How do you write an expat bestseller?
Many an emigrant tries their hand at writing a book about their new life in a foreign country, but few of them ever make it onto the bookshop shelves. Is there a market for expat books? And if so, how do you go about writing one that sells?
“If you think, I’ll go abroad, write a book about it, and get rich, you’re in for a disappointment.” Jack van de Vliert of publisher De Boekenmakers dashes the dreams of emigrants with literary ambitions. “A lot of people write nice books, but only a very small proportion of them are able to make a living from it.”
Imagine, you move to another country and you want to share your adventures with the rest of the world. You write a book about the hard times when you felt like packing it in and heading for home, about the weird customs in your new homeland, and about the happiness that emigration has ultimately brought you. How do you get it published?
Write for a target group
“An expat story is only interesting for outsiders if the writer has been through a lot,” says Jack van de Vliert. In the summer his company published France for good (Voorgoed Frankrijk), in which six Dutch people who moved to France many years ago relate their experiences.
“The book is about a number of people who have been living in France for a long time. They come from different backgrounds and have had different experiences, both positive and negative. I think this variety is the key to its success.”
Van de Vliert expects the book to sell a few thousand copies, particularly to people dreaming about spending their retirement abroad.
Tip from Jack van de Vliert:
- Before you start writing, think about who your target audience is and how interesting your story is for readers beyond your own circle of friends.
Write with a message
Van Dorp Educatief is an emigration publisher. The company publishes books with both practical tips and stories about emigrant experiences. It offers a possible home for Dutch expat writers even if at first sight their book might not seem viable. The man behind the company, Erik Jan van Dorp, says, “In the past it was only interesting to publish a book if it sold at least 500 to 1000 copies. Because we can now print books, the start-up costs are low and we can even publish one or two copies.” So far Van Dorp has published books by 12 emigrants. “Sweden, Norway and Canada do well. Spain doesn’t sell as well because on the whole the people who move there aren’t so literary.”
Sales range from just a few dozen copies to hundreds. Van Dorp says the readers are primarily Dutch people who “have been in the process of emigrating for a long time,” or emigrants looking for “an acknowledgement of their own dreams”.
Tips from Erik Jan van Dorp:
- Write a book with a message, so it’s of practical use to the readers and leaves them with a positive feeling. Definitely don’t bring out a compilation of blog entries, because thirty jumbled pieces about everyday life don’t make for a good book. Write a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, with emigration as the climax. And just sit down and get writing.
Write with humour and imagination
The large publisher De Arbeiderspers also occasionally brings out an expat book. Editor Michele Hutchison says it’s crucial the author has a distinctive style and the reader can identify with the central character – the narrator.
She cites the example of writer and columnist Sylvia Witteman, who wrote Peking duck by night (Pekingeend bij nacht) for De Arbeiderspers about her adventures with her family in Moscow and Berlin (and whose new book about her life in an American suburb comes out in October).
“She’s an exceptionally witty writer, and that appeals to readers. Women in particular read these kinds of books. They’re looking for adventure and also dream of a new exotic life. There has to be some imagination in the book; no-one wants to read a dull report on a move to Provence.”
Michele Hutchison says she receives dozens of books a month by writers who have had interesting experiences but “can’t write a good sentence”.
Tips from Michele Hutchison:
- Make sure your book is well promoted. You’re more likely to find a publisher if your name is known to some extent, for example through a column in a newspaper or magazine, or a blog. This is a good way to get started because it gives you writing experience. You need natural talent, but practice can also make you a better writer.
If no publishers are interested in your book, you can always bring it out yourself through self-publishing companies like Xlibris, Lulu, Blurb or Createspace.
In the Netherlands, mijnboek has links to a range of self-publishing companies, and freemusketeers promises to publish your book free of charge irrespective of its commercial viability.
Arwen van Grafhorst