Live from the U.K.
From across the pond, we would like to introduce Christi Daugherty, our U.K. foreign correspondent and an expat author living in England. Daugherty has been a writer for many years, launching into Young Adult fiction with her popular Night School series. As a way of introduction, she tells about – not an American in Paris – but an American writer in jolly ol’ England and how it feels to sell books in countries where you do not live and in languages you do not speak. Join her for a truly unexplainable European reality in publishing.
Huge in Poland
By CJ Daugherty
Funny things happen when you emigrate.
I left America to have an adventure. I wanted to see more of the world. Experience life as an expat.
I accepted a job in London writing and editing for a travel guide publisher, thoroughly expecting to last a year, get homesick, and head back to sunny, decadent New Orleans.
It never happened.
Fifteen years later, I’m married to a Brit, and living in a town with an honest-to-god castle smack-dab in the middle.
I went through some serious culture clash moments in the first couple of years, but now this just feels like home. I don’t notice double-decker buses. I know a Yorkshire accent from a Cornish drawl. I complain quietly about late trains and never, ever talk to anyone on the Tube.
Basically, I’ve gone native.
Probably because of all that, when I sat down to write a novel, the first question that popped into my mind was, ‘Who am I writing this for?’
At first, I just assumed I’d write about American teens. After all, I was once an American teen. Besides, Twilight hadn’t been out all that long at the time and the U.S. young adult book market was soaring.
I’d wanted to write a spy drama, and I came up with the idea of making it about young people – the children of elite politicians and CEOs. I wanted to look at the cynical, dangerous world of power through their eyes. Setting it in Washington, DC or New York just seemed logical.
The only problem was, no matter what I did, that book wouldn’t write. The voices in my head remained stubbornly British. In desperation, I relocated the setting to the U.K.
After that, I finished the first draft in five months.
I refused to consider what would happen with the manuscript until I finished it. I didn’t research agents or publishers, I just wrote the thing. So it was only when I’d completed the first draft that I learned exactly how tiny the U.K. book market is; and that the U.K. young adult market is miniscule. Advances are often £5,000 or less. That’s $7,000 for a book that takes a year to get published.
Worse, it is famously difficult to sell British books to American publishers. Don’t ask me why. I have no idea. British writers fret about it constantly.
Luckily for me, and undoubtedly because of my background, the voice of my story is mid-Atlantic, with a mixture of English and American slang. That’s generally how British teens talk anyway, to be fair. They say ‘Whatever’ and ‘Awesome’ and ‘Get OUT’ just like American kids, with added ‘Bollocks’ and ‘Blimey’.
I tried to strike that balance. And, at its heart, Night School is about the corrosive effects of power and the damage we do when we lie. I hoped those universal themes would resonate with readers beyond the UK.
The first publisher to sign my book was Little Brown, U.K. Within a few months, I’d sold translation rights in 22 countries. A small, feisty digital U.S. publisher, Bookouture, bought the U.S. rights.
I soon learned, though, that getting a book deal is no guarantee of success. When you cash the advance check, not one buyer has purchased a copy of your book in a shop. You can still tank. It’s kind of terrifying.
In fact, it’s impossible to predict where your book will succeed internationally. The Night School series is most popular in Germany, Israel, and Poland – in all three of those countries it has been a No. 1 or No. 2 bestseller. The series has also been in the Top 10 in France and Latin America.
The books have sold steadily in Britain and America, but not nearly well enough to reach those kinds of heights.
Basically, I’ve had to get used to the disembodying experience of selling books mostly in countries where I do not live.
Of course, it hasn’t all been good times. In three countries Night School has been dropped by the publishers entirely. (I’m looking at you, Portugal, Hungary, and Estonia.) So I’ve learned what it’s like to get that kind of news, too.
I couldn’t tell you why the book did well in one country or badly in another. A lot of it comes down to how cleverly the publisher publicises it. In others, it’s simply a matter of getting the timing right. Beyond that, I’m convinced it’s pure luck.
There’s no question that modern publishing is a rollercoaster ride for everyone. As an author, you have little control over what happens to your work.
When you’re on a rollercoaster, there’s only one thing to do: Hold on tight. And enjoy the ride.
A former crime reporter, political writer, and investigative journalist, CJ Daugherty has also worked, at times, for the British government. She is originally from Texas and attended Texas A&M University. She now lives with her husband in the south of England. Night School is the first in a five-part Young Adult series with an accompanying web series. Her books have been translated into 21 languages.