This Writer’s Life: Jodi Picoult: Going Global

Every now and then get a package in the mail from an exotic land. I pull out a book written in an unfamiliar language and skim through until I find the name of one of my characters. I’m published in 31 countries, but my husband bemoans the fact that we have boxes full of books we can’t read.

Although many beginning writers are blinded by the promise of that American publishing contract, it’s a great big world out there. But the attraction for foreign publishing goes beyond seeing my name transformed into Jodi Picoultova on a Croatian edition. Everything’s different overseas, from the books to the readers to the reading climate. And (are you sitting down?) the market for fiction in other countries sometimes matches—and even exceeds—the one in the United States.

Honestly, sometimes it’s enough to make me want to be an expatriate.

I was a bookselling phenomenon in Australia long before I became one in the United States. The Pact hit bestseller lists Down Under immediately—something that took five additional years in the United States. You can interpret this several ways: (1) that in Australia, I was an unusual commodity; (2) that other countries hold a fascination for all things American; (3) that my Aussie publisher did an excellent marketing job. But the biggest reason I was a success there first was because readers in Australia prefer a certain kind of book: one that’s meaty, raises discussion and makes them think. In other words, a book like mine.

I love my country. I love the Fourth of July and the First Amendment and the fact that we have a bazillion choices in the cereal aisle of the supermarket. But Americans also tend to look for the quick, digestible McNovel: the one with the happy ending, the one with chapters you can read in one bathroom break, the one you’ve forgotten by the time you turn the last page. That’s not to say there aren’t readers in the United States who delight in a thoughtful book (of course)—just that it took me an extra five years to ferret them out.

A couple of other differences about Australia: Every hotel clerk who checked me in would shyly say, ?Oh, I love your books.? Sometimes they even had one behind the desk, which I’d autograph. In the United States, I’m just asked to respell my last name. In Australia, I’m recognized walking down the street. In the United States, no one treats authors like celebrities because we have, well, real celebrities. But where the focus in American entertainment is imbalanced toward television and film, in Australia there’s an equal emphasis on writing and books.

The first time I came home from Australia, I called my American editor and told her I was moving. She pointed out that even if I sold a book to everyone in Australia, it still wouldn’t amount anywhere close to the volume of potential sales in the United States.

Then I started selling in the United Kingdom. As in Australia, the readers gobbled up what I wrote and the first year I was published there, I was nominated for a British Book Award. I flew over with my husband and a slinky evening gown, because the awards are televised. Televised book awards!

At the ceremony, as soon as I entered the building, a buzz flew through the air: That’s Jodi Picoult. I had to walk a gauntlet of paparazzi—complete with camera flashes popping, voices calling my name so I’d turn for the photo.

The United Kingdom has about one-fourth of the total U.S. population, and yet I sell an equal number of books there as I do in the United States—sometimes even more.

This means that either an extraordinary number of Brits are avid readers or that a ridiculously low percentage of Americans are.

This year, Waterstone’s (the British equivalent of Barnes & Noble) voted me Author of the Year. As gratifying as that was, it also illustrated the biggest difference between selling books in the United States and abroad: In the United Kingdom, booksellers are career booksellers. They hand-sell, and they’ve got a rabid population that likes to read. In the United States, booksellers have to compete with movies—and you know who wins. In fact, check out the paperback bestseller list: There’s certain to be at least one book with a movie tie-in and a famous actor’s face on the cover.

The Aussies take bookselling one step further. Chains in the United States and the United Kingdom allow publishers to pay for placement of a book—it’s called co-op advertising. This basically means that when you look on the New Fiction table at a Barnes & Noble or Borders, a publisher has paid to have a book there for a week or a month—it has little to do with how ?new? it is. When the U.K. headquarters of some Aussie chains announced that they’d have to start using co-op Down Under, they refused. The books that have prominent placement in Australian chains are there because a bookseller deems them worthy—not because they came with nice, fat advertising budgets.

There are some cases, too, where overseas publishing can provide the big break you need in the United States. A friend of mine found himself toiling midlist, until his foreign sales suddenly spiked. Immediately, his American publisher took notice and revamped its marketing campaign here in the states. Success abroad doesn’t always translate—think of the pop boy bands from Scandinavia that fizzle in the U.S. market—but sometimes it’s enough to get bigger, splashier publicity.

And there’s a thrill to being somewhere as remote as Iceland and seeing an entire display of my books. Or receiving an e-mail from a fan in New Zealand, telling me that My Sister’s Keeper beat out the Bible on Whitcoulls Top 100 List. But most important, knowing there are readers around the world who are hungry for the kind of book I write gives me hope that there’ll be more people like that in my own country. The United States will always be the gold standard for publishing, because of the size of its market and the scope of the competition. But that doesn’t keep me from wistfully thinking of how lovely it would be if all our booksellers had the passion of those overseas; if we had ?Behind the Author’s Studio? instead of a show devoted to actors who speak other people’s words; if readers hungered for what’s good instead of what’s popular. I don’t doubt that it could happen in the United States—I just hope I’m around to see it.

In the meantime, if you know of a cheap flat in London, call me.

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