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Kate Burke: UK vs the US fiction book markets– worlds apart?


At Northbank, we represent our clients in all territories throughout the world so understanding what works and sells in those book markets is key to guiding writers and shaping their work. Following my most recent trip to New York, I thought it might be useful to write about the differences between the UK and US fiction book market, and what US editors are looking to acquire.

As both the US and UK are English-speaking and culturally quite similar, there’s obviously a huge amount of crossover as to what sells, particularly across commercial fiction genres. Bestselling names in the US – Stephen King, John Grisham, Ruth Ware, Paula Hawkins and Jodi Picoult to name but a few – are also some of the biggest author selling here and around the world. However, the Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller charts don’t always mirror each other.

There are still some bestselling US authors (Kristin Hannah, Elin Hildebrand, Emily Griffin, Linda Fairstein, for example) who have never achieved great sales in the UK. This could be down to cultural differences – some books just feel a bit more American or British in tone.

Let’s take two examples I discussed with editors on my trip, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman– one a second novel from a US author and the other, a debut by a British writer.   Little Fires Everywhere was a number 1 bestseller in the US and the one book that nearly all the editors I met mentioned as the type of book they would most like to acquire. The book has done quite well in the UK but, despite being a Richard & Judy Book Club pick, hasn’t yet cracked the bestseller chart here.

Eleanor Oliphant has no doubt been one of the biggest successes in the UK for the past few years, spending months at number 1 and selling over half a million paperbacks. Interestingly, this book isn’t as big a seller in the US – it has just cracked the Top Ten and has been a slow build. Some editors I spoke to put this down to its tone and themes – their audience, when coming to women’s fiction, want family drama and romance but don’t always embrace that dark tone and humour that British writers favour.

Similarly, one interesting point of difference in terms of what US and UK editors have been acquiring on the women’s fiction side has been dystopian, feminist fiction. Several big auctions have taken place this year in the UK publishing world for books in the vein of The Handmaid’s Tale and The Power. Several of these novels – not yet published in the UK – offer a dark and bleak version of a dystopian world in which women are affected or hampered in some way by men, but from what I gathered in my meetings in New York, this isn’t something that many US editors want to publish Again, it comes back to those dark topics which these novels delve into. US readers don’t seem to want these difficult themes in their fiction at this time and editors are on the lookout for something warm and uplifting.

There are many factors which drive reading appetites and books’ successes – the size of a country, the format which readers prefer (the US is a more hardback-focused market than ours), the mood of the audience (with some harrowing things happening in America of late, it seems as though the book-buying audience has flocked to the lighter and more uplifting end of women’s fiction to seek escapism) and retailer factors such as Richard & Judy (in the UK) and Oprah and Reese Witherspoon’s book clubs (in the US), which are key to driving sales and bringing attention to debuts.

Despite our bestseller charts not being be identical, there are still huge similarities in our markets in terms of genre fiction, and this means that US editors/publishers are more or less looking for the same type of novels as UK editors. Top of every American editor’s wish list is uplifting, book club, voice-driven women’s fiction (sometimes referred to as ‘up lit’) – novels about relatable women with unique voices and perspectives, tackling or highlighting prevalent issues in a fresh and original way, usually with a heart-warming love story at their core – as well as novels from diverse authors and voices which bring a freshness to a genre. The same could be said of UK editors – everyone is looking for something with a quirky and memorable central character, a place or location that’s a bit different and a cultural or ethnic backdrop that teaches us something as well as entertains.

Alongside ‘up lit’, both UK and US editors are looking for historical fiction that either offers a new angle on a period of history we’re already familiar with (World War II, for example) or which takes us to a time and place we know nothing about. These novels need to have a strong sense of place and, even more importantly, need to be driven by an unforgettable character.

On the crime side, it became clear that US editors are finding crime series, particularly anything ‘noir’, and very dark, violent thrillers, difficult to sell so they aren’t actively taking those on. Historical thrillers are proving tricky too. Instead, high-concept thrillers – standalones with an easy, one-line pitch – seem to be all the rage and editors were excited about finding these.

In a nutshell, it seems that all editors want something new and different but, given that most writers would like to be published worldwide, I would perhaps advise staying away from anything too dark or violent! With everything that’s going on in the world, most readers still want escapism from their fiction so anything that injects positivity and warmth into their day can only be a good thing.

And, if you’re writing fiction, then we would love to hear from you as we are open for submissions. Please see our guidelines on submissions to find out more.

Kate Burke is Northbank Talent Management’s Fiction Agent focusing on commercial and upmarket women’s fiction, historical fiction, and crime, thriller and suspense.

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