Many people don’t seem to understand how newspaper book serialisations work, so let me try to explode a few of the hoary old myths that have been regurgitated in the last few days. Even journalists from newspapers which bid for the Damian McBride serialisation don’t seem to get it, as I will explain in a moment by fisking The Guardian’s Lisa O’Carroll’s bizarre piece yesterday.
For publishers newspaper serialisations are a double edged sword. If a newspaper is allowed to serialise too much of the book, it can seriously impact on book sales. So there is always a word limit agreed in the contract. In the Mcbride book, if my memory serves me correctly, the Mail is allowed to serialise 15,000 words out of the total word count of 140,000 (it could be 20,000, but I haven’t got the document to hand). Even so, I am sure there will be many people who think they don’t need to read the book because of the massive coverage, not just in the Mail but elsewhere. To compensate for this, the publisher takes a cut from the serialisation fee. Depending on the book and the context the cut is anything from 10% to 50%, although the norm is 10-20%. The rest goes to the author.
So how does a newspaper come to serialise a book? What’s the process? For a normal political book, up until recently there were only really three players – the Mail, Mail on Sunday and the Sunday Times. Most of the others had pulled out of the serial market altogether or would only do one or two books a year. Recently though, The Times, Telegraph Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian have reentered the serial market. When I first started publishing books in 1998 it was commonplace to secure high five figure serial deals. Even 8 years ago quite a few books got six figure sums. Nowadays only ex Prime Ministers or the likes of Peter Mandelson command such sums. Most book serialisations go for a fraction of what they would have done some years ago. Indeed, I wonder whether we are heading towards a situation where newspapers stop paying for book deals and take the view that newspapers in other countries do: “Why should I pay for something which is PR for the book?” I don’t see that happening here while we have seven or eight national newspapers which compete with each other for attention. If you’re a low ranking Cabinet Minister who has written memoirs you can expect £5-15,000 for a book deal. Higher profile politicians with some good revelations will command more, but they are few and far between nowadays. The problem is that David Blunkett broke the serial market. Being a canny operator he retained serial rights for himself when he published his diaries back in 2006. So he trousered a £400,000 advance from Bloomsbury, who say this as the book that would establish themselves in the political memoir market, but he also got £250,000 from The Times (I think) for the serialisation. I am told they bought it sight unseen. It was a complete turkey. There was little in it, and it sold only around 5,000 copies. Newspaper editors looked at this deal and decided ‘never again’. That is not to say that for the right book a newspaper won’t try to snap it up before it is even written. On the McBride book I had two pre-emptive offers but I decided to keep our powder dry. I only ever consider a pre-emptive offer if I need it to help my bump up the advance to the author. We are not a big company and can’t afford to compete with the likes of HarperCollins, Penguin or RandomHouse, so an early tie-up with a newspaper can enable us to punch above our weight. We don’t do this often, but it has been known.
We normally talk to all the papers every six months and tell them what we have coming up in our publishing schedule. They then indicate which titles they might be interested in seeing with a view to bidding. Once we have an edited manuscript we get them to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement before releasing the document to them to evaluate. The biggest nightmare for a publisher is a leak. For really big titles we don’t even give them the manuscript. For the McBride book. where we had 7 or 8 papers interested. we asked them to send a representative to come to our office for two hours to read the manuscript. They weren’t allowed to make notes, they weren’t allowed to have a phone. A Biteback member of staff sat there like an exam invigilator. One newspaper complained that we couldn’t possibly ask their political editor to agree to those conditions. Did we have no trust or respect? Don’t bid then, I said. We just couldn’t afford to take any risk. Needless to say, they compiled and did indeed bid.
Then comes the bidding process. Normally you conduct an auction. It usually starts very low. It continues until there is only one bidder left. I hate the process, mainly because at the end of it the losing bidders usually feel hard done by. Occasionally I adopt a different method, which I call the “Final, Sealed bid” method. This is where each newspaper is allowed one bid, and that’s it. There is no second round. Newspapers bid the highest they are prepared to go. This is risky for a publisher because usually you get a higher price by using the competitive bid mechanism. Anyway, I decided that as there were 7 newspapers involved the best and fairest way to conduct the bidding on the McBride book was to get them to bid once and once only by a Friday 12 noon deadline. I also decided not to conduct the bid process myself, partly because I was too close to one or two of the journalists involved and wanted to ensure that the process was 100% trustworthy on both sides. We explained this process to all involved, but despite that I had two calls from newspapers seeking to circumvent it. I made very clear that wasn’t going to happen.
I can’t go into the financials here, because I don’t see it as anyone’s business except for the author, the publisher and the newspaper concerned. The same applies to questions as to whether the author takes the money or gives it away.
I will say this, though. When we sign a contract with an author, we acquire the rights to sell the book for serialisation. In theory the author could ask for a clause to be inserted saying we can’t sell the serial rights to a particular newspaper, but in publishing 350 books or so, it is something an author has never requested. But this is an important thing to remember – it is the publisher who acquires the rights from the author to sell the newspaper serialisation. So to those who complain that Damian McBride sold his soul to the Mail, they are wrong. He didn’t. Having said that, I make it appoint of consulting with the author right the way through the process. But in the end the decision is the publisher’s not the author’s. Only once have I ever had a shouting match with an author who decided that a particular newspaper serialisation would ruin his reputation. Luckily his agent agreed with me and eventually he came to see the light. So it was Biteback who agreed the deal with the Daily Mail, and quite right too.
Chris Mullin hated the fact that his diaries were sold by Profile Books to the Mail on Sunday but they were perfectly within their rights to do it. Peter Hain had a right old go at Damian McBride for selling his book to the Mail on This Week on Thursday night. I sat on my sofa laughing heartily, remembering the fact that Peter Hain’s own memoirs OUTSIDE IN were sold to the Murdoch-owned Sunday Times. I know because I am his publisher and I did the deal. [this is updated – I had thought it was the Mail on Sunday earlier]
But it is also the publisher’s responsibility to protect the author’s interests. In most cases we ask for copy approval. This means that the newspaper has to show us the copy they intend to print before it actually goes to print. This allows us and the author to query how the story has been presented. On rare occasions you can also ask for headline approval, but this is not often given. The reason for copy approval is because sometimes newspapers don’t quote the exact copy in the book – they adapt it. This is done for perfectly legitimate reasons, but the contract states that it must be a true reflection of the book. If you are reducing a 5,000 word story to 500 words there can inevitably be difficulties. This is where copy approval becomes relevant. However, it is very rare that the publisher or author asks for anything to be changed. This process happened with Peter Hain’s book and so it has with Damian’s. The Mail handled it brilliantly and so far as I am aware, not a word has been changed.
Let’s move on to THIS ARTICLE in yesterday’s Guardian by Lisa O’Carroll. I got an email from Lisa on Thursday. Here’s how the email exchange went…
Lisa: Hi Iain, Just read your blog – I have to follow up A Campbell’s stuff on Twitter and wanted to chat to you about book deal serialisation on or off record. Could you give me a buzz?
Iain: Sorry, no, you really don’t have to follow up Alastair’s shit-stirring. It is none of anyone’s business. If The Guardian had won the serialisation would you expect me to reveal details to other newspapers? No, thought not. There’s your answer!
Lisa: Ok, I’m told that Associated paid £115 or so….
Iain: Shows how wrong you can be, doesn’t it!
Lisa: Well I wouldn’t know that would I?
Iain: Exactly. Just as it should be :).
Lisa: Well I’m writing a story saying that he got over £100,000. Speak now if you care to…otherwise I’ll take your arrows as intended x:)
Iain: It’s a free country :). But commercial details like that are between an author and a publisher. I know that sounds po-faced, but when you write your own bestselling book I doubt you’d want your publisher to bandy about figures would you? x
Lisa: These things always have a habit of coming out…(I mean figures, as opposed to my best selling book, which also will never make it on to the shelves…)
But am dying to read McBride’s. Loved the stuff in the Mail today and hear it’s a very belter of a read.
Over and out
All very amicable, but there is no way I was going to, or ever will, give out commercial details like this either on or off the record. So let’s take a look at what Lisa actually wrote.
It is believed that the Daily Mail easily outbid the competition with its six-figure offers, with five-figure sums coming in from rivals including Associated Newspaper sister title the Mail on Sunday, understood to have come closest with an offer less than £100,000. A source said the Mail may have bid up to £150,000. The Sun is believed to have offered about £50,000, the Daily Telegraph offered more than £50,000, while the Guardian bid less than £10,000. Newspapers were asked to submit blind bids for the book after Dale sealed the rights to publish in March this year. It is believed that the Mail’s bid was increased significantly after it emerged that the Mail on Sunday was a serious player in the race.
In those 122 words there are at least four factual errors. Newspapers were not asked to bid blind, they all read the manuscript. They knew what they were bidding for. I would have happily confirmed that detail to Lisa had she asked. Virtually all the figures she quotes are fantasy. Get better sources Lisa!
I think the Mail have handled this serialisation brilliantly and responsibly. Had the Mail on Sunday, Times/Sunday Times, Telegraph/Sunday Telegraph won, I am sure they would have done so too. I understand why partisan Labour figures are furious at the timing of the book. No political party likes to have their conference overshadowed like this, but I have a responsibility to publish books when they will sell best. Party conference time is the usual time to publish books like this and had Macmillan, Penguin or Random House published it, I am 100% sure they would have made the same decision. Yes, it is about money. Yes it is about making a profit and I am happy to say that. I employ 14 people. it’s books like this that keep them in jobs and enable us to publish other political books which barely wash their faces financially. So if people want to shoot any messenger for the timing or method of this serialistion, fire the arrows in my direction, not Damian’s.
And finally. Before anyone accuses me of any political motivation, save your breath. If I had got Andy Coulson’s book (and I hope to!) I would also have published that on the eve of a Tory conference. And so would anyone else with an ounce of publishing self-respect.