Self-publishing: American English & British English editions

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Nov 23, 2002
So I thought it was common sense to release two editions of a self-published book: a British English version for the UK, Europe, and Commonwealth; and an American English version for North America and the rest of the world.

Instead, I'm surprised to find no one's really doing this. Where the conversation comes up online, British writers tell each other to simply put a note at the front of their books saying "Written in British English".

The American market is the biggest and most important market. Rather than trying to force American consumers to accept alien spellings, is it really so hard to adapt a manuscript for ordinary American readers??

Big 6 publishers produce books in the appropriate market for the territory - medium and smaller publishers may struggle to do this because of print run costs.

Self-published authors may not want to do it because it means the reviews won't be appended to reviews, because UK and US editions would effectively be different products. that the only reason?
Hi Brian,
My publisher, Penmore Press, made a choice to keep the British spellings, speech patterns, slang and sayings in Hand of Glory as they were a great part of the story, and would lessen both the nature and appeal of the novel. And Penmore is a US press. I think it all depends on the book. Also UK readers accept Us spellings etc and visa-versa.

I was also told a few years ago that Hand of Glory was to UK focused to sell in the US, yet 75% of the fulls that were requested were from US publishers.
I've never done two versions, nor saw the need. When I see the question raised in a Space Opera group I'm in on Facebook, with both US and UK writers and readers, the concensus is that no one minds. They can understand the language of both. It's really not a biggy. (I know @ralphkern did do a US version when his biggest market became the US - but that was as part of an intensive edit, anyway.) But in over 100 reviews to date not a single one, anywhere, has mentioned the English-US thing.

Also, as Sue says some books just don't take to adaption well. Inish Carraig could never be anything other than it is. Americanising it would not have worked.

But, if you want to do it, it would be easy. I use @TheDustyZebra for my copy editing. I'm quite sure she'd be quite happy to get paid for an additional pass at it to do two versions - and most copy editors would feel the same way! However, if you are doing it make sure the copy editor is familiar with the US style directories (I'm sure Sam or @JenniferCarson can confirm which ones -I think Boston is the norm.)

On your other point - you should be able to merge editions on Amazon, and Uk and US reviews are separate anyway.
As a reader and one of the U.S. variety, I'd appreciate it. It's just like good grammar and spelling generally - while British English is generally understood by Americans and vice versa and it is, after all, "the Queen's English," there can be misunderstandings and certainly distractions when things are done in a "non-standard" way for a given "standard." I think Susan Boulton's point is well-taken: if it's part of the story or in any way enhances it, then leave it in. This goes along with anything written in dialect or any stylized narrative voice. But if it's not to the point, it can only be ignored at best or be a distraction or impediment at worst.

But all that's on the reading and writing, itself. When it comes to the business and the idea of two versions being reviewed separately and all, I don't know what to say about that. To have become a monopolistic behemoth, Amazon has one of the worst websites and set of organizational principles I've ever seen. Identical things have multiple listings; completely different things are reviewed together (the DVD editions are especially bad about this) and so on. I can offer an opinion on the reading but not on the commercial side. All I can say is that I would fight for the artistic side (whatever your decision as to what that is) over the commercial side as far as possible.

(One footnote on that commercial side, though: you say the big 6 do region-specific editions and, certainly, it was my impression that publishers generally did but I seem to see less and less of that even with big publishers. (I can't cite specific examples or numbers so maybe it's just my imagination, but I recall having been surprised by several books.) It seems to have gone the way of proper proofreading and everything else that has been shaved for profit.)
I looked at doing two versions of my stuff and ruled it out because:

1. It's more work because essentially you have to go through your UK manuscript and change not just to the US spellings but to the US words, grammar, and punctuation quirks. It needs to comply with something like the Chicago Manual of Style. In short, you couldn't afford a US version to be only half such. Otherwise the readers get the message that it is in US English but then find 'errors' in the text and assume they're errors (standard British terms/stylistic things that you've missed).
2. It's more cost, because you need an editor to go through it to catch the stuff you weren't aware of.
3. How are you going to signal different versions? Different covers? More cost. More decisions.
4. The UK version is likely to be only the UK (I mean, yes, you could use it elsewhere but other territories are likely to be more accepting of US spelling). You're not going to want the two kindle editions to merge or whatever because otherwise purchasers may pick the wrong one for their region. This gets more complicated if you decide to go wide later. You're going to have to explain there's two versions every time you mention it.
6. It doubles your publishing workload thereafter--everything from updating back matter to fixing typo's to running facebook adds.

This issue seems to pop up mostly with American readers having a problem with British spelling/idioms. One common solution is simply to state in the book description that the book is written in British english.
Do American folk really have 'problems' with properly written Mother Tongue? Surely people aren't so dense to be able to understand the addition of U's and replacements of Z's.

I knew what 'Fall' was and a strange way of referring to certain times by context of the prose, when I was growing up reading American authors. Write in your muvva tongue. Hell; write in your regional one if you like. It's storytelling, not science.

Setting aside the spelling -- is it really that difficult for people to understand what a word is if it's written the way someone on the other side of the Pond would use? -- we're left with punctuation and, the really difficult bit, the words and phrases that one's characters would use.

Which brings me to the point I want to make.... If one is writing in North American (NA) English and has a character who is English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish/whatever**, and one uses NA idioms, it's going to stick out like a sore thumb to a lot of readers (perhaps including a lot of readers in the US and Canada). This is going to be a particular issue if: a) that character is a PoV character; AND one's PoV narratives are written in a conversational manner (which can be done in 3rd person close and, one might argue, is essential for 1st person).

The same is true for those writing North American characters in UK English. The risk is that the dialogue, or the character-specific narrative(s) will simply not ring true... well sufficiently untrue to nag away at the suspension of disbelief that writing genre fiction relies on rather heavily.

So here's the really bad news: if one's intended market is solely on one side of the Pond, one should still be careful about the words one puts in one's characters' dialogue (and in character-style-based narratives) if those characters are from, and/or have been brought up in, the other side of the Pond. (Punctuation should remain, I would argue, using one style or the other, not both, as deviations might be seen as errors... unless one really does want to get the reader to focus on the writing*** rather than the content.

** - Obviously, not everyone in a country speaks in the same way, so this might be an issue.

*** - I can think of some examples where one might want (wisely or not) go the extra mile: where the narrator is: a young child; someone whose thought processes are, for whatever reason, not the "norm"; someone whose lack of formal education (or their ability to take it on board) is part of the story; from a culture distinct enough to make a difference. (In all of these case, however, I think the choice of the words and phrases the narrator uses would usually be sufficient to make the point).
I think Ursa brings up the salient point. If your market is worldwide, try to make your manuscript make sense worldwide. Abendau, for instance, is not meant to have any real accent. It wasn't intended for a local market or to reflect my own voice. I took care to keep it quite bland and not have any of my space heroes calling the other eejits. As it also had an American editor and copy editor they are quick to let me know if my language trips them up.

Inish Carraig, on the other hand - and Waters and the Wild (I've already had a copy of editing passes on this where I've had to accept the proposed changes are reflective of the normal use of language, but mine is the correct idiom for the Glens of Antrim, where a dialect known as Ulster-Scots has widespread usage) - were written to sound like a Northern Irish voice. But they were also written not to alienate anyone who didn't know the dialect. When that course is taken context becomes king. If i use Lough for a sea inlet that some would call a Loch and some an inlet and some something else I have to fit in enough info for people not from NI to understand and visualise what I mean, but not so much that everyone familiar with the term thinks I think they're all thick... That's a much more different balancing act.

So, I suppose the question for @Brian Turner is which of the two his falls under. From the crit of your opening I looked at on AW your use of language was seen as UK based, using terms not always widely known. In which case, making an American version could be a disaster....
I think there are two issues being discussed - character mannerisms, and general prose.

Mannerisms that are culture-specific need to be preserved because they are a character feature. I don't think there's any argument about that.

But general prose? The simple truth is that American English is by far the biggest fiction market, and authors need to accommodate that - if they want to successfully sell worldwide.

However, to what degree will depend on the setting. This is another reason why knowing your genre is really important.

George R R Martin happily throws in mediaeval terms that only a minority of British or American could be expected to be familiar with. Similarly, Lee Child's novels do not convert everyday American terms into British equivalent. But in both instances, their books are published to the spelling conventions of their target American or British markets.

If someone doesn't want to write in American English for an American audience, then that's their prerogative - but complaints about British spellings frequently appear on reviews, and stating "This book is written in British English" is IMO creating a barrier to sales outside of a minority of readers.

If someone doesn't want to write in American English for an American audience, then that's their prerogative - but complaints about British spellings frequently appear on reviews, and stating "This book is written in British English" is IMO creating a barrier to sales outside of a minority of readers.


I look at .com reviews all the time and haven't seen this reflected. Or rather, I've seen it occasionally in badly edited books where the language trips readers up but in well edited books written with flow I've never seen it.

I don't state anything is written in anything - people picking up the book can decide if they like it from the sample. I think you're making work for yourself and, potentially, adding barriers by having two versions. If your concern and focus is the US market (who read books by UK authors all the time and more so now Amazon is breaking down the UK/US publishing deals* picture) then bring out a US version only and have it properly edited to become a US book. But trying to keep the same book for the two different markets is surely set to endanger you having a hotch-potch of a book that suits neither.

*Which possibly actually addresses your earlier question of why big publishers decide to go to the expense of two versions: they're usually with different publishers who each have their own copy editor.
I don't think there's any argument about that.
Having read books using NA English for their English characters -- including in the dialogue! -- there may or may not need to be an argument, but I think there does need to be a bit of (extra) thought applied.

This sort of thing can pull one out of the story and it can be worse than, say, the use of (most) modern (NA or UK) English idioms in "mediaeval" fantasy, because there's no excuses of "translation" or "we don't what they would have said in their own language(s)". It's simply sloppy using stock characters from one's own culture and pretending -- telling but not showing -- that they are otherwise.

It isn't as if one has to go mad sprinkling one's text with such idioms, And when one does use one, apply the same rule we (should) apply to one's use of words in general: use the one best suited for the situation, which means the one that both the character might use and your readers will understand.
It's worth mentioning that sometimes Americans rather like Britishness.

The ladies, from memory, do seem to enjoy reading of todgers.
I've been writing to date with an eye for American preferences - most of which a British reader wouldn't easily notice - so it's not a new idea. It probably helps that I don't have a modern setting and all the diverse naming conventions to deal with.

I'm just really surprised it's not consider the norm, and figured I must have misunderstood a technical problem in catering for different markets.
Of course it used to be that a book published in UK was only read in the US if picked up and re-issued by a US publisher and vice versa. (Don't know if any editing was done by either publisher to iron out the prose.)

In terms of reviews on Amazon, I've heard a UK author express fed-upness about a review or two on dot com that complained about the number of commas being incorrect (cannot remember if US or UK tends to have more.... but it was correct in UK English), and I've seen a pro published sff book be criticised for failing to get an American character right - as I recall it, it was a matter of vocabulary - pavement rather than sidewalk, lift rather than elevator. (Can't remember if was a US edition or not.) But the person complaining clearly understood the meaning of the UK words, they were just rightly criticising them in a US character's mouth.

My "take" would be to make sure the vocabulary works for people both sides of the Atlantic by asking on here - if it isn't too many words. :) So try and pick a common word - if there is one.

Other than that, based on no direct experience whatsoever, I'm with those who feel that if you try to Americanise your prose, you'll probably make any British-isms you miss stand out and look like typos.
My approach is different as I have no realistic thoughts of getting published.

My possibly-presumptuous attitude about America is the same as Brits who go abroad and won't learn a foreign language; even basic phrases. It's hard not to conflate the things we see on TV about American sensibilities (Trump, religious evangelism, right to choose, equality for minorities) and jump to the conclusion they're all a lazy bunch of xenophobes, but I think the counter to that is aren't sci fi readers generally very forward thinking? Not least that ignorant people don't tend to read.

I'd find it ridiculous if an American author was told to change their cultural references and grammar to English ones.

To me there's a big difference between marketing your writing and creating a story.

I can see both sides of the argument but books are an archetypal icon of learning. To simplify them is to dilute them.

It's worth mentioning that sometimes Americans rather like Britishness.

The ladies, from memory, do seem to enjoy reading of todgers.

And regarding "todgers" I had a memory of a phrase in a book, which was clearly a quote from somewhere else of "Todgers were going it". Which at the time I'd vaguely interpreted as "the others were going it".
I just tried googling it. Top hits for todgers, (without the going it) were for a Mrs Todgers in Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit. So there you go.