I always wanted to be an author. Even as a very small child, I was passionately attached to the written word. When my parents read me Beau Geste, I was so overcome by the ending that I cried for the entire evening. When my father read me Sherlock Holmes, I was as transported as it was possible for any listener to be.
My childhood was divided between London and Wales, and our Welsh cottage lay just a few miles from Hay-on-Wye, a small country town then as now given over entirely to the written word. The shop which dominated the trade was Richard Booth’s Old Cinema: a vast building, castled with books. There was no other bookshop like it in the country, except perhaps the same entrepreneur’s Old Fire Station (equally eccentric, but less child-friendly, at least back then.) Rather than operate the way second-hand booksellers had always operated in the past – handpicking one or two titles from the boxloads offered – Booth had gone industrial. When he got started, a lot of libraries were closing and he simply bought up container loads of books. Good books, bad books, collapsing books, strange books. He didn’t even know what he bought. Didn’t care, so long as it was cheap.
The Old Cinema was crammed with the fruits of those raids. Anyone who calls themselves a bibliophile would have been tested, I think, by that bookshop. I mean, yes, there were treasures present, but in a way the dross was more striking. Edwardian medical almanacks. Old copies of Wisden. Tedious memoirs, authored by nobodies. Gazetteers of countries that history had long scrubbed from the map. Prewar scientific handbooks, that somehow still managed to smell of pipe smoke and tweed. Novels, lauded by reviewers of the day, but whose titles and authors had long vanished from memory.
. . . .
I devoured books. I loved them. I was going to be a writer.
A writer who, however, first needed to make a couple of detours. The first detour was Oxford University, where I learned to write long sentences, replete with qualifiers and anything else which could get in the way of good, plain meaning.
. . . .
And one important thing did happen in that first decade of my working life. I got an idea for a story. The idea was jewel-like in its simplicity. A rich man – very rich – would die, leaving three sons, whom he despised for being lazy and without ambition. So his will, rather than simply dividing up the money in equal thirds, would set them a test. The first son to make a million pounds – by himself, without the assistance or support of the others – would scoop the entire jackpot. If, after three years, none of the brothers had achieved that feat, all the money, every penny of it, would go to charity.
. . . .
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 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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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.
. . . .
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:
’29. GUARANTEED MARKETING SPEND.
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.
. . . .
In all, I believe we sold about 70,000 copies.
. . . .
I wrote a terrible book.
Partly, the problem is simply one that afflicts many new writers: the dreaded second novel syndrome, a disease that often proves fatal. First novels don’t arrive the way all the others do. They just fly in through the window and settle in your head. First novels say to you, write me, it would be fun.
. . . .
I got a new editor – Susan – who took a deep breath and invited me to come in for a chat. That meeting was, I think, handled as perfectly as any such thing can be. Susan and Nick were patient, and calm, and non-accusatory, but in the nicest possible way they pointed out that the novel I had placed in their hands was a steaming dungheap of a book, a literary carcrash, an insult to language, a stain on all that the gods of literature held holy.
. . . .
Although HarperCollins had indeed had around 60,000 copies of my book out with retailers, those books were ‘sold’ on a sale-or-return basis. If a retailer couldn’t shift the books, they could simply return them to the publisher, for a full refund.
Which is precisely what happened. About half the books that left HarperCollins’s warehouses came back again. I think final sales of that title amounted to around 35,000 copies, or about half what we had sold of The Money Makers. HarperCollins, having approximately broken even on the first half of our two book deal, had now made an out-and-out loss on the second.
. . . .
We sent the manuscript off to HarperCollins and awaited their verdict.
The answer came back: they loved the book. They liked its scale, liked my dip back into history, liked the fact that my second novel wobbles had been thoroughly overcome. But the plain truth is that it’s probably better to be a debut writer with no sales record, than to be an experienced pro with a horrible one. Retailers, when choosing whether to stock a particular book, have to consider the debut novelist’s work on its own merits, because they’ve got no alternative. When it comes to considering a new work by an established author, they don’t need to care about the book – they can just check the stats.
And my sales experience – that sharp downward curve – gave HarperCollins pause.