Sunday, 14 November 2010

What's in a name?

When I was at a writers' conference recently a top London agent told the assembled literary hopefuls that if they wanted to get a crime novel published the best thing they could do was to put a diagonal line through every O in their name. He was joking, of course, but you only have to look at the number of Scandinavian crime novelists on the shelves to take his point.

By spooky coincidence, I have a couple of crime books sitting about somewhere just waiting for their final polish, but if they're ever published I doubt it will be under my own name. I might go for my recently discovered Serbian nom de plume, Daglas Dzekson, but then again, it could be something completely different. Whether its his real name or not, I don't know, but Harlan Coben caught my eye, and I pondered whether I might call myself Howden Burn, after the cowpat filled, nettle infested valley from which I frequently returned cold, wet, filthy but invariably happy, when I was a kid.

I have a hunch that Howden Burn is the kind of name that would light a fire in the American market, and cracking the American market is every (commercial, and I'm nothing if not commercial) novelist's Holy Grail. The Hardback (yes, I did say Hardback) sales top 10 for 2009 tells you exactly why. Despite the publishing industry's wails, it is still a huge, vibrant and voracious readership with an eclectic appetite that isn't particularly made clear in the list below.

1. The Lost Symbol: A Novel. Dan Brown. Doubleday (5,543,643).
2. *The Associate: A Novel. John Grisham. Doubleday.
3. The Help. Kathryn Stockett. Putnam/Amy Einhorn (1,104,617).
4. I, Alex Cross. James Patterson. Little, Brown (1,040,976).
5. The Last Song. Nicholas Sparks. Grand Central (1,032,829).
6. *Ford County. John Grisham. Doubleday.
7. Finger Lickin' Fifteen. Janet Evanovich. St. Martin's (977,178).
8. The Host: A Novel. Stephenie Meyer. Little, Brown (912,165).
9. *Under the Dome. Stephen King. Scribner
10. Pirate Latitudes. Michael Crichton. Harper (855,638).

(Source: Publishers Weekly)

So how do you crack the US? If I knew that, I'd be writing this on a Caribbean beach and not looking out of my spare bedroom window at a dreich, grey monument to the Scottish Calvinist tradition. Clearly, it helps to be American, which, at first glance, you might think is a drawback. But if you're going to lie about your name why not lie about your background? Howden Burn could be a one-legged Californian Vietnam vet who gave up booze and found God before hearing voices in his head that told him to write about a cross-dressing serial killer. 

It also helps if you write like an American. I was surprised that Stieg Larsson's Girl series did so well in the US (actually I was surprised it did so well anywhere) because it's written in a very dry, dense style that doesn't appear to fit with the quickfire, snappy prose that Americans seem drawn to - I exempt Dan Brown from that, naturally - although the late lamented Stieg has become a worldwide phenomenon and also coincidentally fits neatly into the third criteria: his books start with The (five out of ten above is a pretty good strike rate).

If anyone has any more sage advice on how to crack America, please let me know. I'm just off to start a gentle rewrite of my next book, but one, The Doomsday Testament. And yes, it would fit very nicely about number 2 or 3.