Bantam Dell failed to sell Talking to the Dead in the United States. Or, to be precise, the novel sold perfectly all right as an ebook, but its hardback sales were poor and its paperback sales were hideous. Despite an ocean of positive commentary – those starred reviews, the prestigious Crime Book of the Year selections – the American debut of a British crime writer proved too tough a sell for the trade to handle. In terms of printed books, the book was a dud. A misfire. Another flop.
Only – and here’s where it gets confusing – who cares about print? Ebooks have a roughly one third share of the American fiction market, by value. Yet that one third figure conceals huge disparities. In crime fiction – where people read for fun, not to decorate their bookshelves – ebooks have a roughly 75% share of the market. But that’s the crime market as a whole, a market which includes such vastly well-known writers as Patricia Cornwell, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, Kathy Reichs and the rest. Book buyers wanting to splash $27 on a hardback are infinitely more likely to spend those dollars buying a known quantity than they are to acquire a darkly unsettling novel by a complete unknown. If I were an American book buyer, I certainly wouldn’t spend $27 on the first Harry Bingham. Probably not even the second. I’d buy the $7 ebook and wait for things to settle.
Since Talking to the Dead has notched up over $100,000 in ebook sales to date and (because the book will never go out of stock, the way it would in a bookstore) there’s no reason why it shouldn’t make plenty more in the future. Since my advance for the book was only $30,000 and since the production costs for an ebook are vastly smaller than they are for a printed one, you’d think it was simple to strike a somewhat different kind of publishing deal: one that starts out as ebook only, but which morphs into print as and when conditions permit.
Here’s what happened. I sent Bantam Dell the first draft of The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths – the third book in the series – in early June 2013. The book needed some tinkering. (It had a magnificently over-the-top ending, which I loved and everyone else said was silly.) But the book didn’t need that much work. In due course, I’d hack the ending back to a normal shape and size, and remove three or four thousand words elsewhere. And that, in terms of major changes, was that.
Orion loved the book and were very swift to sign up for a further three titles in the series. (Unlike Bantam Dell, they’d already purchased Strange Death.) And Bantam Dell? Nothing. We heard one or two somewhat confused, or confusing, editorial mutterings, then nothing. My wife and I had twins that summer (one boy, one girl, both healthy and both delightful), so my attention was not altogether focused on book deals. Still juggling babies, I finalised the manuscript with Orion and sent the final-final-final draft to New York. Still nothing.
Christmas drew on. The twins were hollering because of bad reflux, and still nothing.
Then, we heard that Bantam were basically keen. Kate, my editor, was talking to her boss. They wanted to do something. If they could, they definitely wanted to do something . . .
Yet the long silence continued and, as it did, the first American reviews began to drop in for Love Story, with Murders. (Different publication schedules meant the US dates lay a long way behind the British ones.) And boom! Another starred review from Publishers Weekly. Bam! Another lovely review from Kirkus. Biff! A warm lead review in Marilyn Stasio’s hugely influential New York Times Review of Books crime column.
I was puzzled. What more could Bantam possibly want? I’d already received a royalty statement in September 2012, which told me that Talking to the Dead had earned out its advance at hardback stage. That’s a stonking performance: exactly what any publisher should love to see. And then they couldn’t have asked for better reviews. Plus there was very broad international support for the book. Plus a TV deal. Plus, as an author, I’ve always met deadlines, responded to input, said my pleases and thank yous.
There was clearly an issue, but what on earth could it be?
My agent in New York decided it would be a good idea to check our book sales. Actual sales of actual print books. (You’d think we’d have that anyway from Bantam, but no. The industry issues royalty statements at six month intervals and three months in arrears, so I will discover my Jul-Dec 2014 sales no earlier than March of this year – and quite likely a good bit later, because these things have to chug their way through two sets of agents and, not least, because the statement arrives with me in hard copy form, not electronic.) So we didn’t go via Bantam. My New York agent used Bookscan, a third party data source, and discovered that most of the hardbacks which had been ‘sold’ had actually been returned by booksellers. That the paperback performance had been even worse. Only the ebooks were immune from this sales devastation.
Bantam did, finally, say they’d be interested in proceeding, if I could write a non-Fiona Griffiths novel after #3 in the series. A new series, perhaps, or a standalone. Anything to reboot my profile.
But I’m done rebooting. Apart from anything else, I have a commitment to Orion for three more Fiona Griffiths books, and I’m not the kind of author who can pump out two half-decent crime novels in a year. I said as much.
Bantam and I were drifting apart.
I still couldn’t understand quite why. If the print market was moving against us, the ebook market was doing just fine. So why not establish ourselves electronically and revert to print when we were ready? It wasn’t that hard to figure, was it?
Indeed, I even came up with a proposal, which would have meant that Bantam stayed in the game without putting a single further penny into the pot by way of advance. Our initial two book deal gave Bantam a 75% share of the ebook revenues, but my deal with Orion meant there would be at least four more Fiona Griffiths books to follow. So why, I suggested, did Bantam not simply parlay their 75% share of two ebooks into a 25% share in six? They’d end up with the same overall investment. I’d give them a free option on print, whenever they judged the market to be ready. So we’d go on, in partnership, letting my little Welsh detective tilt at those American windmills for four books to come.
Again: initial interest, followed by silence. The interest came because I understand that Alibi, Random House’s e-only crime imprint, was excited about signing me up. But under my proposed arrangement, I’d have had 75% of ebook revenues on all six books and Alibi simply doesn’t countenance those kind of payouts. (Although, the way I saw it, these would have been my books and I’d have been paying out to Alibi – though that, probably, would have felt even worse as a template from their point of view.)
Of course, I never thought they’d accept my offer as it stood. I assumed they’d come back to me with a counter-offer. Something along the lines of, ‘We want 75% royalties because that figure is sacred to us, but here’s how we’re going to add a ton of value to these books and we’re certain that you’ll be delighted to accept a relatively small share of a much, much bigger pie.’
They didn’t say that. They didn’t say anything.
The whole conversation sputtered out without ever really having started. By early February 2014, Bantam Dell and I knew we were terminating our relationship. It was eight months from when I had first sent them a draft of Strange Death, and in that time I never had any meaningful editorial feedback direct from them. No information about sales, except the data contractually required (ie: a September 2013 royalty statement dealing with the first half of that year.) No tangible proposal on an ebook partnership. No direct response to the proposal I’d put to them. No phone call, not even to return calls I’d made.
Bantam had in their hands an author who by every objective standard had met the editorial tests laid before him and they couldn’t find a way to continue the relationship. That wasn’t – not at all, not even in part – because they had been ineffective as publishers. They hadn’t. Both books had been very well and confidently published by people who really knew this territory (and, by the way, have an endless list of successes to prove it.) It was two things that separated us. The first was that the print market is shifting ever further from the market Bantam once knew. The second was that, in this new world, I had some real autonomy and wasn’t going to countenance a deal which didn’t recognise that.
Bantam and I liked each other. We respected each other. But we were not able to find a deal that could join us. The world is changing, and those changes have a long way still to run.