The Doom With The Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

Stieg Larsson’s novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has taken the world by storm. Amazon.com declared it the best-selling e-book ever for the Kindle. In Sweden the novel won awards, and wherever it’s gone on sale it seems to dominate the bestseller lists.

Publishing’s reaction to Larsson’s success is indicative of everything that is wrong with the publishing industry in America.

I want to be clear from the outset that I’ve read the book, found it intriguing, and probably will buy the other two and read them. I certainly enjoyed the book and read it rather quickly. It wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it wasn’t even close to the worst book I’ve ever read. I’ve had no problem recommending the book to others. (Including you.)

What disturbs me about Stieg Larsson’s success is the publishers’ strategy for duplicating it. A Wall Street Journal article from July 1, 2010, titled Fiction’s Global Crime Wave, details how American publishers are looking for foreign bestsellers to translate and offer to the American market. They’re looking very heavily in the area of crime fiction. In their minds this makes perfect sense. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a crime novel which was translated into English from Swedish. To publishers then, the formula for success is to take any best-selling crime novel, translate it, package it for the American market, and print it and rake in the cash.

The problem is that Stieg Larsson’s book didn’t sell because it was a Swedish bestseller translated for the American market. It was first translated for the British market, and then Americanized for publication on this side of the Atlantic. The copy editor who Americanized the book missed a few Britishisms—tyre instead of tire, for example—revealing that part of the story.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has something else going for it: the author’s story. That’s how it first popped on my radar. Stieg Larsson, a well-known journalist, wrote the first two novels and sold them, then finished the third. Before the first could be published to great acclaim and win awards, Larsson died. The irony and the tragedy makes the story irresistible—much in the same way that J. K. Rowling being a mom on the dole and then having such great success catches people’s attention. The author’s story provides an angle that adds something fresh to the story of the book, thereby making it newsworthy and helping to promote awareness and sales.

That doesn’t make a book perfect, mind you, it just makes it very marketable.

Based on my experience of having had 40 novels published, and having worked with editors on countless projects, one thing is readily apparent about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Had the book—especially with its original title Men Who Hate Women—been offered to an American publisher in this translation, it would have been rejected out of hand. Why is that? The answer is simple. The book has a prologue which offers nothing to the story, the problem which appears in chapter 1 is little more than a frame which binds the book together, but the resolution of the frame story has nothing to do with the resolution of the core mystery. (Were they separated and published as novellas, neither would miss the other.) The book introduces several viewpoint characters who have no substantive role in the story, and the title character is not introduced as a viewpoint character until well past the story’s beginning. The author also switches point of view between characters within chapters, with no warning. There’s also numerous instances of narrator interjection in the tale. These are practices that editors generally frown upon and even see as the mark of an amateur. The translation is simply not brilliant enough to prompt editors to let such little mistakes go by. Moreover, they’re very easy to fix and are the kind of things which get adjusted in the normal editing process.

The book, quite simply, gets a pass because it did very well in Sweden, and publishers thought it would make them some money elsewhere. I’m not at all opposed to publishers making money. Frankly, I wish they’d make it on a greater percentage of their product lines. It would provide them with vitally needed stability and more predictability in cash-flow.

What Book publishers have failed to do is to sit down and consider why the Stieg Larsson books are so successful. Larsson’s book lives and dies on the character Lisbeth Salander. She’s the title character, is very intriguing, and something of a wish-fulfillment, empowerment fantasy for people who hate injustice and apathy in the modern world. Lisbeth can do things that no other mortal can, which is why so many readers love her.

It would seem then, that the formula which makes Stieg Larsson popular is that he’s created a character who’s able to tap into our need to deal with the complications of our technologically involved life. But this is what’s been true about all wonderfully memorable books: they have characters that speak to the readers. It doesn’t matter what language they’re written in, the point is that they, their plight, and their solution to their problems, all resonate positively with readers. Finding books with such characters is where editors need to focus their attentions, not on the bestseller lists in faraway countries.

I’d like to think that the process they’re going through, and the mistakes they’re making, is new and isolated. I’d like to think it’s an aberration. But it isn’t. They are doing with Stieg Larsson what they did with J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books. They looked for new books that they could slap into that same market niche regardless of the books’ merits. Some publishers went so far as to take fantasy novels which were not written for young adult audiences and repackage them so they would sell to the younger demographic. Similarly, the explosion of paranormal romances is a reaction to the success of Jim Butcher, Laurel K Hamilton, Charlene Harris, and Stephanie Meyer.

Because publishing is dependent upon the mega-bestseller, they leave themselves consistently vulnerable to flawed thinking and inept strategies. Instead of looking at methods to increase the appeal of books to their core audience, and how to expand the audience of readers to create more consumers, they tap into fads with no true understanding of the appeal of those books. They create their own bubble, then have to scramble when it bursts.

As long as both booksellers and publishers think of books as cans of corn, to be consumed and repurchased on a regular basis, they will continue to distance themselves from the romance of the story. Readers want the magic. They want fascinating characters that they can love to hate, or would love to pal around with. They want entertainment, they want escape, and they want pleasure. Provide them those things and they will be incredibly loyal. Fail in that regard, and you learn the harsh lesson that entertainment dollars can and will flow into other venues and other pockets.

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6 Responses to “The Doom With The Dragon Tattoo”

  1. Very interesting and insightful post. The problems you point out with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are the type of things that drive me nuts in a book, so I’ll probably pull it from my “to read” list.

    It always concerns me when I see publishers flood the market with a certain “type” of book, like the paranormal romance bubble you mention. Not only do we end up with some weaker books on the shelves, but when the bubble bursts and people are tired of reading that kind of thing — or tired of reading that kind of thing when it’s not done very well — another book in that vein that’s well written and could have been a bestseller stands to get rejected because “those kinds of books aren’t selling anymore.”

    Then again, maybe that’s just the pessimist in me. ;)

  2. Great article! I completely agree – and I see this mentality in other art forms as well, especially Hollywood…and it’s too bad!

  3. I’ve got most of your books and Kai has been the character of yours that stayed with me the longest. There was just something about the tension between his opinion of himself and his abilities that made the character intensely sympathetic.

  4. It’s true that people do want a story to challenge them. The problem is, they don’t buy them. I don’t have a peer in my age group that reads more than 2 books per year and the ones they do read are the hyped up pieces of trash. The market is shrinking as people who could be reliably depended upon to buy 5 or more books a year are dwindling. Those people now only buy the stuff that confronts them a Wal-Mart or the rare blockbuster that rates mention the 10 o’clock news.

    I had an argument just the other day with a friend who chastised me for spending the better part of $30 on a hardcover. This same person had just purchased a $35 Blu-Ray of some Batman movie. And he’s in the majority.

    Booksellers have a responsibility to be more democratic with titles that they promote or new directions they might introduce. But I can see why they’re chasing the crumbs of lost readership with the blockbusters.

  5. They looked for new books that they could slap into that same market niche regardless of the books’ merits.

    This makes me SO CRAZY. Certainly when I find an author I like I want to find more stuff written like they do it; but advertising does not a writing style make. And if it’s not a genre I’m interested in, then the explosion of trendy!books! feels like it’s edging out stuff I DO want to read.

  6. Interesting article, I especially liked the part about how translation can totally make or break a novel, cause sometimes the errors that slip through even professional translators and editors are incredible.
    The worst example i ever read was a literal translation of the movie Title The Untouchables, being translated literally to mean die Unberührbaren, which is the german name for the lowest caste in India. Took me nearly five minutes to understand what was going on there :).
    Speaking of most of your books and the german translation, your translators so far have been pretty good, especially the Battletech translator, Star Wars was more of a mixed bag.
    Something that always interested me, how is payment for foreign language editions of books, better, equal or worse than native languages ones? I would asume a lot worse due to publishers additional costs in marketing/translation/whatever?