The HC cover.
I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve never previously written in detail about my adventures in the land of publishing, but here it is: the full story. I hope it’s of interest.
These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths
in the US, and if you would like to buy that book you may do so here
.'Exceptional . . . absorbing . . . Fiona's narrative sears the page.'--Kirkus Reviews
[<< Previous post in series
. << First post in series
The retailer which had always most reliably supported me was WH Smith, the company which had included poor old Sweet Talking Money
in its best books of the year shortlist. But Smiths is a big company, and subject to all the afflictions of big corporations, including the well-known syndrome Reorganisation Without Notice.
And so it was. The buyer who had supported me so keenly in the past was (as I understand it) fired. His replacement had barely got his feet under his new desk before a HarperCollins salesperson was asking him to place an order for The Sons of Adam
The buyer in question had most likely not read the book, or either of its predecessors. That’s not to knock his professionalism or work ethic; simply to acknowledge that retail buyers can’t possibly read all the books that surge through their shops. The key decisions are usually made on the basis of ‘AI’ – Advance Information – sheets which contain little more than a cover image, a short blurb about the book and/or author, plus a range of necessary details to do with price, format, delivery dates and so on. And naturally, corporates do
need to reshuffle staff from time to time. Incoming executives are inevitably sometimes obliged to make decisions based on scant information. For all I know, that new buyer mostly got things right. Perhaps his buying activity, viewed in the round, was more profitable for the firm than his predecessor’s choices had been.
In any case, the new guy said no, Harry Bingham’s The Sons of Adam
was not for him. His store would not be stocking it. Thanks for stopping by.
This was catastrophic news. Bestseller status? Not a chance. Household name? Forget it. Without Smiths, it would be impossible for me to achieve even the sales levels of Sweet Talking Money
. Promotional slots would become less, if at all, available. And of course, by the time we had book four to pitch, my sales curve would look like someone jumping from the ten-metre board.
In book trade terms, I had just received something close to a death sentence.
The only thing that might have alleviated the damage was that promised no-holds-barred campaign by HarperCollins. A really strong campaign would, presumably, force the book through shop tills other than Smith’s. After all, retailers are less concerned with a book’s overall sales numbers than they are with their own. If other retailers did well out of The Sons of Adam, they’d presumably be happy to order the follow-up – and maybe, just maybe, that Smiths buyer might be persuaded that he’d missed a trick. My version of the cover
So, bad as things were, all was not lost ... except that it turned out that HarperCollins had absolutely no intention of honouring the marketing commitments they’d made, not even in the most cursory of ways. They didn’t actually bother to tell me so. Indeed, they didn’t even let me know that Smiths had refused to take the novel. What actually happened is that my editor rang with ‘good news’ about a promotional slot offered by one other, more minor, retailer. It was only when I grilled her about the full range of retail uptake that she divulged the bad news. As phone calls go, it was like a doctor ringing a patient to say, ‘Good news! You tested negative for the flu,’ then admitting, under interrogation, that, ‘Oh shucks, yes, you remember that cancer test we did ...?’
The fourth book.
By the time I found out that HarperCollins would prefer to cheat an author than honour its obligations, it was too late for a marketing campaign to be arranged in any event. That didn’t, of course, stop me from ringing everyone I could think of to find out what the hell they thought they were playing at. My editor, I think, was genuinely surprised and upset by my reaction. ‘But Harry,’ she said, alluding to the news from Smiths, ‘it wouldn’t have been in our commercial interest to campaign on that level.’ Damn right it wouldn’t! That is precisely why we bother to write contracts: to bind us to a certain course of action in advance. If we all just did whatever suited us at the time, we’d have no need of contracts.
My editor, on that same phone call, also told me, ‘Contracts just don’t mean in publishing what they do in investment banking.’ She really believed that. I mean, I can’t actually see HarperCollins choosing to advance that argument in a court of law, but so little did the firm feel bound by its written undertakings that it acted as if contracts were like greetings cards – expressions of warm wishes – rather than anything more formal.
Interestingly, it was hard to find anyone in the books industry who shared my sense of outrage. One senior agent I spoke to commented, ‘Oh, but publishers never
mean what they say in those publishing plans.’ Which, if true, begs the question why agents ever bothered to negotiate the damn things. Or why, once negotiated, they forget to tell authors to disregard the commitments completely.
Friends of mine have asked the obvious question, ‘But Harry, why didn’t you just sue them?’
A good question, but there are a few meaningful hurdles to that course of action. First of all, it’s a rare author (very brave, or very rich) who feels he or she can sue a well-resourced multinational, particularly when that same multinational controls the author’s output. What’s more, there just aren’t that many hefty publishers out there, and those that do exist are part of a clubbable and talkative industry. If I sued HarperCollins, I’d have risked destroying my prospects at every other firm in town too. Since the same basic logic governs pretty much every author / publisher conflict, there is in effect there’s no sanction on dubious, shoddy or fraudulent practice, beyond the firm’s own sense of honour.
So: no courtroom theatrics, alas, but I was brought to recognise that I’d reached a seminal moment in my career.
First, I realised I could not responsibly depend on authorial advances for my living. I needed some completely separate source of income, which would not depend on someone else’s bookcover, some retail buyer’s whim, some publishing company’s marketing choices. I contemplated returning to the City, to work as a banker again. I explored journalism. But the City didn’t appeal, my forays into journalism led nowhere – and so (with Nuala’s capable help) I set up a little editorial business from home. The idea was that I would offer editorial help to aspiring writers, using the skills I’d acquired to help others. It seemed like a sweet solution. We called that teeny-tiny little company The Writers’ Workshop
. Hoped, maybe, it might one day grow into something.
Secondly, I realised I would need to reinvent myself as an author, if I wanted to stay in the game. I didn’t have any immediate ideas about what that reinvention would involve, but I could see that the author of The Money Makers
and The Sons of Adam
would need to morph into some other being who could leave that old sales baggage behind.
And third – I used to be an investment banker, remember – I went mental at HarperCollins. Insisted on a meeting with one of the firm’s more senior officers. Presented the commitments they’d made, compared them with the derisory nature of the marketing actually done. I wasn’t threatening legal action, but I did
demand a response to their breach of contract (a phrase I used often, and with pleasure.)
They did OK, actually. Not well, but OK. We agreed that we would simply restart things as though The Sons of Adam
had never happened. The marketing commitments they had made with respect to that book would be transferred to the next title. And they would take on a further novel – my fifth for the firm – on the same terms as they had taken on numbers three and four. By that point, I didn’t look like a £50,000-a-book kind of author, so their willingness to take that fifth novel did, I think, betoken some acceptance that they needed to make good in some respect.
I saw out those contracts. My fourth book, Glory Boys, was an epic aviation-themed adventure story set in Prohibition Era America. My fifth book, The Lieutenant’s Lover, was a weepie love-story-come-adventure set across the Russian Revolution and post-WW2 Berlin. I liked writing both books. They sold moderately well – in the twenty-something thousands of copies – but I knew, and HarperCollins knew, that I would not settle for being an author of moderate income, and moderate sales. Not that there’s any dishonour in that calling – very far from it – just that it wasn’t me. I wanted big, or I wanted out. The fifth book.
My relations with HarperCollins remained perfectly polite. When it came to the point, they quite forgot that they had made any marketing commitments in relation to Glory Boys (that is: the commitments they’d agreed to transfer from The Sons of Adam) and were set to do very little there too. On the other hand, when I reminded them (with some vigour) of our understanding, they did respond. They never came close to matching the original The Sons of Adam commitments, but they made an effort. I knew I wouldn’t be able to force any more from them, so thanked them for their efforts and left it at that.
I never met an individual on the HarperCollins fiction side whom I didn’t like, nor did I meet one who was bad at their job. Some of them were just phenomenal. If the firm as a whole was untrustworthy on the matter of marketing – well, that had more to do with the culture of the broader industry, than with the perfidy of any individual. As far as I understand it, those old-fashioned marketing commitments (“we promise to do X, Y and Z for your book”) have essentially vanished from authorial contracts, no doubt because of the kind of problems I’ve talked about in this post. That doesn’t mean it was ever OK for big firms to break their solemn, written promises – but at least they learned. A culture which was, at that time, both widespread and unethical has changed, and changed very much for the better.
As for what was left of my fiction career: The Lieutenant’s Lover
slipped out into hardback, then paperback. My German publisher, who had always chosen to market me as a financial thriller writer, was slightly baffled to receive a love story from me, and asked if I would be happy to change my name for this title. Sure, I said. My full name is actually Thomas Henry Bingham, though I’ve always been known as Harry, so I suggested that they use the name ‘Tom Henry’ for the new book. Danke sehr
, they told me, but they were actually thinking a woman’s name might be more suitable ...
That German deal never quite materialised(though had it done so, I would have written as ‘Emma Makepeace’, which would have been lovely), but my first authorial career was burning out and I was content to let it.
One career had ended. It was time to see if I could start a new one. [Story continues in three days' time.]The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US tomorrow - January 29, 2015. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here.If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here
.This post first appeared on the WW site here.
I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve never previously written in detail about my adventures in the land of publishing, but here it is: the full story. I hope it’s of interest. The US ebook version of the cover.
These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US, and if you would like to buy that book you may do so here.
"An exceptional piece of work . . . Fiona's narrative sears the page."--Kirkus Reviews
[<< Previous post in series. <<First post in series
That education is simply stated. Although HarperCollins had indeed had around 60,000 copies of my book out with retailers, those books were ‘sold’ on a sale-or-return basis. If a retailer couldn’t shift the books, they could simply return them to the publisher, for a full refund.
Which is precisely what happened. About half the books that left HarperCollins’s warehouses came back again. I think final sales of that title amounted to around 35,000 copies, or about half what we had sold of The Money Makers
. HarperCollins, having approximately broken even on the first half of our two book deal, had now made an out-and-out loss on the second.
In a way, that wasn’t my concern. An author’s job is to write the book, a publisher’s job is to sell it. I’d received my advance and I wasn’t obliged to give it back. And then as well, publishers are hardly unused to the vagaries of the book market. If HarperCollins weren’t exactly thrilled by the outcome, they certainly weren’t shocked. Ugly results are just part and parcel of the book trade. You can publish a good book well and still lose your shirt. That's just the way it is . . . and this wasn't
quite a good book and the publication wasn't as confidently handled as my earlier book had been.
I was now out of contract. But I was a professional author, was I not?, and my task was simple: write a damn good book and see if HarperCollins wanted to buy it.
The book I wrote was another monster: The Sons of Adam
, a book about a fraternal rivaly set across two world wars and the oil industry of the 1920s and 30s. The book was a little shorter than The Money Makers
, but involved vastly more research. I read masses of material – oil histories, war histories, memoirs, books of photos. My richest sources were often diaries and memoirs. Insignificant in historical terms but rich in the details I needed. (What food did people eat? How were truck engines kept cool enough to operate through a Persian summer? Precisely what was the sequence of events when oil was struck at Signal Hill? In east Texas? In the Persian mountains?)
Often enough I’d read an entire book in order to extract perhaps just one or two details that made it through to the finished manuscript. But what details! An oil-rigger who fell eighty feet out of an oil derrick, bounced off a tin roof, then bummed a cigarette off his colleagues. The hollow boom made from deep within the earth, the day Columbus ‘Dad’ Joiner struck oil in the scrub of East Texas. Telegrams that used cryptic references to the Psalms to let London know when oil had been struck in Persia. The richness and romance of the industry lay in just such touches of colour. I simply had to gather the jewels.
I also developed a new way of writing. With Sweet Talking Money
(the good draft, not the bad one) and still more so The Sons of Adam
, I came to use Nuala as editor / sounding-board / research-hound / story-strategist. We’d sit together rotating a plot conundrum in our heads. I’d always want to solve the issue: What does Tom do
next? She’d want to understand
the issue. Yes, but what does Tom really care about here? What’s driving him? Who is the inner Tom?
As often as not, I found her approach maddening: a way of holding me back. And no question, my approach was better for racking up the word count ... it’s just that I often found myself deleting the stuff I’d written. Over the years (and we still work like that today), our habits have moved closer together, and we’re less likely to drive each other nuts, but our basic complementarity is still there, still working.The Sons of Adam
was a long time in the writing. Partly, it was just the length of the book, the scale of the research. But then too, my wife was still poorly and we had a house renovation to manage. Those things took priority. I wrote the book in the gaps remaining.
And one day, I had a text that I was happy with. My agent was happy. Nuala (picky soul that she is) was very
happy. We sent the manuscript off to HarperCollins and awaited their verdict.
The answer came back: they loved the book. They liked its scale, liked my dip back into history, liked the fact that my second novel wobbles had been thoroughly overcome. But the plain truth is that it’s probably better to be a debut writer with no sales record, than to be an experienced pro with a horrible one. Retailers, when choosing whether to stock a particular book, have to consider the debut novelist’s work on its own merits, because they’ve got no alternative. When it comes to considering a new work by an established author, they don’t need to care about the book – they can just check the stats.
And my sales experience – that sharp downward curve – gave HarperCollins pause. What were they to do? They could hardly offer me the same advance again: my sales simply didn’t justify it. On the other hand, they still saw in me a writer with real commercial potential and if they offered too little, I could simply take my material elsewhere.
They compromised by offering me £100,000 (around $165,000) for The Sons of Adam
, plus one further title. That was an almost 40% cut in remuneration, but it was still a very handsome sum - strikingly so, in retrospect. If you’re trying to figure out what a £100,000 two-book deal means in terms of annual income, then the maths looks roughly as follows. Knock off 10% for your agent’s commisson – these days 15% would be the norm – to leave £90K. Knock off another £4-5K for expenses: travel to London, books, maps, new laptops. That leaves you with a bit over £40K ($66K) a book. Back then, my hobbled life meant it probably took me two years to write a novel, which meant that a large headline figure dwindled into a somewhat modest annual amount, but one that had more to do with my hobbled life than any stinginess on the part of those publishing me.
I didn’t say yes to that offer, or not right away. I could get my head round a lower advance, but for me the killer question was whether HarperCollins were still properly committed to establishing me as a big name writer. A sizeable advance was certainly one way to make a statement, but that still left open the question of how they would actually support the publication of the new work.
So: another meeting in London. No Stilton this time. No celery. No drive-by visits from Chief Executives. But those things would have been out of place anyway. I knew the firm, they knew me. This was business, not razzmatazz.
And the business smelled right. This was a firm committed to the project, a firm with big aspirations. In a faxed note to my agent, my editor wrote that they had ‘the absolute ambition of selling lots and lots of books and making this author a household name.’ That stated commitment was backed up by a contractual one. The publisher drew up a marketing plan which looked, on the face of it, even more ambitious than anything they attempted for The Money Makers
. No ditzy give-away-a-million-pound plans, but masses of advertising. High streets, railways, airports, buses. The idea was to force the book into the public consciousness. Spend money to create a brand.
Because no marketing plan could be finally determined until the book was ready to be launched, the contract gave the firm some wiggle room. The contract stated:
The Publishers promotional and marketing activities shall be on a par with those outlined in the Publishers Marketing Plan. Should any particular marketing or promotional activity be unfeasible then the Publishers shall replace it with something of similar marketing worth to the Work.
That seemed both definite and flexible; a good arrangement. The commitment removed any doubts I might have had about that deflating advance. So I said yes. Signed up, felt positive. I think we all felt that way. We also, I think, realised that this was our last chance. We’d had one successful book. One that had caused us concern. The Sons of Adam
would, realistically, be our last chance to redefine my sales trajectory. Would I be an author who sold upwards of a hundred thousand copies and regularly sat in the bestseller charts? Or would I be an author who sold in the twenty and thirty thousands, respected but unremarkable?
The answer, when it came to the point, took me aback. Indeed, the answer, when it arrived, came within an inch or two of ending my career for ever. [Story continues here.]The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US on January 29, 2015. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here.
If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here
This post first appeared on the WW site here
What follows here is the fifth episode of my adventures in the land of publishing. I hope it's of interest. My second cover.
These posts are designed to celebrate the US release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths - a book described by Kirkus Reviews as 'an exceptional piece of work . . Fiona's narrative sears the page.'
If you'd like to buy the book you can do so right now. (British/Irish readers can get it here.)
[<< Previous post in series
. << First post in series
That error is simply stated: I wrote a terrible book.
Partly, the problem is simply one that afflicts many new writers: the dreaded second novel syndrome, a disease that often proves fatal. First novels don’t arrive the way all the others do. They just fly in through the window and settle in your head. First novels say to you, write me, it would be fun
Naturally enough, most first novels are lousy and never get sold, but most first anythings are pretty ropy. Einmal ist keinmal
, as the Germans say. Once is the same as never. But in some cases – mine for instance – a good first idea becomes allied to just enough craft that a real book is born. The Money Makers
is hardly a work of literature, but it’s a damn fine beach read, fast, fun and warm-hearted. At the time of writing today, and aggregating across Amazon’s British and American sites, the book averages 4.9 stars out of five. I worked hard at the book, it’s true, but the work never felt like a strain. It felt more like a gift from the universe. My work did enough to honour the gift, and that was about it. I was lucky.
Second novels just aren’t like that, or mostly not. They come from graft. From a contractual relationship which says, in effect, You must write another novel. That novel must be as funny, compelling and exciting as your first. It can’t copy the first, but it has to appeal to the same audience. Oh yes, and you have to write it by a certain date and the clock has already started ticking
. Good luck.
Some people pass that test. Others flunk it. I flunked. To be sure, my personal life was just a wee bit tricky, to put it mildly. The illness that had seemed like an awful, but temporary, intrusion into our marital home proved to be a huge and ugly beast that had chosen to take up seemingly permanent residence. I wasn’t a full-time novelist, who also did some part-time caring. I was a full-time carer, who wrote a novel in whatever gaps of time became available.
But that’s an excuse, really. I had a new career, the terms of which required that I churn out a new novel, of decent quality, every year or two. I tried my best, but the first draft of that second novel was a mess. A steaming dungheap, a carcrash, a train wreck.
I gave that draft to my editor, who told me it was fabulous, then fled HarperCollins for another publisher altogether and, for all I know, another country, another continent. Perhaps she’s now working in something safe, like mine-clearance or lumberjacking or any industry which will protect her from novels like that one.
In any event, I got a new editor – Susan – who took a deep breath and invited me to come in for a chat. That meeting was, I think, handled as perfectly as any such thing can be. Susan and Nick were patient, and calm, and non-accusatory, but in the nicest possible way they pointed out that the novel I had placed in their hands was a steaming dungheap of a book, a literary carcrash, an insult to language, a stain on all that the gods of literature held holy.
And I agreed. I saw that they were right and I said so. When I got home that evening, I opened up the novel on my laptop. Ctrl-A: select all. Del: delete.
That left me with a screen as blank as my notions of what to do next, but there was something liberating in the experience. And educational. In a funny way, I date the real professionalisation of my writing from that moment. Inspiration and a mood of gaiety had propelled my first novel. My second and subsequent novels would have a strong splash of inspiration at their core, but I’d never again leave myself reliant on that fickle muse. I’d figure out what made stories work, what made prose readable and characters lifelike. I read a mountain of how-to books (something I hadn’t once done while writing The Money Makers
) and started to form my own views on what would and wouldn’t work for me.
I rebuilt that second novel from the ground up. The story that emerged – Sweet Talking Money
– is about a banker and a research scientist who team up to develop a medical technique that will save patients but threaten the profits of drugs companies. The biggest, baddest drug company doesn’t like that idea and shenanigans ensure.
It is still, I think, the worst book I’ve ever written, but it’s not actually a bad
book. The characters have personality, the story keeps moving, there’s a proper sort of climax. The book basically works. In a curious way, I’m quite proud of it: in terms of the distance travelled from inception to finished product, that novel is even impressive, like those Pacific atolls that would be higher than Everest, except that nine-tenths of them lies beneath the ocean.
Other people thought so too. A production company offered me a $100,000 option for the film rights – an offer which I would have happily accepted, if they had ever chosen to sign a contract or send me a cheque. And WH Smith, the UK’s largest retailer of commercial fiction, chose me for their ‘Thumping Good Read’ shortlist – their selection of the best commercial novels of the year. As failures go, this was hardly a horrible one.
I was relieved. I thought, the worst thing that could have happened to me
has happened and I survived it. Did well in fact. I rescued the book. The book did OK. And I discovered that I had enough resources of craft to rescue me from any similar situation arising in the future.
I was shaken, but confident.
That confidence seemed to have some firm commercial underpinnings. Being part of Smith’s Thumping Good Read promotion meant that my book was, in theory, displayed prominently at the front of all their high street stores throughout the summer selling season. Those kind of retail slots are highly valuable. At one stage, for example, publishers used to pay around £25,000 ($41,000) for the privilege of having one of their titles be the WH Smith ‘book of the week.’ No publisher could recoup the £25,000 from the sales generated in that single week, but they could shift enough copies to rank strongly in the store’s own bestseller charts, thereby guaranteeing good follow-on sales.
Now, to be sure, whenever I went into the WH Smith store in Oxford, I could never actually find
my book. Back then, Smiths was run less professionally than it is today and I simply don’t know the extent to which local stores did as they were told to do by Head Office. But still: I was in their biggest annual promotion. Things couldn't go that wrong, could they?
Only then there was the whole issue of cover. Sweet Talking Money
was an adventure story with a financial setting, but it was also a love story. The publishers felt that male readers would be more attracted by the financial thriller aspect of the book, while women would broadly be drawn in by the love story. But how to communicate both aspects of the book? What kind of cover would draw both audiences?
I still don’t know the answer to that question, but I am sure that the answer HarperCollins came up with was not a good one. The cover featured a roll of dollar bills folded into the shape of a heart – quite possibly the seed of a decent idea. But everything else about the design was a mess. The cover never really knew who its audience was. Thriller readers, perhaps? So the design plumped for plenty of gold foil and had a background picked out in a techno-thrillerish silver-blue. But – whoops – what about the girls? That concern prompted the designers to put the title text in a weird mixture of upper and lower case, as though to promise women that there really, really would be some flirty (lower-case) snogging as well as dramatic (upper-case) action.
No one I knew liked that cover. I hated it. So did my agent. We passed on our reservations to my editor, who kept on reassuring us that the cover was amazing, that we’d love it as soon as we saw the ‘special effects’ – meaning the gold foil and the weird blue-silvery thing. We remained dubious, but, being polite and well-brought up, allowed the matter to rest until we had seen the cover in its final form. When we saw it, I was even more confident that the cover was a mess, but by that point it was (as I expect everyone but me knew) too late to do anything about it.
But so what? Before too long, I had a royalty statement from HarperCollins which showed that they’d shifted around 60,000 copies. The book had interest from film companies. It was shortlisted in what was arguably the most important prize for its category of fiction.
My wife (who was starting to recover somewhat) and I wanted to move house. Out of Oxford and into the countryside. The move was going to require a mortgage a heck of a lot bigger than the one we then had, which meant that we needed to believe that my authorial career was for real. We needed to believe that I had an income, not just a remarkable one-off windfall.
In due course, we found a house we loved. It was over our price range, but it was perfect in every other way. We talked over the risks, and decided to make an offer. Our offer was accepted, and we moved from a pleasant Edwardian townhouse in East Oxford to a seventeenth century thatched cottage a few hundred yards from the River Thames. Our new life – the life of a writer and his slowly recovering wife – was beginning at last. We’d been through the worst and come out whole.
We had been in the house only a few weeks when I received a new royalty statement and my publishing education took a further step forward. [Story continues here.]The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US on January 29, 2015. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.
If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here
This post first appeared on the Writers' Workshop site here
I’m Harry Bingham. I’ve never previously written in detail about my adventures in the land of publishing, but here it is: the full story. I hope it’s of interest.
These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US, and if you would like to buy that book you may do so here. It’s had some quite nice reviews from both critics & readers.
[<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.
Indeed, all through that long run-up to publication, HarperCollins largely managed to maintain that air of confidence and swagger, exemplified, not least, by one of the happiest occasions in my publishing life, a meet-the-trade shindig organised by the firm’s sales team.
That shindig looked, I suppose, like countless other corporate entertainment gigs. A large hotel is booked. Various trade types are assembled, given plastic badges, told to mingle. A flock of HarperCollins types grab authors and thrust them at buyers. Everyone feels a little awkward, and our hosts – the only people who know both groups of people – work hard to keep the mood bright and focused.
But then the booze flowed and the nerves wore off. There were perhaps half a dozen authors present: a wee handful of new or up-and-coming talent that the firm particularly wanted to promote. Each author had their own table to charm and delight, and I do remember being particularly delightful to one character, who I later realised had a marginal role at a minor retailer. Hot damn!
I’d been launching my best charm missiles at the wrong target, and we were on pudding already!
I needn’t have worried. The real business of the evening began once the puddings had been cleared. The alcohol, which had flowed generously before, flowed prodigiously now. We mingled, we drank, we talked, we moved on. And I was impressed by the quality of people I met. Not simply the strength of their livers, but by their love of books. I remember meeting, for example, the chief book buyer at Tescos, the country’s biggest supermarket. It’s conventional to sneer at the idea of grocery-store-as-bookshop, but the people who sneer have obviously not met that particular buyer. She was passionate about reading, and hugely knowledgeable. Indeed, her favourite Saturday morning recreation was going to Waterstones, an upmarket book chain, and browsing its titles. She reckoned she read perhaps a couple of books a week, and mostly for fun, not business. The buyer from Asda, an offshoot of Walmart, was almost equally committed.
Indeed, the only person who shocked me was a very junior buyer from WH Smith, the country’s largest mass-market retailer of books, CDs, and the like. He had only just moved to books from music and he complained to me and Nick, my editor’s boss, that he was bewildered by the new marketplace. ‘I mean, when we’re buying music, we just listen to the radio and we know we have to make those songs and those artists available in our stores. How do you do that with books?’
He really wanted to know. Nick and I exchanged looks. Who was going to field this one? I left it to Nick.
them,’ he said.
‘What, you read
The buyer seemed genuinely astonished by the idea that you could learn the market by simply reading book, after book, after book, after book. Astonished by the notion that this level of commitment was even plausible. We did what we could to reassure that youngster that, yes, people, really did buy books because they liked reading them, and yes, many people really did read quite a lot of books for pleasure. (This anecdote may sound like I’m being snippy about Smiths, but the anecdote has a sweet ending. Some weeks or months later, Nick heard again from that junior buyer: he had taken Nick’s wise advice, had actually started reading, and found – to his astonishment – that he adored it.)
I ended that evening as drunk as I’ve almost ever been, but swayed upstairs to bed on a ocean wave of good feeling. I felt that these were good people, who liked me, who liked books, and who might very well bring their mighty powers to bear in promoting mine. I felt like a young man on a roll. My foot was firmly planted on the first rung of the ladder. Things would only get better.
The feeling survived the night. A few weeks before publication, for example, I had the best meeting with a publicist I’ve ever had. The publicist (another Fiona) took me out to much and (metaphorically) picked me up and shook me till the last small coin of my private life fell jingling into her lap. ‘You have a dog?’ she said. ‘Great. The dog magazines are always desperate for stories.’
That desperate, I wondered. Really?
Really. Fiona was right. There’s no particular news-worthiness in a novelist-does-his-job-and-writes-a-book story, any more than there is in a plumber-fits- bathroom one. To get any traction in the press, we had to mine the story of how I’d come to write the book. An ordinary domestic tale in most ways, but in publicity terms it became High Flying City Banker Gives Up Work To Care for Beautiful Sick Wife
. My publicist, a woman of almost superhuman energy, pushed that limp little story for all it was worth.
She scored a full page feature in the Daily Telegraph
, Britain’s biggest selling quality paper. The piece was elegantly and sensitively written. It didn’t mention the book all that much, but those sort of things don’t. I
was the story, the book only an excuse.
No other major British newspaper would pick up the story after the Telegraph
, but we had a piece (also charming, also well-written) in the London Evening Standard
. Diary pieces in The Times
. A feature in some women’s magazine or another. Interviews, photo shoots, local radio. A couple of nibbles on national stations.
And so – book written and edited, cover agreed, the trade alcoholically entertained, publicity blitz all sorted – we were done. It was the first February of the new millennium and the book was published. Publishers don’t, on the whole, throw launch parties for authors. The things are expensive and don’t sell nearly enough books to justify their cost. But my sister, never one to let a party-opportunity pass, threw one for me. We invited a million people, sold a load of books, and drank champagne. Success, we knew, lay just around the corner.
And so, in a way, it did. In those far-off days, publishers still had money with which to market books – and agents had the power to make them spend it. The last clause of my first contract reads:
'29. GUARANTEED MARKETING SPEND.
It is understood that the Publishers will promote [The Money Makers
] by way of marketing to the value of £50,000.’
That sounds good, though should you look at that clause with a lawyer’s eye, you’ll find something a little curious about it. ‘GUARANTEED MARKETING SPEND’ – that sounds, does it not, like a guarantee? A commitment to spend money. But then the clause itself sounds more hesitant: ‘it is understood that ...’ Contracts don’t normally shilly-shally. If something’s agreed, they say so: ‘The publishers will spend a minimum of £50,000 on marketing The Money Makers
,’ or something like that.
I was still more of an investment banker than an author, so I queried that clause with my agent. She told me to regard the clause as more of a statement of intent than an actual commitment, saying that in practice no publisher was actually likely to spend £50,000 on advertising a new book by a debut author – but then again what was marketing spend anyway? If we chose to query the spend, the firm would be able to find enough overheads-necessary-to-the-functioning-of-the-marketing-department that they’d be able to clamber their way to any sum we cared to name, no matter how contrived their reasoning.
At the time, that struck me as an odd response. Yes, of course, the receptionists who man and woman the front desk at HarperCollins are, kind of, necessary to the operation of the marketing department. So too is money spent repaving the carpark or cleaning the bathrooms. But that’s not marketing, is it? Buying adspace is marketing. Pouring asphalt is not. I couldn’t quite see the point of going to the trouble of agreeing a clause if we didn’t believe it meant anything and if we had no intention of enforcing it.
I kept those reservations to myself, however, and they turned out not to matter. I had the pleasure of seeing HarperCollins in hunting mode, and very impressive the firm was too. I very much doubt if they actually
spent an actual
£50,000 on actual
marketing, but the hell with it. They spent plenty. There were adverts all over Victoria Station in London. A huge billboard at Paddington Station. Adverts on the Tube. Some rather complicated adverts that were somehow pasted onto the floor at a couple of mainline railway stations. People handing out little two-chapter samplers of the book to fiction-hungry commuters.
And the book sold.
We had excellent publicity, a wonderful marketing push, a strong retail platform (that is: you could actually find my books in bookshops, which doesn’t always happen) and a cover that, if not wonderful, was at least brassy and pushy and self-confident.
In all, I believe we sold about 70,000 copies. The novel appeared on the Sunday Times
bestseller list (for one week only, in position #27) – but still, the fact that it appeared at all has permitted publishers ever since to refer to me as ‘bestselling author, Harry Bingham ...’
HarperCollins probably lost a little money on the book, or maybe just about broke even, but they’d have been more than content with that outcome. Publishers expect
to lose money on a first book. About seven or eight books in ten ‘don’t meet budget expectations’ in the prissy accountant’s phrase. Or, to put the same thing more bluntly, about seventy percent of books lose money. (I’m talking about trade fiction and non-fiction – the kind of stuff you find front-of-store in bookshops. Academic and professional work usually makes money for the publisher: advances are small, budgets are mingy, and the market much more predictable.) If my book lost a little money – well, what the hell? It didn’t lose much. It built a readership. It made a mark. In theory at least, we’d do a little better on book two, then build from there.
It didn’t happen like that, of course, and the first error – a big one – was mine. [Story continues here]The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US on January 29, 2015. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.
If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here
.This post was originally published on the Writers' Workshop site here.
I'm Harry Bingham. What follows here, and in future posts, is a full description of my adventures in the land of publishing. I hope it's of interest. My first HarperCollins - just feel that foil!
These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US. That book is probably the best book I've ever written. It's had rave reviews from both critics & readers ... and if you'd like to buy it you can do so right now.
(British/Irish readers can get it here.)[<< Previous post in series. << First post in series.]
It was a good beginning.
I worked well with my then editor, Fiona. (I’m mostly going to avoid giving surnames in this text, because I don’t want to invade the privacy of people whose contacts with me have been, from their point of view, often incidental. Mostly, though, I’m eschewing surnames to make a point. In the course of this narrative, I will talk about all my experiences good and bad. But where those experiences have been poor, they've seldom or never been the fault of the individuals concerned . The individuals, almost always, I’ve thoroughly liked – and, indeed, they’ve mostly been fine or good at their jobs. If some of my negative experiences are shared by other authors - as I believe they probably are - that indicates that the problems I'm speaking about have to do with the prevailing culture . . . in which case, it's the industry, never the individuals, that should take the hits.)
The text that we auctioned was 190,000 words long. After a process of close editing, it ended up at slightly more than 180,000 words – a reduction so slight that it bears testimony to my own editorial ruthlessness. I liked the book. So did Fiona. So did, I think, most others in the firm.
We had conversations about marketing. The book’s theme was making money, specifically a million pounds, and it was clear that any marketing drive needed to centre on that. A very young, and obviously capable, marketer wanted to enclose scratchcards in the book, offering a chance to win one million pounds. The idea sounded daffy to me. She wanted to give away a million quid
? Ah no, it was explained, the scratchcards offered a chance
to win a million; it wouldn’t actually be guaranteed that someone would win it. But there would be a chance, right? I mean, this wasn’t just a con? Oh no, there would be a real chance of someone winning, ‘but don’t worry, we can insure against that.’
That idea died on closer analysis, though as I recall the killer issue was less the giving-away-a-million-pounds part, and more the difficulty of enclosing scratchcards in the book in a way that was secure but nevertheless allowed a reader to riffle through the pages. But still. The fact that the idea ever surfaced in the first place said something about the firm’s brio and commitment. The book’s publisher (Fiona’s boss, in effect) later told me that he remembered the acquisition of The Money Makers
as marking a turn in the energies and ambitions of the firm. Not that the book brought about that turn, just that it was lucky to be around at the right time.
Then there was the matter of timeline. We’d discussed this at those opening meetings, so it didn’t come as a surprise – except that, well, things did seem slow
. We sold the book to HarperCollins in October 1998. The release date was to be February 2000, not quite eighteen months later, but getting on. Given that the whole editorial and copyediting process could have been completed within a matter of weeks, that seemed startlingly distant. Yet there was a logic, a compelling one. Because while readers may think of themselves as mere servants to Literature’s timeless call, the facts prove otherwise. The market for printed books is a highly seasonal affair. The Christmas books market – hardbacks, cookery books, releases by big name authors – begins in around September and continues until new releases largely dry up in the first week or so of December. If a big book comes out in September – a new Dan Brown, for example – that Christmas selling season may even nibble into the last week or two of August.
So much for autumn. The summer season (which starts in April or May) is led by paperbacks for the beach. The biggest authors get their books out in the heaviest sales weeks. Everyone else jostles for space around them.
Which leaves late winter and early spring as the traditional season for launching debut authors. Since the retail trade starts its buying process a good six months in advance, October 1998 was way too late for us to get a book out in February 1999, so February 2000 it would have to be. My book, as it happened, was set in the three years around the millennium itself, and I’d always assumed that publication would come before that date. The book, somehow, would have worked better that way (and not only because, confident in the destructive nature of the millennium bug, I’d included a passing reference to planes falling out of the sky on the crucial date.) But still: one fluffed plane reference hardly ruined my text. If February 2000 it was to be, then so it was.
The book was to be published straight into paperback. At our very first meeting, that idea was presented to me with some timidity, as though I’d be insulted by the indignity of it. A plebian paper cover, when what I wanted was a lordly hardback! I wasn’t insulted. I couldn’t, in fact, see the point of publishing my kind of book – commercial fiction by a debutant author – in hardback at all. Why blow all your marketing spend on a format that few people like and fewer people read? Why whip up publicity for a product that simply won’t sell? It still seems strange to me that the approach isn’t now standard for debut fiction of that sort.
I didn’t, of course, simply wait for the second month of the new millennium to roll around. I was an author now. A genuine pro, no longer a wannabe. Since I was contracted to write a second book, that’s just what I began to do. That happy story – a car crash, in truth, and one of my own making – I‘ll leave for another chapter, but it’s worth remembering that though the conventional publishing industry has always been slow, that’s never been the same thing as idle. I am even now halfway through writing my fifth Fiona Griffiths crime novel, while the third novel in that series hasn't yet come out in paperback in the UK. The pipeline is long, but its maw is always hungry.
So, while you may picture me busily writing a terrible second novel, we will speed forward through the various milestones passed by The Money Makers
on its long journey to print.
The cover, for one thing. Covers are stunningly important in selling books. A casual reader browsing in a bookstore won’t, most likely, have read any reviews, or discussed the book with friends. So, while an author may have sweated over his prose, may have reworked a particular plot point several dozen times before being satisfied, may have (as I did) culled and unculled commas while waiting for an agent to say yes, none of this actually affects a reader glancing over those front-of-store tables.
Covers have to communicate instantaneously what kind of book lies beneath. People complain about the cliches – the squirly chick-lit fonts in lipstick pink, and all the rest of it – but the cliches are there to make the process of visual sorting rapid and error-free. Covers may also innovate, of course, but innovation is a riskier bet than simply referencing an accepted visual grammar.
And what was
the visual grammar for my new book? It was an adventure story, certainly, but had no crime, no violence, no men with guns. It appealed to women, but wasn’t women’s fiction. It was contemporary fiction, but it couldn’t get away with those vaguely upmarket covers (pale lake, rowboat rocking by a misty jetty) which are aimed at book-groups and TV-backed reading circles. My book had committed the cardinal crime of being obviously commercial – it was fun to read – but without being genre-specific. Not crime. Not chick-lit. Not sci-fi. Not fantasy.
The awkward truth was that The Money Makers
lay in that small niche whose crowning glory was and is Jeffrey Archer. Alas, HarperCollins was, at that time, the great man’s publisher so they couldn’t very well pitch me to the trade and to the general reader as being ‘the new Jeffrey Archer’. And Archer’s particular niche had been fashionable in the 1980s, had long become deeply unfashionable, and only Archer and one or two other authors of that era continued to exploit it successfully.
My first HarperCollins coverSo a book cover for The Money Makers
had to transmit a message that said, roughly, ‘If you like Jeffrey Archer, then this is absolutely the kind of book you’d like, but if you think Archer is badly written and simply passé, we’d encourage you to try this anyway, because we think it’s a refreshing new variant of a breed which – we agree – has seen better days.’ Does that sound confused? Perhaps. In any event, the cover didn’t quite manage to navigate those complexities with total conviction. It boasted a deep blue background, with my name and the title heavily foiled (that is raised, textured and shiny.) In case there wasn’t enough there to keep the Braille readers occupied, the blue background was spattered with dimly-visible blue coins that were themselves somewhat raised and shiny.
I wasn’t consulted on the design process, not meaningfully. What happened, in fact, was that a trio of people from HarperCollins took me, my wife and my agent out to lunch. It was an unusually warm day for London and we sat outside at a pleasant Hammersmith restaurant. Starters came. We chatted. Then Nick, the most senior HC guy present, whipped out the cover. Ta-daa
! They asked, of course, whether we liked the cover and, when our replies were less than effusive, began to sell it. ‘We wanted readers to think that they must have heard of Harry Bingham, even though, of course, they won’t have done. We wanted a cover with maximum confidence, maximum splash.’ (Gold foil is a relatively expensive cover effect, so ‘splash’ in publisher-ese usually translates into plenty of the shiny stuff.) Although we discussed the cover at fair length, publishers don’t generally show a cover to an author until the design has been largely agreed in-house. From that point onwards, there’s a kind of polite, genteel pressure on the author to say ‘yes’ – a sense that good people would be disappointed if the author weren’t charmed and thrilled.
It is, in fact, a dumb way to develop covers. Cover design is hard and groupthink almost inevitably afflicts any in-house process. Often enough, that groupthink comes up with an excellent, or at least acceptable, answer. But sometimes it doesn’t, in which case there are only two external voices a publisher can safely trust: the author and his or her agent. I have never yet known an occasion when agent and author were united in opposition to a cover when that cover did not look, in hindsight, like a poor – and sometimes disastrous – decision.
Fifteen years on, I still don’t know if that first book cover was a good one.It was definitely confident, but that wasn't quite the same as positively good. In my view, something more contemporary was and is the only sane way to launch a new author. (A contemporary version of retro is, of course, still contemporary; my cover was just plain old-fashioned.)
On the other hand, I don't want to be too picky. The damn thing sure looked like it thought a lot of itself. It wasn’t shy. So even if the thing wasn’t wonderful, it was at least going out into the world with a little swagger. This was a book that wanted to sell itself: a very fine attitude, if you ask me.
Thus far into my little seedling of a career, everything – still – was going very well. [Story continues here]The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US on January 29, 2015. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.
If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here
.This post first appeared on the Writers' Workshop site here.
I'm Harry Bingham. What follows is a full description of my adventures in the land of publishing. I hope it's of interest.
These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US. That book is probably the best book I've ever written. It's had rave reviews from both critics & readers ... and if you'd like to buy it you can do so right now.
(British/Irish readers can get it here.)
[<< Previous post in series
I left work, cared for my wife, and wrote my first novel.
That novel was The Money Makers
, the race-to-make-a-million romp that I had conceived some years before. The novel wasn’t high art, by any means, but it was
fun, the way Jeffrey Archer would be if reading his prose didn’t make your gums hurt.
It took me nine months to write that beast of a book. My writing time was spent, often enough, at my wife’s bedside, she half-dozing, me typing as quietly as I could in the half-light. Strangely, though, the strange and frightening circumstances of the book’s creation show through not at all in the reading of it. The opposite indeed, as though ordinary life, jubilant and irrepressible, was forced burst through the constrictions of that sickened life.
I knew I was a beginner, of course. Knew too that my education was hopelessly adapted to the kind of book I wanted to write. So I set myself rules that I adhered to closely. First, I wanted every chapter to have a piece of magic. Some memorable setting, a splash of the unusual. There was one chapter, for example, where it was necessary for one of my protagonists to have a conversation with his father-in-law. There was no reason why that conversation couldn’t have taken place in some perfectly ordinary way: over dinner, on the phone, in an office. I wrote a draft of just such a dialogue. Short, credible, effective. The scene did what was necessary, then moved on. But it bothered me. It was breaking my own rules. So I took the same conversation and re-set it in a helicopter flown from London to Devon in a thunderstorm. Same conversation, different setting – and a much stronger final result.
I was also fierce about economy. That may, perhaps, sound implausible when the final product weighed in at a beefy 190,000 words (about 650 paperback pages), but it’s true nevertheless. I used to write a chapter, then go back to it, search out any paragraph or sentence that could be deleted, then delete it. Any word even. It’s a habit I’ve never lost.
That wasn’t most of it, though. I was an ex-investment banker and brought a banker’s work ethic to the project. When I re-read my ‘completed’ book, I realised I’d got better: the end was much better than the beginning. It couldn’t really have been otherwise, since I was now 180,000 words more experienced than I had been at the start. So I deleted the first third of the book – 60,000 words, the equivalent of one shortish novel – and rewrote it.
And my book got better. I became confident that I had something which would sell. I didn’t know the statistics of success (roughly speaking, a literary agent will reject 999 manuscripts for every one they agree to represent) but nor did I care. My story was a decently written adventure story with a strong concept and a proper ending. How could it not sell? Feeling confident, I bought the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook
(the British equivalent of the American Writer’s Market
) and chose six agents, more or less at random.
The next step was the submission package. Three chapters, a synopsis, and a covering letter. How hard could that be? I plucked three of my stronger chapters from random points in the novel. Wrote a synopsis. Drafted a covering letter which – being an ex-investment banker – I made sure delivered a good, hard pitch for the product I was hawking. Because agents asked for text in double-line spacing, the prospective page count for the novel was nudging seven hundred pages, so I reduced the font-size to ten-point, to keep things manageable. Printed off half a dozen submission packages and popped them in the post.
At the time, I was serenely confident that my material would soon secure an offer of representation. With hindsight, I realise I had probably compiled just about the worst submission package in history. The letter was pushy, brash, arrogant. The chapters were a mess, the text all but unreadable for anyone over the age of thirty-five. I waited four weeks, accumulated a handful of rejection letters, then chose another half dozen agents and repeated the process. (Except by this point, I had learned the unwisdom of choosing random chapters and also been kindly advised that sending out unreadable text was a bad idea.) [NB: if you're a writer and you don't want to write a terrible covering letter then read this and this. Maybe also this.
Within weeks, I had two offers of representation, one from the CEO of a large and well-known literary agency, the other from the co-owner of a two-woman agency, which operated out of a West London basement. To have two offers put me in a rare and privileged position: nearly all authors simply say yes to the first agent who offers representation. I was able to choose.
I visited both agents. The CEO – a man with a stellar roster of clients – was hardly accustomed to being interviewed, but bore the interrogation with remarkable grace. I liked him. He, and his firm, were entirely impressive. But I couldn’t help but notice that I was never going to be the most important author on that great man’s list. I’d never have the first claim on his time. Felicity, the other agent who offered to represent me, was in a quite different position. Her list, and that of her agency, boasted plenty of cultured and respected authors, but was relatively lacking in out-and-out commercial writers. The sort of writers who, with luck and a following wind, might provide the firm’s bread-and-butter business for years to come. In a small but meaningful way, her firm needed
me. So I said yes to Felicity and sent a polite no to the CEO (whose career, however, seems to have ridden the setback well.)
We sent the book out. I forget exactly how many publishers we approached, but perhaps about eight or nine. That number might sound low – there are thousands of publishers in the UK – but we were after those who could handle a big commercial novel: that is, ones who could pay a sizeable advance and have plenty of cash to put behind the book’s marketing. There weren’t, and aren’t, more than eight or ten such outfits in town
Indeed, the ‘eight or nine’ figure somewhat exaggerates their number. The Hachette group, for example, owns Orion, Headline, Hodder & Stoughton, Little, Brown and Transworld. Hodder & Stoughton in turn owns John Murray. Those individual firms may bid separately for a particular work, but they’ll only bid against outsiders, never against each other. So if, for example, Orion and Headline are the last two bidders standing, the agent is not allowed to set the two off against each other, as they would do if the firms were genuinely independent. There are also some excellent smaller publishers, of course – Faber and Canongate, for example – but they’re not firms routinely capable of making a big play for big books.
And we wanted big.
We wanted big and we got lucky. Plenty of literary auctions can last weeks, even months. This one was a whirlwind. We got our first offer very quickly. Felicity instantly transmitted the existence of the offer to all other participants. The bidding rose very fast, so that some interested parties were blitzed out of the auction before they’d really had a chance to figure out their maximum price. Bids sailed through that magical ‘six figure sum’ threshold and continued on up. Finally, we were left with two bidders – Hodder and HarperCollins – each offering the exact same sum: £160,000 ($265,000) for a two book deal.
(The two-book deal deserves a word of explanation. Most fiction is sold in two book deals, so the author is selling the manuscript he or she has already written, plus one more. That ‘plus one’ doesn’t need to exist. It doesn’t even need to exist as a twinkle in the author’s eye. It’s simply that first books are costly to launch, as a publisher has to establish a new author, who has as yet no readership, no profile with the trade. To recoup those costs, a publisher will generally hope to break even on the first book, and make some money on the second.
These things aren’t, however, always well-explained to the newbie author. I know one author who was told, a couple of weeks prior to her first meeting with her new publisher, that her work would be acquired in a two-book deal. Oh crap
, thought she, I’ve only written one
. So she phoned her boss and told him that she needed two weeks off. She bought a load of coffee and wrote in a frenzy of sixteen hour days. By the time, she arrived at that first meeting, she had a draft manuscript of her second title. Needless to say, her publisher was astonished.)
I went to see both top bidders, accompanied by my agent.
Both meetings were broadly similar. We met an editor, a publicist, a sales guy, a marketer. Somebody senior, who popped in for two minutes to shake my hand and tell me how much he loved
Those expressions of love attract a certain amount of scepticism in the wider media. Hollywood, for example, tends to portray the publishing industry as composed of insecure, lying narcissists, who will love you one moment and stab you the next. I’m less cynical. The industry does, in fact, operate on passion. When an editor bids for a book, she’s not making that bid in isolation from the broader firm. On the contrary: she’ll have to solicit and secure support from the sales team from other editors, from senior colleagues, even (if the price tag is a big one) the Chief Executive. That’s not to say that all those people read every word of your book. They can’t and won’t. But a competent professional reader can imbibe fifty pages and think, Yes, this is the right kind of thing, the sort of thing we want to publish
. Publishing claims to run on passion, and it really, truly does. It’s one of the nice things about it. If Hollywood portrays other media types as back-stabbing narcissists, it’s perhaps because they’re drawing on models that lie closer to home.
So. Two firms. Two meetings. Two apparently similar groups of people saying two broadly similar things.
The difference was the body language. HarperCollins, for reasons that still elude me today, made a big deal of that first book. Whereas Hodder took me to a cramped and windowless meeting room buried somewhere in the bowels of their Euston Road headquarters, HarperCollins took me to their boardroom. The Chief Exec of the entire UK company popped in to meet me. (He was called Eddie Bell, and had the bulldog manner of any successful Murdoch executive. He struck me, even in those few moments, as quite atypical for publishing.) There was also, I have no idea why, a huge platter of cheese on a sideboard. Stilton, celery, biscuits. ‘Have some cheese, Harry,’ cried somebody, wielding a knife.
I don’t know if management texts have been written on the relationship between cheese provision in meetings and the successful outcome of those meetings. But the choice I faced seemed simple enough. Two nice, capable, eager bunches of people wanted my book. They both offered the exact same amount of money. The exact same level of royalties. Both wanted minor tweaks to my text, but nothing huge. Only one company seemed really, really eager – eager to the point of laying on entire bunches of celery simply by way of garnish
. The other firm seemed great – but where was the cheese?
So I signed up with HarperCollins. It was October 1998 and my new life had begun. [Story continues here]The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US on January 29, 2015. If you'd like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.
If you're British, the book's already out and you can get it here
[This post first appeared on my Writers' Workshop site here.
I'm Harry Bingham. I'm currently working on my fifth book in the Fiona Griffiths series and I'm loving every minute.
But I was a writer for a long time before I first met Fiona Griffiths and what follows here, and in future posts, is a full description of my adventures in the land of publishing. I hope it's of interest.
These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US. That book is probably the best book I've ever written. It's had rave reviews from both critics & readers ... and if you'd like to buy it you can do so right now. (British/Irish readers can get it here.)
I always wanted to be an author. Even as a very small child, I was passionately attached to the written word. When my parents read me Beau Geste
, I was so overcome by the ending that I cried for the entire evening. When my father read me Sherlock Holmes, I was as transported as it was possible for any listener to be.
My childhood was divided between London and Wales, and our Welsh cottage lay just a few miles from Hay-on-Wye, a small country town then as now given over entirely to the written word. The shop which dominated the trade was Richard Booth’s Old Cinema: a vast building, castled with books. There was no other bookshop like it in the country, except perhaps the same entrepreneur’s Old Fire Station (equally eccentric, but less child-friendly, at least back then.) Rather than operate the way second-hand booksellers had always operated in the past – handpicking one or two titles from the boxloads offered – Booth had gone industrial. When he got started, a lot of libraries were closing and he simply bought up container loads of books. Good books, bad books, collapsing books, strange books. He didn’t even know what he bought. Didn’t care, so long as it was cheap.
The Old Cinema was crammed with the fruits of those raids. Anyone who calls themselves a bibliophile would have been tested, I think, by that bookshop. I mean, yes, there were treasures present, but in a way the dross was more striking. Edwardian medical almanacks. Old copies of Wisden. Tedious memoirs, authored by nobodies. Gazetteers of countries that history had long scrubbed from the map. Prewar scientific handbooks, that somehow still managed to smell of pipe smoke and tweed. Novels, lauded by reviewers of the day, but whose titles and authors had long vanished from memory.
There was, theoretically, some sort of system to the shelving, but when books accumulate on that kind of scale, the cataloguing was never much more than notional. The overall impression was of some Borgesian Library of Babel, pulled through some Edwardian or interwar timewarp. Every possible book – everything that survived the warp, anyway – lay somewhere on those shelves, gently mouldering under old cloth bindings and fox marks blooming on every page. The Old Cinema contained the whole profusion of human thought, but with the one, niggly, proviso that it had to be human thought of the kind likely to lurk somewhere in your grandmother’s attic.
There was, in those caverns, a little alcove for kids. You might find old comic book annuals, if you were lucky. Perhaps a Tintin or Asterix. For certain, some Edwardian tales of adventure aimed at spunky boys and venturesome girls. That little alcove yielded me regular harvests of pleasure. I first met John Buchan there. Built my collections of G.A. Henty and Jeffrey Farnol. First puzzled over the Riddle of the Sands
, encountered Dornford Yates, met Bulldog Drummond, was introduced to the Saint.
Most readers of my generation (I’m forty-seven) will be puzzled by those names. No doubt others of my generation will have read John Buchan and will faintly remember Roger Moore’s only slightly embarrassing turn as the Saint. But Dornford Yates? Bulldog Drummond? GA Henty, for heaven’s sake?
There are only two ways to know those authors as I knew them. Either your birth date needs to fall in the early years of the twentieth century or you need to have grown up a short distance from Hay-on-Wye. The names that fed my childhood imagination have mostly (and mostly rightly) been consigned to the remainder bin of literary history. Bulldog Drummond, the creation of H.C. McNeile, was a thuggish, anti-semitic racist. Dornford Yates was kind of fun, perhaps, but he offered the sort of fun which revolved around British toffs in Rolls-Royces bashing comical little Frenchmen and ridiculous (but dangerous) Germans. Yates’s English women were always lovely, but got captured a lot, which would, I think, rather tend to offset their loveliness.
As for Henty – and I have probably read more books by him than by any other author ever – his work is desperately old-fashioned. The Young Carthiginian, The Lion of St Mark, The Bravest of the Brave
. No corner of history went unplundered. No book went unsubtitled. (True to the Old Flag: A Tale of the American War of Independence.
) His heroes were generally youngsters on the brink between boy and man. Enemies were perfidious and if they got slain, often in vast numbers, that was, beyond question, a thoroughly good thing. He supported the ‘aristocratic’ Confederates (With Lee in Virginia)
and was passionately hostile to the (insufficiently aristocratic) forces of the French Revolution. I’ve no idea what long-term effect those commitments have had on my political thought – perhaps none – but I’ve learned, disconcertingly, that Henty has enjoyed something of a revival among American home-schoolers. Odder literary renaissances have happened, perhaps, but not many.
But I didn’t read Henty for his politics; I loved the adventure, the old-fashioned pluck. There was a character in Farnol (a village blacksmith, an honest soul) who encountered an uppity nobleman on horseback. The uppity nobleman demanded that the blacksmith ‘drop your hammer and hold my horse.’ ‘Certainly, sir,’ the good blacksmith replies, ‘if you will drop your horse and hold my hammer.’ I loved that stuff. The truth is, I probably love the same sort of thing now, albeit that I demand a slightly more sophisticated packaging. I read all of Hornblower, and Arthur Ransome, and Sherlock Holmes, and Susan Cooper. Lots of Dorothy L Sayers, a splash or two of Agatha Christie, dollops of GK Chesterton and Rider Haggard and the non-Holmes Conan Doyle. Sci-fi too. Jules Verne, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. Le Guin (oh, the wonderful strangeness of that name! That ‘K’!)
Time passed. The classics beckoned. My first real, proper, literary crush was with Becky Sharp in Vanity Fair
, Becky and her still-adorable green eyes. I gobbled up Dickens and Jane Austen and George Eliot and the better Brontes. I remember where I was when I first read a lot of the really greatest fiction. The Great Gatsby
: on a train from London to Abergavenny. Middlemarch
: read in three days, while hopelessly sick in a Kathmandu guesthouse. The Age of Innocence
: travelling on third class carriages on the Indian Railways. War & Peace
and Wuthering Heights
: I read both books during my lunch breaks while working for the National Iranian Oil Company. (For real: my first paid job was at NIOC’s procurement arm in London It was mostly an ordinary, painfully dull, office job. Not so ordinary: the giant posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini in the men’s room.)
And throughout it all, I devoured books. I loved them. I was going to be a writer.
A writer who, however, first needed to make a couple of detours. The first detour was Oxford University, where I learned to write long sentences, replete with qualifiers and anything else which could get in the way of good, plain meaning.
Then since Writer didn’t seem like a job that came with a pay cheque attached, I drifted into banking. I spent ten years or so in investment banking, mostly working in Mergers and Acquisitions at JP Morgan in London. There, I learned to remove all colour and meaning from my prose, and how to pepper my language with words like strategy
. I was still going to be a writer, of course, it’s just that other things had to happen first.
And one important thing did happen in that first decade of my working life. I got an idea for a story. The idea was jewel-like in its simplicity. A rich man – very rich – would die, leaving three sons, whom he despised for being lazy and without ambition. So his will, rather than simply dividing up the money in equal thirds, would set them a test. The first son to make a million pounds – by himself, without the assistance or support of the others – would scoop the entire jackpot. If, after three years, none of the brothers had achieved that feat, all the money, every penny of it, would go to charity.
The three brothers would be reluctant to take on the challenge, but they’d do it anyway. One would set himself up in business, buying an ailing furniture factory and seeking to turn it around. The second and third would become investment bankers: one a currency trader, the other a Mergers & Acquisitions guy, like myself.
I didn’t know the details of the plot. Still less had I thought hard about prose style or characterisation or how to handle multiple points of view, or any of the other technicalities that can overwhelm wannabe writers. I just had my idea and allowed myself to fool around with it. It hadn’t really occurred to me that writing might be hard, or that I might fail. I just knew this was what I was going to do.
I didn’t pressure myself with deadlines or word count targets. I didn’t care. I liked banking, but knew that one day I’d quit. When I did, I’d write that novel. There wasn’t a rush.
As it happened, however, that day came wickedly soon. My wife, Nuala, and I were on holiday in Spain, when she started to feel ill. First it just looked like a bad flu. Then flu with conjunctivitis. Then those things, plus a weird brain illness that interfered with her vision and her speech and which was getting worse, hour by hour it seemed.
We flew home.
We saw doctors, of course, not that they were of much use. We received a varying set of diagnoses, but the common thread was that Nuala was suffering a major neuro-immune collapse brought about (most likely) by a type of enterovirus, a family whose most famous member brought about the polio epidemics of the mid-twentieth century.
For a while, we fought the obvious. I went back to work and we brought in care assistants to look after Nuala in the day. The carers were nice, but they weren’t me. There were times when Nuala couldn’t speak intelligible English. Other times when she could find words, but spoke them the way a Russian might, if his entire knowledge of English sprang from a small pocket dictionary. So, for example, if Nuala wanted to say, ‘Can you pass me the glass of water, please?’ she was quite likely to say something like, ‘Water drinking machine, yes.’ Her first language, the language of her pre-school years and subsequent holidays, was German and when English failed, German sometimes came to the rescue. (Or sort of rescue. ‘Keks’
, she used to demand, meaning biscuits. I used to tell her, patiently, that we didn’t have any cakes, but would she mind a biscuit, instead? ‘Keks
’, she would say again, with insistence. We must have had that dialogue dozens of times all told. I never learned.) She couldn’t handle light at all, and lay most of the time in a darkened room. When she wanted a bath, I had to lift her into it. She lost weight, went pale as the moon.
When it became clear that the illness wasn’t going to lift any time soon, I handed in my notice and left banking for ever. [Story continues here]The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US on January 29, 2015. If you'd like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.
If you're British, the book's already out and you can get it here
[This post first appeared on my Writers' Workshop site here.
The plan was a good one.
: sell the Fiona Griffiths series to the biggest publisher in the US.
Step 2: get great reviews.
Step 3: let the biggest publisher in the US do the rest.
And the plan was kind of going OK. Step one - yep, check: Penguin Random House bought the first two books in the series. They published them beautifully, both as e-books and in print.
Step two - yep, we were good there too: the reviews, from critics and readers alike, have been great.
Unfortunately, though, for reasons I still don't really understand, PRH didn't want to continue and my nice little plan crashed and burned. Mostly I think they couldn't figure out how to make $27 hardbacks work in a market which is flooded by $4.99 ebooks . . . and they weren't happy to take the obvious step of ditching the product that people didn't want and maximising sales of the one they did.
Anyway. Things didn't work out. PRH were great while I worked with them, but they didn't want to continue with our existing relationship and I sure as heck didn't want my lovely American readers to go without their fix of small, somewhat crazy Welsh detectives.
So I'm going solo. The third book in the series is The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths and it's coming out on January 29, 2015. If you want to pre-order it from Amazon, you can do so here. It'll be out on iTunes and B&N and everywhere else at the same time. If you prefer to read in print (which I do) then I'm making a $15 print edition available too, (only via Amazon, I'm sorry to say -- getting wider distribution proved too complicated for various reasons.)
The book already has some great reader reviews - mostly from US readers who loved the series so much, they had the third book shipped out from the UK. Needless to say, I adore feedback from all my readers - positive, yes, but the negative stuff too - and I'm really thrilled this book seems to be hitting the right buttons.
Oh yes, and a word about the cover image for this new edition. The cover comes from a really talented Romanian designer, who wanted to say "Dead" and "Strange" and "Wales" all in one simple image. So: a tree seen from a "corpse eye view" through a pane of rainy glass. It's a love-it-or-loathe-it cover, but I personally love it. I hope you do too.
I can't wait for you to read that book - and don't forget to let me know what you think of it!
Some books are about plot, others about place or mood, others about beautiful writing. Talking to the Dead
has its share of all those things (I hope), but the book has only one star and that’s its heroine, Fiona Griffiths.
The book had an odd pre-history for me. I wrote the first draft of the book at tremendous speed. Not quite two months, perhaps, but certainly less than three. But the book had been in preparation for maybe two years: the central (first-person) character gathering slowly like mist thickening on a November road.
The initial elements of character were pretty easy to come up with. I’d have my character be young, be female, be Welsh, be hellishly smart (Cambridge degree, philosophy). Because I didn’t want her to be like every other detective, I’d have her non-smoking, teetotal and with close and important family relationships.
But that’s a ticklist, not a character. It’s a list of characteristics that feels rather like one of those Photofit images: a practical way to disassemble a human being into a list of features, but not really alive. The difference between a Photofit and a Rembrandt portrait – well, it’s everything, isn’t it?
I knew other things too. I knew I wanted her intense. Difficult. Dangerous. Unpredictable. I wanted her odd
. But that’s so easy to say, and I didn’t want those things to feel stuck on from the outside. If, for example, you’re currently watching Homeland
– I am and I think it’s great – you’ll know that the Claire Danes character theoretically has a mood disorder. So she takes some pills now and again. Sometimes she shouts too much. Sometimes she works hard. But the whole nutcase strand seems a bit of an afterthought. Indeed, I’m not even sure that they’re remembering to keep the pills thread alive. The mood disorder, in the end, isn’t that central to the character.
So I knew what I wanted in principle, but didn’t have the essential element from which all those things would naturally emerge. I probably mused on that problem for a year or so, slowly getting closer to an understanding of my character, but still missing the key.
And then – well, I got the key. I can’t tell you what it is, because Talking to the Dead
revolves as much around the mystery of the character (Fiona Griffiths) as it does around the crime she’s investigating. But oh my gosh, what a key! The thing at the heart of Fiona’s make-up is perfectly based in fact. Real people have this thing – indeed, my wife once treated one of them. And it’s not just a startling condition to have. It’s so perfectly shaped for a crime novel – with its mysteries, its preoccupation with life and death, its darkness – that I felt bewildered that no one else had used the device before me.
The Fiona that emerged from all this is the most dramatic character I’ve ever written. Dramatic not just because of the situations she finds herself in, but because of who she is. She’ll act in ways that are utterly unpredictable to the reader (or, often, the writer), but ones which emerge from her very essence. Her language too is different from my own. In terms of prose, Talking to the Dead
is quite different from anything else I’ve written. Tougher, sharper, odder, more modern.
After a bit of fooling around on the shoreline, I took the plunge, began to write the novel – and it flowed out of me with an intensity and drama I’ve never previously experienced. The character herself no longer felt like something designed by me. She felt – or feels – like a real human being, but a human of exceptional intensity and force. Perhaps it’s partly that I’m writing her in the first person, but she doesn’t really seem outside me. I can witness scenes through my eyes or through hers. (And hers usually offer the more interesting view.)
And Fiona’s also given me the one thing I’m sure of with Talking to the Dead
. People may or may not like the book. They may or may not warm to the voice. They may be caught up in the nested mysteries, or they may not. But no one, I think, will read the book and be unpersuaded by the voice. Which makes sense. In the end, I didn’t create Fiona, she just adopted me – and she’s welcome to stay as long as she likes. You can read more about her here
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My path into TALKING TO THE DEAD
was a curious one. I was approached by a well-known figure who was contemplating working with a ghostwriter on a crime thriller. I hadn’t read any crime for a long time, but was intrigued by the project. So I went out and bought about two dozen crime novels, then read them back-to-back over about two weeks. I don’t remember all the authors I read then, but the list certainly included:
- Val McDermid
- Linda LaPlante
- Colin Dexter
- Minette Walters
- Nicci French
- Mark Billingham
- Ian Rankin
- RJ Ellory
- Barbara Vine
From America, I read:
- Robert Crais
- Harlan Coben
- Linwood Barclay
- Michael Connelly
- George Pelecanos
- Carl Hiaasen
- Sarah Paretsky
- Patricia Cornwell
- Kathy Reichs
- Elmore Leonard
I also read a bit of crime fiction in translation, though not at that stage Stieg Larsson.
Having done my reading, I started to think through what I’d read. Everything involved a crime and some kind of investigation, but that still left a million possible variations. Was the protagonist a cop or not? Was the tale first person or third? One viewpoint or many? Was romance a significant element? What about humour? How about forensic science? Morality? Was the book elegantly written or potboilerish? Was it more thriller or more crossword-puzzle style mystery? How violent?
Because I’m built that way, I created a spreadsheet and analysed my results. The spreadsheet didn’t spit out a Formula For Writing Bestsellers – and I didn’t want it to. But the exercise did help me understand what I wanted to write, and the directions I thought the Well Known Figure would be well advised to travel in. As it happened, that ghostwriting assignment never happened (or not with me anyway), so I was left with a headful of ideas and no obvious outlet for them.
Though I hadn’t previously been a crime-buff, I couldn’t get these ideas out of my head. After all, the crime tale is just a format around which to tell a story. The genre doesn’t need to be limiting – or at least, no more limiting to the artist than the sonnet-form or the iambic pentameter. And in among the stuff I read, there were some really, really good books. Some of them were inspirational in fact.
The kind of book I realised I
wanted to write needed a really strong central character. A character so vibrant, so intense and mysterious, that the books would be as much about her as about the crimes themselves. (Oh, and why her
? Well, I’ll talk about that in a later post, but my detective was a woman from the very first.)
Other questions soon answered themselves too:
- I wanted to avoid a crude moral approach, where every killer must be a sick bastard and where cops spend their time telling each other ‘Let’s put the sick bastard away.’
- I wanted my novels to be dark, but for that darkness to come from mood and tone, not a splatter of gore.
- I wanted my books to have a warm human heart: I wanted my central character to have some sustained, close, loving relationships – not merely be the compulsory heavy drinking loner.
- Oh, and I also decided that my detective would kick against the stereotypes. Instead of being a middle-aged, male, single, boozer, I’d have her young, female, keen to enter a relationship and a non-smoking teetotaller.
- I wanted my book to have a strong sense of place and to say something about the wider society.
- I wanted my book to be a proper crime novel: fully inhabiting its genre, unafraid to participate fully in its rules and conventions.
Some of these things reacted against
things I came across in my survey of the market – I just got fed up with all those maverick middle-aged cops, the hordes of serial killers with quirkily coded ways of dispatching their victims. Other elements of what I wanted to write picked up on things I found exciting. For example, once I’d encountered the atmospheric writing of Henning Mankell, RJ Ellory and Carl Hiaasen (to name three wildly different writers), I didn’t want my book to be any less placed
And I think, in a way, my experience answers that age-old question: do you write for the market or do you write the book you’re passionate about? And the answer is: Both! You have to do both! If you aren’t passionate, you’ll write a rubbish book. If you don’t have a feel for contemporary writers in your area, you’ll be missing the argument. Oh - and now that I've started reading crime again, I haven't stopped. It's where the juice is!