The first set of ideas we looked at retitled the book simply GB, and used images of down-at-heel, lovable-but-laughable Britain: motorway service cafes, knock-kneed park footballers, fat women on blustery beaches. It’s not that the covers were bad or unimaginative exactly, just that they would have appealed to a completely different demographic than my potential book buyers. These covers would have appealed to cool, urban, left-leaning twenty-somethings, the sort of people who listen to indie rock and buy their food organic and fair-trade. I like those people, don’t get me wrong, but they weren’t going to be my readers. If you are seeking to sell a history book about British exceptionalism to the Christmas market, you are likely to be targeting male readers, over forty, of a conservative and patriotic bent. Those early cover designs and my future readers lay at diametrically opposite poles of almost every human spectrum you could call to mind.
So Fourth Estate had a rethink. The imprint had a punchy, radical, innovative edge – part of what had appealed to me in the first place – and their next cover design showcased that innovative temperament to the full. Since my book argued that this one little country had had a disproportionately large historical impact, they thought they would make the same point typographically. Reverting to my original book title – simply Little Britain – they expanded those two words so much that they wrapped right around the dust jacket of the future hardback. So expanded and so wrapped, indeed, that the only way you would actually have been able to read the title of the book would have been by physically unfolding the dust jacket, including its inside flaps, and holding it out in front of you. Had you just looked at the front cover alone, you would have seen my name – Harry Bingham – and a title fragment, RITA. No doubt those crusty colonels from the shires, who would constitute my core market, would have loved unfolding that jacket to discover that a book about RITA was really a book aboutLITTLE BRITAIN … but I said no. Uninnovative and un-cutting edge to my core, I said, no, no, no, no, no-etty, no-etty, NO.
You cannot imagine how relieved I was once we arrived, crabwise, at this cover. I don’t – more’s the pity – still have a copy of that glorious RITA image.
Another cover came and went. (A sort of John Bull figure on the kind of background which could only be described as, erm, chicken korma coloured.) And then, breakthrough! An enchanting illustration of a bowler-hatted figure calmly sipping tea, against an outline of the British Isles and with a scatter of objects (ships, cricket bats, trains) that referred in some ways to the topics covered within. The contrast with what had gone before was so absolute that I said yes, without further pause.
I should also perhaps be clear that while my contract gave me the right to be consulted about book cover, I had absolutely no right of veto. So for all that some of Fourth Estate’s ideas were bizarrely left-field, I should acknowledge that their consultation with me was always genuine, their response always full-hearted and committed. And that’s the right way for a publisher to work with an author. Dumb ideas will always come along: there’s no way to stop ‘em. The best and most effective brake on those ideas will be giving the author and his or her agent a real voice at the table. In those early days with Fourth Estate, my working relationship with the imprint was exemplary. It was and is an excellent imprint.
We had a marketing plan too, a good one. The kind of marketing that had supported the first phase of my career – those ads, those posters telling consumers about my book – had long vanished from the publishing toolkit. For sure, big authors still demand, and secure, such campaigns, but they are exceptional. The budgets that once supported those campaigns were now (paradoxically) devoted to securing retail space. The big British retailers – notably Waterstones and Smiths – took to selling space. So if, for example, you wanted your book to be in a Waterstones 3-for-2 promotion, you needed to buy the right to be there. Waterstones wasn’t stupid, of course. It didn’t just auction those slots to the highest bidder; there was always a selection policy too, a sense of curation.
All the same, publishers had once spoken direct to consumers and allowed retailers to benefit from the increased footfall. This new industry now abandoned any real attempt to reach the consumer direct and sank its ‘marketing’ money into increasing the discounts that retailers could offer buyers. The retailers didn’t end up benefitting – because they were discounting more aggressively than they ever used to. Publishers didn’t – because the average selling prices of books either declined or was stagnant, and because those consumers who might have responded to ads were now lost to sight. But capitalism isn’t a machine for promoting culture, it’s a tool for fostering competition. As books became physically more beautiful – better, more imaginatively designed – their prices fell. That’s markets acting as they’re designed to do. There’s no use regretting the matter. You might as well complain about gravity.
In any case, though Fourth Estate would have allocated some – most – of their ‘marketing’ budget to retail promotions, they’d also have been conscious that they’d just paid £87,500 ($145,000) for this book. They couldn’t trust that simply putting the book out there to sink or swim of its own accord would be enough. So they did various other things, of which two are worth a comment. First, they built a website – thislittlebritain.com, I think it was. The site was cute. The cover illustration was expanded to become something you could naivgate by mouse. As you moved around, you could click things – those cricket bats, trains and so on – at which point a question popped up to test your historical knowledge.
The idea of those things (and all big publishers did them) was to create something which would ‘go viral’. That is: which would, inexpensively but effectively, create buzz. How anyone was ever meant to know these sites existed, I don’t know. Short of typing random words into your browser search bar, or searching somewhere deep in Google’s search results, you’d never find the site at all. And then, because, deep down, publishers knew the chance of these things ‘going viral’ was vanishingly small, the sites never had much invested in them and consequently were never much good. The vogue for such things probably lasted a year or two, no more. It was a waste of money. An abandoned experiment of the early Internet age.
But Fourth Estate also cleverly commissioned an poll, designed to test how little Britons actually knew about their country’s history. (When, for example, did ‘free and fair elections’ first become mandatory in English law? The answer, remarkably, is 1275: the Freedom of Election Act has been in force ever since, though the franchise has, of course, been somewhat expanded since then.) They issued that poll as a press release. They sent copies of the book to reviewers and news programmes. Because the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, chose the moment to harp on about the national identity, Fourth Estate intelligently tried to connect that discussion to my exploration of the country’s history.
For a brief, beautiful while, it looked like we’d done it. The influential Radio 4 Todayprogramme was interested. Major newspapers were said to be keen to review the work. TheSunday Times News Review wanted to do a big piece. And was I possibly available forNewsnight? The publicity team pushed, worked, hoped … But alas, the news story escaped from us before we could catch it. No Today programme. No Newsnight. The Sunday Timespiece was cancelled at the last minute. We got almost no serious reviews either.
This book slaughtered mine at the tills – not least because it knew it was a Christmas gift book and went all out to capture that market.
And the book’s cover – that enchanting illustration that was so much better than RITA’s giant letters – simply looked too small and too quiet when exposed to the hustle of the Christmas market. There was another book out that same year, John O’Farrell’s An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge)which sold much better than mine. It was a bigger book – certainly funnier – and it pasted its appeal all over that front jacket. The appeal of my book was less obvious from the front cover alone. For sure, if you picked the book up and turned it over, you’d start to understand what kind of thing it was. If you delved inside and read a little, you might start to realise that, if the book didn’t offer O’Farrell’s knockabout comedy, it offered a highly approachable introduction to a view of British history that might well appeal to your dad, or brother, or your hard-to-buy-for Uncle Jack.
But the Christmas market is not conducive to the measured exploration of interesting books. When Ebury said, ‘we really know how to do this kind of thing,’ I think in hindsight they meant, ‘We’ll stick a huge union jack on the front of this book and make it the ultimate Christmas present for Uncle Jack.’ That strategy would never have attracted the Newsnights, the Today programmes, or the serious Sunday Times features. But it would, I think, have worked. I now regret not going with a cruder, bolder, more by-the-throat approach.
But perhaps nothing would have worked anyway. That Christmas (and putting aside the annual Guinness World Records and a football annual), every single name on the hardback bestseller list was a celebrity of some sort. The book trade, like most trades, is a rough old game and there are always more losers than winners. Good books can be well published and still fail: that was and is one of the most frightening truths in the book trade.
In any event, though the book didn’t sell horribly, it sold horribly for a £87,500 book. Because the hardback had, effectively, died, no retailer was going to get excited about the paperback. So Fourth Estate did very little to support the paperback (nor had they promised to, nor did they even have the capacity to do much in the face of retailer indifference.) It sold a few copies, then shrunk off to the great Remainder Bin in the Sky.
Another book, another failure.
Since a few more posts of this little publishing history remain, and since you may start to feel that you have the gist of it already – unsuccessful author takes lots of money off publishers, then watches as his books curl up and die – it’s perhaps worth sketching out what lies ahead. Three more books come and go. One dies so horribly that all the horriblish things that have happened so far seem like visions of paradise compared. Two more actually make money for the publisher, but leave the author feeling ripped off. And then – actual success. A book which sells! Gets lovely reviews! Wins a TV deal which actually materialises!
Which is good. Every reader loves a happy ending. But remember – I write crime fiction now and the golden rule of my trade is that any good ending needs to deliver a twist. A sting in the tale, a bolt from the blue. This story has just such a bolt-from-the-blue finale, but one in which it’s unclear who’s been struck down by it. The author or the publisher? The writer or an entire industry?
Those questions await. But first – the next catastrophe.