides, I know of loads of great novels that sell well but aren’t set in the USA. They didn’t actually publish the book (not for that reason, I hope!) so we won’t know if they were right unless I self-publish it.
The thing is, Heaven is a Place on Earth, is also set in Brisbane. It doesn’t have to be set there, I suppose, although there is a bit of an On the Beach echo about the setting that I hope readers will notice. But why should I change it? Brisbane is a fine city of over two million people spread across one of the largest urban areas in the world (about ten times the area of San Francisco). It rubs up against beautiful Moreton Bay and the Coral Seal on one side, has the gentle Brisbane River running through it, and enjoys a gorgeous, sub-tropical climate. It’s a great place to set a story.
It’s a bit like the argument publishers use for “translating” books into “American”. I write in a dialect of English I learnt and spoke in the UK. It’s very, very similar to the one I speak here in Australia. About half the books I read are written in a dialect of English spoken and written in the US. Somehow I manage to cope with the fact that those writers say “sidewalk” when they mean “pavement” and “pavement” when they mean “road”, “purse” when they mean “handbag”, “Mom” when they mean “Mum”, and so on. It doesn’t need translating into Australian for me. In fact, I’d find it very weird if an American author’s work was presented to me in UK English. Yet many publishers insist – they write it into their contracts they insist so much – that they will only publish books in an American idiom, with American spelling. One publisher told me that Americans complain that their books are full of spelling mistakes if they find UK English spellings in them! The whole attitude is bizarre, and, I believe, denigrating to American readers.
As I see it, if you don’t want to hear other voices, why bother to read at all?
Needless to say, Heaven is a Place on Earth is written in Australian English, using Australian idioms. It even contains Australian slang – God knows what a Big 5 publisher would make of that!
Yet, despite all my self-justification, the demon whispers, “You’ll get 1-star Goodreads reviews saying ‘the guy shoulda used a spell checker,’” and “Once they see a picture of Brisbane on the cover, no American will want to buy it.” Stoopid demon. “Stoopid you,” the demon says. “You think those big-name publishers don’t know their market?”
Well, yes, I suppose that’s what I do think.
What do you think?