Guest Editor Taryn Fagerness re: Are U.S. Readers OK with International Settings?

posted 10/19/12

Dear Editor…

How essential is it to place your story somewhere that’s familiar or, alternatively, exciting to readers? My story demands that it’s placed in either British Columbia, Canada, or Scotland in the UK, but I’ve read that U.S.-based readers mostly want to read stories based in places that they know or are familiar with (anywhere within the U.S.), or they want something exotic (e.g., Thailand, the Philippines). Is this really true? Would an editor ask me to change the location of my story? Has this ever happened to you or anyone you know of?

Sincerely,
Franziska

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Dear Franziska…

I think plot matters MUCH more than setting, although, of course, the two are often intertwined. Stephanie Meyers chose Forks for her Twilight series for no other reason than it’s the rainiest town in the U.S. and her vampires sparkle in sunlight. If she had pitched her book solely as being set in Forks, I doubt people would have been excited, but it’s the plot that made the books great. Many authors choose a setting because it’s their hometown, they are familiar with it, and they feel they can write it convincingly. And if you’re writing historical fiction, the setting is chosen for you. But in the end, if you choose your setting for a good reason (and it sounds like you have one), write your setting well, bring the reader there, and your plot is dramatic and gripping, I don’t think it matters if your book is set in a tiny Southern town, Thailand, or Timbuktu. I’ve never heard of an editor asking an author to change settings, although I do know of a Canadian author whose work never sells in the U.S. because the books are just TOO Canadian, obviously written for a Canadian audience, and filled with nuances only Canadians would “get.” On the flipside, as a foreign rights agent, I often hear foreign publishers tell me books are “too American.” For example, YA books set in American high schools tend to get this label—foreign publishers don’t “get” American teenagers. So keep your audience in mind. As long as you write your Scottish/British/Canadian setting in a way that brings your American reader there, it should be fine.

Happy writing,
Taryn Fagerness
Taryn Fagerness Agency

Taryn Fagerness represents foreign rights on behalf of North American literary agents. Before opening the Taryn Fagerness Agency in 2009, Taryn spent five years as the Subsidiary Rights Manager and an Agent at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency. She’s sold hundreds of books to foreign, audio, and film markets, and has sold subsidiary rights for New York Times bestselling authors, first time authors, and everyone in between, in nearly all genres including literary fiction, thriller/suspense, commercial fiction, romance, history, self-help, business, and children’s. She has exceptional relationships with foreign co-agents, foreign publishers, and scouts, and she handles all aspects of selling foreign rights from international fair-going to submission, negotiating, and tracking titles through publication and beyond. The territories to which she sells are: Albania, Arabic, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Catalan, China, Czech, Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, India, Indonesia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Lithuania, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, UK, Ukraine and Vietnam. www.tarynfagernessagency.com

P.S. For more on this topic, read General fiction, Guest Editors
posted by: The Editor
under: General fiction, Guest Editors
Comments to "Guest Editor Taryn Fagerness re: Are U.S. Readers OK with International Settings?" | Add a Comment
    1. Laura C. wrote (on 10/19/12 at 10:25 am) :

      I always thought a foreign/exotic setting was a selling point with agents (and readers). I’m surprised to hear readers want what’s familiar. I agree you’re right though, especially judging by the rejections I’m getting for my Egypt-set novels.

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    2. Alison Pearce Stevens wrote (on 10/19/12 at 10:31 am) :

      I have a friend who, when querying agents, had one specifically ask her to change the setting of her novel from New Zealand to the U.S.–despite the fact that Maori were a huge part of the storyline. So it can happen.

      [Reply]

    3. Natasha Yim wrote (on 10/19/12 at 11:15 am) :

      This is a really good question. I, too, was asked by an editor to change the setting of my story to something more familiar to US kids. My upcoming book Goldy Luck and the Three Pandas, was originally set in Hong Kong where I spent my teen years. The story has a Chinese New Year theme so the setting seemed appropriate, but an editor said it might be too unfamiliar to kids for the picture book age range so asked me to change it to a US city. The final version is set in Chinatown in an unnamed US city.

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    4. Donna Hole wrote (on 10/20/12 at 11:23 pm) :

      Thank you for this question; and the terrific answer.

      I am an American reader, and sometimes I get tired of reading books set in “exotic” places. They do not always feel real to me. Which just proves I’m not a category romance reader, or jet setting adventurer. Some readers want to be swept away by setting, others not.

      For me, I just want the setting to work within the context of the characters and plot. Too many things in the writing world are subjective. Hopefully Franziska, you write a good novel, aimed at your target audience, and let the rest handle itself.

      I have an Austrailian writer friend who is constantly asking me questions about terms and products in America. Its really fun to exchange cultural norms.

      I don’t know what genre’s you write in Franziska, but perhaps you could think of your world building in the same way fantasy/sci fy writers build their worlds. They add enough of the familiar and blend it with the foreign so it creates an entire new world that appeals to all readers.

      …..dhole

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    5. The Editor wrote (on 10/22/12 at 10:17 am) :

      Thank you, Taryn, for fielding this question! As a foreign rights agent, you have unique insights into the marketplace.

      [Reply]

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