By Jim Bencivenga, writer of The Christian Science Monitor
The Christian Science Monitor
CERTAIN authors travel well across national borders. United States writers Stephen King and Jean M. Auel are international publishing industries in and of themselves. They occupy high rungs on the bestseller lists in multiple countries. Alvin Toffler's books go around the world. The Italian Umberto Ecco is one of the few non-American authors in the same class as King and Auel.
But there is no simple way to describe the influence on popular culture of individual books sold internationally. The challenge is being able to say how a book, after it has taken on a life of its own in its own land, shares that life with readers in another land.
In global publishing, nonfiction clearly predominates. Transnational publishing is easiest in nonfiction, where nuance and tone - all the squirm and subtlety of literature - are absent, says Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's Magazine and host of the weekly PBS TV book-discussion show, "Bookmark."
When it comes to the export of ideas, says Mary Warner Marien, who teaches fine arts at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y., "Nonfiction is like technology, it can be used anywhere." Fiction, on the other hand, travels like food, "not very well - people prefer their own fiction the way they prefer local dishes," she says.
And what cross-cultural traveling there is tends to be one way - with point of origin the US.
Katerina Czarnecki, vice president and director of international rights sales in New York City for the British publisher Macmillan, echoes Ms. Marien. American publishers excel in printing readable books and manuals on complex and technically demanding subjects, she says.
The management manual with its rational development of marketing strategies; the detailed but lucid instructions in a how-to, general-interest gardening or auto-maintenance manual; the palatable rendition of mathematical logic in user-friendly computer manuals: Each is part of an American publishing epistemology that simplifies complex issues without overly distorting them, Ms. Czarnecki says.
With 19 years in the international book business, Czarnecki gives the example of how a book about marketing by a professor from Harvard University's Business School is different from that of a German professor at a leading German university. The Harvard professor automatically assumes a businessperson as part of the intended audience. In Germany, the target audience is another professor.
There is no mass market of American proportions for the German-authored book, while there is one for the American book, she says. The result: American business practices travel to Germany in a way that German practices don't travel back.
Juan Garcia, publisher of Eradnos Press in Boston, knows all too well the one-way direction of much international publishing. He recently bought the rights to a German novel that sold more than a million copies in Germany. He will publish 2,000 copies of its English-language translation in the US. The German publisher is speechless at the small production run, Mr. …