Big Publishing and Me (10): The Everest of catastrophe

strange-death-cover-350pxI’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.

That title! Oh dear.

That title! Oh dear.

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

Going all in

Going all in

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 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.

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  • Interested to know what you now feel about traditional publishing. Whether you still think that getting a traditional deal is ‘a good thing’, given your experience of what can subsequently happen, even with contracts signed.

  • Pinkbelt75


    This is so illuminating. Obviously, well I am hoping so, there will be a rebirth. A Phoenix rising from the ashes of a Harper Collins inferno. I am surprised at you biting your tongue, but I suppose your options where limited.
    It does come across as a struggle, and one that most people wouldn’t even dream of. I for one would just think, Harry Bingham, he’s got it easy. A successful author with his own business. But it’s surprising to hear such an honest tale of your journey.

    Thanks for sharing.


  • Harry

    Paddy: these things aren’t simple and massively depend on your book and your situation. And yes, of course trad publishing still has a ton to offer: I AM traditionally published right now (with Orion in the UK, and plenty of others overseas). That experience has been wholly great. But as a rough guide, I’d say the following things still mostly apply:

    – if you can get a decent advance from a big publisher, and you are writing fiction or broad-appeal non-fiction, then you should take it

    – if you are writing literary / book group fiction, then you need the print market, which means you need a publisher.

    – if you are writing niche, subject-led non-fiction, then you are probably better off self-publishing

    – anything else, it’s all debatable. In fact, even the above bullets are debatable, cos – as I say – it all depends. Not very clear, is it? But then life sometimes isn’t.