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
For one thing, the Writers’ Workshop, my writers’ consultancy, was (to my surprise) becoming increasingly successful. I’d originally assumed that I wouldn’t receive many manuscripts to look at, so that I’d be able to handle the editorial load using just me and a friend of mine, also a novelist. I was swiftly disabused of that notion and within a month or two of launching the company, was passing manuscripts off to other highly experienced and capable hands. I started out with two editors, then six, then a dozen – and we now have approximately 1 gazillion absolutely superb editors, with the capacity, between us, to comment intelligently on almost any type of book or screenplay.
But I also had an idea for a work of non-fiction. The idea was simply this: to take a look at the full sweep of British history and locate those ways in which our story differs from those of our neighbours.
Some of those differences would have an obvious, patriotic undertone. For example, whereas states on the continent of Europe were driven to plunge their military resources into armies, England (and later Britain) faced a different set of strategic priorities, ones which would lead to our long emphasis on naval excellence. So successful was that emphasis that, at one point, the British navy could assemble more warships than every other navy in the world combined: a remarkable statistic.
Other differences were more subtle, less obviously a matter for patriotic fire. So, for example, by various accidents of history, England stuck with a common law, trial-by-jury type legal system, whereas every other country in Europe ended up opting for a model that harked back to Roman times. Whether that was a Good Thing or a Bad Thing is unclear, but it is, for sure, an interesting one. (The United States has, of course, also inherited that British common law tradition: the two countries are joined by a lot more than language.)
And then too there were numerous other little exceptionalisms that offered some quirky good fun. Why, for example, does the Japanese Prime Minister wear a business suit, while the Prime Minister of Great Britain does not wear a kimono? The answer is that the modern business suit derives from the style of dress developed by the Englishman, Beau Brummel, and Brummel’s decisive model ended up becoming adopted as the international standard of men’s fashion. Putting the same thing another way, the Japanese Prime Minister goes to work dressed in the British national costume – a strange thought, when you consider it.
For me back then, the particular joy of this kind of non-fiction is that an author can sell the book before it’s written. With novels, that never happens, or at least it happens so rarely that you can safely ignore the exceptions. If a novel takes a year or so to write, that time and effort is entirely at the author’s risk. If the novel doesn’t strike a chord with publishers, then too bad: you’ve lost that year’s work. You might get rejected because your novel isn’t good enough – which would be entirely your fault – or it might be for entirely other reasons. If, for example, you were unlucky enough to have written a book about Thomas Cromwell shortly after Hilary Mantel’s blockbusting Wolf Hall came to market, you could forget about any hope of selling your work. Ditto, if your vampire novel arrived too late for the vampire wave, or your children’s novel was themed around bullying at a moment when bullying (from a publisher’s perspective) seemed so last year. Those are all sound reasons for rejection, of course – publishers are there to make money – but it’s a scary old world for the would-be novelist, particularly if that would-be novelist is foolish enough to have given up a lucrative day job in banking.
Non-fictioneers can afford much more modest experiments. I wrote perhaps 10,000 words of my projected history book and an outline of everything else. My then agent, with consummate professionalism, told me that if I wanted her to continue representing me, she would be honoured to do so, but that this kind of history project wasn’t really her thing. She said that if I wanted to find an agent more in tune with the new turn my career was taking, I should certainly do so.
I thanked her, and took her advice.
The Writers’ Workshop had given me a much wider experience of agents than I’d had when first starting out, so I felt confident in my ability to seek out the very best. My very first port of call was an agency – middling sized, but very old, very august – called AM Heath, and specifically its senior agent, Bill Hamilton. Over a cup of tea in his office, he told me that he liked my writing and liked my concept but that my current draft didn’t work at all. ‘We need something like a posh loo book,’ he told me. ‘A gift book for the Christmas market.’
A loo book? In America, the same thing would be called a bathroom book, but neither way did it seem like the kind of thing I’d want to write. I wanted to go upmarket, go serious. I wanted to be Thoughtful and Important. So convinced was I that Bill had utterly misread me and my project that I think I would have made my excuses and left (nicely, of course: I’m brought up that way)… except – that cup of tea! I am more or less addicted to tea and I’d drunk nothing since leaving Oxfordshire two hours before.
So I stayed. Long enough to finish that tea. But, as I stayed, Bill went on talking. He spoke about how he read the market, about his view of what publishers wanted.
And, damn the man, he was right, as he almost always is. I left Bill’s office that day realising I needed to recast my book into much more popular form. My move upmarket seemed to have hit the down elevator and I’d be emerging in the lobby again, just where I’d started.
I didn’t get that book right, not straight away. It took one more round of kicking from Bill (Shorter chapters! Think bathroom!) before I got it right. But what I had felt good: about 10-15,000 words of punchy, short-chaptered material and an outline of a book that would run to some forty-odd chapters in total. Bill liked the material and he agreed to take that short chunk of text out to publishers. It was like The Money Makers all over again. A test of the market.
And – another blowout. A gusher, a windfall, a lottery win.
My idea, plus my writing, plus Bill’s tutelage, plus his knowledge of where and how to pitch the work made for a potent combination. Numerous publishers were interested. Ebury, part of Random House, bid £150,000 ($250,000) for a two-book deal, commenting ‘we really know how to do this kind of thing,’ as they did so. That phrase – this kind of thing – I admit to finding slightly shocking. Every author is so engrossed in the uniqueness of his or her particular project that it’s hard for us to remember that publishers swim in an ocean of such uniquery. However much a particular editor might express love for a particular writer or a particular book, they will never be unaware that there are other writers, other books, other bids for the reader’s wallet.
Ebury’s bid was strong, but it was soon swatted from contention by two bids that came in later. One from John Murray (part of the Hachette Group) and one from Fourth Estate, an imprint belonging to none other than HarperCollins. Both these subsequent bids were for the eye-popping sum of £175,000 ($290,000).
With hindsight, I think I should have visited – actually visited – not just the two high bidders, but Ebury too. I didn’t. I spoke to the John Murray editor by phone. Ditto Mitzi, the Fourth Estate one. Both women were clever, professional, committed. Fine publishers in both cases. But Fourth Estate had, I thought, the slightly stronger reputation and I had an excellent personal chemistry with Mitzi. So I said yes to Fourth Estate, yes to HarperCollins. I was back in the saddle: a professional author once again.
A professional author who, however, wasn’t to be given much breathing space. We agreed a deal in, I think, October of that year, 2006, and Mitzi wanted a complete draft by the end of May 2007 for publication in the early autumn. Yikes! I’m a reasonably swift writer and we never intended This Little Britain to be a long book, but the damn thing covered everything. English language? Check. Literature? Check. Legal systems? Uh-huh. Parliament and democracy? Yep and yep. The scientific revolution? Of course. The Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions? Naturally. Can’t overlook those. Beau Brummel and his damn fancy-pants dress code? Yes, OK. The British influence on sports? The nation’s record on slavery? All that naval stuff? What about public sewers and the health transition? Or remarkable aspects of medieval social welfare reform? Eighteenth century nepotism? The lapse of the censorship acts?
Not since leaving investment banking have I worked so hard. I hired someone to come in and run the Writers’ Workshop office for me. (She was fab, and still a close friend.) And I worked. Wrote out a schedule of which chapter I had to write by when, and spent countless hours reading, researching – and bashing out chapters when I reckoned I’d read enough. At one point, I realised that my stack of research materials had grown higher than me. Then the books fell over, and I shifted most of them into the spare bedroom, and went on buying, and reading, and buying, and reading. I came to know more about more disparate things than I had ever conceived necessary or probable.
And I did it. Produced a proper manuscript on time, and one that covered everything it needed to cover. I got two professional historians to read the thing for me. One a medieval specialist, the other a professor in Victorian history, who were, between them, capable of correcting any mistakes that had crept in. Maurice Keen, the medievalist, was particularly helpful. Understanding that my book was aimed a popular, non-specialist market, he was prone to saying things like, ‘Harry, I think we can’t quite get away with this wild generalisation, but I think I might be able to offer you another wild generalisation which might work even better.’ He exemplified the very best of that old-world, Oxfordy scholarship and care. I was lucky to have him.
Mitzi, meanwhile, hadn’t been idle. She was thinking about book covers and marketing and all the things that should occupy any good editor’s mind. The things, indeed, which any successful publication would depend on.
I’ll talk about the publication process in the next post, but for now one final thought. It’s striking, when you think about it, that HarperCollins never chose to talk to me towards the end of my fiction career with them. A conversation along the lines of, ‘Look, Harry, I know your fiction hasn’t quite worked out the way we both wanted, but we like you as a human and we like you as a writer, and we just wanted to ask if you had anything else up your sleeve? Perhaps we could figure out a way to continue together.’
Had they had that conversation at me when I was at my most impecunious, they could, I’m sure, have acquired Little Britain for much less than half the price they actually paid. They didn’t have that chat, so they acquired the book at auction . . . which was nice for me and ended up being very pricey for them. So somewhere, there were some dumb business decisions being made.
Yet was HarperCollins being unusually neglectful in failing to talk to their talent? No, I don’t think so. I think it would be a rare, rare publishing firm that did any better. I arranged a series of workshops once at the Hay Festival, and invited one very senior agent and Mitzi, my 4th Estate editor to participate. At one point, the agent remarked, ‘The thing is, the product I want to create is a successful authorial career. The thing that an editor wants to create is a successful book.’ Rather to my shock, Mitzi agreed. I think, however, that 9 out of 10 editors, perhaps even 99 out of 100 would have said the same.
That looks like smart business, of course – focus on the product in hand – but just possibly it’s idiotic. If you want to nurture talent and get the best from it, you probably (just a suggestion, mind) need to talk to it. Twenty years ago, I believe, publishers did believe in investing in authorial careers, not just that year’s book. Two things have changed that. First, publishers have professionalised nearly every aspect of their business. Book acquisition, marketing, sales, production, data use, technology: the lot. And if you juggle a lot of balls, perhaps one or two – the less technocratic, the more human sort – get dropped.
That’s one thought. Another is that agents themselves have messed things up. In the good old days, when men were men and women wore tweed, authors thought themselves damn lucky to have a publisher, a port in the storm. Once happily berthed, they were reluctant to leave for the stormy world beyond the harbour walls. These days, on the other hand, publishers know that agents are looking to maximise advances . . . and that can lead to more authorial churn than perhaps there used to be. I mention this argument because it was presented to me by an intelligent and experienced publisher who thought it had merit, but – I don’t know. There isn’t much authorial churn and, in the absence of major disasters, most agents prefer to keep their authors with the publishers who have established them. Perhaps some agents are dummies who just chase after the highest advance, but I’d hope most agents were more sensible. In any case, this is too long to spend on an afterthought. So, next up: the publication of This Little Britain.
[The story continues in three days’ time.]
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.
If you’re British, the book’s already out and you can get it here.