Big Publishing and Me (3): Maximum confidence, maximum splash

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.


[<< Previous post in series. << First post in series.]
It was a good beginning.

I worked well with my then editor, Fiona. (I’m mostly going to avoid giving surnames in this text, because I don’t want to invade the privacy of people whose contacts with me have been, from their point of view, often incidental. Mostly, though, I’m eschewing surnames to make a point. In the course of this narrative, I will talk about all my experiences good and bad. But where those experiences have been poor, they’ve seldom or never been the fault of the individuals concerned . The individuals, almost always, I’ve thoroughly liked – and, indeed, they’ve mostly been fine or good at their jobs. If some of my negative experiences are shared by other authors – as I believe they probably are – that indicates that the problems I’m speaking about have to do with the prevailing culture . . . in which case, it’s the industry, never the individuals, that should take the hits.)

The text that we auctioned was 190,000 words long. After a process of close editing, it ended up at slightly more than 180,000 words – a reduction so slight that it bears testimony to my own editorial ruthlessness. I liked the book. So did Fiona. So did, I think, most others in the firm.

We had conversations about marketing. The book’s theme was making money, specifically a million pounds, and it was clear that any marketing drive needed to centre on that. A very young, and obviously capable, marketer wanted to enclose scratchcards in the book, offering a chance to win one million pounds. The idea sounded daffy to me. She wanted to give away a million quid? Ah no, it was explained, the scratchcards offered a chance to win a million; it wouldn’t actually be guaranteed that someone would win it. But there would be a chance, right? I mean, this wasn’t just a con? Oh no, there would be a real chance of someone winning, ‘but don’t worry, we can insure against that.’

That idea died on closer analysis, though as I recall the killer issue was less the giving-away-a-million-pounds part, and more the difficulty of enclosing scratchcards in the book in a way that was secure but nevertheless allowed a reader to riffle through the pages. But still. The fact that the idea ever surfaced in the first place said something about the firm’s brio and commitment. The book’s publisher (Fiona’s boss, in effect) later told me that he remembered the acquisition of The Money Makers as marking a turn in the energies and ambitions of the firm. Not that the book brought about that turn, just that it was lucky to be around at the right time.

Then there was the matter of timeline. We’d discussed this at those opening meetings, so it didn’t come as a surprise – except that, well, things did seem slow. We sold the book to HarperCollins in October 1998. The release date was to be February 2000, not quite eighteen months later, but getting on. Given that the whole editorial and copyediting process could have been completed within a matter of weeks, that seemed startlingly distant. Yet there was a logic, a compelling one. Because while readers may think of themselves as mere servants to Literature’s timeless call, the facts prove otherwise. The market for printed books is a highly seasonal affair. The Christmas books market – hardbacks, cookery books, releases by big name authors – begins in around September and continues until new releases largely dry up in the first week or so of December. If a big book comes out in September – a new Dan Brown, for example – that Christmas selling season may even nibble into the last week or two of August.

So much for autumn. The summer season (which starts in April or May) is led by paperbacks for the beach. The biggest authors get their books out in the heaviest sales weeks. Everyone else jostles for space around them.

Which leaves late winter and early spring as the traditional season for launching debut authors. Since the retail trade starts its buying process a good six months in advance, October 1998 was way too late for us to get a book out in February 1999, so February 2000 it would have to be. My book, as it happened, was set in the three years around the millennium itself, and I’d always assumed that publication would come before that date. The book, somehow, would have worked better that way (and not only because, confident in the destructive nature of the millennium bug, I’d included a passing reference to planes falling out of the sky on the crucial date.) But still: one fluffed plane reference hardly ruined my text. If February 2000 it was to be, then so it was.

The book was to be published straight into paperback. At our very first meeting, that idea was presented to me with some timidity, as though I’d be insulted by the indignity of it. A plebian paper cover, when what I wanted was a lordly hardback! I wasn’t insulted. I couldn’t, in fact, see the point of publishing my kind of book – commercial fiction by a debutant author – in hardback at all. Why blow all your marketing spend on a format that few people like and fewer people read? Why whip up publicity for a product that simply won’t sell? It still seems strange to me that the approach isn’t now standard for debut fiction of that sort.

I didn’t, of course, simply wait for the second month of the new millennium to roll around. I was an author now. A genuine pro, no longer a wannabe. Since I was contracted to write a second book, that’s just what I began to do. That happy story – a car crash, in truth, and one of my own making – I‘ll leave for another chapter, but it’s worth remembering that though the conventional publishing industry has always been slow, that’s never been the same thing as idle. I am even now halfway through writing my fifth Fiona Griffiths crime novel, while the third novel in that series hasn’t yet come out in paperback in the UK. The pipeline is long, but its maw is always hungry.

So, while you may picture me busily writing a terrible second novel, we will speed forward through the various milestones passed by The Money Makers on its long journey to print.

The cover, for one thing. Covers are stunningly important in selling books. A casual reader browsing in a bookstore won’t, most likely, have read any reviews, or discussed the book with friends. So, while an author may have sweated over his prose, may have reworked a particular plot point several dozen times before being satisfied, may have (as I did) culled and unculled commas while waiting for an agent to say yes, none of this actually affects a reader glancing over those front-of-store tables.

Covers have to communicate instantaneously what kind of book lies beneath. People complain about the cliches – the squirly chick-lit fonts in lipstick pink, and all the rest of it – but the cliches are there to make the process of visual sorting rapid and error-free. Covers may also innovate, of course, but innovation is a riskier bet than simply referencing an accepted visual grammar.

And what was the visual grammar for my new book? It was an adventure story, certainly, but had no crime, no violence, no men with guns. It appealed to women, but wasn’t women’s fiction. It was contemporary fiction, but it couldn’t get away with those vaguely upmarket covers (pale lake, rowboat rocking by a misty jetty) which are aimed at book-groups and TV-backed reading circles. My book had committed the cardinal crime of being obviously commercial – it was fun to read – but without being genre-specific. Not crime. Not chick-lit. Not sci-fi. Not fantasy.

The awkward truth was that The Money Makers lay in that small niche whose crowning glory was and is Jeffrey Archer. Alas, HarperCollins was, at that time, the great man’s publisher so they couldn’t very well pitch me to the trade and to the general reader as being ‘the new Jeffrey Archer’. And Archer’s particular niche had been fashionable in the 1980s, had long become deeply unfashionable, and only Archer and one or two other authors of that era continued to exploit it successfully.


My first HarperCollins cover

So a book cover for The Money Makers had to transmit a message that said, roughly, ‘If you like Jeffrey Archer, then this is absolutely the kind of book you’d like, but if you think Archer is badly written and simply passé, we’d encourage you to try this anyway, because we think it’s a refreshing new variant of a breed which – we agree – has seen better days.’ Does that sound confused? Perhaps. In any event, the cover didn’t quite manage to navigate those complexities with total conviction. It boasted a deep blue background, with my name and the title heavily foiled (that is raised, textured and shiny.) In case there wasn’t enough there to keep the Braille readers occupied, the blue background was spattered with dimly-visible blue coins that were themselves somewhat raised and shiny.

I wasn’t consulted on the design process, not meaningfully. What happened, in fact, was that a trio of people from HarperCollins took me, my wife and my agent out to lunch. It was an unusually warm day for London and we sat outside at a pleasant Hammersmith restaurant. Starters came. We chatted. Then Nick, the most senior HC guy present, whipped out the cover. Ta-daa! They asked, of course, whether we liked the cover and, when our replies were less than effusive, began to sell it. ‘We wanted readers to think that they must have heard of Harry Bingham, even though, of course, they won’t have done. We wanted a cover with maximum confidence, maximum splash.’ (Gold foil is a relatively expensive cover effect, so ‘splash’ in publisher-ese usually translates into plenty of the shiny stuff.) Although we discussed the cover at fair length, publishers don’t generally show a cover to an author until the design has been largely agreed in-house. From that point onwards, there’s a kind of polite, genteel pressure on the author to say ‘yes’ – a sense that good people would be disappointed if the author weren’t charmed and thrilled.

It is, in fact, a dumb way to develop covers. Cover design is hard and groupthink almost inevitably afflicts any in-house process. Often enough, that groupthink comes up with an excellent, or at least acceptable, answer. But sometimes it doesn’t, in which case there are only two external voices a publisher can safely trust: the author and his or her agent. I have never yet known an occasion when agent and author were united in opposition to a cover when that cover did not look, in hindsight, like a poor – and sometimes disastrous – decision.

Fifteen years on, I still don’t know if that first book cover was a good one.It was definitely confident, but that wasn’t quite the same as positively good. In my view, something more contemporary was and is the only sane way to launch a new author. (A contemporary version of retro is, of course, still contemporary; my cover was just plain old-fashioned.)

On the other hand, I don’t want to be too picky. The damn thing sure looked like it thought a lot of itself. It wasn’t shy. So even if the thing wasn’t wonderful, it was at least going out into the world with a little swagger. This was a book that wanted to sell itself: a very fine attitude, if you ask me.

Thus far into my little seedling of a career, everything – still – was going very well.
[Story continues here.]

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

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

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  • Pinkbelt75

    I love this insight into the publication process. I have read both of your books on writing and being published, but it’s nice to here straight from the horses mouth.

    For the record, I thought the cover looked good. Not as nice as the Fiona Griffith’s one you chose with the help of the cloudies, but I’d probably pick it up and take a look if I was browsing at that time.