Which ‘English’ are you writing in?
I quite frequently get asked by authors whether they should publish different English-language versions of their books. If they’re British (substitute Canadian or Australian), should you do an American English edition?
But it’s not just about whether to do another edition. There are many aspects of writing for the American market, and selling books in the U.S. that you might not have considered.
If you’re a non-U.S. author who hasn’t seriously considered how to adapt their writing for that very large American market, you could be missing some significant opportunities.
The Lucrative American Market
Most authors report that their books sell far more copies on American book retail sites than on other country sites. What we hear from authors writing in English (but who are not American or living in the U.S.), is that they average 10 sales in the U.S. for every 1 U.K. sale, and 15 or more U.S. sales for every German, Spanish, or Canadian sale.
Normally we’re talking about sales on Amazon here — the .com site compared to, say, the .co.uk site — just because most books are sold there and the numbers are more reliable. But, it’s a trend across other retailers as well.
And publisher association data tell a similar (although not quite so stark) story. The market for ebooks is very substantial in the UK, with estimates for ebook sales in 2014 at £370million (approx $530million), compared to $1.58billion for the same period in the U.S.
However you want to interpret it though, the U.S. market is still the largest English-speaking market for authors of non-fiction.
And that doesn’t even include the potential to offer other products and services in addition to your books so that you can leverage a book sale into the sale of a video course, or a coaching or consultancy service.
If you don’t think of the U.S. as your natural ‘author home’, it might be worth finding out how to tweak your writing for an American market, whether that’s your books, your articles, or even your blog posts.
And, when you’re writing for the American market, there are some very simple considerations to bear in mind that just might help you sell more books. Let’s have a look:
The spellchecker is usually going to be the first place you turn to when you’re writing American English.
In Word, it’s simple enough to make the switch to U.S. English by going to the Office button, then Word Options >>> Proofing. Choose English (U.S.) from the dropdown menu in ‘Dictionary Language’ and then click Add >>> OK. This will enable you to run the Spellchecker and fix any non-US spellings. Very handy.
You can do something very similar if you use Pages on your Mac. Just go to Edit >>> Spelling and Grammar >>> Show Spelling and Grammar, and then select U.S. English.
Or you could also change your whole working environment to U.S. English on the Mac if you’re feeling brave!
Go into your System Preferences, choose languages & text >>> text >>> spelling. You’ll then be able to edit the language by clicking on your first choice. Or you can list an order of preferences by clicking automatic by language, go down to setup and click as many of the ‘English’ selections as you want.
Spellcheckers aren’t completely infallible, though, so it’s good to have another source of expertise, such as …
US punctuation is different to British (and other) English and, when it comes to adapting your writing style, the Chicago Manual of Style is your best friend.
There is an online resource, or you can turn to the manual itself; an expensive, but invaluable resource.
You will find though, that, just as in your own country, experts in the U.S. are divided on the proper use of the national language. Associated Press often disagree with Chicago Manual of Style, and one newspaper will use punctuation that another would avoid at all costs.
The best approach is to pick one reference as your source and stick to that. Consistency is best.
One of the main differences I’ve noticed is when I’m adding quotation marks for dialogue. U.S. style guides tend to put the ending quotation mark after the final comma or full-stop (period):
as would be the norm in British English. This one might take some getting used to for those of us who were schooled to put the quotation mark right at the end of the sentence!
Consult the Chicago Manual of Style, or our other recommended books on editing, for more differences between U.S. English and your home country’s writing style.
Books that have been published by the long-standing, traditional publishing houses can give us insights into the publishing standards of their country. And of how standards and protocols change over time.
If you geek out over these things, then look for classic books of American literature in their original editions, such as Hemingway, Harper Lee, or Mark Twain (among others).
Some of those books will be available as free digital downloads because the copyright has expired. Look through them and see how they lay things out, spell words, punctuate dialogue.
There is gold in there that can help us tremendously.
You may have a traditional English recipe book, or a Bollywood-style dance guide on your hands. If so, you have multiple markets to consider and it may be worth publishing two (or more) editions: a ‘local’ edition and a U.S. edition.
The stereotype of the average American having little knowledge of culture outside their shores is definitely outdated, but some of the colloquialisms (see #5 below) or insider jokes just may not translate.
And people also prefer to read in a style that they are familiar with. It can be distracting to notice unfamiliar spelling for example, and this can take attention away from your valuable content.
If your book does well in your home country and seems to have wider appeal, think about putting out a U.S. edition. Change the spelling, punctuation and some of your phrases or local references, and you could find yourself with a much larger target audience than you ever thought possible.
And this is especially true for non-fiction books.
It’s less common for publishers these days to produce multiple country editions, but it might reward you with loyal readers across the globe. And loyal readers means a stronger author-business.
Writing for readers outside your locale can be tough. You’ve grown up using expressions that you think are universal, whereas actually they’re unfamiliar to others.
If you don’t believe me, then experiment by posting a picture of a pair of running shoes on your Facebook page, or twitter stream, and ask your international friends what they call them. I bet you get more than five different names for them…
And ‘local’ can simply mean local to a particular town, region, or country.
Terms of endearment, for example, tend to be very local. In Italy they have “mi amor” and “carino”. In the UK we have “me duck” (yes really!) in Shropshire, “luv” in the north, and “hen” in certain parts of Scotland. And how is an American expected to understand why we are referring to ducks?
If you’re using these phrases, or talking about locations, then it’s well worth Googling phrases that are familiar to you to see if they are going to be understood elsewhere. A little bit of local flavour is good, but be careful about too much.
If you are writing a memoir, then you have more leeway with local expressions and, generally speaking, with dialogue.
If you’re concerned that some of it may not translate, then add a glossary at the end so that people from other countries can cross-reference any phrases they don’t quite understand. And footnotes or endnotes in a print book can also be useful for explanations or particularly technical terms.
I come from a country town near the big metropolis of Liverpool in the U.K. Expressions from cities tend to filter down to the outlying locations over the years. So much so that the locals don’t really know they are using a local expression rather than a national or international one, because they have been around it for so long.
In Liverpool, people will say they are “made up” to describe feeling really happy — not to explain that they are wearing make-up! Googling the phrase “made up” will reveal this.
Another – somewhat vulgar – local expression is “shut your gob” to ask someone to stop talking (‘gob’ being a local term for ‘mouth’). Other peculiarly British expressions seem normal to me until I go abroad and no-one knows what I’m talking about! It’s the same for every nationality.
How to ‘internationalise’ your writing
If you’re writing fiction, it’s great fun to collect local expressions from multiple regions and countries so that you can write believable characters.
It isn’t so great if you are writing non-fiction books that are targeted at an international audience, and intended to position you as an expert!
But how do you know which of your phrases might be a local expression?
- By reading widely. The best writers are also readers. Reading authors from different countries will put you in touch with expressions other than your own that could come in useful for future books/characters.
- By searching online. Searching for “YourCounty +local expressions” can bring up some surprises!
Don’t let this limit your writing — you need to be in the flow when you are creating. But, when you come to the editing stage, it’s a good idea to hold some of your more unusual expressions in check (or explain them).
Writing for the American market shouldn’t limit your creativity; you just need to think about how to give your work the equivalent of the sub-titles you might get in a foreign film.
Are you ready to take America by storm?
With the dominance of Amazon, and ability to reach pretty much any reader, anywhere, it’s worth thinking about how your book will be received outside your home country.
The U.S. market could well be the largest English-speaking potential market for your work, and it’s worth making a few tweaks so that your work is accessible to a wider audience than those you might start out writing for.
Who knows — it could be the breakthrough you are looking for!
Today’s post was written by Michelle Campbell-Scott, co-creator of Email Marketing for Authors. Michelle is a prolific author herself and we love to host her regular posts here at Author Unlimited. You can find out more about her, and her training courses, at this link.
Are you an English speaking writer who hasn’t taken as much advantage of the US market as you could? Let us know what you write about over on social media…