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.]
Time to conclude.

You’ll have your own views, thoughts and reflections, but here are some of mine - split over two blog posts, because otherwise this post would be cumbersomely long.

Cheating authors is bad
Let’s start with the obvious. HarperCollins should not have acquired a novel from me on the basis of (a) an advance and (b) an undertaking as to future marketing support, if they had no firm intention of delivering (b). That’s not commerce; it’s theft. I don’t mean that their behaviour falls under some legal definition of theft, but that it is its moral equivalent. It’s cheating. It’s fraud. It’s totally wrong.

The same thing when Fourth Estate asked me to write one book, allowed me to spend three long months writing it, then changed their mind without offering compensation for my wasted time. They would never treat their employees like that. What on earth makes them believe it’s OK to treat their authors that way? It’s not OK. It’s like theft, except they didn’t even end up with anything worth having. Dumb theft.

In the first case - the marketing commitments that weren't - I should be clear that all big British publishers used to do the same thing. They realised the practice was inappropriate and they stopped doing it. So some credit to them for that.

In the second instance: well, the issue is more tricky. Fourth Estate is, as I hope I've said, a very good imprint, a leader in its niche. So the fact that their attention to an author was sometimes shoddy should really just remind us that publishers, too often, forget to think hard enough about the author's interests, the author's issues, the author's financial position . . . an issue big enough that it deserves a header of its own.

Publishing is a competitive industry . . . except where it comes to authorial talent
If I'm right that most big publishers are sometimes guilty of neglecting to think about their authors' legitimate interests, one has to ask why. Here are three possible explanations, each of which has some merit:

  • the conglomerate publishers went through a long period of rationalising and industrialising various back-office and retail-facing functions, and consequently lost focus on the author-facing side of things
  • editors have come under more pressure, so their relationships with authors simply aren't what they were. There just isn't the time in the day - and competitive pressures mean those good old days will never return. (Also, of course, the good old days were flawed in their way, maybe more flawed.)
  • Publishers have a relentless focus on the book, the product in hand. That's good in some ways, but has its downsides.
I think most publishers would agree, to a greater or lesser extent, with all those three propositions. Yet I think those explanations miss the central issue, which is this.

Publishers are used to plenty of competitive pressure and they're flexible and committed in responding. So, for example, the industry has adjusted to the rise of Amazon, the growth of ebooks, the importance of social media and very much else. But publishers are NOT used to the idea that authors themselves can be a source of competitive pressure. There just isn't much authorial churn (that is, authors leaving one publisher for another). Most authorial careers are short, but those that endure tend to join an author to one, or at most two, publishers for a very long time. When John Le Carre upped sticks and left Hodder for Penguin, it made national news exactly because those things are rare and not routine: not part of the ordinary cycle of the book trade.

But why not? Why shouldn't publishers poach authors the way football clubs poach strikers? Isn't that the nature of competition? Why should it be considered 'disreputable' for agents to compete against each other for a particular author? Why did the Association for Authors Agents for a long time prohibit its members from just such competition? (A prohibition which, by the way, was almost certainly illegal.)

And although that kind of hustle is considered rather ungentlemanly in the industry - Andrew Wylie, who does compete, is nicknamed the Jackal - it's important to note that the lack of competition benefits publishers not authors. Competition for a commodity in limited supply increases the price of that commodity. Which would be nice, if you happen to be the commodity in question.

In summary then, publishers aren't used to competing for authors (except around the auction of debut books, where competition can certainly be fierce.) In consequence, publishers' thought and attention tends to be on all those other good things - retailers, marketing channels, &c &c - where publishers are notably flexible, innovative and competitive. But that means once an author is signed to a firm, he or she can feel somewhat taken for granted. Most authors aren't represented by Wylie-style agents. Very few big publishers will actively seek to poach another's authors. If that's not a recipe for neglect, I don't know what is.

Publishing is not the same as printing
Bloomsbury was, I think, taken aback by my failure to appreciate its services. Their team printed up my book, made it available on Amazon, and (usually) handed it out to any booksellers who asked for it. The book sold whatever it sold and the firm handed me my stipulated royalties. What issue could I possibly have?

Yet any self-publishing company in the world can print a book and stick it on Amazon. There are some loathsome, dishonest, vanity-type presses that seek to inveigle authors into paying far more for those services than they should. But there are other companies that do an honest job, for an honest fee – and leave the author space to earn 100% of all ebook royalties (not 25%) and 100% of all print revenues, after production and other associated costs have been taken into account. Bloomsbury provided me with a service that delivered little more than that kind of self-publishing would have brought – yet they helped themselves to most of the money that my book created. When I raised legitimate concerns about their marketing performance, they didn’t even have the basic courtesy to respond. They didn’t alter our financial arrangements by a single penny. They have never meaningfully discussed the matter with me.

It’s not theft, that kind of behaviour, but it seems to me analogous to those dodgy double-glazing companies which pressure grannies into spending too much money on a whole set of new windows, when all that was really necessary was a little bit of draught-proofing. It may not be theft, but it’s a crummy way to make a buck.

There are some fabulous publishers who had a ton of value to their authors
It’s obvious, I hope, that Orion is one of the good guys in this story. Thanks to their anchoring role and constant support, I have:

  • A book which is sold in hardback, paperback and ebook right across Britain and Ireland
  • The committed support of Waterstones, Britain’s flagship bookseller
  • The committed support of numerous other retailers, for example David Headley's excellent Goldsboro Books.
  • Foreign language book sales across Europe and beyond
  • That Random House book deal
  • All those lovely American reviews
  • All those lovely British ones too
  • A guaranteed income for this year and the two years thereafter (that is: spanning my current book deal with them.)
  • An expectation of continuing support even after that
  • Wonderful editorial acumen
  • And everything else. A whole team of people whom I like and respect and work very happily alongside. They’ve got my back and that’s a wonderful feeling.
Bantam’s role in this story feels a little more ambiguous because of its curious ending, but put all that to one side. The fact is that they acquired a strange and quirky book from an unknown writer, put some real weight behind it, produced beautiful books, sold them as hard as they could, and lent their weight and authority to a publicity campaign which resulted in terrific review coverage – coverage which would go on to ignite something similar in Britain.

And if that publication process failed (in print terms, that is) – well, so be it. Marketing books is hard. You can publish energetically and intelligently and well, and still fail. That’s just the way it is. The folks I engaged with at Random House are still on the side of angels. A single failure doesn’t signify. And by the same token, I should also be clear that though my career with HarperCollins never flourished, that doesn’t make them a terrible publisher. Failure is more common than success in this game, and HarperCollins score their full share of successes. They’re excellent publishers too.

I could go on. My Dutch publisher is awesome. My French publisher is wonderfully ambitious. I just don’t know enough about what’s happening in other territories to comment, but the idea put about by the angrier end of the indie publishing scene that publishers are only there to suck the blood from authors is simply nonsense. There are good publishers and there are bad ones – or, perhaps more accurately, good and parts to most publishing firms – but the good ’uns can be very good indeed. Career-altering. The air-ambulance that sweeps you up to Stieg Larsson Heaven. If you want to know why so many authors stick with their traditional publishers, the answer is simple: because there are some damn good publishers out there. And all power to them; they're great.

The same, by the way, goes for agents. There are good agents and, erm, agents, but my own team at AM Heath and Inkwell has been phenomenal. Intelligent, wise, committed, diligent and on my side. Again, the suggestion which is sometimes made that agents cannot perform properly for authors because they are conflicted, is simply not true. Some agents, no doubt, perform poorly for their authors. The best ones are solid gold.

Authors have options
For a long time, the anxiety in publishing was that e-books would cause the collapse of bookstores, which would in turn cause the collapse of publishing itself. That concern was hardly fantastical. Barnes and Noble has made a net loss in each of the three financial years ending May 2014. Waterstones (now under excellent management, by the way) has yet to report its first year of solid profits and will need to string two or three good years together before it can be considered off the 'at-risk' list.

But maybe bookstores isn't where the lethal blow will fall. What if authors simply get fed up with publishers and choose to walk away? My parting with Bantam Dell has as much to do with their choices as mine, but supposing more authors started to think, ‘You know what? To hell with this. I’ll collect 100% of royalties from ebooks and simply forget about print.’

I mentioned earlier that the market for adult fiction in America was split into broad thirds: hardback, paperback, ebook. At the moment, authors are collecting perhaps 10% of those hardback revenues, perhaps 6% of the paperback revenues, and around 17% of the ebook revenues. (These are percentages of the entire retail dollar in each case; the author gets 25% of the net receipts from ebooks, but Amazon, Apple and the others all take their share first.) If authors collectively ditched print publishing altogether, they’d lose 10% of the hardback dollar, 6% of the paperback dollar, but gain about 50% of the ebook dollar. In this thought experiment, authors as a whole don’t need print; they’d do better on their own.

Now, let me be clear, that’s a thought experiment I don’t take too seriously. Print matters, and I personally far prefer a book-book to anything I read on screen. There are genres – notably literary fiction – where print still dominates. And new technology seldom destroys its predecessors. The novel did not kill stage plays. Television did not kill radio. The download has not killed the CD. What’s more, the authority of print is likely to continue for a long time to come. Newspapers will still prefer to review books that come to them via publishers. The word of mouth effect that can be generated by book-buyers browsing in bookshops is different from, and at least as important as, the effect that happens through blogs, Twitter, Goodreads and the rest. And, indeed, the successes of the indie scene all congregate in the genre end of the market (crime thrillers, romance, sci-fi and fantasy, plus the whole world of teen and New Adult fiction.) We have yet to see the first major literary writer emerge entirely via indie publishing.

But still, publishing is entering a new era. One in which bookshops are fighting for their lives and where authors can choose to do without a publisher if they feel like it. In the old days, there wasn’t even a meaningful argument to be had about whether publishers added value. If you wanted to sell your book at all, you had to have a publisher. Add value? They gave you life.

These days, it’s all not so clear. My ability to launch my work on electronic platforms is almost exactly equal to Penguin Random House’s, the world’s biggest trade publisher. They can’t access more e-retailers than I can. They can’t reach more countries.

Which means that – in ebooks, not in print – the question of access is no longer important. What matters is value added, and authors are perfectly justified in asking exactly what they are getting in exchange for a given royalty split. If publishers don’t have a convincing answer to that question, they will simply be bypassed. In the world of the ebook, ‘publish’ doesn’t have to signify an industry. On Amazon Kindle, it’s a button.

I spoke a little earlier in this post about the industry's reluctance to compete for authors (outside those crucial initial auctions.) We authors can't change that and, more than fifteen years into my writing career, I see no real sign of it changing.

But Amazon and ebooks are - for genre authors at least - a potential game changer. We no longer have to accept the deal we're given: the financial terms, the contractual ones, all the other things, good and bad, that these posts have talked about at some length. If we don't like what we're being offered, we do have an alternative. That's a good thing. A really good thing. It doesn't mean that we'll just walk away from publishing, but it does mean that publishers face a new competitive front to which they will have to adjust. They'll do it, I'm sure, but the path from here to there will be a hellishly interesting one.
[This series concludes in three days' time. Thank you for staying with me so long!]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. 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.

"An exceptional piece of work . . . Fiona's narrative sears the page."-- Kirkus Reviews

 


[<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
Fiona Griffiths may never again be published by Bantam Dell, but that’s not to say that her American adventures are over. Indeed, in a way, they’re only starting. Because the ebook revolution has placed a strange new power in the hands of authors: the power to cut out publishers altogether.

Which is precisely what I’m now doing. At the end of last month, on January 29, 2015, I self-published my first proper novel. It's not quite a true first for me - I've released some of my backlist via Amazon, iTunes and the rest - but this is the first 'frontlist' book of mine I've ever launched without a publisher.

That doesn't mean I'll be 100% indie - on the contrary, I'll be a true hybrid. In the UK, Orion have simply been too good for me to want to make any changes. With a little luck, Fiona Griffiths & I will see out our careers in the embrace of that same fine firm. And, of course, my overeas sales have been achieved thanks to the risk-taking and conviction of a host of foreign publishers. I'm deeply indebted to each and every one of those guys: it's always a big bet taking on a new, overseas author. Kudos to the people who do it.

But at the same time, I relish the thought of self-publishing. Love the adventure, the control, the sense of purpose - and, in the rest of this post, I want to talk a little about how I see this American adventure of mine.

So far, I've been very pleasantly surprised by how cheap and easy the whole exercise has been. The production and distribution of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in North America has cost me something like this:

Editorial input $0: I get this from Orion already

Copyediting $0: I got a copyedited manuscript from Orion, and I’ve Americanised – no, Americanized – the spellings myself. The result won’t quite be Bantam-quality, but it’ll be easily good enough for 99% of readers.

Cover design $700
: Again, it’s possible to pay more than this or less than this, but seven hundred bucks bought me a choice of (literally) hundreds of designs from dozens of designers. The final shortlist of 8 or so covers included some very strong, very marketable designs. I’m very happy with the final version.

Ebook conversion $100
: If I’d wanted to save money, I’d have done this myself. It’s not hard, just boring.

Distribution via every online bookseller in North America $200:
Prices vary. I’ve uploaded the book to Amazon myself, but have paid someone to reach the various other vendors. I could reach a worldwide audience for the same price, except that I’m restricted by my contract with Orion. Note that I pay a fixed annual fee for the distribution service and a 0% share of royalties.

Page layout for a POD (print) version of the book, sold via Amazon / Createspace: $200 The layout isn’t quite Big Publisher standard, but the text itself looks a million dollars and the book – a big, generously margined trade paperback – is handsome and well-produced.

TOTAL (approx) $1200

All this doesn’t quite get me a Bantam-quality publication, but it’s worth noting where the process is and is not deficient. In terms of cover design, my experience has consistently been that where I’ve believed a cover to be bad, it has been bad. No one knows a book like its author, nor does anyone else care as much.

My approach to cover design was to set out a brief, then throw it open to multiple designers. The cover I chose (above) is edgy, surprising and eye-catching - and it works very well on a thumbnail view, which is how most people will first encounter it on the Amazon/iTunes/B&N sites.

True, the cover is such that plenty of people really won't like it, but I'd always much rather have something that arouses strong passions in both directions than something which is too bland, too safe. I think the image I finally selected is just excellent - and I'm pretty sure that at least 6 or 7 times out of 10, my way of creating a cover will produce better designs than I've generally had from my publishers in the past. That's not because my best designs will be better than their best , but because I'll be sure of avoiding anything weak, or poorly targeted, or too bland, or just plain rubbish.

Likewise, have you noticed how often ebooks are laid out in a dumb way? Because they’re produced by a culture that still reveres print, they often bow to the gods of that realm. But when a reader uses the ‘Search Inside’ feature on Amazon or a similar website, what they want is (a) a short description of the novel, (b) perhaps a short bio of the author, and (c) some actual text. That’s how my ebooks will be laid out. They’ll put the meat right there on the platter. Publishers’ ebooks are seldom laid out that way. You get those tiresome wads of copyright notices, blank pages, title pages, dedication pages. All good things, but they don’t need to sit upfront. In a print book, yes, they look nice and appropriate. In an ebook, they should go hang out somewhere else.

In editorial terms, I accept that my position is a little different from most would-be authors, in that I already have an exceptional editor at Orion. But suppose I didn’t have that. I run an editorial company, so I know as well as anyone that £500 / $800 would buy Big Publisher quality editorial input. (I know it’s Big Publisher quality because plenty of our editors have come to us from the industry. If we wanted more such editors, we could retain them with ease.) My books don’t usually need extensive editorial rehab, but if they did, I could spend more as needed. I could go on working till the job was done. One of my past editors told me that her other work commitments left her with about a day and a half for editorial work on each manuscript she handled. The simple truth is that, these days, most editors don’t do much editing: they're too busy with other things.

As for copyediting – phooey. Books need copyediting, but it’s an easily buyable resource. Most big publishers outsource this activity in any case. Bantam’s standards were particularly excellent and that delighted me, because I’m the sort of person who cares about those minutiae. Most people don’t. If it really matters to you, $2000 will give you an excellent manuscript. Half that money would give you a good one.

As for ebook conversion and distribution – double phooey. You pay a few bucks and get a service no better and no worse than any regular publisher has access to. Sure, publishers would love you to believe that there are secrets in the construction of Amazon metadata that only they have access to, but that’s nonsense. I saw a book on Amazon recently – a book launched by an excellent publisher, and authored by someone who was herself a very experienced and capable editor at a good house – where the book description did not, in fact, contain any description of the book. Nor did the ‘search inside’ feature extend to the back flap or any material which actually told you what lay inside. So here’s one secret of metadata: the book description needs to describe the damn book.

So much for mechanics. There are still some ways - some big, important ways - in which Big Publishing has a powerful advantage over the individual.

Publishers Weekly and Kirkus and all those other publications took my work seriously because I was not a self-pub author; I had the authority and prestige of Random House behind me, and also the authority and prestige of print. Will those publications still want to review my work if I have neither publisher nor hard copy to offer them? Well, actually, the answer is yes, maybe. Both those periodicals have deals whereby indie authors can get a review from a PW/Kirkus editor. (It’s free with PW and costs about $400 with Kirkus: a sum I was happy to invest.)

Obviously, indie authors can’t assure themselves of a good review, merely an honest one, and any decisions about what will appear in the print editition of those magazines is down to the magazine’s own editorial judgement – but, yes, indie authors can, in principle, secure reviews. Whether other newspapers – the NY Times, the Boston Globe, the Seattle Times and the rest – will choose to review independently published books by an author (and in a series) they once liked, I have yet to see. But, for sure, it would be an easier ride if I had Random House behind me.

The big firms have other advantages too. Amazon has a ‘Vine Program’ which places advance copies of books in the hands of some of the firm’s most trusted reviewers, so that by the time a book is actually launched, there are already some intelligent and thoughtful reviews available for readers.

Publishers also - and this is a biggie - have access to various online promotional schemes that simply aren't available to the hoi polloi. You can get access to them, or some of them, through the Amazon White Glove program, but that program requires Amazonian exclusivity, which makes no sense in the US market. So yes, publishers have an advantage here that we can't mimic. That's a mighty big one too.

And then too, publishers are big firms with big resources. They'll have road-tested numerous ways of enhancing digital uptake. Does advertising on Facebook work? Are there other sites where advertising enjoys a significant return on investment? Just exactly what are the long term benefits of short term price cuts? Which bloggers actually influence sales? And so on. Some of these things can be teased out by individual writers, and the indie publishing world is superb at energetically disseminating the lessons learned, but still. We start from scratch. Publishers have a long head start and a pool of data we'll never match.

On the other hand, individual authors have their own strengths, and they are mighty.

First and foremost is the sweet ability to cut prices. Books sell more copies at $3 than they will at $6 or $8. Aside from temporary price promotions, Big Publishing simply can’t afford to permit prices to fall to those kind of levels: their business model implodes if they do. But authors can, and why not? Our business model doesn’t implode, it blossoms. Blossoms and fruits. Because publishers currently take 75% of net receipts from ebooks, authors can halve the price of their works and still double their royalties. What’s more, as Wool author Hugh Howey has noted, readers prefer cheap books. That is: they rate them more highly. If you eat a somewhat similar meal at $10 and at $40, you’ll rate the first one better, simply because it outperformed your lowly expectations. Perhaps it’s not the greatest compliment in the world for an author to be told that his book was ‘good for $3’, but if it brings better ratings, greater sales and double the per-book royalty? I’ll take those dodgy compliments with a smile.

That’s not all.

Publishers have evolved as corporations selling to corporations. Success in that game relied on good logistics, careful price negotations, strong regional sales teams, and so forth. Communications felt corporate, because they were designed to be. Because they had to be.

The ebook revolution makes it easy for authors to sell books direct to readers – and not just sell to them, but talk to them. Scattered through these blog posts, you will find short messages from me that invite you to sign up to my mailing list. If you are good enough to sign up, you will get a short email from me whenever one of my books is due to be published. The email will come straight from my laptop to yours. I’ll write it as I’d write anything else: human to human, from me to you. You may or may not want such a message, but I’d bet fifty bucks that you certainly wouldn’t want the message if it came to you from a corporate communications department. Who’d want that? (And indeed, if you’d like to hear from me when I’m releasing a new book, please just sign up here if you’re British or Irish or here if you’re American/Canadian. The process will takes a few seconds and it will make you happy.)

The same thing with tweets and blogs and all that malarkey. It’s unclear, I think, how much that kind of thing really boosts sales, but if it does, then authors are way better positioned to reap the rewards. Different things will work for different books, different audiences, and different authors, but it’s hard to think of a single instance when the author does not hold the advantage over the publisher, simply because people want to connect to people, to an author not a PR department.

That flexibility of communication extends far beyond social media. These little series of blog posts is an example. Put aside the subject matter for a moment, no publisher could ever ask an author to write more than 30,000 words in online sales material - the author would feel, rightly, that he or she was doing most of the work involved in promotion, while the publisher was scooping most of the rewards. Yet when the work and the rewards are aligned, authors can be flexible, creative and committed in finding those extra routes to public notice. These posts have taken me three weeks or so to write, prepare and upload. If they ignite book sales in North America, those weeks will prove to have been very well worthwhile. And if not - shucks, who cares? I enjoyed doing it, and I think I'm saying something of interest & value. Those simply aren't attitudes that could exist, that should exist, within a more corporate structure.

And since I'm talking self-promotion, please allow me to do just that. My Fiona Griffiths novels aren’t shoot-bang, all-action thrillers, but they are – if I’ve done my work right – dark, intense, properly written crime stories with a haunting, even touching, strangeness to them. Think Lisbeth Salander given a makeover by Tana French and Gillian Flynn. They’re like that, only Welsh- and you could go and buy Strange Death right now:

Buy on Amazon.com (US readers)

Buy on Amazon.co.uk (UK readers)

You're just five bucks away from happiness, so think hard and choose smart.

So – sales pitch concluded – let me simply note that e-publishing gives author a flexibility of approach that the old-style industry never did. We can experiment with short stories, novellas, free give-aways. We can fool around, see what works, then run with that. Even if regular publishers were to put their print preconceptions to one side, and invited 30,000 word novellas and the rest, the clanking machinery of the commissioning, contract & editorial process would be too cumbersome for either side to manage.

Finally, though publishers still dominate the ecosystem of regular print books, independent writers have some resources of their own. The indie publishing community has, with remarkable speed, created a network and an ecosystem all of its own. It has its leaders and its review sites. Its own bush-telegraph of ratings and approval. Those things can’t be crudely steered or manipulated, but nothing enduring is built any other way.

In my hands, Fiona Griffiths won’t be entering the American market alone. Though the shock and awe of Random House’s mighty forces will no longer be available to her, she’ll have something else on her side: a rag-tag army of indie authors, indie readers. That army may not look like much, but insurgent forces never do. They sometimes win, for all that.
[The story starts to wind up here.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. 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.

"An exceptional piece of work . . . Fiona's narrative sears the page."-- KIRKUS REVIEWS



[<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
You wanted a twist, and here it is.

Bantam Dell failed to sell Talking to the Dead in the United States. Or, to be precise, the novel sold perfectly all right as an ebook, but its hardback sales were poor and its paperback sales were hideous. Despite an ocean of positive commentary – those starred reviews, the prestigious Crime Book of the Year selections – the American debut of a British crime writer proved too tough a sell for the trade to handle. In terms of printed books, the book was a dud. A misfire. Another flop.

Only – and here’s where it gets confusing – who cares about print? Ebooks have a roughly one third share of the American fiction market, by value. Yet that one third figure conceals huge disparities. In crime fiction – where people read for fun, not to decorate their bookshelves – ebooks have a roughly 75% share of the market. But that’s the crime market as a whole, a market which includes such vastly well-known writers as Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Kathy Reichs and the rest. Book buyers wanting to splash $27 on a hardback are infinitely more likely to spend those dollars buying a known quantity than they are to acquire a darkly unsettling novel by a complete unknown. If I were an American book buyer, I certainly wouldn’t spend $27 on the first Harry Bingham. Probably not even the second. I’d buy the $7 ebook and wait for things to settle.

Since Talking to the Dead has notched up over $100,000 in ebook sales to date and (because the book will never go out of stock, the way it would in a bookstore) there’s no reason why it shouldn’t make plenty more in the future. Since my advance for the book was only $30,000 and since the production costs for an ebook are vastly smaller than they are for a printed one, you’d think it was simple to strike a somewhat different kind of publishing deal: one that starts out as ebook only, but which morphs into print as and when conditions permit.

Apparently not.

Here’s what happened. I sent Bantam Dell the first draft of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths – the third book in the series – in early June 2013. The book needed some tinkering. (It had a magnificently over-the-top ending, which I loved and everyone else said was silly.) But the book didn’t need that much work. In due course, I’d hack the ending back to a normal shape and size, and remove three or four thousand words elsewhere. And that, in terms of major changes, was that.

Orion loved the book and were very swift to sign up for a further three titles in the series. (Unlike Bantam Dell, they’d already purchased Strange Death.) And Bantam Dell? Nothing. We heard one or two somewhat confused, or confusing, editorial mutterings, then nothing. My wife and I had twins that summer (one boy, one girl, both healthy and both delightful), so my attention was not altogether focused on book deals. Still juggling babies, I finalised the manuscript with Orion and sent the final-final-final draft to New York. Still nothing.

Christmas drew on. The twins were hollering because of bad reflux, and still nothing.
Picture
The US cover - which is lovely
Then, we heard that Bantam were basically keen. Kate, my editor, was talking to her boss. They wanted to do something. If they could, they definitely wanted to do something . . .

Yet the long silence continued and, as it did, the first American reviews began to drop in for Love Story, with Murders. (Different publication schedules meant the US dates lay a long way behind the British ones.) And boom! Another starred review from Publishers Weekly. Bam! Another lovely review from Kirkus. Biff! A warm lead review in Marilyn Stasio’s hugely influential New York Times Review of Books crime column.

I was puzzled. What more could Bantam possibly want? I’d already received a royalty statement in September 2012, which told me that Talking to the Dead had earned out its advance at hardback stage. That’s a stonking performance: exactly what any publisher should love to see. And then they couldn’t have asked for better reviews. Plus there was very broad international support for the book. Plus a TV deal. Plus, as an author, I’ve always met deadlines, responded to input, said my pleases and thank yous.

There was clearly an issue, but what on earth could it be?

My agent in New York decided it would be a good idea to check our book sales. Actual sales of actual print books. (You’d think we’d have that anyway from Bantam, but no. The industry issues royalty statements at six month intervals and three months in arrears, so I will discover my Jul-Dec 2014 sales no earlier than March of this year - and quite likely later, because these things have to chug their way through two sets of agents and, not least, because the statement arrives with me in hard copy form, not electronic.) So we didn’t go via Bantam. My New York agent used Bookscan, a third party data source, and discovered that most of the hardbacks which had been ‘sold’ had actually been returned by booksellers. That the paperback performance had been even worse. Only the ebooks were immune from this sales devastation.
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The British cover - more roses, different treatment.
Bantam did, finally, say they’d be interested in proceeding, if I could write a non-Fiona Griffiths novel after #3 in the series. A new series, perhaps, or a standalone. Anything to reboot my profile.

But I’m done rebooting. Apart from anything else, I have a commitment to Orion for three more Fiona Griffiths books, and I’m not the kind of author who can pump out two half-decent crime novels in a year. I said as much.

Bantam and I were drifting apart.

I still couldn’t understand quite why. If the print market was moving against us, the ebook market was doing just fine. So why not establish ourselves electronically and revert to print when we were ready? It wasn’t that hard to figure, was it?

Indeed, I even came up with a proposal, which would have meant that Bantam stayed in the game without putting a single further penny into the pot by way of advance. Our initial two book deal gave Bantam a 75% share of the ebook revenues, but my deal with Orion meant there would be at least four more Fiona Griffiths books to follow. So why, I suggested, did Bantam not simply parlay their 75% share of two ebooks into a 25% share in six? They’d end up with the same overall investment. I’d give them a free option on print, whenever they judged the market to be ready. So we’d go on, in partnership, letting my little Welsh detective tilt at those American windmills for four books to come.

Again: initial interest, followed by silence. The interest came because I understand that Alibi, Random House’s e-only crime imprint, was excited about signing me up. But under my proposed arrangement, I’d have had 75% of ebook revenues on all six books and Alibi simply doesn’t countenance those kind of payouts. (Although, the way I saw it, these would have been my books and I’d have been paying out to Alibi – though that, probably, would have felt even worse as a template from their point of view.)
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The first version of the US cover - binned because another publisher used the same image.
Of course, I never thought they’d accept my offer as it stood. I assumed they’d come back to me with a counter-offer. Something along the lines of, ‘We want 75% royalties because that figure is sacred to us, but here’s how we’re going to add a ton of value to these books and we’re certain that you’ll be delighted to accept a relatively small share of a much, much bigger pie.’

They didn’t say that. They didn’t say anything.

The whole conversation sputtered out without ever really having started. By early February 2014, Bantam Dell and I knew we were terminating our relationship. It was eight months from when I had first sent them a draft of Strange Death, and in that time I never had any meaningful editorial feedback direct from them. No information about sales, except the data contractually required (ie: a September 2013 royalty statement dealing with the first half of that year.) No tangible proposal on an ebook partnership. No direct response to the proposal I’d put to them. No phone call, not even to return calls I’d made.

Bantam had in their hands an author who by every objective standard had met the editorial tests laid before him and they couldn’t find a way to continue the relationship. That wasn’t – not at all, not even in part – because they had been ineffective as publishers. They hadn’t. Both books had been very well and confidently published by people who really knew this territory (and, by the way, have an endless list of successes to prove it.) It was two things that separated us. The first was that the print market is shifting ever further from the market Bantam once knew. The second was that, in this new world, I had some real autonomy and wasn’t going to countenance a deal which didn’t recognise that.

Bantam and I liked each other. We respected each other. But we were not able to find a deal that could join us. The world is changing, and those changes have a long way still to run.
[The story continues in three days' time.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. 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 first born 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.

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.]
I left banking in 1998, pulled from the industry by my wife’s illness and the lure of story. My wife was now vastly recovered. The Writers’ Workshop (aside from a long, eighteen month stutter around following the 2008 recession) was prospering nicely. I’d already burned through more writing careers than seemed quite decent ... and yet, through it all, the lure of story remained. A pull too strong for this writer’s heart to resist.

In this case, it was not strictly story that drew me, but a character. The character is a young, twenty-something woman. Physically slight. A junior member of a regional police force. Very intelligent, as fictional detectives have to be, and with a strange affinity for corpses. Her name is Fiona Griffiths and she talks like this:

The cold is intense. It’s chilly enough inside the house, with the stove burning non-stop, but I venture outside a couple of times – simply to see and feel the diamond hardness of the night – and the cold has a physical presence I’ve read about but never previously experienced. It’s like the entire world is being tightened up. Waterfalls are being frozen into place, trees stiffened, the air clarified, the ground plated over with iron.

I like it. It’s easier to feel myself at times like this. In opposition to something, not just wading through Cardiff’s too-ordinary air.

When I get hungry, I eat Buzz’s biscuits. When I get hungry again, I cook the pasta and eat that.


She’s a tough cookie, even if her behaviour in tense situations isn't always exactly by-the-book:

I take a rifle and shotgun for Roy, a shotgun for me. Plenty of ammo. Trot downstairs and get Roy tooled up. He looks better that way: sitting up and with an armful of guns.

‘Fucking hell, Fi. You’re something else, you really are.’

That sentence seems logically weak to me, but I’m not going to quarrel. ‘I told Katie I’d get you out. So here I am: getting you out.’

‘Thank you very much. I appreciate it.’

‘DCI Jackson once told me that you’re not allowed to just shoot the fuckers. You have to say “Police” first. Then you can shoot them.’

‘OK. Good to know.’

[...] I realise we need some sort of parting gesture. Don’t know why, but it’s what the moment calls for.

I say, ‘Do men do fist-bumps? Or is that just an American thing?’

‘No, we could do that.’

We knock our fists together. His huge one. Dark tattoos circling his wrist. Tattoos and a manacle. My small fist. I’m still wearing Jessica’s bracelets and even though Roy hits me gently, I can still feel the power in that arm. I don’t know what he finds in mine.

That’s her voice, but she’s more than just a voice. My little Fiona is a woman of action, and she does things like this:

He goes from the bedroom to the bathroom. I hear the shower run.

I stand outside the bathroom door, where I’ll be concealed as it opens. There’s a tune in my head – Adele’s Chasing Pavements. I don’t know why. It’s all I can do to stop myself singing it.

The shower stops. A tap runs. Tooth brushing.

He seems to take a long time in the bathroom. Longer than me, I think, and I’m a girl. I’m half minded to go in there and tell him to get on with it, but I don’t have to. Hamish, finally, is ready for me. He steps, naked, out of the bathroom.

I allow myself a second – a half-second even – to be present in this moment. To enjoy the sensation of being alive, here and now, in a place I want to be.

It’s not an idle moment, though.

I study the side of Hamish’s skull. Somewhat above, and forward from, his ear. The pterion, is what doctors call it. It lies at the join of four bones. A major artery lies beneath. The skull wall is thinner there than anywhere else. God’s little joke, as it’s known.

I mark the spot. Say, ‘Hi, Hamish,’ and, as he turns, hit him as hard as I can with the bottle of rum.


My Fiona is also a woman of a complex and troubled mental life. One who yearns to be normal, but is still far from that happy state. A woman who would love a steady boyfriend, but isn’t sure she has the emotional equipment to handle anything so ordinary. A woman whose father’s past may contain the clues to the most vital things about her present.

In short, I had an idea for a book, an idea which turned into a 120,000 word crime novel, Talking to the Dead. I spent perhaps two years letting the central character form in my head, then wrote my first draft in a heady rush of creation. I wrote it in the course of one winter and I particularly remember the joy of waking up one day to a snowfall so heavy that ordinary life – the visits of friends, the daily routine of the Writers’ Workshop – simply came to an end. We stuck a ‘closed because of snow’ notice up on the WW website. I took the dogs for long frosty walks – and wrote for hour after lovely, peaceful, uninterrupted hour.

Bill nurtured my vision from its early glimmerings to finished manuscript. He’s not, by any means, an agent who specialises in crime. Far from it: his best known clients are Hilary ‘Wolf Hall’ Mantel and George Orwell (who, though less productive than he was, still knows how to shift a book or two.) But Bill doesn’t need to specialise in a genre to navigate the industry effectively. He whipped the book out to all the right people. We held our breath – and held our breath – and got back two fine offers from two fine publishing companies.

The winning offer came from Orion, one of the semi-independent bodies that form the British arm of the Hachette Group. The editor at Orion was none other than Bill Massey: the man who had so dismally failed to lay on a flattering celery garnish back when Hodder was bidding against HarperCollins for The Money Makers. I’d said no to Bill then. I wasn’t going to do so now.

I accepted a £140,000 ($230,000) three-book deal. The other Bill – my agent, Bill Hamilton – began the process of auctioning rights elsewhere as well. He, and his foreign rights supremo, Jennifer Custer, sold that book to Germany, France, Italy and Spain, and elsewhere in Europe. Over in New York, Random House acquired the book for $60,000 in a two-book deal. We sold the TV rights to a small London production company, Bonafide Films, who swiftly secured a broadcasting deal with Sky.

And the book sold! My friend and reader, the book sold! Not in huge quantities overnight – the crime market doesn’t usually work like that – but it enjoyed some wonderful support from Waterstones, the Barnes & Noble of the British market. The first book sold decently, the second sold still better, the third - and, to my taste, the best so far - is yet properly to test the waters. (That third book, The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths, has only just launched in the US. It's out in Britain, but only in hardback/trade paperback; the mass market paperback launch is due a little later this year. You can buy it though, no matter where you are: here if you're American, here if you're a Brit. It's a cracker.)

Reviewers have been very kind. When Talking to the Dead launched in the US, it got starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus. It enjoyed a 4/4 star rating in USA Today. It was chosen as a Crime Book of the Year by the Boston Globe and the Seattle Times. I’m quoting American reviews to start with, because the ecosystem of British book reviewing has degenerated sharply over the years. That’s not a snide comment about the quality of our reviewers; it’s simply to note that, faced with the coldest of commercial headwinds, British newspapers have been forced to slash the space reserved for books. Since there are still plenty of authors who have to be reviewed (Zadie Smith, Ian McEwan, Kate Atkinson, and their very classy ilk), everyone else is on starvation rations.

Even so, Orion’s consistent championing of the book, plus the deluge of those lovely American reviews, meant that by the time the second Fiona Griffiths novel (Love Story, with Murders) launched, the British press had begun to take notice. The title for this blog post – ‘brutal, freakish and totally original’ – comes from a wonderful review in the Sunday Times. The Daily Mail called me ‘a crime talent to treasure.’ American reviews for that second book have remained consistently generous. (‘A dark delight’ – Washington Post. ‘Superb ... an even more intense plot and richer character study than his first.’ – Publishers Weekly.)

I promised you a happy ending and here, finally, it is. A career that has finally found its perfect conjunction of book, theme and publisher. Indeed, if I’m honest, I think I really only came of age as a writer with Talking to the Dead and (still more so) the two books that follow. I still like my earlier work, but the Fiona Griffiths novels are what I came into writing to create. I feel privileged to share head space with her, and no matter that she’s fictional.

I’ve also been blessed with wonderful publishers. The two best English language publishers I’ve ever had are Orion and the Bantam Dell wing of Random House in New York. If that sounds like a modest statement, given that I’ve only mentioned HarperCollins and Bloomsbury so far, I should perhaps add that my full publishing experience is, by now, quite extensive. Aside from the incidents I’ve discussed in this series of posts, I’ve also had substantial – sometimes very substantial – editorial input into three further books, which were handled by three major publishers. I’ve also watched as numerous Writers’ Workshop clients have made the journey into print, with outcomes good, bad and disastrous. So I know a good publisher when I see one, and Orion and Bantam Dell are right up there with the very, very best.

That’s true at a corporate level. Orion, indeed, feels so collegiate, so united and so welcoming, that to refer to it as ‘corporate’ somewhat undersells the experience of being one of its authors. It may operate with capitalist efficiency, but it feels almost like family. Indeed, whereas every other publishing relationship of mine has left me with a different editor at the end than I had at the start, Orion is alarmingly stable. Same editor, same publicist, same marketing guy, same sales guy, same paperback mastermind. It’s a very good way to run a company.

That culture manifests in countless ways. Both Orion and Bantam Dell have excellent production standards, Bantam Dell’s being particularly good. Orion’s range of book covers are the best, boldest, most confident, most buyable book covers I’ve ever had. Bill and Kate have been the best editors I’ve ever had. Of all the rest, only Mitzi truly belongs in that same top rank of excellence. (Jenny was great too, but she was perhaps a businesswoman more than an editor: she was slightly misplaced in the role where I encountered her.)

These things, inevitably, produce results. The nice reviews I’ve had owe something to my writing, of course, but the praise needs to be shared with the editorial acumen needed to get the best from Fiona’s distinctive and alarming voice, and of course the sheer bloody push needed to get book reviewers to take a given title seriously. Oh, and if I’ve said more about Orion than about Bantam – well, you need to remember that Oxfordshire is a lot closer to London than it is to Manhattan; I simply see a lot more of the Orion mob.

So much for the happy ending, but I promised you a twist and that twist is now fast approaching . . .
[The story continues in three days' time.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. 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 WW site here.

 
 
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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.

"An exceptional piece of work . . . Fiona's narrative sears the page."-- Kirkus Reviews





[<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
I was once asked by a would-be author about when exactly my friends and family had started to take me seriously as a writer. Was it when I started my first novel? When I finished it? When I got an agent, or a book deal? When exactly does a writer believe they have a career in the industry?

The answer I offered was this:

‘The word has two senses, not one. There’s the sense of “career” which comes from the corporate world. You start as teaboy, work hard, and end up with the pin-striped suit, the corner office, and the gold clock presented on retirement. Life may have been boring, but at least you could rely on the paycheques. That is not the life of a writer.

‘Then there is the sense of career which means to “veer rapidly out of control”. A word whose use in a sentence may be exemplified by such examples as, “He careered downhill, shot off a small cliff, crashed into a stand of pine trees, and was last seen being taken by air-ambulance to the nearest hospital.” This, my friend, is the life of a writer. It is the truth behind most (or all?) authorial careers, except that sometimes you get taken by air-ambulance not to the nearest Emergency Room, but to Rowling Towers or Stieg Larsson Heaven. Good outcomes may be rarer than calamitous ones, but they do happen and they can be astonishing.

‘So: do I feel like a Writer now? A capital W version of the breed, one who deserves to be taken seriously by those around me? Well, yes, I guess I do. Partly that’s because I’m in the happy position that my detective stories look – perhaps – like they’re working. They’re selling decently. They’ve sold overseas. They’re being filmed. My publishers, very likely, want more of the same. But mostly, I think, it’s because I’ve survived. It’s not that I haven’t flown off cliffs or smashed into pine-trees. It’s that I’ve done those things, pulled on my skis again and kept going.

‘That’s how you know you’re a Writer. You count the scars.’

By this point in my narrative, I’m fairly scarred up already. I’ve burned out one fiction career, destroyed a promising start in non-fiction, and smashed up a relationship with one major publisher beyond realistic hope of repair. What, you may legitimately wonder, is my next move? What stunt will next merit a callout to the mountain rescue guys and their trusty air ambulance?

Although I’m temperamentally not averse to risk – rather the opposite – and although I certainly still felt myself a writer down to the tips of my toes, I was nevertheless ready for something a little more stable, a little more dependable. And ever since The Sons of Adam had educated me in the importance of developing other sources of income, that clever little beast, the Writers’ Workshop, was still ticking away. We were, by this point, probably the largest editorial agency in the country. We ran writing courses and workshops. We hosted the Festival of Writing, which quickly became the biggest, funnest and fabbest writers’ conference in the UK. We were committed to proper editorial standards and we’ve always been lucky in attracting a remarkable bunch of clients: writers who are passionate about their art and who hold us to the highest standards of editorial insight and truthfulness.

So why not parlay that experience and expertise into something quite different from anything I’d previously attempted? What about a little book, the sort of thing that never sits on the front tables in bookstores, but which, year after year, sits on the side shelves and quietly sells?

The leading directory for the UK publishing industry has, for more than a hundred years, been The Writers’ And Artists’ Yearbook, a pleasingly old-fashioned rabbit warren of a book, the British equivalent of Writer’s Market. The Yearbook was published by Bloomsbury, a good second-tier publisher with a decent raft of writing related titles (and, more notably, the Harry Potter books.) So I pitched a couple of ideas to them. One, a book on Getting Published, the other a guide on How to Write. I thought that these things could be branded the same way as the Yearbook. That way, instead of having one flagship title to offer would-be writers, the firm could have three. Back then, the Yearbook sold (I believe) about 50,000 copies each year, and its sister, the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, sold another 10,000. My titles wouldn’t sell 60,000 copies, of course, but it seemed to me that each of them could manage 10,000 copies a year without too much fuss. Indeed, Carole Blake, the literary agent author of a similar title on getting published (Pitch to Publication), told me that her book had sold 100,000 copies over ten years. That title was not now as up to date as it had once been, and in any case the Bloomsbury Yearbook branding should, I thought, be strong enough to see off the competition.

It took me a day or two to write a proposal for both books. I didn’t submit any sample material, because – between my publication history and the Writers’ Workshop – I didn’t need to convince anyone of my ability to put a sentence together. And what a trio of books they would be: the leading agents's directory, plus a really comprehensive guide to the whole process of literary agents & publication, plus another chunky guide on the whole business of writing fiction. All three things branded using what was then the leading name in the writers' how-to market: what could possibly go wrong?

Bloomsbury read my proposal and accepted. They didn’t want to commit to both titles upfront, but were happy to take Getting Published with a expectation of taking How To Write in due course.

The advance agreed was £4,000 ($6,600), or less than 10% of the smallest amount I’d ever received for any book. What’s more, I was selling world rights to the title, which meant that the foreign income stream which had supplemented most of my other UK advances would not be available here. But still. I was playing safe, right? No more careering downhill, no more flying off cliffs. These books were to earn a little money every year, for years to come. If I got £1 for every book sold (a royalty of about 6.7% on cover price), those hoped-for 10,000 annual sales would build into a nice little earner. Even as it was, the corner of Bloomsbury that handled these titles was unused to paying out advances as huge as that £4,000 and I understand that a special exemption had to be sought and secured before the deal was authorised.

Actually negotiating the contract was not easy. It wasn’t my chore, of course: my literary agent was there to handle that. Normally, contract negotiations aren’t that hard. The bigger agencies have all agreed boilerplate contracts with the bigger publishers. When a new book deal comes along, those contracts are dusted off and tweaked as necessary. There’s still room for tough, committed fights over detail, of course, but the essential principles are broadly settled.

It wasn’t so here. Not because this particular division of Bloomsbury was underhand in any way, just that it had never been exposed to a good literary agent insisting on equitable contract terms. Poor old Bill – He Who Is Always Right – found himself having to discuss numerous clauses almost from first principle. It says much about his professionalism that he handled this deeply unprofitable assignment with the same diligence that he’d have handled a deal thirty times the size.

But, say what you like about publishers, once they’ve made an oral commitment to a project, I’ve never known them withdraw the offer before an agreement is signed. (The film and TV industry is completely different: there, you have to cash the cheque and count the money before you can believe anything at all.) So as Bill and Bloomsbury discussed the theory and practice of authorial contracts, I simply got my head down and wrote the book. By the time we had a written agreement, I had a completed manuscript to deliver.

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That book, Getting Published, was edited, proofed, sent to press. I had quite a lot of niggles with the marketing of the book. The publisher’s website didn’t - whoops! - actually mention the book. Indeed, if you typed “Getting Published” into the site’s search bar it took you to a page advertising something else altogether. And then too, the red used for Getting Published was different from that used for the Yearbook. The books were of different sizes, styles and finishes, which meant that far from looking like twins – a pair that needed to be purchased in tandem – they looked completely unrelated. My editor (an intelligent, capable and businesslike woman, Jenny) apologised for these things, but told me that addressing them would need to wait till a particular corporate reorganisation brought the necessary resources into alignment.

I believed her. I think she spoke honestly. I think she knew there were problems but was confident they would be addressed. So (call me stupid; my wife does) I signed up for a second book, this time on How To Write.

I was scared that writing the book would feel like a chore, but it didn’t; it was a pleasure from start to finish. My method relied on analysing numerous examples drawn from prominent recent titles, commercial and literary, across every genre and subject. Although my reading matter has always been eclectic, it’s never been that eclectic and I found myself buying and reading books that would never naturally have drawn me. I read Bridget Jones, The Devil Wears Prada, Sophie Kinsella, the Time Traveler’s Wife, the first two Twilight books and much else. I had a reading list that glittered with shiny handbags and werewolf fangs. I found my inner teen girl and I loved it.

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That second book was scheduled for publication in May 2012. By this time, I had my long-promised new editor, Alysoun, and she reported to a new boss, Eela, who had specific responsibility for growing the firm’s revenues in this area.

I begged to meet Alysoun and Eela, but the meeting kept being delayed – by them, not me – until publication date was drawing dangerously close.

By this point, I also had royalty statements covering a full year of Getting Published. Those statements don’t break sales out by retailer, but there’s a nifty little website, Novelrank.com, which watches changes in Amazon sales rank to detect when sales are made and calculates an approximate number for total sales.

I put those royalty statements together with the data from Novelrank and broke down my total 2011 sales for Getting Published as follows:

Ebooks                                                             143
Paperbacks                                                       2008
Total sales                                                     2151

Of which, Amazon/online
Ebooks                                                              143
Paperbacks (via Novelrank)                                 1847
Total                                                               1990

Total non-Amazon books sold                        161
Less: US & export sales                                     (142)
Total non-Amazon books sold in UK               19

We had our meeting. Alysoun and Eela were, I think, assuming that these things would go the way of most get-to-know-you lunches between author and publisher. A bit of social chit-chat. A bit of industry chit-chat. A few marketing and other details to sort through.

This lunch did not go that way. I started by presenting my calculations, the same ones as you see in the table above. I pointed out that I was perfectly capable of self-publishing my own work. That any two-bit self-publishing company can print a book up and make it available on Amazon. That is not publishing. It’s printing.

I also pointed out that Bloomsbury were helping themselves to 75% of all net receipts on ebooks. (A standard author contract entitles him or her to 25% of ebook receipts; the publisher keeps the rest.) The calculations are a little more intricate for print, but certainly the publisher still keeps the bulk of total revenues, even after printing costs have been accounted for. I wanted to know (and I asked very nicely, with perfect manners and all) just exactly what Bloomsbury were intending to do to boost sales.

Because it’s easy for these matters to get lost when there is no written record, I followed up that lunch with a letter, which I emailed out the very next day. In that letter I introduced the figures summarised above and said this:

"I am perfectly capable of self-publishing both the Getting Published and How To Write titles (dropping the [Writers’ & Artists’] tag, of course). If I did so, I would expect to earn, via Amazon, around £3 per paperback and around £8 per e-book. Those figures are roughly four times the amounts you are currently paying me. To put that another way, the same Amazon sales would have netted me around £6,000 instead of the £1,500 I earned through you. That is, my connection with Bloomsbury cost me £4,500 last year. If the same pattern is repeated in the coming twelve months over two titles, the cost to me will be £9,000. If the same pattern is repeated over the next ten years – because both these books do, in principle, have a long shelf life – the cost to me could be something approaching £100,000 [$165,000].

Needless to say, I would not be happy with that outcome. I can’t believe you would be either.

Our alternatives
If, on reflection, you feel that you do not want to invest real time, effort and determination in these books – especially on launch, but in the long term too – then we should part company. I would, of course, refund your advance on How To Write, and pay any copyediting and proofreading costs you’ve already incurred. We could also figure out an honourable and equitable way to go our separate ways on Getting Published. [...]

The alternative is for you utterly to rescale the commitment you are making to these two titles. [...]

So I think before we go any further, you need to think what your ambitions are for these books. To make them big, enduring, flagship products that dominate their markets? Or to treat them the way they’ve been treated thus far, which is as afterthoughts – books that exist on your list but with no real sales and marketing energy behind them?

[ ...] I would, please, like an answer in writing and in the clearest possible terms: I’ve had far too many comforting evasions in the last eighteen months."


You would, no doubt, be interested to know what Bloomsbury had to say in reply. I share your interest. I sent that letter on 12 April 2012 and have not yet had any reply.

How to Write came out, on schedule, in May 2012. The book has been warmly welcomed by those readers who have encountered it – across British and American Amazon, the book has 29 five-star reviews out of 37; most of the rest are 4-star. But not many readers have encountered it and even fewer have encountered it in a bookshop, or any location not easily accessible by any two-bit self-pub outfit.

How to Write is still, astonishingly, not available on the corporate website. When we ran the Festival of Writing at York last year - an event where 400 writers were coming to learn about writing at an event hosted by the author of How To Write - the Festival bookshop naturally thought it might be a good idea to stock up on the book. Oh no, sorry, Bloomsbury said, the book wasn't available. So sorry.

Its sister, Getting Published, is present on the W&A website, but very hard to find. Marketing promises have been made and not kept – and these days, they’re not even made any more: the firm has completely stopped talking to me.

Is this a failure? It might sound like it perhaps, yet from Bloomsbury’s perspective, both books have been successes. They've turned an excellent profit, and a profit that increases with every year.

So I should rejoice, perhaps. I do still get royalty cheques, albeit considerably less large than I would like. And at least I've broken my duck: I've made money for a publisher and about time too. Yet strangely, I find myself – the author of the leading British guide to the whole business of publication – thinking that I shouldn’t have sought a regular publisher at all.
[The story continues in three days' time.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. 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.

[One further comment: One possibility may have occurred to some readers, namely that since I sold the two books to Bloomsbury they have moved into the business of offering editorial advice and various events for writers. That is: they have become direct competitors to the Writers' Workshop. I don't at all mind the competition: we compete with plenty of people and somehow do just fine. On the other hand, if they're withholding marketing energy from my books because of that competition, then they have a direct conflict of interest and their behaviour is inexcusable.

Conspiracy theorists will think, yes, for sure, Bloomsbury's actions can only be accounted for by this kind of conflict. Me, I just don't know. The publication of those books was lazy and uncommitted before the conflict arose; it's stayed that way since. Make of that what you will.

Perhaps I should also add that we've created a website, AgentHunter.co.uk, which competes directly with the W&A Yearbook - in other words, first they moved onto our turf, then we moved onto theirs. Both movements were natural outgrowths of the businesses we each already had.]

 
 
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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.]
I delivered my manuscript of This Little Britain to Fourth Estate in May and, because professional writers don’t make money if they’re not writing, I naturally wanted to get on with my next book as soon as possible thereafter. That’s easy enough when it comes to fiction. Publishers don’t get involved in shaping new novels. As long as an author sticks roughly to genre, how he goes about it is left up to him.

With non-fiction: not so. I had always assumed – so had Fourth Estate – that my follow-up to This Little Britain would be something else in the same mould. A look at British cultural quirks, perhaps: tea-drinking, gardens, the BBC, unarmed policemen. Or something with a bit more smoke of battle about it, perhaps a look at the English/British role in the wars against various European autocrats (Philip II of Spain, Louis XIV of France, Napoleon Bonaparte, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Hitler, Stalin).

Or I had a real fancy to jump continents. I had written about British exceptionalism. Wouldn’t it be interesting to write the same kind of book about the United States, our sister in Anglo-Saxon extraordinariness? (A book I’d still love to write, by the way: any pulishers who want that book should just get in touch . . .)

So: I wanted to write. I assumed that my publishers and I shared a similar vision for our second book. What was keeping my pen from hitting the paper?

To start with, Mitzi murmured that it would be better to wait for publication of the first book before deciding on the second. Then, when it was published, we needed to take stock of sales. Then it was Christmas, and the matter was deferred to the New Year. Then, finally, Mitzi and my agent and I met up in London to resolve the question of what I might write. I brought along proposals for three books. One, a book on the cultural aspects of Britishness. Two, something on America. And three, an idea which had a particular hold on my imagination and energy: an investigation of the human storytelling instinct. Where it comes from, what its anatomy is, what it means for our sense of self. I’d been interested in the topic for some time and I’d been quietly researching it whenever I had the chance. It was, I was sure, an underexplored area of huge interest.

Mitzi was and is an editor of rare intelligence and breadth. She listened to me talk through each of my ideas, but said at the end, ‘Harry, it seems to me that you like this storytelling idea the most. Is that right?’ It was, and I said so. ‘Well then, I think you ought to write that one. It sounds fun.’ We shaped things up briefly by email thereafter, but I was already on a roll.

I loved the idea and threw myself into it. I bought my usual mountain of reading matter and got stuck in. As soon as possible, I started writing, even as I was also researching the chapters still to come. Because I loved the idea so much, and because I had been almost a year without earning a penny from writing, I worked almost non-stop for three months. Non-stop, meaning pretty much every day, pretty much every weekend. (One of the things that almost all writers admit to each other is that, while we like people very much, we like them slightly less than a good day’s writing. Which means when close friends visit, the human in us is delighted, while the writer is always a little disappointed. When a much-looked-forward-to visit is cancelled at short notice, the writer says, ‘How terribly sad,’ but is secretly thrilled. We’re bad people and you should hate us.)

Anyway: three months of intensive work, then a phone call. Mitzi, one of my best ever editors, was calling to say that she’d been offered a job in New York that would make her publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s Faber & Faber imprint. It was a big and sexy job, for which she was ideally suited. She was therefore leaving HarperCollins, and leaving me. My new editor would be a chap called Robin, who had been This Little Britain’s very able publicist. Oh yes, and one other thing. Mitzi hadn’t, it seemed, actually told anyone in Fourth Estate what I was now writing about and could I possibly stop by and tell them? And if I could send in what I’d already written, that would be really helpful ...

I did not receive that news with elation. Books arrive as babies do: covered in blood. Crying, purple and squashed. Asking a writer to prove the viability of his concept from a work in progress is like asking a patissier to show off his confections, when all he has is a bowl of cake mix and a jugful of chocolate goo.

But I was a pro. I did what I had to do. First, I got that early, partial draft into some kind of shape. Not good shape – that would have taken more time than I had – but at least I patted my cake dough into some approximation of its future form. I also wrote a full-blooded warning at the front of the text, a warning that called vigorous attention to the first draft nature of what followed.

We met at HarperCollins’s Hammersmith offices. It’s one of those buildings whose glory is its lobby. A light-filled atrium, spacious, bright and welcoming. The architectural compromise, however, is that almost everything else is cramped and seems dark by contrast. If I worked there, I’d spend most of my time in the lobby.

And as we sat, in that brightness, waiting for the Fourth Estate crowd, I asked my agent what he’d made of my draft text. ‘It’s good,’ he said, ‘it just needs more jokes.’ He was right, of course – did I mention that he always is? – but his response settled me. Jokes are easy. They could come later. What mattered most was that my core material was interesting, that I was presenting it clearly, that the narrative flowed.

I should not have felt settled. When we finally gathered for our meeting, there was a gentle, probing introduction of what exactly I thought I was writing. Was it Popular Science? Or was it Literary Criticism? Neither of those possibilities seemed attractive. A book of popular science would not have been good: that’s simply not a category which generally sustains £87,500 books. A book of literary criticism would have been still worse: I doubt if that’s a category which sustains many £8,750 books. But as those Fourth Estaters started to construct the Venn diagrams in their head, an awful possibility loomed: was this book perhaps the Popular Science of Literary Criticism? A category so ineffably small, a book probably wouldn’t prove profitable even if the manuscript in question had been purchased for £0.87.

That’s a dumb way to think about books, of course. Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point was a study in ... what exactly? Social psychology? Marketing? The epidemiology of social trends? No matter how you try to pin that book down, it doesn’t sound like anything a trade publisher would want a piece of – until you read the damn thing. The Hare with the Amber Eyes? A study in Japanese netsuke. Dava Sobel’s Longitude? An essay on the technology of eighteenth century chronometers. None of those books sound even vaguely plausible as candidates for non-fiction bestsellers, but of course they all were. Critically acclaimed and commercially successful. That’s what good writing is about: taking unexpected ideas and making them interesting.

In truth, the argument had been settled long before I walked into that room. My new editor and his boss didn’t want the book that Mitzi had commissioned. Would I mind writing something else, please? Nobody apologised for having wasted an intensive three months of my life. No one offered to compensate me for the time I’d spent, under contract, working to fulfil an agreed-upon brief. I suppose if I had kicked up a fuss – if I had scribbled out an invoice for £30,000 – they’d have had to pay it. They’d commissioned the work. I’d done it, or done about a third of it anyway. How could there be room for argument?

But it’s not so simple. For one thing, HarperCollins was the closest thing I had to an employer. If you have a grievance with your employer, you may end up winning a case in an employment tribunal, but your subsequent career is unlikely to flourish. Could I afford a row with the publisher who had bought everything I’d so far written? And, realistically, if I had simply dug my heels in and said I'd damn well finish the book I'd been commissioned, in writing, to create - well, they'd have said OK.

. . . in which case I'd be writing a book that I knew my editor didn't want, that the firm didn't want & that would, consequently, almost certainly be the last book I ever wrote for the imprint. That wasn't an attractive option for anyone, including me. It was better for me, however grumpy I might feel about it, to write off those three months as lost and simply try to salvage things by writing a damn good version of whatever book they DID want.

So I suffered in silence. I said yes, sure, I could write something else. Was there a topic they had in mind ...?

There was not. I bombarded Fourth Estate with suggestions. The ones I’d already offered Mitzi, anything else I could think of. I was a book proposal manufacturing prodigy, the Alexey Stakhanov of book ideas.

Alas, Fourth Estate were completely unclear about where to turn next. They had commissioned me to write two books. The first hadn’t turned out as well as they’d hoped, and they weren’t sure how best to remedy the situation. That’s understandable in a way – these things are hard – except that these guys were publishers. Their job was commissioning books, yet they reacted much as you might if suddenly asked to pilot a tugboat, or replace a gearbox. You’d be willing enough, no doubt, but forgivably uncertain about next steps.

The process drove me half-nuts. On the one hand, Fourth Estate had wanted This Little Britain so fast, that I dropped everything, hired someone to manage the Writers’ Workshop, and wrote like fury. On the other hand, they thought it was OK to leave me dangling for almost eighteen months while they cogitated their next steps. What was I to do? Fire the person I’d just hired? Take on a series of temporary contracts as – I don’t know – a fireman, a gamekeeper, an assassin, a spy? I could be wrong, but I don’t suppose anyone at Fourth Estate gave the matter a moment’s thought. Authors’ lives are at the disposal of publishers. How authors manage the financial contortions involved is no business of theirs.

And in the end – inspiration! It was the autumn of 2008. Huge banks were collapsing. Stockmarkets were plunging. Governments were suddenly asked to shore up whole slabs of the economy – banks, car makers, insurance firms – that they never wanted to get involved with. And it occurred to Fourth Estate that I’d trained as an economist; I used to be a banker. Why didn’t I write a book about money? Not an anatomy-of-disaster tome exactly. Those things had already been commissioned and were already hurtling towards print. But something in that area. A sort of reflection on capitalism.

I said yes.

I’d have said yes to anything. Write a book about surgery of the oesophagus? Yes. An investigation of grammatical change in late-medieval Latin? Of course. The truth was that, by that point, I just wanted to get shot of the damn contract. Deliver my second book, collect my advance, move on. If they wanted a book on capitalism, I’d be happy to write it. I was interested enough in these topics and was confident of being able to hammer out a book of reasonably broad appeal.

So hammer I did. I saw my book as a kind of travelogue through the Land of Money – a sort of Bill Bryson Does Capitalism. I worked hard. I had, I believe, some interesting things to say and (‘needs more jokes’) I made sure the book was funny. I wanted it to invite the ordinary reader, ones who were perplexed by the financial carnage around them, but who also wanted a book that wouldn’t talk too much about Credit Default Swaps.

I wrote the book and delivered it. My editor liked it. ‘It’s a peach,’ he said. His only real comment of substance was that the book was too chatty, but not to worry, he’d simply edit that out. I didn’t understand what he meant by ‘chatty’. To be sure, I don’t write like some 1950s schoolmarm would want me to write. I frequently use contractions (didn’t, he’d). I’ll happily start a sentence with a conjunction and sentence fragments don’t torment my soul. Alas, I soon found out that ‘chatty’ was code for ‘funny’ and most of my jokes vanished in that first edit. They left with a sigh and a tinkle of regretful laughter.

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Then the title. I’m never any good at titles and certainly had no compelling choices up my sleeve. Robin suggested Stuff Matters: Why Money Really Does Make the World Go Round. I found the suggestion doubly perplexing. First, the book did not say that money makes the world go round; it said the opposite. Secondly – Stuff Matters? What did that even mean? What did it communicate to a reader, beyond a kind of grammatical bewilderment? I didn’t know then; I don’t know now. I said it was a lousy title. So did my agent. But it was a done deal. The title stuck, although the subtitle changed to Robin’s (excellent) alternative Risk, Genius and the Secret of Capitalism – a phrase so good it should have been elevated to the title itself.

We didn’t get much publicity for the book. The cover had a decent central idea, but was poorly, cheaply executed. The book was priced at £20 and targeted at yuppies wanting books on business self-improvement rather than ordinary readers wanting a peep inside the capitalist machine – yet this was not a book which offered anything to Keen Young Business Types.

The book sold virtually nothing. A thousand copies in hardback perhaps. A performance so poor that no paperback was ever issued. Of all the books of mine that have lost money for their publishers, this one was the capo di tutti capi. The Everest of loss. The Valhalla of failure. The peak and perfection of the loss-maker’s art.

A couple of reflections before close

First, Fourth Estate was not and is not a bad publisher, nor are they generally timid or cynical or commercial in their choice of books. Quite the contrary: they had the boldness to buy, promote and make a bestseller of Dava Sobel's Longitude, one of the books I cited earlier. They had the guts to stick with Hilary Mantel through her long years of ordinary sales and knew exactly what to do when they and she hit the gusher that was Wolf Hall. When they acquired the rights to The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden, they had the guts to eschew a hardback launch altogether and plonk all their chips onto the paperback. That's a brave & unconventional way to publish, but the book, zooming in behind the slipstream of its predecessor, ended up selling a stonking 300,000 copies, something it would likely not have done if the paperback had been preceded by a stodgy hardback obstructing the pipeline for nine months.

So what happened in my case was . . . well, just one of those things. Little Britain could have been a blowout success, but it wasn't. Most good books don't succeed: the harsh rule of the book trade. What happened after that was (a) an atypical reversion to timid - indeed, somewhat cynical - publishing on the part of Fourth Estate, and (b) a willingness to dump the costs of indecision onto the author. I don't think they thought much about what that indecision might mean for me, just the way plenty of big firms don't think too hard about whether their unpaid interns are getting a fair deal from the relationship. The issue isn't anything actively malignant, it's just thoughtlessness. But thoughtlessness can injure too.

My last communication with Robin was a few weeks before the hardback was issued. I got the news about the non-release of the paperback via my agent, but by that stage I was long beyond caring. My relationship with HarperCollins was now well and truly over. The firm’s logo shows flames burning over water. To me, now, the image represents the flames of my career raging over a sea of red ink. Two careers had vanished in that storm – what new one would take their place?
[The story continues in three days' time.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. 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 WW site here.

 
 
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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.

"An exceptional piece of work . . . Fiona's narrative sears the page."-- Kirkus Reviews

 


[<<Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
For all the importance of cover design – and for all that Fourth Estate had paid a lot of money for the book – their first design ideas were so bizarre as to be quite disconcerting.

The first set of ideas we looked at retitled the book simply GB, and used images of down-at-heel, lovable-but-laughable Britain: motorway service cafes, knock-kneed park footballers, fat women on blustery beaches. It’s not that the covers were bad or unimaginative exactly, just that they would have appealed to a completely different demographic than my potential book buyers. These covers would have appealed to cool, urban, left-leaning twenty-somethings, the sort of people who listen to indie rock and buy their food organic and fair-trade. I like those people, don’t get me wrong, but they weren’t going to be my readers. If you are seeking to sell a history book about British exceptionalism to the Christmas market, you are likely to be targeting male readers, over forty, of a conservative and patriotic bent. Those early cover designs and my future readers lay at diametrically opposite poles of almost every human spectrum you could call to mind.

So Fourth Estate had a rethink. The imprint had a punchy, radical, innovative edge – part of what had appealed to me in the first place – and their next cover design showcased that innovative temperament to the full. Since my book argued that this one little country had had a disproportionately large historical impact, they thought they would make the same point typographically. Reverting to my original book title – simply Little Britain – they expanded those two words so much that they wrapped right around the dust jacket of the future hardback. So expanded and so wrapped, indeed, that the only way you would actually have been able to read the title of the book would have been by physically unfolding the dust jacket, including its inside flaps, and holding it out in front of you. Had you just looked at the front cover alone, you would have seen my name – Harry Bingham – and a title fragment, RITA. No doubt those crusty colonels from the shires, who would constitute my core market, would have loved unfolding that jacket to discover that a book about RITA was really a book about LITTLE BRITAIN ... but I said no. Uninnovative and un-cutting edge to my core, I said, no, no, no, no, no-etty, no-etty, NO.

PictureThe final book cover
I don't - more's the pity - still have a copy of that glorious RITA image.Another cover came and went. (A sort of John Bull figure on the kind of background which could only be described as, erm, chicken korma coloured.) And then, breakthrough! An enchanting illustration of a bowler-hatted figure calmly sipping tea, against an outline of the British Isles and with a scatter of objects (ships, cricket bats, trains) that referred in some ways to the topics covered within. The contrast with what had gone before was so absolute that I said yes, without further pause.

I should also perhaps be clear that while my contract gave me the right to be consulted about book cover, I had absolutely no right of veto. So for all that some of Fourth Estate’s ideas were bizarrely left-field, I should acknowledge that their consultation with me was always genuine, their response always full-hearted and committed. And that’s the right way for a publisher to work with an author. Dumb ideas will always come along: there’s no way to stop ‘em. The best and most effective brake on those ideas will be giving the author and his or her agent a real voice at the table. In those early days with Fourth Estate, my working relationship with the imprint was exemplary. It was and is an excellent imprint.

We had a marketing plan too, a good one. The kind of marketing that had supported the first phase of my career – those ads, those posters telling consumers about my book – had long vanished from the publishing toolkit. For sure, big authors still demand, and secure, such campaigns, but they are exceptional. The budgets that once supported those campaigns were now (paradoxically) devoted to securing retail space. The big British retailers – notably Waterstones and Smiths – took to selling space. So if, for example, you wanted your book to be in a Waterstones 3-for-2 promotion, you needed to buy the right to be there. Waterstones wasn’t stupid, of course. It didn’t just auction those slots to the highest bidder; there was always a selection policy too, a sense of curation.

All the same, publishers had once spoken direct to consumers and allowed retailers to benefit from the increased footfall. This new industry now abandoned any real attempt to reach the consumer direct and sank its ‘marketing’ money into increasing the discounts that retailers could offer buyers. The retailers didn’t end up benefitting – because they were discounting more aggressively than they ever used to. Publishers didn’t – because the average selling prices of books either declined or was stagnant, and because those consumers who might have responded to ads were now lost to sight. But capitalism isn’t a machine for promoting culture, it’s a tool for fostering competition. As books became physically more beautiful – better, more imaginatively designed – their prices fell. That’s markets acting as they’re designed to do. There’s no use regretting the matter. You might as well complain about gravity.

In any case, though Fourth Estate would have allocated some – most – of their ‘marketing’ budget to retail promotions, they’d also have been conscious that they’d just paid £87,500 ($145,000) for this book. They couldn’t trust that simply putting the book out there to sink or swim of its own accord would be enough. So they did various other things, of which two are worth a comment. First, they built a website – thislittlebritain.com, I think it was. The site was cute. The cover illustration was expanded to become something you could naivgate by mouse. As you moved around, you could click things – those cricket bats, trains and so on – at which point a question popped up to test your historical knowledge.

The idea of those things (and all big publishers did them) was to create something which would ‘go viral’. That is: which would, inexpensively but effectively, create buzz. How anyone was ever meant to know these sites existed, I don’t know. Short of typing random words into your browser search bar, or searching somewhere deep in Google’s search results, you’d never find the site at all. And then, because, deep down, publishers knew the chance of these things ‘going viral’ was vanishingly small, the sites never had much invested in them and consequently were never much good. The vogue for such things probably lasted a year or two, no more. It was a waste of money. An abandoned experiment of the early Internet age.

But Fourth Estate also cleverly commissioned an poll, designed to test how little Britons actually knew about their country’s history. (When, for example, did ‘free and fair elections’ first become mandatory in English law? The answer, remarkably, is 1275: the Freedom of Election Act has been in force ever since, though the franchise has, of course, been somewhat expanded since then.) They issued that poll as a press release. They sent copies of the book to reviewers and news programmes. Because the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, chose the moment to harp on about the national identity, Fourth Estate intelligently tried to connect that discussion to my exploration of the country’s history.

For a brief, beautiful while, it looked like we’d done it. The influential Radio 4 Today programme was interested. Major newspapers were said to be keen to review the work. The Sunday Times News Review wanted to do a big piece. And was I possibly available for Newsnight? The publicity team pushed, worked, hoped ... But alas, the news story escaped from us before we could catch it. No Today programme. No Newsnight. The Sunday Times piece was cancelled at the last minute. We got almost no serious reviews either.

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And the book’s cover – that enchanting illustration that was so much better than RITA’s giant letters – simply looked too small and too quiet when exposed to the hustle of the Christmas market. There was another book out that same year, John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge) which sold much better than mine. It was a bigger book – certainly funnier – and it pasted its appeal all over that front jacket. The appeal of my book was less obvious from the front cover alone. For sure, if you picked the book up and turned it over, you’d start to understand what kind of thing it was. If you delved inside and read a little, you might start to realise that, if the book didn’t offer O’Farrell’s knockabout comedy, it offered a highly approachable introduction to a view of British history that might well appeal to your dad, or brother, or your hard-to-buy-for Uncle Jack.

But the Christmas market is not conducive to the measured exploration of interesting books. When Ebury said, ‘we really know how to do this kind of thing,’ I think in hindsight they meant, ‘We’ll stick a huge union jack on the front of this book and make it the ultimate Christmas present for Uncle Jack.’ That strategy would never have attracted the Newsnights, the Today programmes, or the serious Sunday Times features. But it would, I think, have worked. I now regret not going with a cruder, bolder, more by-the-throat approach.

But perhaps nothing would have worked anyway. That Christmas (and putting aside the annual Guinness World Records and a football annual), every single name on the hardback bestseller list was a celebrity of some sort. The book trade, like most trades, is a rough old game and there are always more losers than winners. Good books can be well published and still fail: that was and is one of the most frightening truths in the book trade.

In any event, though the book didn’t sell horribly, it sold horribly for a £87,500 book. Because the hardback had, effectively, died, no retailer was going to get excited about the paperback. So Fourth Estate did very little to support the paperback (nor had they promised to, nor did they even have the capacity to do much in the face of retailer indifference.) It sold a few copies, then shrunk off to the great Remainder Bin in the Sky.

Another book, another failure.

Since a few more posts of this little publishing history remain, and since you may start to feel that you have the gist of it already – unsuccessful author takes lots of money off publishers, then watches as his books curl up and die – it’s perhaps worth sketching out what lies ahead. Three more books come and go. One dies so horribly that all the horriblish things that have happened so far seem like visions of paradise compared. Two more actually make money for the publisher, but leave the author feeling ripped off. And then – actual success. A book which sells! Gets lovely reviews! Wins a TV deal which actually materialises!

Which is good. Every reader loves a happy ending. But remember – I write crime fiction now and the golden rule of my trade is that any good ending needs to deliver a twist. A sting in the tale, a bolt from the blue. This story has just such a bolt-from-the-blue finale, but one in which it’s unclear who’s been struck down by it. The author or the publisher? The writer or an entire industry?

Those questions await. But first – the next catastrophe.
[The next catastrophe comes to a blog near you in three days' time.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. 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 over on the Writers' Workshop site here.

 
 
Picture
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.

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.]
As it turns out, I could.

For one thing, the Writers’ Workshop, my writers’ consultancy, was (to my surprise) becoming increasingly successful. I’d originally assumed that I wouldn’t receive many manuscripts to look at, so that I’d be able to handle the editorial load using just me and a friend of mine, also a novelist. I was swiftly disabused of that notion and within a month or two of launching the company, was passing manuscripts off to other highly experienced and capable hands. I started out with two editors, then six, then a dozen – and we now have approximately 1 gazillion absolutely superb editors, with the capacity, between us, to comment intelligently on almost any type of book or screenplay.

But I also had an idea for a work of non-fiction. The idea was simply this: to take a look at the full sweep of British history and locate those ways in which our story differs from those of our neighbours.

Some of those differences would have an obvious, patriotic undertone. For example, whereas states on the continent of Europe were driven to plunge their military resources into armies, England (and later Britain) faced a different set of strategic priorities, ones which would lead to our long emphasis on naval excellence. So successful was that emphasis that, at one point, the British navy could assemble more warships than every other navy in the world combined: a remarkable statistic.

Other differences were more subtle, less obviously a matter for patriotic fire. So, for example, by various accidents of history, England stuck with a common law, trial-by-jury type legal system, whereas every other country in Europe ended up opting for a model that harked back to Roman times. Whether that was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing is unclear, but it is, for sure, an interesting one. (The United States has, of course, also inherited that British common law tradition: the two countries are joined by a lot more than language.)

PictureShort ebook I did for the US
And then too there were numerous other little exceptionalisms that offered some quirky good fun. Why, for example, does the Japanese Prime Minister wear a business suit, while the Prime Minister of Great Britain does not wear a kimono? The answer is that the modern business suit derives from the style of dress developed by the Englishman, Beau Brummel, and Brummel’s decisive model ended up becoming adopted as the international standard of men’s fashion. Putting the same thing another way, the Japanese Prime Minister goes to work dressed in the British national costume – a strange thought, when you consider it.

For me back then, the particular joy of this kind of non-fiction is that an author can sell the book before it’s written. With novels, that never happens, or at least it happens so rarely that you can safely ignore the exceptions. If a novel takes a year or so to write, that time and effort is entirely at the author’s risk. If the novel doesn’t strike a chord with publishers, then too bad: you’ve lost that year’s work. You might get rejected because your novel isn’t good enough – which would be entirely your fault – or it might be for entirely other reasons. If, for example, you were unlucky enough to have written a book about Thomas Cromwell shortly after Hilary Mantel’s blockbusting Wolf Hall came to market, you could forget about any hope of selling your work. Ditto, if your vampire novel arrived too late for the vampire wave, or your children’s novel was themed around bullying at a moment when bullying (from a publisher’s perspective) seemed so last year. Those are all sound reasons for rejection, of course – publishers are there to make money – but it’s a scary old world for the would-be novelist, particularly if that would-be novelist is foolish enough to have given up a lucrative day job in banking.

Non-fictioneers can afford much more modest experiments. I wrote perhaps 10,000 words of my projected history book and an outline of everything else. My then agent, with consummate professionalism, told me that if I wanted her to continue representing me, she would be honoured to do so, but that this kind of history project wasn’t really her thing. She said that if I wanted to find an agent more in tune with the new turn my career was taking, I should certainly do so.

I thanked her, and took her advice.

The Writers’ Workshop had given me a much wider experience of agents than I’d had when first starting out, so I felt confident in my ability to seek out the very best. My very first port of call was an agency – middling sized, but very old, very august – called AM Heath, and specifically its senior agent, Bill Hamilton. Over a cup of tea in his office, he told me that he liked my writing and liked my concept but that my current draft didn’t work at all. ‘We need something like a posh loo book,’ he told me. ‘A gift book for the Christmas market.’

A loo book? In America, the same thing would be called a bathroom book, but neither way did it seem like the kind of thing I’d want to write. I wanted to go upmarket, go serious. I wanted to be Thoughtful and Important. So convinced was I that Bill had utterly misread me and my project that I think I would have made my excuses and left (nicely, of course: I’m brought up that way)... except – that cup of tea! I am more or less addicted to tea and I’d drunk nothing since leaving Oxfordshire two hours before.

So I stayed. Long enough to finish that tea. But, as I stayed, Bill went on talking. He spoke about how he read the market, about his view of what publishers wanted.

And, damn the man, he was right, as he almost always is. I left Bill’s office that day realising I needed to recast my book into much more popular form. My move upmarket seemed to have hit the down elevator and I’d be emerging in the lobby again, just where I’d started.

I didn’t get that book right, not straight away. It took one more round of kicking from Bill (Shorter chapters! Think bathroom!) before I got it right. But what I had felt good: about 10-15,000 words of punchy, short-chaptered material and an outline of a book that would run to some forty-odd chapters in total. Bill liked the material and he agreed to take that short chunk of text out to publishers. It was like The Money Makers all over again. A test of the market.

And – another blowout. A gusher, a windfall, a lottery win.

My idea, plus my writing, plus Bill’s tutelage, plus his knowledge of where and how to pitch the work made for a potent combination. Numerous publishers were interested. Ebury, part of Random House, bid £150,000 ($250,000) for a two-book deal, commenting ‘we really know how to do this kind of thing,’ as they did so. That phrase – this kind of thing – I admit to finding slightly shocking. Every author is so engrossed in the uniqueness of his or her particular project that it’s hard for us to remember that publishers swim in an ocean of such uniquery. However much a particular editor might express love for a particular writer or a particular book, they will never be unaware that there are other writers, other books, other bids for the reader’s wallet.

Ebury’s bid was strong, but it was soon swatted from contention by two bids that came in later. One from John Murray (part of the Hachette Group) and one from Fourth Estate, an imprint belonging to none other than HarperCollins. Both these subsequent bids were for the eye-popping sum of £175,000 ($290,000).

With hindsight, I think I should have visited – actually visited – not just the two high bidders, but Ebury too. I didn’t. I spoke to the John Murray editor by phone. Ditto Mitzi, the Fourth Estate one. Both women were clever, professional, committed. Fine publishers in both cases. But Fourth Estate had, I thought, the slightly stronger reputation and I had an excellent personal chemistry with Mitzi. So I said yes to Fourth Estate, yes to HarperCollins. I was back in the saddle: a professional author once again.

A professional author who, however, wasn’t to be given much breathing space. We agreed a deal in, I think, October of that year, 2006, and Mitzi wanted a complete draft by the end of May 2007 for publication in the early autumn. Yikes! I’m a reasonably swift writer and we never intended This Little Britain to be a long book, but the damn thing covered everything. English language? Check. Literature? Check. Legal systems? Uh-huh. Parliament and democracy? Yep and yep. The scientific revolution? Of course. The Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions? Naturally. Can’t overlook those. Beau Brummel and his damn fancy-pants dress code? Yes, OK. The British influence on sports? The nation’s record on slavery? All that naval stuff? What about public sewers and the health transition? Or remarkable aspects of medieval social welfare reform? Eighteenth century nepotism? The lapse of the censorship acts?

Not since leaving investment banking have I worked so hard. I hired someone to come in and run the Writers’ Workshop office for me. (She was fab, and still a close friend.) And I worked. Wrote out a schedule of which chapter I had to write by when, and spent countless hours reading, researching – and bashing out chapters when I reckoned I’d read enough. At one point, I realised that my stack of research materials had grown higher than me. Then the books fell over, and I shifted most of them into the spare bedroom, and went on buying, and reading, and buying, and reading. I came to know more about more disparate things than I had ever conceived necessary or probable.

And I did it. Produced a proper manuscript on time, and one that covered everything it needed to cover. I got two professional historians to read the thing for me. One a medieval specialist, the other a professor in Victorian history, who were, between them, capable of correcting any mistakes that had crept in. Maurice Keen, the medievalist, was particularly helpful. Understanding that my book was aimed a popular, non-specialist market, he was prone to saying things like, ‘Harry, I think we can’t quite get away with this wild generalisation, but I think I might be able to offer you another wild generalisation which might work even better.’ He exemplified the very best of that old-world, Oxfordy scholarship and care. I was lucky to have him.

Mitzi, meanwhile, hadn’t been idle. She was thinking about book covers and marketing and all the things that should occupy any good editor’s mind. The things, indeed, which any successful publication would depend on.

I'll talk about the publication process in the next post, but for now one final thought. It's striking, when you think about it, that HarperCollins never chose to talk to me towards the end of my fiction career with them. A conversation along the lines of, 'Look, Harry, I know your fiction hasn't quite worked out the way we both wanted, but we like you as a human and we like you as a writer, and we just wanted to ask if you had anything else up your sleeve? Perhaps we could figure out a way to continue together.'

Had they had that conversation at me when I was at my most impecunious, they could, I'm sure, have acquired Little Britain for much less than half the price they actually paid. They didn't have that chat, so they acquired the book at auction . . . which was nice for me and ended up being very pricey for them. So somewhere, there were some dumb business decisions being made.

Yet was HarperCollins being unusually neglectful in failing to talk to their talent? No, I don't think so. I think it would be a rare, rare publishing firm that did any better. I arranged a series of workshops once at the Hay Festival, and invited one very senior agent and Mitzi, my 4th Estate editor to participate. At one point, the agent remarked, 'The thing is, the product I want to create is a successful authorial career. The thing that an editor wants to create is a successful book.' Rather to my shock, Mitzi agreed. I think, however, that 9 out of 10 editors, perhaps even 99 out of 100 would have said the same.

That looks like smart business, of course - focus on the product in hand - but just possibly it's idiotic. If you want to nurture talent and get the best from it, you probably (just a suggestion, mind) need to talk to it. Twenty years ago, I believe, publishers did believe in investing in authorial careers, not just that year's book. Two things have changed that. First, publishers have professionalised nearly every aspect of their business. Book acquisition, marketing, sales, production, data use, technology: the lot. And if you juggle a lot of balls, perhaps one or two - the less technocratic, the more human sort - get dropped.

That's one thought. Another is that agents themselves have messed things up. In the good old days, when men were men and women wore tweed, authors thought themselves damn lucky to have a publisher, a port in the storm. Once happily berthed, they were reluctant to leave for the stormy world beyond the harbour walls. These days, on the other hand, publishers know that agents are looking to maximise advances . . . and that can lead to more authorial churn than perhaps there used to be. I mention this argument because it was presented to me by an intelligent and experienced publisher who thought it had merit, but - I don't know. There isn't much authorial churn and, in the absence of major disasters, most agents prefer to keep their authors with the publishers who have established them. Perhaps some agents are dummies who just chase after the highest advance, but I'd hope most agents were more sensible. In any case, this is too long to spend on an afterthought. So, next up: the publication of This Little Britain.
[The story continues in three days' time.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is now available in the US. 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.

 
 
Picture
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.

PictureThe HC cover.
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.

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 ...?’

PictureMy version of the cover
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.

PictureThe fourth book.
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.

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.

PictureThe fifth book.
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.

 
 
Picture
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.

"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?)

PictureThe US ebook version of the cover.
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.

 

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    About Harry

    I'm Harry Bingham. I'm the author of Talking to the Dead, the first of the Fiona Griffiths novels. There are more FG novels on the way. If you've come here because you are a writer and want help, then you don't want this site at all, you want my friends & colleagues at The Writers' Workshop. And if you're in search of literary agents, you need Agent Hunter, dummy.

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