The world bookshop challenge


As you know, I’m a big believer that lots of brains are better than one. If it hadn’t been for the many hundreds of you who stopped by this blog last year to offer book suggestions, contacts, help, translation services and even to send me stories from your corners of the planet, I would never have managed to read my way around the world. I’d probably be in Mauritania right now, wandering miserably around the market in Nouakchott in search of somebody – anybody – who could tell me a story in English.

As a writer, it turns out I’m not much different: if I can get people who know more about a subject to help me with my research, I will. And so I thought I’d turn to you again to see if you can give me a hand with finding something out.

I’m currently working on chapter two of Reading the World: postcards from my bookshelf, my forthcoming book about our adventure. As it stands (and of course subject to the judgment of my excellent editors Michal and Gemma at Harvill Secker), this section deals with the major obstacles to getting books in English from every country in the world.

To put this in context, I’m keen to give an idea of the number of countries that have books represented on the shelves of the average bookshop. I’ve been in touch with the publicity departments of the major bookshop chains in the UK, but so far no-one’s been able to give me accurate figures. It seems they simply don’t measure their stock in that way.

So here’s where you come in. If you’ve got a spare half hour, I was wondering if you might pop down to your local bookshop and tot up the number of nations represented on their shelves. Ideally, I’m looking for novels, short story collections and memoirs by writers from the countries in question (ie I’m not interested in books by other nationals set there). However, I appreciate this might be a little tricky to work out, so I’m happy to stick with fiction if that makes your life easier. And if the bookshop has its own categorisations for literature from different nations, I’m happy for you to count that up rather than looking at each book to work out where the author is from.

Essentially, I’m interested in whatever information or observations you can give me on the offering of international literature wherever you are in the world. If you get a chance to snap a shot of your local world books section, it would be fascinating to compare photographs too.

Once you have something to share, please post the information along with the name and region of the bookshop below or on the A Year of Reading the World Facebook page, tweet it to @annmorgan30 or email it to me (ann’at’

Looking forward to hearing about your discoveries.

Picture by Ujwala Prabhu

37 responses

  1. Interesting thought. I wonder if that information is something they will be able to provide if you ask them across the counter. I personally love spending time in bookstores, so might see how I go on the weekend.. 🙂 I’ll come back and let you know how I go!

  2. I’m an American bookworm, and I tend to spend quite a bit of time in bookstores. I’ve noticed that most literature available in US bookstores is from US, English, or Canadian (more rarely) authors, and that there isn’t all that much translated work readily visible.

    When I went to a few bookstores in Paris, France, I was blown away by how much literature there was from other countries – Norway, Finland, etc. I’m going to guess that part of that is because France is physically closer and more likely to visit these places, and more likely to appreciate their existence. Also France used to be a major colonial state, which I’m sure plays a part in having more foreign literature.

    • Thanks. Interesting thoughts. The figures about books published in translation in each country certainly back up your observations.

      You may be right about France’s colonial history playing a part, although Britain also used to be a major colonial power and our shelves are (roughly speaking) about on par with the US as far as I can find out…

      • I think it probably has much more to do with the country’s attitude to translation, language learning and literature, than to any colonial history or otherwise. The UK together with the US and other English speaking nations appear to have settled down into a comfy English-speaking zone which provides them with enough literature to keep them entertained, so why bother to look elsewhere. As far as we (translators) can see, any change to that attitude will be rather slow.
        France is perhaps not a particularly language-learning keen nation, but literature has a very high place in its understanding of what culture and education should be all about, in my humble opinion literature has quite a different standing in France than in the UK, and literary translation with it.
        I also believe the attitude of a nation towards literary translation tends to correlate with the size of its population and the number of people who speak its language, which is of course logical.

  3. This make me think about how many countries are represented on my own shelves. Mainly just English speaking countries, but I also have quite a few translated works.

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  5. Such an interesting topic. I did some research in that area last year, and arrived at several statistics, one shows how many new books are published in the world’s countries – in it, Western Europe dominates due to the high number of new books published there – and i remember that one reason for that was the amount of translated books, even in smaller countries. here’s the post:

  6. There seems to be a trend that the smaller a language region, the more it imports foreign authors, while bigger language territories (UK, France, Germany) don’t translate a lot. I think the translation rate in the UK is around 4% but would be considerably lower if it hadn’t been for the wave of Scandinavian crime fiction after Stieg Larsson’s novels took off.

    Alternatively, looking at it from the “imported” author’s perspective, they will have more success world-wide once their work has been translated to French, German or English (those being the gatekeeping languages on the translation market), so you could say that they are the three languages which travel most, and that actually, a Hungarian author on an American bookshelf might only be there because he got published in Germany first. Which begs the question if that counts as a Hungarian import, given it might even have been translated from a translation.

    In parallel, there’s the growing number of authors who write in English as a second language. Do they count?

    • Thanks. The latest study from Literature Across Frontiers shows that 4.37 per cent of literary works (defined as those included in the Dewey 800 range in libraries) published in the UK are translations.

      For my purposes, books written in English also count.

  7. Such an attraction and addiction to your challenges will end me up finally going and spending hours at few bookshops around…
    Well “Indians have a quality to imbibe everything they love, may it be from any part of the world.”
    But before I go and give a specific reference to the figures, i have a picture of bookshelves overflowing with literature from around the world. U know here people are not specific as i have come across many connoisseurs who prefer reading a melange of books, may it be from Israel, US, France, China, Japan, Iran etc… But one fact lies in here that only the English translations occupy the shelve’s major part..
    I’ll just peek in there to figure out the majors and minors of preferences…

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  9. Question actually …I already own many books about other cultures and countries as an Anthropology and American Indian student w my B.A. in those fields. My Q then is, would books such as ‘The Nuer’ from Africa, or ‘The White Mountain Apache ‘ from SW America be considered appropriate to your goal? I have others, just gave those as two examples to know if they’re within your criteria, or would I still need to visit bookstore? Thanx!

    • Thanks – this is about finding out what world literature bookshops stock, which is why I am asking people to go to bookshops and find out how many countries are represented on their shelves. Thanks for your interest.

  10. Hello Ann,

    Couldn’t sleep, bumped into your world-literature-tour. Nice. If I understand correctly I should just give you the number of nations of the local bookshop, I frequent ?
    Since I live near a smaller town (Turnhout, 45 000 inhabitants) in the North-East of Belgium, it will give you only a view on that town. I’m not sure how that would help you, I don’t know how many Flemish contacts you have…

    Anyway, from the top of my head (I know the shelves well since I spent much time there the past few years).

    Besides a few shelves of books written in English (mainly thrillers or books that where turned into a movie), you’ll find only books in Dutch (in bigger cities you’ll find a french collection, a smaller in German maybe and an even smaller in Spanish and/or Italian. Of course in Brussels you’ll find much more).
    Funny thing is that you’ll find hardly any book from the southern part of Belgium : I did not even know the Belgian writer you read ! Most spread is probably Amélie Nothomb.

    So 2 points for Belgium, The Netherlands and probably 5 for the ones in Englisch (Great Brittain, USA,South Africa (Coetzee, Gordimer, maybe Brink), maybe Ireland (John Banville’s “The sea the sea”), Australia and/or Canada, but chances are more slim).

    The ones in translation come from :


    France (Carrère, Le Clezio, Houellebecq, de Vigan, Claudel,Audeguy ? ..)
    Italy (very popular !) (Niccolo Amanti, Veronesi, Giordano, Umberto Eco …probably also Machiavelli, Pirandello, Primo Levi, ..).
    Spain (Mendoza, Zafon, Molina.. and dead : Cervantes, Pavese)
    Portugal (I don’t know any author now living, but translations from Pessoa will almost always be around)
    Switzerland (now, because Peter Stamm wrote a strong novel)
    Germany (Grass, Handke, Kehlman ..)
    Hungary (Marai)
    Austria (dead : Zweig, Canetti; living ?)
    Slovakia (“Freuds’ sister” – forgot the name, learned it from your list)
    Albania (Kadare, if you’re lucky, ’cause I bought them all I guess)
    Rumenia (Herta Muller, ..)
    Norway (Knausgard, Paasilina, now Hamsun again)
    Sweden (Grondahl)
    Denmark : I can not distinguish well the Scandinavian authors, and since they are very popular in the thrillers, I guess there will be a Danish author available there, but a Danish writer of Literature with the big L, I would not know)
    Poland : not at the moment I thint, but it would be possible, although I can recall only poets the last years (Szymborska, Milosz, ..)
    Czech Republic (only dead ones, I think : Kafka, Hrabal maybe)

    I can not think of any writer of the ex-Yugoslavian states, nor for Greece

    Middle East

    I can only think of Israel actually
    Meir Shalev, David Grossman, Amos Oz, maybe Chaim Potok


    Russia : a few (forgotten their names : the one with the “Unifinished love letters” is now the number 1)

    I might look over a writer from one of the former USSR-states, but I can not think of any, but it could be possible for the ones closer by (Latvia, Estonia, LItouwen.. maybe Belarus or Ukrain)

    Turkye (Pahmuk, another name – of a dead writer, I forgot)
    Afghanistan (Hoesseini)
    China (Mo Yan)
    Japan (Murakami, Oe)


    I can not think of one African writing in the bookshop I know (besides Ben Okri, but he writes in English, right ?)

    Latin America

    Hard to tell : Of course you’ll always find
    Chili (Isabel Allende, Neruda (only poetry I guess ?) dand now Bolano, Zambra)
    Colombia (Marquez)
    Peru (Vargas Llosa)
    but I don’t think I saw any Argenitinian, Urugayan, Paraguayan, and so on writers
    sometimes Mexico (maybe Fuentes, but current writer ?)

    So, of course I have not every single book in my head and I could overlook some in regions I am less interested in, but since I have been so focussed on the literature (stories, novels and poetry), and have been trapped here (so went looking a lot, really a lot !, last three or four years), there won’t be many that escaped my attention.
    I must say that I’m mainly interested in what I would call “western” literature (Israel, Russia, Europe, USA-Canada), just to focus, so I might more easily overlook some recent author from Asia, Middle East, Africa or Latin America.

    As you say in your project description, it is a shock to realize how little we know about other literature than are own, even if we consider ourselves to be a citizen with an open view to the world.
    It must have been a great travel and it inspires, considering the fact that I won’t be able to visit Bhutan, Mozambique or Mali in my lifetime.

    hopefully I have served you in some way,
    Good luck with the following projects.


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  13. Hi honey. Swedish authors are very big in the UK right now – from crime thrillers, to action adventures. My local Waterstones (Kendal Cumbria) has multiple copies of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared for instance. But speaking as someone who works in a bookshop and orders in books for customers regularly, it’s often copyright NOT the popularity of a particular author which keeps foreign books off the shelves (e.g. if an American writer has published a book in the US, but someone in the UK has copyright, even if they don’t print that book over here, we are NOT ALLOWED to import the US edition, it’s crazy). I think that’s a big part of the reason why internet businesses have an edge on the average bookshop, companies like The Book Depository base themselves in Jersey so they can import and sell whatever book they like, your ordinary UK bookshop doesn’t have choice. 😦

    • Very interesting – thanks. Yes, Scandi crime has made big waves in recent years – although it’s interesting that several authors have had their names anglicised for the UK market. Camilla Läckberg lost her umlaut for UK editions and Jo Nesbø became Jo Nesbo – almost as if publishers were trying to disguise the authors’ foreignness! Good point about copyright issues too.

      • I hadn’t noticed that one! Strange that they felt they had to do that, we actually get customers specifically asking for foreign fiction! I’m thinking Stieg Larsson’s success must have helped along the crime trend somewhat.

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  15. Hi!
    I live in Brazil but went on vacation to Dubai last month and there I got to go to an amazing bookstore in Dubai Mall called Kinokunyia and there were books from many countries, maybe sending an email they can tell you something about it.

  16. Hi I will be in Romania in January. I want to go to the big bookstore in the center of Bucharest. I want you to let me know if you are looking for foreign writers on their shelves that are translated in Romanian language? Or you want an idea of the English books/French books etc ….? I just want to make sure I know what to look for I will also take photos :))

    • Hi Cris – that would be great. I’m really just interested to know how many countries’ literature is represented. The language doesn’t matter so much. But anything that you find interesting about the sort of books on display would be great to know. I look forward to hearing more. Enjoy your trip to Romania!

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