Saying "no" to the world’s biggest publisher — An interview with Harry Bingham
For many first-time authors, indie publishing is rapidly becoming a natural decision when it comes to publishing their first book. But what happens when an experienced author who has published thirteen books with four traditional publishing houses decides to go it alone? Harry Bingham is one such author.
Harry was first published by HarperCollins back in 2000 and over the last fifteen years has witnessed the all the excitement of the publishing evolution. In 2015, he decided to self-publish the US release of his latest book The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths. Now, for the first time he has written about his experiences in Big Publishing and Me on his blog.
Harry is also founder of The Writer’s Workshop - the world’s leading consultancy for first-time writers - and Agent Hunter - a comprehensive database of literary agents. He has also written books on Getting Published and How to Write among several others.
With his unique experience, we had no choice: we simply had to talk to him. This morning Harry was kind enough to talk to him about writing his latest book, his approach to marketing and the benefits of self-publishing.
I’m very pleased to be interviewing Harry this morning and to ask him some questions about his latest book and his publishing process. So Harry, if you wouldn’t mind starting off by giving us a little teaser about your latest book.
It’s called The Strange Death of Fiona Griffiths and it’s the third in the series I’ve been writing for a while. She’s a young Welsh detective who works in Cardiff, but that’s not really the USP. The USP is that she’s a really unusual person: the whole thing is written first person in her voice. She had a breakdown when she was a teenager and suffered from a real-life condition called Cotard’s Syndrome. In Cotard’s Syndrome, the sufferer believes themselves to be dead. So she’s a detective who spent two years thinking she was a dead person. And she’s got an interesting relationship with corpses and an interesting outlook on life, let’s put it that way…
Sounds amazing, wow! Written in the first person, how did that work?
Yea, well the question I’m asked most actually is “You’re writing in the first person as a woman, don’t you think that’s quite hard?” I’m thinking, actually you know, I’m married to a woman, I know quite a lot of women and there are quite a lot of women in the world. Surely the question is: “You’re writing in the voice of somebody who used to think they were dead!” Isn’t that the bigger trick?
In the end, writing fiction is make-believe and if you’re good at it, you should be able to make-believe. Of course, you should be able to write as a woman, or a man, or as people with weird conditions. Although this woman is very different from me, and she has a strong, emphatic voice of her own, I’ve never felt more comfortable writing everything, so what that says about me I don’t know!
The most immediately striking thing about the book is the cover - it’s absolutely stunning. Can you tell me a little more about how you went about that?
It’s slightly more complicated because I’m published all over the world. It’s published in Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, America and other places too. Every publisher in their own market chooses their own cover and Orion in the UK has got a very strong look for the book and you can definitely tell there’s a series of books going on. In US I was published with Random House and I had a terrific editor there - the same editor who publishes Lee Child. Their cover for the book was fine, but not really stand out. Then for various reasons we will probably get into later, I started self-publishing in US - whereas I’m conventionally published everywhere else - and I commissioned that cover myself.
I went to an outfit called 99 Designs, where you can put the design out to a large number of designers and people compete for a prize that you offer. I looked at literally dozens of high-quality designs, any of which could have graced the cover of any one of my books. The one I ended up picking is very striking: it works really well in thumbnail and it’s different - it doesn’t look like everything else there. Given that readers are looking at pages of Amazon thumbnails when they’re figuring out what next to buy, it had to work particularly well in that smaller size.
Your publishing story is really fascinating. You’re clearly published with many traditional houses around the world and now this one’s partly self-published. How is it going, how are you finding the process?
It’s early days. The minimal threshold for me is that I wanted to be able to publish the book properly, commission a good cover design, do some copy editing work and get the book properly formatted. I used proper professionals, I wasn’t using a “friend of my brother’s who knows something about photoshop”. By making the book available for sale before launch, I built up hundreds of pre-orders and the result was that on the day of publication I had paid off all my costs. So what I’m looking at now is how much money I make. It’s selling 20-30 copies a day, I’d like it to be selling 2-3 times that in due course.
Readers don’t care when a book was published, so whereas in the print market you’re only on the shelves of the retailer in a prominent position for maybe 3-4 weeks, so that early window is everything for a regular publisher. Outside that window, you effectively get very little support from your traditional publisher. If you’re self-publishing, there is no window. The book is eternal and if I completely neglected the book for a year and then put some marketing energy behind it, no-one would particularly care. So it is early days and I’m not attaching too much significance to that early window, and at the moment things are going fine.
You’ve written in your blog posts recently about how some books are very successful and that some can be published well and be great books but don’t work at all. Your attitude seems to be that “you can only do so much” since there are so many complex forces at play.
Yes, to give it some background, I’ve been more-or-less a full time writer for 15 years or so. Not to boast, but in that time I have had significant relationships with significant publishers - I’m probably now on my fifth six-figure book deal with a conventional publisher, so I’ve played the big game with some big boys. As you know from my blogs, some of those things have worked out well, and some have been absolute car crashes. There is no certainty in this game. If you have a conventional deal with a publisher, you will get your advance, so in that sense there is certainty to traditional publishing. But the sales outcome is really a total unknown. I’ve had some absolute car crashes in traditional publishing, including instances where I’m certain I could have sold more copies of the book myself than via a traditional publisher. So there’s a roulette-wheel quality to the game, no matter if you self-publish or conventionally publish.
One of the beauties of self-publishing is a) you retain control and b) if the first thing doesn’t work and the second thing doesn’t work, you can go onto the third and fourth thing - it never runs out like that. So at this stage I’m relaxed.
Do you mean that in terms of retaining financial control, or creative control - which one is more important?
Just everything! Certainly the book cover. Supposing I were to get negative feedback from readers on the cover, heck I could just change it! I wouldn’t have to be lobbying my publisher to do it, and my publisher would be intensely resistant because of the costs involved. Or if I needed to rewrite the ending I could do that. Or if I decided I was going to slash the price and put it out for free, or for 99c on Bookbub, I can do that and I can go on tweaking things whenever I want.
Again one of the big tools in online promotion of any sort is email lists. Conventional publishers - I’ve really no idea why - but they make very little use of those things. With every book I’m selling, I’m asking people “If you enjoyed this, add your name to my email list.” I’m not going to fill their inboxes with corporate nonsense, but a couple of times a year they’ll get an email that a new book is coming out and if you’d like to buy that book, terrific.
It’s those sorts of things that I can do. I can adjust my strategy and I don’t have to go through some sort of complicated corporate process to make those things happen. And the truth is, the author is largely outside that corporate process so that an author’s ability to impact on those things with a conventional publisher is pretty restricted.
Yes, a lot of what we’ve been trying to do at Reedsy is to make that process easier and to provide tools that will make the process of creating the book so much easier, so that authors can edit and have that flexibility.
Exactly. At the moment there are three types of authors: conventionally published authors who are happy with the way things are - absolutely fine. There are indie-types who relish the process of designing covers and editing manuscripts - they like the entrepreneurial quality of all that. Then there’s definitely a group in the middle who think, logic says self-publish, but they don’t know how to put the whole package together and there will be services like yours who offer to integrate those in a pretty simple way, so that that blockage that is stopping some people making the leap, will become smaller.
What is it that really lies behind your excitement for what you call the current “era” of publishing? Is the flexibility and freedom the biggest part, or is there more?
I think often-enough big publishers have taken their authors for granted. Sure, they compete for them at that really early stage when a literary agent takes a book out for auction. But once that deal has been done, it’s pretty rare for authors to jump publisher unless something has gone badly wrong, which means the publishers can take their authors a little bit for granted.
Some of the treatment I’ve had has been very very good indeed. Some of the treatment I’ve had from publishers has been not so good. And there’s never been a meaningful alternative to those Big-5 type publishers for the certain sort of books that I write. Just the existence now of self-pub, which really is only going to work for genre-type authors at the moment - there aren’t many signs it’s going to work for literary fiction yet - but for genre-type authors, we now for the first time have a meaningful alternative to just going with a regular publisher. Now there is another negotiating presence in the room: I don’t have to take your offer, there is an alternative. That has really not been present before, and I think that’s a fabulous thing for all authors, whether they take the self-publishing route or whether they don’t.
From your position it’s interesting, because you’ve already established yourself for many years as an author working with traditional houses, your route to self-publishing means that you already have a name behind you. I think it will be interesting to see how authors who go straight into self-publishing establish a name for themselves: that is really interesting to me.
Yes, and I think the emerging model of successful self-publishing is first of all, you probably need to be a genre author, secondly you need to be quite prolific, and third you need to apply the “write, publish, repeat” model. It’s possible, but not likely that your first book becomes a big viral hit, but let’s face it, loads and loads of good books never become viral hits: even though in principle they could, it just doesn’t happen. No one will ever be able to trace the reason why it doesn’t happen - in fact, the rule is that it doesn’t happen, it’s just that occasionally it does!
So the “write, publish, repeat” model is incremental. It means your readership grows. Jumping from traditional publishing to self-publishing, yes sure I’ve got more interest in my books and more book reviews and so on than I would have otherwise. But in many ways it’s the same: I’m creating my email list from scratch and those things will just take time to build.
The presence of an author’s back-catalogue online, that doesn’t disappear, means it’s much easier to bring back an older one, and a book that has been published previously could find an author that they’d not previously had.
My first book The Moneymakers was published in the UK in 2000; I never sold the US rights. And I never sold the ebook rights, because no-one sold ebook rights back then. So, I retained the rights to that book, and I no longer had a manuscript because I’ve been through multiple computers since then. I sent the hard copy of the book off to a place in London that scans there things for £10. They send me back a word document - that has some typos, so needs some careful copyediting. But for £10 and a day of my time, I had a typescript of my original manuscript, popped it up online on Amazon and I make a couple of hundred quid a month. That’s not astonishing money, but hey, it’s a couple of hundred quid that I wasn’t getting otherwise.
Exactly, your content goes so much further. How are you engaging with other online communities - what’s your approach?
There’s an infinite amount of stuff that one could do. I think there is relatively little evidence to suggest that Facebook and Twitter and that kind of thing is really a strong way of promoting books. There will be exceptions to every rule, but most books I don’t think achieve many sales like that. I have a couple of books-related websites: The Writer’s Workshop, which helps first time writers with their skills and Agent Hunter, which helps writers find literary agents. Between those two platforms, I’ve got websites that have traffic of 70-80 thousand visitors a month. I’ve got mailing lists of probably 15-20 thousand names. All of these people are writers, but therefore also presumably interested in reading books.
I’ve used those things a bit, but not much: I don’t expect to get significant sales from them. It’s partly because I don’t want to contaminate those brands, but it’s also that I think people don’t like being marketed at and the online platforms that work well, work when there’s a really natural synchronicity between people’s interests in coming to the site, and the product you’re developing.
So that means, if you like being active on Goodreads for example, that seems to me a really natural way to spend time. I don’t particularly enjoy it: that means I’m never going to be that committed to it, that probably means that’s not the right marketing route for me. But there are no general rules here: it really depends on each author and their own individual preferences, their own particular book, and what kind of existing digital presence they already have.
It’s about authors remaining true to themselves.
Yes! You can’t fake it can you? There are people who enjoy engaging in Twitter: they’ll make friends, engage in conversations, and when they do have something to market, they have a community of people who don’t feel they are being exploited for their wallets. They are Twitter friends and have been over the months and years. I’m just not like that. I hate Twitter. I use it as little as I can. I do pump stuff out now-and-again because I kind of think I have to, but it’s never going to be a strong channel for me. But there are online communities of every sort.
And new ones which will develop in the future. The beauty of publishing is that so many different types of authors will find so many different types of routes: not just through various distribution channels, but routes that can create a much closer fit with online communities.
Yes, in the end it’s always going to be a word-of-mouth thing. There will come a point where you might be able to initiate a fire, but in the end it’s going to come from readers, talking to friends about books they’ve recently enjoyed.
You might be able to take sales from 2-3 a day to 20-30 a day, by really pushing the marketing routes that you have, but to achieve sales beyond that point, you’ve actually got to get a community of people going “Hey this book is great!” and they are talking about it with their friends and book groups. That’s how any viral process - whether traditionally or self-published - is created.
Thanks so much. I think this is going to be of great help to so many of our readers on Reedsy.
Just to end on a note that would be positive to both you and your community, which is, there is still a perception of self-publishing as “I wasn’t good enough for traditional publishing, so I’m self-publishing” and that perception has certainly changed, but there’s no question it’s still there. I am a conventionally published author and I’ve had some terrific book reviews, and I’m self-publishing because I want to, and for me it really isn’t because “I couldn’t cut it with the big boys”, but actually that I wasn’t prepared to take what the big boys were offering me. I didn’t want it.
I preferred the risks and the rewards and the opportunities of self-publishing to working with what is the world’s biggest publisher. I’ve definitely hedged my bets, because I’m still conventionally published here in the UK, but I love this model of being a hybrid author and I think people will go both ways: successful self-pub authors will become hybrids in the other direction. I do think it’s a new world we’re now living in.
That’s a very inspiring message to pass on to our readers. Thank you very much and best of luck with it all!
Do you think it’s better to be self-published today, or to go with a traditional publisher?