Big Publishing and Me (11): Intermission, or playing it safe

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.

“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.

My first title with Bloomsbury - or indeed any publisher other than HarperCollins.

My first title with Bloomsbury – or indeed any publisher other than HarperCollins.

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.

My second book with Bloomsbury. It's a good 'un, by the way.

My second book with Bloomsbury. It’s a good ‘un, by the way.

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 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.

[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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