Big Publishing and Me (2): The worst submission package in history

strange-death-cover-350pxI’m Harry Bingham. I’m currently working on my tenth novel, have also written 4 non-fiction books, and worked as editor/ghost on several other published books.  I’ve never previously written in detail about my adventures in the land of publishing, but here it is: the full story. I hope it’s of interest.

These blog posts are timed to coincide with the release of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths in the US, and if you would like to buy that book you may do so here. It’s had some quite nice reviews from both critics & readers!

[Previous post in this series can be found here.]
I left work, cared for my wife, and wrote my first novel.

That novel was The Money Makers, the race-to-make-a-million romp that I had conceived some years before. The novel wasn’t high art, by any means, but it was fun, the way Jeffrey Archer would be if reading his prose didn’t make your gums hurt.

It took me nine months to write that beast of a book. My writing time was spent, often enough, at my wife’s bedside, she half-dozing, me typing as quietly as I could in the half-light. Strangely, though, the strange and frightening circumstances of the book’s creation show through not at all in the reading of it. The opposite indeed, as though ordinary life, jubilant and irrepressible, was forced burst through the constrictions of that sickened life.

I knew I was a beginner, of course. Knew too that my education was hopelessly adapted to the kind of book I wanted to write. So I set myself rules that I adhered to closely. First, I wanted every chapter to have a piece of magic. Some memorable setting, a splash of the unusual. There was one chapter, for example, where it was necessary for one of my protagonists to have a conversation with his father-in-law. There was no reason why that conversation couldn’t have taken place in some perfectly ordinary way: over dinner, on the phone, in an office. I wrote a draft of just such a dialogue. Short, credible, effective. The scene did what was necessary, then moved on. But it bothered me. It was breaking my own rules. So I took the same conversation and re-set it in a helicopter flown from London to Devon in a thunderstorm. Same conversation, different setting – and a much stronger final result.

I was also fierce about economy. That may, perhaps, sound implausible when the final product weighed in at a beefy 190,000 words (about 650 paperback pages), but it’s true nevertheless. I used to write a chapter, then go back to it, search out any paragraph or sentence that could be deleted, then delete it. Any word even. It’s a habit I’ve never lost.

That wasn’t most of it, though. I was an ex-investment banker and brought a banker’s work ethic to the project. When I re-read my ‘completed’ book, I realised I’d got better: the end was much better than the beginning. It couldn’t really have been otherwise, since I was now 180,000 words more experienced than I had been at the start. So I deleted the first third of the book – 60,000 words, the equivalent of one shortish novel – and rewrote it.

And my book got better. I became confident that I had something which would sell. I didn’t know the statistics of success (roughly speaking, a literary agent will reject 999 manuscripts for every one they agree to represent) but nor did I care. My story was a decently written adventure story with a strong concept and a proper ending. How could it not sell? Feeling confident, I bought the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (the British equivalent of the American Writer’s Market) and chose six agents, more or less at random.

The next step was the submission package. Three chapters, a synopsis, and a covering letter. How hard could that be? I plucked three of my stronger chapters from random points in the novel. Wrote a synopsis. Drafted a covering letter which – being an ex-investment banker – I made sure delivered a good, hard pitch for the product I was hawking. Because agents asked for text in double-line spacing, the prospective page count for the novel was nudging seven hundred pages, so I reduced the font-size to ten-point, to keep things manageable. Printed off half a dozen submission packages and popped them in the post.

At the time, I was serenely confident that my material would soon secure an offer of representation. With hindsight, I realise I had probably compiled just about the worst submission package in history. The letter was pushy, brash, arrogant. The chapters were a mess, the text all but unreadable for anyone over the age of thirty-five. I waited four weeks, accumulated a handful of rejection letters, then chose another half dozen agents and repeated the process. (Except by this point, I had learned the unwisdom of choosing random chapters and also been kindly advised that sending out unreadable text was a bad idea.) [NB: if you’re a writer and you don’t want to write a terrible covering letter then read this and this. Maybe also this. And if you don’t want to be picking your agents at random, then we’d strongly recommend you use this.]

Within weeks, I had two offers of representation, one from the CEO of a large and well-known literary agency, the other from the co-owner of a two-woman agency, which operated out of a West London basement. To have two offers put me in a rare and privileged position: nearly all authors simply say yes to the first agent who offers representation. I was able to choose.

I visited both agents. The CEO – a man with a stellar roster of clients – was hardly accustomed to being interviewed, but bore the interrogation with remarkable grace. I liked him. He, and his firm, were entirely impressive. But I couldn’t help but notice that I was never going to be the most important author on that great man’s list. I’d never have the first claim on his time. Felicity, the other agent who offered to represent me, was in a quite different position. Her list, and that of her agency, boasted plenty of cultured and respected authors, but was relatively lacking in out-and-out commercial writers. The sort of writers who, with luck and a following wind, might provide the firm’s bread-and-butter business for years to come. In a small but meaningful way, her firm needed me. So I said yes to Felicity and sent a polite no to the CEO (whose career, however, seems to have ridden the setback well.)

We sent the book out. I forget exactly how many publishers we approached, but perhaps about eight or nine. That number might sound low – there are thousands of publishers in the UK – but we were after those who could handle a big commercial novel: that is, ones who could pay a sizeable advance and have plenty of cash to put behind the book’s marketing. There weren’t, and aren’t, more than eight or ten such outfits in town

Indeed, the ‘eight or nine’ figure somewhat exaggerates their number. The Hachette group, for example, owns Orion, Headline, Hodder & Stoughton, Little, Brown and Transworld. Hodder & Stoughton in turn owns John Murray. Those individual firms may bid separately for a particular work, but they’ll only bid against outsiders, never against each other. So if, for example, Orion and Headline are the last two bidders standing, the agent is not allowed to set the two off against each other, as they would do if the firms were genuinely independent. There are also some excellent smaller publishers, of course – Faber and Canongate, for example – but they’re not firms routinely capable of making a big play for big books.

And we wanted big.

We wanted big and we got lucky. Plenty of literary auctions can last weeks, even months. This one was a whirlwind. We got our first offer very quickly. Felicity instantly transmitted the existence of the offer to all other participants. The bidding rose very fast, so that some interested parties were blitzed out of the auction before they’d really had a chance to figure out their maximum price. Bids sailed through that magical ‘six figure sum’ threshold and continued on up. Finally, we were left with two bidders – Hodder and HarperCollins – each offering the exact same sum: £160,000 ($265,000) for a two book deal.

(The two-book deal deserves a word of explanation. Most fiction is sold in two book deals, so the author is selling the manuscript he or she has already written, plus one more. That ‘plus one’ doesn’t need to exist. It doesn’t even need to exist as a twinkle in the author’s eye. It’s simply that first books are costly to launch, as a publisher has to establish a new author, who has as yet no readership, no profile with the trade. To recoup those costs, a publisher will generally hope to break even on the first book, and make some money on the second.

These things aren’t, however, always well-explained to the newbie author. I know one author who was told, a couple of weeks prior to her first meeting with her new publisher, that her work would be acquired in a two-book deal. Oh crap, thought she, I’ve only written one. So she phoned her boss and told him that she needed two weeks off. She bought a load of coffee and wrote in a frenzy of sixteen hour days. By the time, she arrived at that first meeting, she had a draft manuscript of her second title. Needless to say, her publisher was astonished.)

I went to see both top bidders, accompanied by my agent.

Both meetings were broadly similar. We met an editor, a publicist, a sales guy, a marketer. Somebody senior, who popped in for two minutes to shake my hand and tell me how much he loved my book.

Those expressions of love attract a certain amount of scepticism in the wider media. Hollywood, for example, tends to portray the publishing industry as composed of insecure, lying narcissists, who will love you one moment and stab you the next. I’m less cynical. The industry does, in fact, operate on passion. When an editor bids for a book, she’s not making that bid in isolation from the broader firm. On the contrary: she’ll have to solicit and secure support from the sales team from other editors, from senior colleagues, even (if the price tag is a big one) the Chief Executive. That’s not to say that all those people read every word of your book. They can’t and won’t. But a competent professional reader can imbibe fifty pages and think, Yes, this is the right kind of thing, the sort of thing we want to publish. Publishing claims to run on passion, and it really, truly does. It’s one of the nice things about it. If Hollywood portrays other media types as back-stabbing narcissists, it’s perhaps because they’re drawing on models that lie closer to home.

So. Two firms. Two meetings. Two apparently similar groups of people saying two broadly similar things.

The difference was the body language. HarperCollins, for reasons that still elude me today, made a big deal of that first book. Whereas Hodder took me to a cramped and windowless meeting room buried somewhere in the bowels of their Euston Road headquarters, HarperCollins took me to their boardroom. The Chief Exec of the entire UK company popped in to meet me. (He was called Eddie Bell, and had the bulldog manner of any successful Murdoch executive. He struck me, even in those few moments, as quite atypical for publishing.) There was also, I have no idea why, a huge platter of cheese on a sideboard. Stilton, celery, biscuits. ‘Have some cheese, Harry,’ cried somebody, wielding a knife.

I don’t know if management texts have been written on the relationship between cheese provision in meetings and the successful outcome of those meetings. But the choice I faced seemed simple enough. Two nice, capable, eager bunches of people wanted my book. They both offered the exact same amount of money. The exact same level of royalties. Both wanted minor tweaks to my text, but nothing huge. Only one company seemed really, really eager – eager to the point of laying on entire bunches of celery simply by way of garnish. The other firm seemed great – but where was the cheese?

So I signed up with HarperCollins. It was October 1998 and my new life had begun.
[Story continues here.]

The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths is being published in the US on January 29, 2015. If you’d like to buy it, you can do so right here right now.

If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here.

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  • I sat laughing at all the rookie submission mistakes…recognised quite a few I’d done myself! Took me a darn site longer to pull the MS into shape after the rejections though – almost didn’t make it.

    And being offered cheese would’ve made me sign on the spot, too. 🙂

  • Harry

    The odd thing is how much publishers focus on the chequebook end of things, not least because agents make em do just that. The non-financial aspects (and not just dairy-based aspects either) are often barely considered as part of the mix . . . yet they matter as much or more to countless authors. As it was, I got cheese AND a fine publisher.

  • Pinkbelt75

    This is great reading. Just imagine what would have happened if all of them would have said yes. It would have been a battle of the buffets.
    I did wonder though, how long was the gap between the first agency and the second agency. Did the second contact you before you’d screamed yes down the phone to the first? Or did they arrive around about the same time? That was a dream scenario, how many people would love to be in that situation.

  • Harry

    The two offers arrived at much the same time, which was great. But in any event, writers should not just scream yes down the phone. You MUST meet your agent and check the chemistry is OK – and check that the agent has the same understanding of your book and your career as you do. The gap between the phone call and that meeting gives you plenty of time to contact the other agents you have the book out with. I know you don’t feel cool in those circumstances, but you can PLAY it cool nevertheless.

  • Pinkbelt75

    So if you had your book out with three agents and one of them offered representation, would you advise contacting the other two in the hope of enticing a biding war?

  • R J Jefferson (OFP)

    Thoroughly enjoying this.