Updated 31 May 2014
When publishers distribute a book internationally they will often change the text to meet regional spelling conventions; thus one will find, for example, that the U.S.-published Harry Potter uses American spelling while the British and Canadian versions use British spelling. For the self-publisher distributing a single file worldwide, this is not an option. Which spelling, then, should you use?
I have heard it argued that authors hoping to appeal to an American audience should use only American spelling because, it is alleged, Americans are less tolerant or aware of international spelling variations and will misinterpret them as errors; when leaving a negative review, some readers have cited these spelling “errors.” This is, however, a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation: the 1930 Dodd, Mead & Company (New York) first edition of Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Mr. Quinn, for example, retains the original UK spelling; so when, and why, did it became the custom to alter foreign texts to conform to U.S. spelling when published in the U.S.? Did public backlash force American publishers to pander to consumers? Or was it merely a marketer’s belief that familiarity would encourage higher sales, and a custom was born? Either way, it has become a seemingly never-ending circle: publishers feel they have to alter texts, and by doing so they create or perpetuate consumer expectations.
Yet the interesting thing about familiarity is that it can also breed acceptance: if this practice had not arisen then neither might have this current debate. Perhaps the solution, then, is for more non-U.S. authors to publish in their native English. We need trailblazers!
That said, I am not convinced that Americans are either as intolerant or unaware of regional variations as some claim: I use Canadian spelling and not one American reviewer has made mention of it. I suspect that some of the readers who are responding negatively to alternate spellings are doing so because the author’s skills as a whole are lacking: if the reader is already agitated by a plethora of grammatical errors, poor sentence structure, and a mediocre story, foreign spelling just adds to the grief. On the other hand, if you write a good book that engrosses your readers, they are more likely to be tolerant of any error, whether real or perceived. And that, perhaps, is key: write a good book and readers will forgive you anything.
Consider these as well:
• The late American researcher Guy C. van Orden in his 1987 book, A ROWS is a ROSE: Spelling, sound, and reading, demonstrated that reading comprehension is affected equally by the sound of the word as by the spelling. Since regional variations are always homophones, such words are often glossed over by a reader engrossed in the text.
• The all-time bestselling fiction writer is William Shakespeare and he not only writes in UK English, he writes in verse.
• Spelling variations occur even within a single language region. In the U.S. it is equally acceptable, for example, to sit in “judgement” or “judgment,” to offer an “acknowledgement” or “acknowledgment,” to dress a store “manikin” or “mannikin,” or to use a “cellphone” instead of a “cell phone.”
At the end of the day, then, it is really about choice. Some authors choose their spelling based on the primary location of their story, while others will write in their native English regardless of the location—British bestselling author Stephen Leather, for example, writes in UK English even when his stories are set in the U.S. Many authors will choose U.S. spelling to avoid a negative response from some American readers, but will still have to pray that those who pass judgment are not partial to a middle e. Still other authors choose to vary spelling within the text if this is required to create authenticity; for example, in the novel 84 Charing Cross Road, a true story about a Brit and an American who write to each other over several years, the letters are left as originally written, his in UK English, hers in American; to have changed either one for either audience would have been to create an inauthentic story.
One important caveat to this is with regards to your book title: consumers looking for your book will be inputting keywords into Google or a retail site’s search bar in the consumer’s native spelling. How, then, do you ensure that your book Being a Good Neighbour comes up for an American searching for neighbor? You can elect to change your title to Being a Good Neighbor and, to be consistent, elect to use American spelling in the text; another option is to include neighbor in your book description and keywords; and the final option is to change your title to something where international spelling does not play a factor.
Regardless of which language you choose, consistency is important: if your character owns a “cellphone” in chapter one, do not have her using her “cell phone” in chapter two. Proof for usage just as thoroughly as you do for spelling and grammar.