In last Friday’s email, Harry Bingham, the founder of Jericho Writers, gives a brief up-and-down personal history of his interactions with agents and publishers. It demonstrates that being a successful writer has a large element of good (and bad) luck.
Harry said,”I sent my first manuscript out to half a dozen agents. They said no or didn’t respond. I sent it out to six more, three of whom said yes. One of the yessers was clearly as barmy as a fruitbat, so I politely declined. (I’m pretty sure he hadn’t actually read my book which, in an agent, you know, is a bit of a fail.). One of the other yessers was the CEO of a really first-class, large and prestigious agency. The other was one half of a two-woman shop, with a good reputation, but nothing like the other for prestige. I chose the latter. I didn’t regret it. I don’t regret it. But was I right? Would my career have had more oomph with the power of ____ behind me? I don’t know. I do sometimes wonder.
That book sold easily in a multi-publisher auction and for good money. Two publishers offered the same dosh. But one publisher offered me the money while sitting in a slightly cramped and windowless room. The other pitched to me while sitting in a boardroom and plying me with vast lumps of Stilton, a notably smelly English cheese. I don’t know what sales manual recommended the cheese tactic, but it worked. But the other publisher? I ended up with that editor later in my career and he was a good guy. Did I make the right choice or the wrong choice? I dunno.
My second book was a stinker. Or at least: the first draft was a stinker. The second draft was adequate. But what if I’d written an actual good book? Or did it not work like that?
Second book cover
That adequate second book went out into the world with a terrible cover. I said to the publisher, “This cover is terrible.” They said, “oh no it’s not,” I said. “Oh yes it is,” – and this game went on until it turned out it was too late to change the cover anyway. We shipped 70,000 copies of that book to bookshops. 35,000 came back again. What if those 70,000 books had gone out nicely dressed instead? Would that book too have been a bestseller? And if so, then what after?
Years later I wrote a history book which I sold for a lot of money. I had a brilliant editor (she’s still editing; still brilliantly) but we never quite nailed the cover. The cover we ended up with was charming but rather polite. And we were selling right into the heart of the Christmas market. A somewhat similar book with a much more shouty cover trounced mine in the sales stakes although (my biased opinion) I think my book had more about it. What if that cover designer had just gone for it. Big, bold, brassy, loud, Christmassy? Dunno.
Years later again, I had to choose between two major publishers for my crime series. One was arguably the country’s then-premier crime house. The other was (not arguably, just factually) one of the world’s most reputed literary publishers which now and again cares to dabble in upmarket crime. I took the money and the big house. Said no to the reputed literary one. But was that right? For me? It was sort of the opposite of my first decision in relation to agents: then I went to a small outfit, because I thought I’d matter more to it. Here I took the exact reverse course. I’ve often wondered if that was the right decision. I’m thinking maybe no.
But what do we make of these thoughts? At each of those decision points, we might say that somewhere in the multiverse, a different me (or designer or publisher) made different decisions and the world went spinning off in a whole different direction – quite possibly a violently different one. How different? Well, let me give you an example.
My first crime novel, when it was published in the US (by a very very good editor at a very very good crime house) got starred reviews in Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. It was a Book of the Year in a few major US newspapers. Good, right?
But that same book sold a total of 800 copies in paperback. How come? Because the way it was published just somehow managed to miss the market completely. Whoops-a-daisy.
It must be the case that a very well-reviewed book could have sold a ton more copies than that. And, as it happens, I know that there are plenty of American readers who enjoy kooky Welsh crime novels, because loads of those readers were happy enough to buy the book when I self-published it.
So: somewhere in the multiverse, I’m a feted literary-ish crime author with huge American sales and a TV adaptation or two.
In this particular corner of the multiverse, though, I’m definitely not.
And the purpose of all this meandering? Just this:
THE WORLD DOES NOT GIVE YOU A RELIABLE PICTURE OF WHETHER YOUR BOOK IS GOOD OR NOT.
SALES DON’T EITHER.
AMAZON RANKINGS DON’T.
Things can go wrong for reasons far beyond your control. All you can do is write as well as you can, publish as well as you can, and hope. In the end, the truest sense of whether your book is any good is your own inner truth-teller. Also: the more you can cherish and build that inner instinct, the better you will write and edit your work.”