Location, location, location. It’s that old real estate saying. And, in our globalised economy – and particularly, in our globalised digital economy – we could be forgiven for thinking it shouldn’t matter where an author or reader is located.
But it does.
In this final post on #bookbigotry, we’ll look at how location affects writers in terms of their language choices, and how it affects readers in terms of what books they have access to. Then, we’ll examine how all three factors explored in this series – format, platform, and location – affect the way books are understood and appreciated.
Have you ever wondered how writers decide which English to use? Or, to be more specific, which variety of English?
All of us grow up not just speaking a mother language (or two!) but a variety of that language. And while any linguist will tell you that all languages are valuable and useful in communicating facts and ideas, when it comes to publishing, some regional varieties are more valued than others.
American English is the undisputed king of the publishing world – to the extent that even British style guides and Australian publishing gurus recommend using US spelling and punctuation.
But the differences between US and UK English, or for that matter, American and Australian English, is not simply a matter of punctuation and spelling or accent. As I document in a forthcoming post, there are also major differences in vocabulary and grammar. In short, transforming a novel from one variety of English to another is significantly more involved than changing a few ‘s’es to ‘zee’s, or deleting a few instances of the letter ‘u’.
Every time an author changes a word or expression with a particular regional flavour for one more palatable to a US audience, they may gain a wider readership, but they may also lose the some of the essence of their writing.
Why do professionals in the publishing industry recommend using US English, then? As I’ll cover in the next post, while most speakers of Englishes other than US English tend to be tolerant or even welcoming of varieties other than their own, US audiences typically have limited exposure to non-US forms of English, and tend to be less tolerant of reading books that use UK, Australian, or Canadian Englishes, let alone even less common varieties such as Fijian or Scottish Englishes.
Risk vs. reward
In other words, for an Australian author, writing in US English is relatively risk-free. Fellow Australians will still read it, speakers of English all across the world will still read it, and US-based readers might, too.
For a US author to write in US English is also risk-free. Fellow US citizens will read it, and so will English speakers around the world, including Aussies.
But for an Australian author to write in Australian English… that’s a different proposition altogether. While fellow Australians will read it, and speakers of other less-common varieties of English may too, US-based readers might reject it, or so the common wisdom goes. And if they do pick up a book written in non-US Standard English, American readers may well criticise the ‘weird’ spelling or the ‘strange’ words.
There are still many reasons to write in other varieties.
Personally, I prize linguistic accuracy. I want my Australian characters to sound and think like Australians. And I believe in the importance of linguistic plurality. I want my fellow Australians to feel a sense of home when they read my words, and I want others to experience the same sense of transportation I do when I read book in an English other than my own.
But it is certainly true that US authors are at a natural advantage.
Or, put another way, authors who write in other varieties of English may find themselves at a disadvantage, with readers rejecting their work not on the basis of their skill at plotting, developing characters, or expression, but on the basis of the linguistic variety they were born speaking.
We’ve seen how location impacts writers, but what about readers? Where a reader is located can have a dramatic impact on the books they have access to.
Physical and legal access to books
Censorship is one way in which readers’ access to books may be restricted. In the US, public schools have the power to limit children’s choice of books to read. Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Harry Potter have all been subject to such restrictions.
Every year, the Office for Intellectual Freedom releases a list of the 10 most-challenged books. The top 10 for 2019 included Harry Potter and A Handmaid’s Tale due to their ‘witchcraft’ and ‘sexual overtones’. All of the other books were challenged over concerns regarding their LGBTQIA+ content.
But it isn’t just children who have seen such restrictions. Catch-22 was banned, ostensibly for its ‘indecent’ language rather than its anti-war sentiment. Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, tame by today’s standards, was banned for its depiction of sex outside of wedlock. Uncle Tom’s Cabin earned the distinction of being banned in both Russia and America (in Russia, for undermining religion, and in America, for undermining racism and slavery…) And Candide, by Voltaire, was burned in Paris in the 1700s and still seized by US customs in 1930, for its satirical look at the military, religion and optimism.
In modern times, in 2010, the US Department of Defense overrode the Army’s earlier approval for the publication of Army Reserve Lt. Col. Anthony Shaffer’s Operation Dark Heart. The DoD then purchased and destroyed the entire print run of first edition copies, citing concerns it contained classified information. The second edition contains blackened out words, lines, and paragraphs – even parts of the index were censored. So it’s not even possible to know what was censored.
Australia and New Zealand have banned the instructional manual on euthanasia The Peaceful Pill Handbook. Austria has banned the printing, ownership, or distribution of Mein Kampf. Bangladesh, Egypt, India, Iran, Kenya, Kuwait, Liberia, Malaysia, Pakistan, PNG, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand famously banned Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. India also currently bans many religious and political biographies. Lebanon banned Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code deeming it offensive to Christianity. Malaysia banned the entire Fifty Shades trilogy as a ‘threat to morality’. And George Orwell’s Animal Farm is banned in North Korea, and was censored in Vietnam. In 2013, Russia banned a translation of the Quran, censoring the text under the country’s ‘extremism’ laws, and in 2015, it banned importation of the New World translation of the Bible.
So, where you are certainly affects what books you have access to via your school reading list, your public library, or even, which books you are legally allowed to buy, sell, print, or read. But there are many other ways in which our geographical location affects what we can read.
Paid access to books
In an upcoming post, I will explore in detail how the country we live in affects the availability of and the prices we pay for books – even ebooks – by examining the top 20 books of 2019. But for now, let’s just take a single case study from that list as an example – the book Things We Didn’t Talk About When I was a Girl.
In the US, the book was available on Amazon in hardcover at US$15.79 (or approximately $25 AUD), but seemingly unavailable in the Kindle store.
In Australia, Things We Didn’t Talk About… was available on both Kindle and in hardcopy, with the Kindle version retailing for $10.55 AUD, and the hardcopy costing $27.54 (around 10% more expensive than in the US).
In the UK, the same book cost just over four pounds (or approximately $7.81 AUD) on Kindle – more than 25% less than the Australian price. And the hardcopy version was just under ten pounds (or approximately $19.18 AUD) – significantly less expensive than the same book in either the US or Australia.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the book was not available on Amazon in any format (despite all of the other top 20 listings being for sale in English).
And in terms of price, this isn’t a particularly outstanding example. On some books, consumers in one region had to pay double or even triple the price paid by consumers in another region for the exact same book.
So, we see that where you are and which version of Amazon you use will drastically affect not only how much you will pay for a book, but which format(s) it is available in, and whether you can access it at all.
Of course, not all books are purchased. I’ll consider ‘piracy’ in the same forthcoming post, but today, I want to focus on the authorised distribution of an author’s work for free. That is, giveaways.
Free access to books
Authors and publishers often use giveaways to attract new social media followers, to get further exposure for their work, and to add some much-needed social credibility to a new release.
Having a large number of people enter a giveaway sends the signal that a book is popular and in demand. It keeps it fresh in readers’ minds. Those who miss out may even go on to buy their own copies – and the lucky winner, if they enjoy the book, may recommend it to others, and/or buy books from the authors’ back catalogue.
So it’s a bit of a surprise that many of the giveaways I see on social media are not open to ‘international’ audiences.
Let’s make no bones about it:
‘International’ means ‘non-US’.
Publishers and authors based in Australia or the UK generally open their offers up internationally, or if that isn’t possible, specify ‘UK only’ or ‘Australia only’.
In other words, for the non-US English-speaking countries, what the US labels ‘international’ is the default, unmarked setting. The fact that the US makes up such a vast chunk of the English-speaking book-buying world means it would be folly for Australian or UK-based authors and publishers etc. to exclude American readers from giveaways and other events without good reason. (Just as it is folly to use non-US English without good reason!)
And it’s not just books in which this imbalance is present. I remember visiting Borders (an American chain, but, at the time, operating in Australia) and finding the Australian movies were filed in the ‘International Films’ section. Australian CDs were in the ‘Global Music’ section. And I must admit, I felt a bit disoriented. Like I was in an airport or something. A kind of no-man’s land.
‘International’ seems to be a euphemism for ‘non-US’ in much the same way that ‘diverse’ is often used as a euphemism for non-hetero/white/cis.
Terminology aside, when it comes to giveaways, there are legitimate reasons publishers and authors may wish to restrict entries to a particular location, even though their social media audiences are often from across the globe.
Some jurisdictions may have laws that restrict certain types of giveaways or competitions. Some prizes, such as physical books, may simply be too expensive to mail out to non-local winners.
But where these reasons do not apply, it is hard to understand why authors or publishers would not want to open up events to as many readers as possible. After all, since the aims of a giveaway are usually to attract new followers, get exposure, and obtain social credibility, surely, the more the merrier?
This last point – regarding social credibility – is one which merits particular attention.
Social credibility and giveaways
Like any public declaration, hosting a giveaway has its pitfalls.
Think of proposing, in a big, public way. Fantastic if the object of your affections says ‘yes’. Mortifying if all you hear is crickets.
In a way, hosting a giveaway is similar. Everyone wants thousands of fans clamouring over each other to enter. Nobody wants the rejection implicit in having few or no entries.
But that’s the reality for many authors.
The importance of numbers
Although the quality of your relationship with your followers is more important than their quantity, we do judge ourselves – and each other – by numbers.
A giveaway with few – or worse, no – entries can have the opposite effect to what you intend. Rather than making your book look desirable, it can make it look distinctly unpopular. Literally as if you cannot give it away for nothing.
But the reality is, many people who might be only too happy to enter your competition and read your book never even saw the announcement.
I know this, because I was contacted by an extremely talented author who ran a giveaway and, having not received enough entries to exhaust the supplies of prizes they had planned, offered me one of the remaining copies. Had I seen the giveaway, I absolutely would have entered, and shared it with others.
I’ve seen other authors posting about how they only gave away three copies of the ten books they’d planned on giving out because they didn’t get enough entries. This is tragic. It makes the book look unpopular, the winners feel less lucky, and I’m certain it doesn’t make the author feel what they were hoping to either. In many cases, it can even result in the author going financially backward, having shelled out for promo items to ship along with printed copies of their books, that end up cluttering their garage instead.
Is it because their books are boring and unattractive? No.
A little maths
Say you have 1,000 followers. You might feel pretty confident in giving away 10 books. So you order 10 copies. You even get some cool swag made. You create a fun graphic announcing your giveaway. And, you wait.
In the social sciences, a response rate of around 30% to a survey or questionnaire is considered pretty good. So you might expect around 300 entries (30% of 1,000 = 300).
Yet hardly anyone gets anywhere near this level of engagement.
Why? It’s important to remember that, at most, only around 10% of your followers will ever see something you post, unless you pay to ‘boost’ it. On some platforms, the figure is even lower – around 1%.
Social media companies intentionally restrict the reach of our posts for two reasons.
Firstly, by ensuring only a handful of people actually see our posts, they hope to persuade more of us to pay. Increasingly, I’ve seen promoted posts coming not from major companies or even small businesses, but from individual creators, paying to have us click on their drawings or poems.
Secondly, by removing some of the content we would otherwise see in our feeds, they free up more space for advertising. On Instagram for example, around a fifth to a quarter of everything you see is likely to be sponsored.
So, of your 1,000 followers, probably just 10 to 100 people saw your giveaway post. And, if around 30% of those who saw it enter, that’s a grand total of somewhere between three and 30 entries.
Which means that, depending on what platform you’re using, you already may not have enough people to claim all of the cool prizes you’ve prepared.
What does location have to do with any of this?
Well, so far, we’ve only considered the effects of the unavoidable restriction imposed by Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and the like. What happens when you decide to self-impose your own optional restriction based on geographical location?
Let’s say you’ve decided to make your giveaway ‘US only’. Only 4.5% of the world’s population lives in the US. Why would you cut 95.5% of the world out of your promotion?
Okay, so you’re a writer, and your book is only available in English. Still, English is the most widely used language on the planet, and although the US is the largest English-majority country, it only accounts for around 15% of all English users.
On Instagram and Facebook, it is estimated that up to 90% of users may be from outside the US. And around 80% of all Twitter accounts are classed as ‘international’ (i.e. from outside the US).
So, remember those 10-100 people who saw your post? If you’ve decided to rule out somewhere between 80-90% of them based on location, then you’ve actually only got around 1-20 people who have both seen your post and are eligible to enter.
If a third of those who see your post and are eligible to do so decide to enter, you’ll have… somewhere between half a person and six people who actually enter.
And you’ll be left with at least four unclaimed prizes and a somewhat less than triumphant announcement to make.
Even worse, assuming you have a fairly global following, and that around 30% of your followers would have been interested in entering, for every US-based entry your giveaway received, eight or nine non-US readers saw your post and went away disappointed. That is, you may have done more damage than good.
The Complexities of Book Bigotry
#BookBigotry occurs where a book is judged not on the basis of its own merits, but on its form of publication. In this series, I’ve identified three subtle ways in which books are pre-judged by readers and reviewers and publishing professionals and even fellow authors, other than the more obvious indie vs. traditional distinction: format, platform, and location.
Rather than being distinct factors, a book’s format, platform, and location tend to be deeply intertwined.
When it comes to format, eBooks tend to be evaluated less positively than hard copies, with some reviewers refusing to accept them. Yet, as we have seen, the costs involved in purchasing and shipping books can be enormous for authors outside of the US. An author copy that a US author can receive for around $3.50 would cost me close to $50, demonstrating the impact of location. Distributing eBooks can also be problematic when one platform dominates the market with a proprietary file type. Authors must keep several file types on hand for those who have devices that are more or less ‘locked-down’.
And speaking of platform, when Amazon dominates the US market, it can be hard to get the word out about ebooks on other platforms, since many sites refuse links from non-Amazon sellers. For authors whose primary audiences are in a location where Amazon is not as dominant, or not even really available, this means a loss of promotional opportunity.
Furthermore, because Amazon offers far less goods and services in Australia than in the US, it isn’t used as frequently. As a result many Australian readers do not meet the minimum spend threshold required to leave reviews on Amazon. For authors whose key target audiences are located in the States, they can assume most of their readers will be eligible to leave Amazon reviews. The same cannot be assumed of Australian readers – and when they do leave reviews, they are segregated on the various Amazon domains, and labelled as ‘international reviews’ – if they show up at all. When reviews on Amazon are a requirement of many promotional sites, non-US authors are hit yet again.
What can we do about this?
As in the previous posts in this series, I want to conclude with some practical ideas.
When it comes to language, non US-based writers may benefit from having beta readers from different countries. And although it’s probably not as necessary in reverse, I’d encourage US-based writers to do the same. The aim isn’t to flatten cultural and linguistic differences, but to try and achieve a happy balance of accessibility and authenticity. In preparing Number Eight Crispy Chicken for publication, I was grateful to my US-based beta readers who drew my attention to comprehension issues surrounding burger vs. sandwich terminology, for example. (In Australia, ‘burger’ can refer to both beef burgers and chicken burgers, whereas in the States, I’m told ‘sandwich’ is more usual. We would typically reserve ‘chicken sandwich’ to refer to cold sliced or shredded chicken on sandwich bread – not a fried patty on a bun).
I would, of course, encourage all readers everywhere to read as widely as you can, across both space and time. Read in other varieties of your language. If you know more than one language, try reading novels in all of them. You may not even know what you’re missing out on if you don’t try. Smashwords allows authors to indicate what variety of English their book is written in – which allows for both selection for and selection against certain varieties. You’ll find more about why I choose to write in Australian English in my next post.
Regarding access, I would encourage readers to check out resources like Booko.com.au I previously mentioned to ensure that you’re not paying too much for hardcopy books. You’ll find more about how location affects pricing and availability in another forthcoming post.
And finally, I would encourage authors and publishers who are planning giveaways to not only consider how many prizes they give away carefully (using the formula above) but to also open them up internationally. I believe there would be lots of benefits for both readers and writers.
This could be achieved by offering an ebook instead of a hardcopy. If giving away a signed copy is important to you, you could do what I’ve done for special giveaways and create a customised digital dedication plate.
If you’re really set on offering a physical prize, you might consider also putting up an ebook for grabs for a non-local winner. Or, if you have a bigger budget, you might even look at the costs of mailing a prize overseas. While international shipping is expensive, you may be able to play with the numbers: instead of giving away 10 copies of your book to a small pool of domestic fans, why not give away one or two copies of your book to a much larger pool of international and local entrants? Chances are, the costs won’t be significantly different (you may even save money), and you’ll probably generate far more buzz.
That’s a win-win in anyone’s language.