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.
In a way, that wasn’t my concern. An author’s job is to write the book, a publisher’s job is to sell it. I’d received my advance and I wasn’t obliged to give it back. And then as well, publishers are hardly unused to the vagaries of the book market. If HarperCollins weren’t exactly thrilled by the outcome, they certainly weren’t shocked. Ugly results are just part and parcel of the book trade. You can publish a good book well and still lose your shirt. That’s just the way it is . . . and this wasn’t quite a good book and the publication wasn’t as confidently handled as my earlier book had been.
I was now out of contract. But I was a professional author, was I not?, and my task was simple: write a damn good book and see if HarperCollins wanted to buy it.
The book I wrote was another monster: The Sons of Adam, a book about a fraternal rivaly set across two world wars and the oil industry of the 1920s and 30s. The book was a little shorter than The Money Makers, but involved vastly more research. I read masses of material – oil histories, war histories, memoirs, books of photos. My richest sources were often diaries and memoirs. Insignificant in historical terms but rich in the details I needed. (What food did people eat? How were truck engines kept cool enough to operate through a Persian summer? Precisely what was the sequence of events when oil was struck at Signal Hill? In east Texas? In the Persian mountains?)
Often enough I’d read an entire book in order to extract perhaps just one or two details that made it through to the finished manuscript. But what details! An oil-rigger who fell eighty feet out of an oil derrick, bounced off a tin roof, then bummed a cigarette off his colleagues. The hollow boom made from deep within the earth, the day Columbus ‘Dad’ Joiner struck oil in the scrub of East Texas. Telegrams that used cryptic references to the Psalms to let London know when oil had been struck in Persia. The richness and romance of the industry lay in just such touches of colour. I simply had to gather the jewels.
I also developed a new way of writing. With Sweet Talking Money (the good draft, not the bad one) and still more so The Sons of Adam, I came to use Nuala as editor / sounding-board / research-hound / story-strategist. We’d sit together rotating a plot conundrum in our heads. I’d always want to solve the issue: What does Tom do next? She’d want to understand the issue. Yes, but what does Tom really care about here? What’s driving him? Who is the inner Tom?
As often as not, I found her approach maddening: a way of holding me back. And no question, my approach was better for racking up the word count … it’s just that I often found myself deleting the stuff I’d written. Over the years (and we still work like that today), our habits have moved closer together, and we’re less likely to drive each other nuts, but our basic complementarity is still there, still working.
The Sons of Adam was a long time in the writing. Partly, it was just the length of the book, the scale of the research. But then too, my wife was still poorly and we had a house renovation to manage. Those things took priority. I wrote the book in the gaps remaining.
And one day, I had a text that I was happy with. My agent was happy. Nuala (picky soul that she is) was very happy. 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. What were they to do? They could hardly offer me the same advance again: my sales simply didn’t justify it. On the other hand, they still saw in me a writer with real commercial potential and if they offered too little, I could simply take my material elsewhere.
They compromised by offering me £100,000 (around $165,000) for The Sons of Adam, plus one further title. That was an almost 40% cut in remuneration, but it was still a very handsome sum – strikingly so, in retrospect. If you’re trying to figure out what a £100,000 two-book deal means in terms of annual income, then the maths looks roughly as follows. Knock off 10% for your agent’s commisson – these days 15% would be the norm – to leave £90K. Knock off another £4-5K for expenses: travel to London, books, maps, new laptops. That leaves you with a bit over £40K ($66K) a book. Back then, my hobbled life meant it probably took me two years to write a novel, which meant that a large headline figure dwindled into a somewhat modest annual amount, but one that had more to do with my hobbled life than any stinginess on the part of those publishing me.
I didn’t say yes to that offer, or not right away. I could get my head round a lower advance, but for me the killer question was whether HarperCollins were still properly committed to establishing me as a big name writer. A sizeable advance was certainly one way to make a statement, but that still left open the question of how they would actually support the publication of the new work.
So: another meeting in London. No Stilton this time. No celery. No drive-by visits from Chief Executives. But those things would have been out of place anyway. I knew the firm, they knew me. This was business, not razzmatazz.
And the business smelled right. This was a firm committed to the project, a firm with big aspirations. In a faxed note to my agent, my editor wrote that they had ‘the absolute ambition of selling lots and lots of books and making this author a household name.’ That stated commitment was backed up by a contractual one. The publisher drew up a marketing plan which looked, on the face of it, even more ambitious than anything they attempted for The Money Makers. No ditzy give-away-a-million-pound plans, but masses of advertising. High streets, railways, airports, buses. The idea was to force the book into the public consciousness. Spend money to create a brand.
Because no marketing plan could be finally determined until the book was ready to be launched, the contract gave the firm some wiggle room. The contract stated:
The Publishers promotional and marketing activities shall be on a par with those outlined in the Publishers Marketing Plan. Should any particular marketing or promotional activity be unfeasible then the Publishers shall replace it with something of similar marketing worth to the Work.
That seemed both definite and flexible; a good arrangement. The commitment removed any doubts I might have had about that deflating advance. So I said yes. Signed up, felt positive. I think we all felt that way. We also, I think, realised that this was our last chance. We’d had one successful book. One that had caused us concern. The Sons of Adam would, realistically, be our last chance to redefine my sales trajectory. Would I be an author who sold upwards of a hundred thousand copies and regularly sat in the bestseller charts? Or would I be an author who sold in the twenty and thirty thousands, respected but unremarkable?
The answer, when it came to the point, took me aback. Indeed, the answer, when it arrived, came within an inch or two of ending my career for ever.