Big Publishing and Me (7): Testing negative for flu

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.]
The retailer which had always most reliably supported me was WH Smith, the company which had included poor old Sweet Talking Money in its best books of the year shortlist. But Smiths is a big company, and subject to all the afflictions of big corporations, including the well-known syndrome Reorganisation Without Notice.

And so it was. The buyer who had supported me so keenly in the past was (as I understand it) fired. His replacement had barely got his feet under his new desk before a HarperCollins salesperson was asking him to place an order for The Sons of Adam.

The buyer in question had most likely not read the book, or either of its predecessors. That’s not to knock his professionalism or work ethic; simply to acknowledge that retail buyers can’t possibly read all the books that surge through their shops. The key decisions are usually made on the basis of ‘AI’ – Advance Information – sheets which contain little more than a cover image, a short blurb about the book and/or author, plus a range of necessary details to do with price, format, delivery dates and so on. And naturally, corporates do need to reshuffle staff from time to time. Incoming executives are inevitably sometimes obliged to make decisions based on scant information. For all I know, that new buyer mostly got things right. Perhaps his buying activity, viewed in the round, was more profitable for the firm than his predecessor’s choices had been.

In any case, the new guy said no, Harry Bingham’s The Sons of Adam was not for him. His store would not be stocking it. Thanks for stopping by.

This was catastrophic news. Bestseller status? Not a chance. Household name? Forget it. Without Smiths, it would be impossible for me to achieve even the sales levels of Sweet Talking Money. Promotional slots would become less, if at all, available. And of course, by the time we had book four to pitch, my sales curve would look like someone jumping from the ten-metre board.

In book trade terms, I had just received something close to a death sentence.

The HarperCollins jacket for TSOA. Compare it with the cover version I commissioned (below).

The HarperCollins jacket for TSOA. Compare it with the cover version I commissioned (below).

The only thing that might have alleviated the damage was that promised no-holds-barred campaign by HarperCollins. A really strong campaign would, presumably, force the book through shop tills other than Smith’s. After all, retailers are less concerned with a book’s overall sales numbers than they are with their own. If other retailers did well out of The Sons of Adam, they’d presumably be happy to order the follow-up – and maybe, just maybe, that Smiths buyer might be persuaded that he’d missed a trick.

So, bad as things were, all was not lost … except that it turned out that HarperCollins had absolutely no intention of honouring the marketing commitments they’d made, not even in the most cursory of ways. They didn’t actually bother to tell me so. Indeed, they didn’t even let me know that Smiths had refused to take the novel. What actually happened is that my editor rang with ‘good news’ about a promotional slot offered by one other, more minor, retailer. It was only when I grilled her about the full range of retail uptake that she divulged the bad news. As phone calls go, it was like a doctor ringing a patient to say, ‘Good news! You tested negative for the flu,’ then admitting, under interrogation, that, ‘Oh shucks, yes, you remember that cancer test we did …?’

My version of the cover: commissioned for a US ebook edition.

My version of the cover: commissioned for a US ebook edition.

By the time I found out that HarperCollins would prefer to cheat an author than honour its obligations, it was too late for a marketing campaign to be arranged in any event. That didn’t, of course, stop me from ringing everyone I could think of to find out what the hell they thought they were playing at. My editor, I think, was genuinely surprised and upset by my reaction. ‘But Harry,’ she said, alluding to the news from Smiths, ‘it wouldn’t have been in our commercial interest to campaign on that level.’ Damn right it wouldn’t! That is precisely why we bother to write contracts: to bind us to a certain course of action in advance. If we all just did whatever suited us at the time, we’d have no need of contracts.

My editor, on that same phone call, also told me, ‘Contracts just don’t mean in publishing what they do in investment banking.’ She really believed that. I mean, I can’t actually see HarperCollins choosing to advance that argument in a court of law, but so little did the firm feel bound by its written undertakings that it acted as if contracts were like greetings cards – expressions of warm wishes – rather than anything more formal.

Interestingly, it was hard to find anyone in the books industry who shared my sense of outrage. One senior agent I spoke to commented, ‘Oh, but publishers never mean what they say in those publishing plans.’ Which, if true, begs the question why agents ever bothered to negotiate the damn things. Or why, once negotiated, they forget to tell authors to disregard the commitments completely.

Friends of mine have asked the obvious question, ‘But Harry, why didn’t you just sue them?’

A good question, but there are a few meaningful hurdles to that course of action. First of all, it’s a rare author (very brave, or very rich) who feels he or she can sue a well-resourced multinational, particularly when that same multinational controls the author’s output. What’s more, there just aren’t that many hefty publishers out there, and those that do exist are part of a clubbable and talkative industry. If I sued HarperCollins, I’d have risked destroying my prospects at every other firm in town too. Since the same basic logic governs pretty much every author / publisher conflict, there is in effect there’s no sanction on dubious, shoddy or fraudulent practice, beyond the firm’s own sense of honour.

So: no courtroom theatrics, alas, but I was brought to recognise that I’d reached a seminal moment in my career.

First, I realised I could not responsibly depend on authorial advances for my living. I needed some completely separate source of income, which would not depend on someone else’s bookcover, some retail buyer’s whim, some publishing company’s marketing choices. I contemplated returning to the City, to work as a banker again. I explored journalism. But the City didn’t appeal, my forays into journalism led nowhere – and so (with Nuala’s capable help) I set up a little editorial business from home. The idea was that I would offer editorial help to aspiring writers, using the skills I’d acquired to help others. It seemed like a sweet solution. We called that teeny-tiny little company The Writers’ Workshop. Hoped, maybe, it might one day grow into something.

Secondly, I realised I would need to reinvent myself as an author, if I wanted to stay in the game. I didn’t have any immediate ideas about what that reinvention would involve, but I could see that the author of The Money Makers and The Sons of Adam would need to morph into some other being who could leave that old sales baggage behind.

And third – I used to be an investment banker, remember – I went mental at HarperCollins. Insisted on a meeting with one of the firm’s more senior officers. Presented the commitments they’d made, compared them with the derisory nature of the marketing actually done. I wasn’t threatening legal action, but I did demand a response to their breach of contract (a phrase I used often, and with pleasure.)

They did OK, actually. Not well, but OK. We agreed that we would simply restart things as though The Sons of Adam had never happened. The marketing commitments they had made with respect to that book would be transferred to the next title. And they would take on a further novel – my fifth for the firm – on the same terms as they had taken on numbers three and four. By that point, I didn’t look like a £50,000-a-book kind of author, so their willingness to take that fifth novel did, I think, betoken some acceptance that they needed to make good in some respect.

The fourth book

The fourth book

I saw out those contracts. My fourth book, Glory Boys, was an epic aviation-themed adventure story set in Prohibition Era America. My fifth book, The Lieutenant’s Lover, was a weepie love-story-come-adventure set across the Russian Revolution and post-WW2 Berlin. I liked writing both books. They sold moderately well – in the twenty-something thousands of copies – but I knew, and HarperCollins knew, that I would not settle for being an author of moderate income, and moderate sales. Not that there’s any dishonour in that calling – very far from it – just that it wasn’t me. I wanted big, or I wanted out.

My relations with HarperCollins remained perfectly polite. When it came to the point, they quite forgot that they had made any marketing commitments in relation to Glory Boys (that is: the commitments they’d agreed to transfer from The Sons of Adam) and were set to do very little there too. On the other hand, when I reminded them (with some vigour) of our understanding, they did respond. They never came close to matching the original The Sons of Adam commitments, but they made an effort. I knew I wouldn’t be able to force any more from them, so thanked them for their efforts and left it at that.

I never met an individual on the HarperCollins fiction side whom I didn’t like, nor did I meet one who was bad at their job. Some of them were just phenomenal. If the firm as a whole was untrustworthy on the matter of marketing – well, that had more to do with the culture of the broader industry, than with the perfidy of any individual. As far as I understand it, those old-fashioned marketing commitments (“we promise to do X, Y and Z for your book”) have essentially vanished from authorial contracts, no doubt because of the kind of problems I’ve talked about in this post. That doesn’t mean it was ever OK for big firms to break their solemn, written promises – but at least they learned. A culture which was, at that time, both widespread and unethical has changed, and changed very much for the better.

My fifth and final novel for. The woman in the image is meant to be a 45 year old Red Army sergeant. I never knew they came so comely.

My fifth and final novel for HarperCollins

As for what was left of my fiction career: The Lieutenant’s Lover slipped out into hardback, then paperback. My German publisher, who had always chosen to market me as a financial thriller writer, was slightly baffled to receive a love story from me, and asked if I would be happy to change my name for this title. Sure, I said. My full name is actually Thomas Henry Bingham, though I’ve always been known as Harry, so I suggested that they use the name ‘Tom Henry’ for the new book. Danke sehr, they told me, but they were actually thinking a woman’s name might be more suitable …

That German deal never quite materialised (though had it done so, I would have written as ‘Emma Makepeace’, which would have been lovely), but my first authorial career was burning out and I was content to let it.

One career had ended. It was time to see if I could start a new one.
[Story continues here (from 31 Jan).]

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

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

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  • pinkbelt75

    More cliff hangers. More waiting. Aargh.

    Sounds like a bit of a nightmare scenario, but at least you persisted and got a deal from them.

    I love this because you never hear this side of things.

    Hopefully there will be a happier outcome.

  • Like pinkbelt75 says, this is the side of the publishing world we don’t hear about. We still keep writing though, don’t we!

  • It’s a rollercoaster ride, and utterly terrifying to read about. The casual way in which big publishers could ignore the commitments they had made is shocking but somehow not surprising. Glad that has changed. What is coming through most clearly is just how hard it is to make a decent living from writing fiction, even if you get signed to an agent and a major publisher

  • D K Roberts

    These instalments are rattling along just as I should expect from a writer of gripping thrillers! Eye-opening and fascinating tales. Thanks very much indeed for these, Harry.

  • Harry

    You’re welcome! And I’d say we’re getting to the proper action now. Everything else was warm up!