Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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Elated as ever by the buzz, the bars and (above all) the business, many British publishers and agents will trail back from the Frankfurt Book Fair with deals in their pockets to warm them through a long, and quite possibly tough, winter. In Frankfurt, the starriest future volumes hog the headlines, whether from Keith Richards, Cherie Blair or Carol Thatcher. But the bread-and-butter of the industry resides in the year in, year out sale of British-originated books into overseas markets. On publishers' statistics alone, British book exports were worth a round (and cool) billion pounds last year, compared with home sales of £1.8bn. Thanks, above all, to a now-redundant teenage sorcerer, that already healthy proportion of international trade will surely swell during 2007.

This historic forte has its equally historic downside. By and large (as these pages have pointed out at length if not actually ad nauseam), the linguistic traffic flows one way. Even minor-league British novelists may find their niche in Spain or Slovenia, but only the favoured foreign few ever breach the invisible tariff wall built up by UK publishers' reluctance to invest in translations. Whether or not the Triesteno maestro Claudio Magris won the Nobel Prize yesterday (not known at time of Arts & Books going to press), British readers should by now be able to read his landmark novel Alla Cieca. As with a hundred other cases, so far we cannot.

This gross imbalance in the terms of trade at least attracts some comment. What no pundit ever seems to notice is that the shining export success of the Anglophone sphere may dull the home market. Put bluntly, the English language is the North Sea oil of UK publishing. And this unearned bonus shows no signs of running dry, whether it will flow through printed books or hand-held electronic gizmos. From textbooks to genre fiction, business manuals to biographies, the ability to sell works written in the language that the literary planet both speaks, and hurries to translate, is a manifest blessing and a hidden burden. As with other post-imperial benefits, the ease of worldwide English-language business can sometimes cushion the complacent and bankroll the banal.

It might even, I suspect, dissuade publishers from working to expand a home-grown readership. A small storm in a media teacup blew up at the revelation that Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach had been responsible for more than 90 per cent of all sales of the Man Booker shortlist. But it would take a lot more than short-term hardback numbers in the very low four figures to lead publishers or agents to dump their up-and-coming literary stars. At Frankfurt or elsewhere, they will be selling those novels and many others into dozens of territories, scanning the international horizons and thinking at marathon, not sprint, length.

A well-regarded novel that struggles to sell a few thousand copies here may, as they say, "wash its face" abroad. The author will fly off for festivals and tours, as publishers and agents bask in reflected glory. All well and good – except that this very global reach can also leave writers feeling orphaned on home turf, exiled from bestseller-led chain bookshops and shut out from promotions that stick to the level of the Richard & Judy brow.

Too few players here will think about the lost opportunities that might have doubled or trebled a domestic readership. However, firms such as HarperCollins (with a literary network site called "Authonomy" planned) have been looking hard at the potential of the MySpace model of audience development. Yes, it's great to be global. But, for the more innovative end of British writing, the final frontier may lie in our own, online backyard.