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ezc_19
01-12-2009, 11:41 PM
I think we all know that the American market is huge in the publishing world. There have been a number of popular spy books with an American protagonist, and some Brits (from James Bond to George Smiley). Can a Russian spy book be successful or is it suicide in the American market?

Doesn't even have to be a spy. Can foreign main characters be successful?

aka eraser
01-12-2009, 11:42 PM
Gorky Park (http://www.amazon.com/Gorky-Park-Arkady-Renko-Novels/dp/0345298349) comes to mind. That book did okay on this side of the pond.

Namatu
01-13-2009, 12:12 AM
I enjoyed Gorky Park and its successors.

If the plot is compelling, I don't think nationality of the protagonist matters all that much.

brokenfingers
01-13-2009, 12:15 AM
Of course you can. It's all in the characterization and the story.

Ken Follett wrote a huge bestseller with a Nazi spying in England as the protagonist, The Eye of the Needle (http://www.amazon.com/Eye-Needle-Ken-Follett/dp/006074815X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1231791125&sr=1-1).

That's just one example of many. Research the genre, I'm sure you'll find many more examples.

Crinklish
01-13-2009, 12:18 AM
At our editorial meetings, it's true that we often look for some connection to the U.S. in the story--but a foreign agent working in America could be a fruitful premise, because in addition to the thriller plot, you have all the culture-clash elements to play with. At the moment it can be tough to sell a foreign-set story with a foreign protagonist...but it's not a complete deal-breaker.

Atlantis
01-13-2009, 02:21 AM
Can foreign main characters be successful?

Harry Potter. He's probably the best example of a foreign main character becoming successful. What type of a reader even cares where the character comes from? Is it important? Do Americans really want to read just about Americans? If so that's very boring.

ezc_19
01-13-2009, 03:35 AM
Harry Potter. He's probably the best example of a foreign main character becoming successful. What type of a reader even cares where the character comes from? Is it important? Do Americans really want to read just about Americans? If so that's very boring.

I was thinking more of the young adult/adult market than the children's/young adult market, which Harry Potter is realistically more suited for. Especially since Harry Potter had British and American versions. Perhaps it would not have caught on if the American market received the British version.

I know that foreign authors often criticize the American market for being to "American-centric." I just wanted to get an idea of other people's feelings of the issue.

Topaz044
01-13-2009, 03:39 AM
The old t.v show Man from U.N.C.L.E had a spy who was Russian, and that became a big hit. (Sorry, I can't think of any book references off the top of my head). I can't image any problem with nationality if it's compelling enough.

GirlWithPoisonPen
01-13-2009, 03:45 AM
Most of Alan Furst's spies are something other than British or American.

People like to read about their countrymen -- it's a point of identification -- but a good story is a good story.

Otherwise, the whole science fiction/fantasy genre is dead.

brokenfingers
01-13-2009, 03:55 AM
Trust me - if you have a good story, no one's gonna say, "But, but, but... it's about a Russian!!"

Write a damn good story with a damn good character in an intriguing situation and the question will be moot.

IceCreamEmpress
01-13-2009, 05:38 AM
Especially since Harry Potter had British and American versions.

The only changes were at the word level--"sweater" instead of "jumper" and things like that.

And the title of the first book.

ezc_19
01-13-2009, 05:58 AM
The only changes were at the word level--"sweater" instead of "jumper" and things like that.

And the title of the first book.

That does take away from the British "feel" though. If British words and expressions are exchanged for American ones, it's almost like an Americanization of the works.

GirlWithPoisonPen
01-13-2009, 06:00 AM
That does take away from the British "feel" though. If British words and expressions are exchanged for American ones, it's almost like an Americanization of the works.

The changes were made because the original intended audience wouldn't have had the cross-over vocabulary. Similar changes were made in other language editions.

Meerkat
01-13-2009, 06:03 AM
Be sure and be patient in educating the new generation of American readers as to what and where "Russia" is, though.

Seriously, it sounds like a great idea. I'm reminded of the paradigm shift in the movie No Way Out. It is a welcome perspective.

IceCreamEmpress
01-13-2009, 06:10 AM
That does take away from the British "feel" though. If British words and expressions are exchanged for American ones, it's almost like an Americanization of the works.

No, it really isn't. American kids would be completely confused by a description of Harry Potter wearing a jumper, because US jumper = UK pinafore dress.

Substituting the synonym "sweater" didn't change anything about the "feel" of the book. It's not like they substituted the President for the Queen--they just exchanged synonyms.

It's like changing "fanny pack" for "bum bag"--it doesn't change the meaning, just the vocabulary.

GirlWithPoisonPen
01-13-2009, 06:16 AM
I'm going to admit that I'm kind of irritated by this whole question. If you had gone to bookstore and looked at the shelves or even done a search on Barnes and Noble, you would have seen that they are plenty of espionage books being published (and have been published) with non-Americans as the main character.

Instead, you've drawn an assumption without sufficient evidence in order (or so it seems) to pick a fight about Americans being American-centric in their reading.

ezc_19
01-13-2009, 06:51 AM
No, it really isn't. American kids would be completely confused by a description of Harry Potter wearing a jumper, because US jumper = UK pinafore dress.

Substituting the synonym "sweater" didn't change anything about the "feel" of the book. It's not like they substituted the President for the Queen--they just exchanged synonyms.

It's like changing "fanny pack" for "bum bag"--it doesn't change the meaning, just the vocabulary.

In Canada, we received the British version. We don't use terms like "jumper" and "torch" (for those we are usually very similar to Americans), but you understand their meanings based on the context. I read the British version in grade 6 and the American version in grade 7, and found both to be very different reads. The first one feels like a Brit is telling the story, the second one feels like he could almost be an American/Canadian. Word choice often gives the book its feel. For instance, the southern USA uses different terms than the NW USA, but the publisher doesn't switch the words around because it gives it that "southern" feel. If To Kill A Mockingbird was rewritten with Canadian terms, there would be almost no point of us reading the book.


I'm going to admit that I'm kind of irritated by this whole question. If you had gone to bookstore and looked at the shelves or even done a search on Barnes and Noble, you would have seen that they are plenty of espionage books being published (and have been published) with non-Americans as the main character.

Instead, you've drawn an assumption without sufficient evidence in order (or so it seems) to pick a fight about Americans being American-centric in their reading.

Wow, who's picking a fight? It was just a question. As for evidence, it's a common belief among international writers that the American market can be difficult if your story does not include America in some way. I'll give you Bryce Courtenay as an example of one of the more vocal critics. It's just a question for discussion though.

You often have to keep the American market in mind if you want to be commercially successful.

There was also a lot of anti-Russian/anti-communist sentiment in the USA for a number of decades. It's not like I'm asking if an Australian or Mexican spy novel could work.

Momento Mori
01-13-2009, 05:25 PM
ezc_19:
Can foreign main characters be successful?

Yes. See The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (Pakistani student in America), The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga (set in India with an Indian protagonist), The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini (set in US and Afghanistan) and almost anything by Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie to name but a few.

It's not the nationality of the character but whether the story is compelling and holds the interest that's important.


ezc_19:
I was thinking more of the young adult/adult market than the children's/young adult market, which Harry Potter is realistically more suited for. Especially since Harry Potter had British and American versions. Perhaps it would not have caught on if the American market received the British version.

I know a lot of US adults and kids who deliberately bought the British version of the books in addition to the UK version so that they could see the different vocabulary.


ezc_19:
I read the British version in grade 6 and the American version in grade 7, and found both to be very different reads. The first one feels like a Brit is telling the story, the second one feels like he could almost be an American/Canadian.

Well I'm a Brit who ended up with a mix of US and UK versions of the books and I barely noticed the minor vocab changes and the ones I did spot certainly didn't make me feel as though they were completely different books. The vocab didn't affect the setting, characterisation or dialogue which still felt British to me. It certainly wasn't as though you suddenly had characters saying things like "Yo, wassup?" at each other in the US version.


ezc_19:
As for evidence, it's a common belief among international writers that the American market can be difficult if your story does not include America in some way.

That isn't evidence - it's hearsay. Where did you hear about this "common belief"?

Although my novel is set in London and lacks any US characters, I'd certainly have no hesitation in querying US-based agents as well as UK ones. In fact, I can think of one example straight away that belies your assumption - Kristin Nelson signed Irish writer Sarah Rees-Brennan last year and sold her novel The Demon's Lexicon, which is set in the UK and features UK characters to a US publisher as part of a trilogy.


ezc_19:
You often have to keep the American market in mind if you want to be commercially successful.

The US market is big, but it isn't the be all and end all - I know plenty of UK based authors who make a living from writing without having made many - if any - US sales because they've sold to other foreign markets in translation.


ezc_19:
There was also a lot of anti-Russian/anti-communist sentiment in the USA for a number of decades. It's not like I'm asking if an Australian or Mexican spy novel could work.

I don't know why an Australian or Mexican spy novel couldn't work, depending on the context. A Russian spy living in the US during the Cold War should certainly have enough of a hook to it to make it an interesting read - I remember news stories in the 80s and 90s about Russian spies being busted or US spies turning out to be double-agents and more recently in the UK there was the alleged assassination of a Russian journalist on behalf of the Russian secret service. With Russia apparently intent on becoming a serious world player again, you could work any number of scenarios into an interesting novel.

MM

kuwisdelu
01-13-2009, 05:58 PM
I sure hope so. Otherwise my countrymen are even worse than I thought. :(

ezc_19
01-14-2009, 03:02 AM
Well I'm a Brit who ended up with a mix of US and UK versions of the books and I barely noticed the minor vocab changes and the ones I did spot certainly didn't make me feel as though they were completely different books. The vocab didn't affect the setting, characterisation or dialogue which still felt British to me. It certainly wasn't as though you suddenly had characters saying things like "Yo, wassup?" at each other in the US version.

But that's it, your a Brit. American and British writing is both a little different from a Canadian perspective (though it can be hard to pick up if your not looking for it) so we can get an outside perspective.



That isn't evidence - it's hearsay. Where did you hear about this "common belief"?

I think it's a well known belief that if you want to be successful in the US market, it's easier if your novel is connected to the US in some way. Of course it's possible without it, but you increase your chance at success. It's easier for a good UK book to be successful across other European countries, South Africa, Australia, and even India than across in the US.




I don't know why an Australian or Mexican spy novel couldn't work, depending on the context. A Russian spy living in the US during the Cold War should certainly have enough of a hook to it to make it an interesting read - I remember news stories in the 80s and 90s about Russian spies being busted or US spies turning out to be double-agents and more recently in the UK there was the alleged assassination of a Russian journalist on behalf of the Russian secret service. With Russia apparently intent on becoming a serious world player again, you could work any number of scenarios into an interesting novel.

I never said it couldn't, I actually said the opposite. Since the Soviet Union was opposed to the US for so many decades (anti-Russian/anti-communist sentiment, unlike in Australia or Mexico), it might be difficult for the general US public to warm up to a story.


I know that with a good book anything is possible, I was just wondering if a well written Russian spy book set in the present day could as popular as say "James Bond" and co.

fullbookjacket
01-14-2009, 03:56 AM
See Ken Follett's The Man From St. Petersburg. The Russian wasn't a true spy, but rather a covert revolutionary. The setting was pre-WWI London.

Excellent book, I might add.

William Haskins
01-14-2009, 04:10 AM
the problem with a russian spy is its lost some intensity since the cold war ended. russia has, in fact, slightly returned to more sinister aura with putin and the russian mafia. so i think there could be a valid spy story centered on a russian.

as for precedents, in addition to the others mentioned (and i adored gorky park), julian semyonov met with some success in the 80s.

http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DEFDF123BF934A2575AC0A9619482 60

Cyia
01-14-2009, 04:38 AM
It sounds to me like you're wanting someone to tell you that the American market is snobbish and couldn't possibly want a foreign protag. Everytime someone tries to point out that it doesn't matter, you try and refute it... therefore I'm not going to bother.

ezc_19
01-14-2009, 04:59 AM
Thank you for all the great book suggestions.

I'm actually going to see if I can get a copy of Gorky Park.

William Haskins
01-14-2009, 05:13 AM
the film is also riveting.

mythicagirl
01-14-2009, 07:27 AM
I think we all know that the American market is huge in the publishing world. There have been a number of popular spy books with an American protagonist, and some Brits (from James Bond to George Smiley). Can a Russian spy book be successful or is it suicide in the American market?

Doesn't even have to be a spy. Can foreign main characters be successful?


I certainly hope so, since I tend to pepper my manuscripts with individuals from all over the world. While this example isn't in the Spy realm, "Slumdog Millionaire" has a foreign character in the lead and basically the whole cast. It just cleaned up at the Golden Globes. I recently quite enjoyed "Whale Rider" and its young (at that time I think the lead actress was 13) protagonist. So I'd say the answer is yes.

Momento Mori
01-15-2009, 03:59 AM
ezc_19:
But that's it, your a Brit. American and British writing is both a little different from a Canadian perspective (though it can be hard to pick up if your not looking for it) so we can get an outside perspective.

So ... being a Canadian reading a US version of the Harry Potter books means that you're better placed to tell a British reader whether it sounds authentically English? ;) I understand if you're personally of the opinion that it didn't feel authentic, but millions of people clearly felt differently.


ezc_19:
I think it's a well known belief that if you want to be successful in the US market, it's easier if your novel is connected to the US in some way.

No, it may be a common assumption for some newbie writers who haven't yet researched US agents or the US market to make, but it's one that can quite easily be disabused with a little research.

Although I do not disagree that internationally based writers may prefer to try and get published in their domestic market first, with a view to making international sales, if a US publisher knows that a book has been critically well received elsewhere or done well commercially elsewhere, then there's a good chance that it could also do well in the US market, regardless of whether it's set in the US or includes US protagonists.


ezc_19:
Since the Soviet Union was opposed to the US for so many decades (anti-Russian/anti-communist sentiment, unlike in Australia or Mexico), it might be difficult for the general US public to warm up to a story.

I don't get what you're saying here. Are you suggesting that because Australia or Mexico weren't as closely involved in the Cold War as the US, then they might be more receptive to a Russian spy thriller?

MM

ezc_19
01-15-2009, 08:04 AM
So ... being a Canadian reading a US version of the Harry Potter books means that you're better placed to tell a British reader whether it sounds authentically English? ;) I understand if you're personally of the opinion that it didn't feel authentic, but millions of people clearly felt differently.

No, a Canadian who read both versions may have a say in any differences seen between the two versions. But this thread isn't about Harry Potter or even British characters, as I have already said the spy books such as James Bond are fairly successful in the US.



No, it may be a common assumption for some newbie writers who haven't yet researched US agents or the US market to make, but it's one that can quite easily be disabused with a little research.

The comments were not based on "newbie writers" but based on a number of successful international writers who's novel take place outside of the USA. Of course many international books are published and do well in the USA, but there are also a number of successful international books that aren't even published in the USA. The discussion of if a spy book with a protagonist from a nation that was an enemy of the US for a number of decades could be successful in the US market is a reasonable one.



I don't get what you're saying here. Are you suggesting that because Australia or Mexico weren't as closely involved in the Cold War as the US, then they might be more receptive to a Russian spy thriller?

MM

No that's not what I said.

GregB
01-20-2009, 08:44 PM
Not just Gorky Park -- read all of Martin Cruz Smith's "Arkady Renko" novels. He's still writing them, and they still seem to be selling.