Big Publishing and Me (4): Buying ads & pouring asphalt

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.

Kirkus calls it “An exceptional piece of work” and Kirkus is always right, y’know.

[<< Previous post in series. <<First post in series.]
Indeed, all through that long run-up to publication, HarperCollins largely managed to maintain that air of confidence and swagger, exemplified, not least, by one of the happiest occasions in my publishing life, a meet-the-trade shindig organised by the firm’s sales team.

That shindig looked, I suppose, like countless other corporate entertainment gigs. A large hotel is booked. Various trade types are assembled, given plastic badges, told to mingle. A flock of HarperCollins types grab authors and thrust them at buyers. Everyone feels a little awkward, and our hosts – the only people who know both groups of people – work hard to keep the mood bright and focused.

But then the booze flowed and the nerves wore off. There were perhaps half a dozen authors present: a wee handful of new or up-and-coming talent that the firm particularly wanted to promote. Each author had their own table to charm and delight, and I do remember being particularly delightful to one character, who I later realised had a marginal role at a minor retailer. Hot damn! I’d been launching my best charm missiles at the wrong target, and we were on pudding already!

I needn’t have worried. The real business of the evening began once the puddings had been cleared. The alcohol, which had flowed generously before, flowed prodigiously now. We mingled, we drank, we talked, we moved on. And I was impressed by the quality of people I met. Not simply the strength of their livers, but by their love of books. I remember meeting, for example, the chief book buyer at Tescos, the country’s biggest supermarket. It’s conventional to sneer at the idea of grocery-store-as-bookshop, but the people who sneer have obviously not met that particular buyer. She was passionate about reading, and hugely knowledgeable. Indeed, her favourite Saturday morning recreation was going to Waterstones, an upmarket book chain, and browsing its titles. She reckoned she read perhaps a couple of books a week, and mostly for fun, not business. The buyer from Asda, an offshoot of Walmart, was almost equally committed.

Indeed, the only person who shocked me was a very junior buyer from WH Smith, the country’s largest mass-market retailer of books, CDs, and the like. He had only just moved to books from music and he complained to me and Nick, my editor’s boss, that he was bewildered by the new marketplace. ‘I mean, when we’re buying music, we just listen to the radio and we know we have to make those songs and those artists available in our stores. How do you do that with books?’

He really wanted to know. Nick and I exchanged looks. Who was going to field this one? I left it to Nick.

‘You read them,’ he said.

‘What, you read them?’

The buyer seemed genuinely astonished by the idea that you could learn the market by simply reading book, after book, after book, after book. Astonished by the notion that this level of commitment was even plausible. We did what we could to reassure that youngster that, yes, people, really did buy books because they liked reading them, and yes, many people really did read quite a lot of books for pleasure. (This anecdote may sound like I’m being snippy about Smiths, but the anecdote has a sweet ending. Some weeks or months later, Nick heard again from that junior buyer: he had taken Nick’s wise advice, had actually started reading, and found – to his astonishment – that he adored it.)

I ended that evening as drunk as I’ve almost ever been, but swayed upstairs to bed on a ocean wave of good feeling. I felt that these were good people, who liked me, who liked books, and who might very well bring their mighty powers to bear in promoting mine. I felt like a young man on a roll. My foot was firmly planted on the first rung of the ladder. Things would only get better.

The feeling survived the night. A few weeks before publication, for example, I had the best meeting with a publicist I’ve ever had. The publicist (another Fiona) took me out to much and (metaphorically) picked me up and shook me till the last small coin of my private life fell jingling into her lap. ‘You have a dog?’ she said. ‘Great. The dog magazines are always desperate for stories.’

That desperate, I wondered. Really?

Really. Fiona was right. There’s no particular news-worthiness in a novelist-does-his-job-and-writes-a-book story, any more than there is in a plumber-fits- bathroom one. To get any traction in the press, we had to mine the story of how I’d come to write the book. An ordinary domestic tale in most ways, but in publicity terms it became High Flying City Banker Gives Up Work To Care for Beautiful Sick Wife. My publicist, a woman of almost superhuman energy, pushed that limp little story for all it was worth.

She scored a full page feature in the Daily Telegraph, Britain’s biggest selling quality paper. The piece was elegantly and sensitively written. It didn’t mention the book all that much, but those sort of things don’t. I was the story, the book only an excuse.

No other major British newspaper would pick up the story after the Telegraph, but we had a piece (also charming, also well-written) in the London Evening Standard. Diary pieces in The Times. A feature in some women’s magazine or another. Interviews, photo shoots, local radio. A couple of nibbles on national stations.

And so – book written and edited, cover agreed, the trade alcoholically entertained, publicity blitz all sorted – we were done. It was the first February of the new millennium and the book was published. Publishers don’t, on the whole, throw launch parties for authors. The things are expensive and don’t sell nearly enough books to justify their cost. But my sister, never one to let a party-opportunity pass, threw one for me. We invited a million people, sold a load of books, and drank champagne. Success, we knew, lay just around the corner.

And so, in a way, it did. In those far-off days, publishers still had money with which to market books – and agents had the power to make them spend it. The last clause of my first contract reads:

It is understood that the Publishers will promote [The Money Makers] by way of marketing to the value of £50,000.’

That sounds good, though should you look at that clause with a lawyer’s eye, you’ll find something a little curious about it. ‘GUARANTEED MARKETING SPEND’ – that sounds, does it not, like a guarantee? A commitment to spend money. But then the clause itself sounds more hesitant: ‘it is understood that …’ Contracts don’t normally shilly-shally. If something’s agreed, they say so: ‘The publishers will spend a minimum of £50,000 on marketing The Money Makers,’ or something like that.

I was still more of an investment banker than an author, so I queried that clause with my agent. She told me to regard the clause as more of a statement of intent than an actual commitment, saying that in practice no publisher was actually likely to spend £50,000 on advertising a new book by a debut author – but then again what was marketing spend anyway? If we chose to query the spend, the firm would be able to find enough overheads-necessary-to-the-functioning-of-the-marketing-department that they’d be able to clamber their way to any sum we cared to name, no matter how contrived their reasoning.

At the time, that struck me as an odd response. Yes, of course, the receptionists who man and woman the front desk at HarperCollins are, kind of, necessary to the operation of the marketing department. So too is money spent repaving the carpark or cleaning the bathrooms. But that’s not marketing, is it? Buying adspace is marketing. Pouring asphalt is not. I couldn’t quite see the point of going to the trouble of agreeing a clause if we didn’t believe it meant anything and if we had no intention of enforcing it.

I kept those reservations to myself, however, and they turned out not to matter. I had the pleasure of seeing HarperCollins in hunting mode, and very impressive the firm was too. I very much doubt if they actually spent an actual £50,000 on actual marketing, but the hell with it. They spent plenty. There were adverts all over Victoria Station in London. A huge billboard at Paddington Station. Adverts on the Tube. Some rather complicated adverts that were somehow pasted onto the floor at a couple of mainline railway stations. People handing out little two-chapter samplers of the book to fiction-hungry commuters.

And the book sold.

We had excellent publicity, a wonderful marketing push, a strong retail platform (that is: you could actually find my books in bookshops, which doesn’t always happen) and a cover that, if not wonderful, was at least brassy and pushy and self-confident.

In all, I believe we sold about 70,000 copies. The novel appeared on the Sunday Times bestseller list (for one week only, in position #27) – but still, the fact that it appeared at all has permitted publishers ever since to refer to me as ‘bestselling author, Harry Bingham …’

HarperCollins probably lost a little money on the book, or maybe just about broke even, but they’d have been more than content with that outcome. Publishers expect to lose money on a first book. About seven or eight books in ten ‘don’t meet budget expectations’ in the prissy accountant’s phrase. Or, to put the same thing more bluntly, about seventy percent of books lose money. (I’m talking about trade fiction and non-fiction – the kind of stuff you find front-of-store in bookshops. Academic and professional work usually makes money for the publisher: advances are small, budgets are mingy, and the market much more predictable.) If my book lost a little money – well, what the hell? It didn’t lose much. It built a readership. It made a mark. In theory at least, we’d do a little better on book two, then build from there.

It didn’t happen like that, of course, and the first error – a big one – was mine.
[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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  • R J Jefferson (OFP)


    This is the third perspective I have read about how invasive the process of establishing a Unique Selling Point can be to one’s private life.

    I am also struck by how grounded and focused on the end result you seem to have remained through all of this.

    I puff up my plumage for a week if I get a nice comment on a miss spelled blog. And I rage if someone points out simple errors.

    I couldn’t imagine going through something like this, with all the introspection and attempts at commercializing your private life, and not either throwing someone out of a window or going into Diva mode….