Edited transcript of the panel discussion at Swedenborg House, 24 February 2011

NICK CLEE, chair: Andrew Lownie, founder of the Biographers’ Club, has an increasingly indispensible feature each year in his newsletter called ‘What Editors Want’. The latest had contributions from thirty editors at leading publishing houses. I say increasingly indispensible because we’re very conscious as authors of having to tailor what we submit to publishers ever more closely to the market. By the market I mean three markets. First, commissioning editors, then retailers and finally the reading public.

These markets are changing rapidly and it’s hard for writers to keep tabs on them. But with the help of our panellists, by the end of the evening we’ll have a clearer idea of at least one of them.

JOHN BLAKE, independent publisher 

If you have a huge cheque book you can pay £2 or £3 million and sign up Tony Blair, then hire a fabulous writer and redraft and rework until it’s a polished biography. It’s an exciting and wonderful area of publishing but it’s a very long way from where I am. As a small publisher we’re constantly having to reinvent ourselves, especially with fewer bookshops but more supermarkets stocking books.

One of the developments we’ve been involved in during the last year or so is the incredibly fast turnaround book. It used to take around six months to produce a book, since authors wanted twelve weeks to write it, followed by three months to publish. Twelve weeks’ writing is now a luxury.

On the day Michael Jackson died, one of my authors called and said she wanted to write a book about him. At first I said no, then a few shops began calling and said if we had any books on him they’d definitely to order them. So she wrote his biography in eight days. It was in the shops less than a month after he died – and it was well-written and researched and went into the top 10. If you’re  speedy and a good biographer, you’re worth your weight in gold to a publisher.

My biggest successes are completely left-field books, which have often been widely rejected by other publishers. My first number one bestseller was about an old East End bare-knuckle fighter called Lenny McLean, known as the Gov’nor. I’d never heard of him. It was 1998 and the book had been rejected by various publishers, then the ghostwriter came to me and said Lenny was dying from a brain tumour and wanted to see it published for his children. I met Lenny for lunch on the King’s Road. Then I caught a taxi home and the driver said, ‘Was that the Gov’nor you were with? He’s a legend. You can have a free ride.’ We printed 3,000 hardback which sold out in three days. At that time, the perception was that blue collar, working-class men didn’t buy books. But because we gave those men something they wanted to read we ended up selling abut 250,000 copies and spawned a whole new genre.

More recently, Katie Price’s first book was rejected by about six publishers. This particular title was aimed at men and included a lot of photographs of her without her top on. We felt if they wanted to see those kind of photos they’d buy the Sun. We decided it was more of a woman’s book and that Katie was rather nice but Jordan was a bit of a demon, so we called it Being Jordan and aimed it at women. It sold around a million copies. The point is that the mainstream publishers didn’t see her coming. There weren’t any books aimed at glamorous working-class women and we filled that need. I’d advise you to think outside the regular and find figures who are liked, but before the press has got hold of them.

If a subject has worked once it will probably work again. Likewise if it failed it will probably keep on failing. I’ve tried three or four times to publish books about Mick Jagger and they always bombed. Whereas, people love Michael Caine and any book about him will sell in enormous quantities. The reading public has an endless fascination for intriguing and likeable figures. Equally there are people they just don’t care about.

HEATHER McCALLUM, Yale University Press

Generally speaking, it will come as no surprise that Yale’s parameters and emphases are less strictly commercial than John’s and my other colleagues here. Having said that we do commission for the general market and virtually none of our books is strictly scholarly. We expect people outside the academy to read our titles, though they do have to meet certain scholarly criteria and proposals and manuscripts are peer reviewed.

Many of our biographies would be considered relatively traditional in both selection of subject and approach to material, and are of familiar and significant figures with a clear line from birth to death. An example is our ‘Lives of the English Monarchs’, produced to be the definitive account. They are vastly researched, and I laughed when John said it takes his authors twelve weeks to write a book – it’s more like twelve years for ours. These books stay on our backlist for ever. They may not sell in huge numbers but they do sell respectably, at around 2,000 copies a year.

As well as historical biography – and I should say all our biographies are of dead people – we also have a line in musical and artistic biographies and some literary, which is a very tough sell these days. Nearly all have name recognition.

The author must have something new to say and new sources ­– reheating the same primary and secondary sources with a bit of spin won’t pass muster. And of course they need to be well written with a strong sense of time and place.

Increasingly our authors are looking at different ways of approaching traditional figures, such as group or comparative biographies. An example of this is Churchill and Ghandi, which did really well in the States. Or taking a chunk out of someone’s life, such as Stalin. No matter how brilliant a life, it must have a broader significance and must have a longer-term importance. These books need to throw light on the person and the age, so that context is richly understood and deployed to illuminate the figure. A really good example of this is Thomas Cranmer by Diarmaid MacCulloch, which makes great use of the Tudor world.

I’m making it sound as though we play terribly safe but this isn’t always true. We publish some complete unknowns when we’re sufficiently convinced by the material and the author. So what kind of authors are we looking for? It’s true that both the name of the subject alongside a known writer will get better coverage and sales, the vast majority of our authors are not well-known. And that’s good because we enjoy building up authors and establishing a platform. For us it’s the quality of the material and how it fits with our list. These writers will know their field but might not have written a biography before, but they have expertise.

You need an empathetic sense, and writers who fall out with their subjects and find them contemptible make it very difficult: the whole sense of encounter with your subject is really important.

As for submissions, we don’t read full manuscripts, we prefer standard proposals with sample writing, hooks and suggestion of content. There is still a good market but the glory days of Georgiana and the de Medicis are receding.

Overall, we’re more likely to take a risk – which sounds perverse from Yale’s safe stable – because our expectations are not massive. We’re influenced by what we like and are swayed by the excellence of the author and the project. Having said all this, our bestseller in the last few years was a Life of Dickens, which proves it’s very hard to escape the famous subjects.

PAUL SIDEY, Hutchinson: I certainly admire John’s twelve-week turnaround plan. The first book I ever published was Prick Up Your Ears, a very challenging title by John Lahr, and that was five years between the writing and paperback and was a huge success. Since then I’ve done books from Charlemagne to Jimmy Goldsmith. In recent years I’ve concentrated more on biographies and showbiz, an area increasingly hard to publish.

Only a few years ago you could get a serial rights deal for £30,000, having not paid as much as that for the book. Now it would be about £2,000. I’ve just published a biography of Joan Crawford. In the old days this particular author, Donald Spoto, was getting £250,000 for a book on Marilyn Monroe; now he’d get around £10,000. He can survive because he sells his books around the world. And that’s the key, but unlike John [Blake] selling in supermarkets, we still depend on traditional outlets, which are disappearing. We have no high street any more, what we used to call the carriage trade – they’ve walked off somewhere else. As this diminishes, books will come out in a different form, such as digital.

Equally, there is a change in readership and knowledge. Years ago we were all familiar with old singers and old films and we knew all the songs and names. I was recently offered a biography of Jean-Luc Godard. I conducted a straw poll around the office and only one young colleague recognised the name. She said, ‘Yes, I know who he is: he’s captain of the Starship Enterprise.’ I was also offered Lesley Caron’s autobiography and someone in the office asked: ‘Who does he play for?’ Ludicrous but that’s the world we now live in.

ALAN SAMSON, Weidenfeld & Nicolson: Firstly, let me say what a diverse genre biography is. Charles Darwin, not one of life’s underachievers, wrote a biography that was 130 pages long. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a magnum opus about Flaubert and the first volume on his childhood and adolescence is 638 pages, and the remaining runs to 2,400 pages.

John Blake has broken the mould with Being Jordan and The Gov’nor, but I would take issue with him on one thing, which is ‘likeability’. I think that’s completely changed. When I was a young editor, a typical memoir would be rather badly ghosted, with a series of celebrity anecdotes about dancing with Sammy Davis Junior or having tea with Prince Philip, and everyone was lovely. The culture has changed, now you go on a journey with the celebrity, there are obstacles and setbacks. It may be a painful divorce or an illness or it may be a bad haircut, but there are obstacles to overcome. And by no means are all these people likeable.

In our lifetime we’ve seen a whole genre morph into something else. Trevor Dolby is sitting in the front row here . . .  he signed up a book in 1995 or 96, A Boy Called It by Dave Pelzer, which inadvertently created the whole misery memoir phenomenon. Before misery lit there was Catherine Cookson and Josephine Cox telling very grim tales about Lancashire mill workers’ daughters who’d been done wrong . . . it was rags to rags. And suddenly – and this is the cultural point – notions of authenticity are now critical. I don’t think it’s about likeability; I think authenticity is the key to success. And the key is to admit that you had a pretty miserable childhood, that you had obstacles, as we all do.

And I’ve found that the autobiographies that succeed dwell on childhood and adolescence. Julie Walters, for example, spent most of her book on her childhood in the Midlands and her struggles as a young actress. Another is Paul O’Grady. His first volume is about his childhood. We’ve all had childhoods but we haven’t all been famous, and where the celebrity’s life has diverged, and they’ve gone from the ordinary to the stratospheric in some cases, is the core that interests readers.

I publish about four literary biographies a year. They’re cradle to grave and for the most part they don’t succeed in sales terms but they’re well worth doing. I have to publish a Keith Richards or a Julie Walters to pay for them, and I very consciously do that. The only way we can get these very excellent books out is by cross-subsidising them. And the way out of this ‘cradle to grave’ challenge is to find the Amadeus or Longitude factor, where you focus on an essential conflict and weave the foreground and background into the conflict. I don’t think the market is there anymore for the 600-page biography when the information is available on Google or Wikipedia. It’s the parts of a life you don’t know, the childhood and so on, that you can’t get from search engines. These are the elements that matter.

Q&A

NICK: We’ve seen certain celebrities all over the tabloids but the book bombs. Do you have a theory why certain personalities sell books and others don’t?

JOHN: It’s alchemy. Paul O’Grady, for example. We published an unauthorised biography that sold in enormous quantities because people are captivated by him. Then there are other people such as Sadie Frost who is all over the tabloids and in magazines, was married to Jude Law and Gary Kemp, but the public doesn’t really care about her or like her. When Prince Edward got married there was press coverage and colour supplements everywhere but the book sold around a thousand copies. It’s interesting that sometimes the papers are bang on the money and at other times totally wrong. The public couldn’t care less about Edward and Sophie.

NICK: Heather, are your marketing and PR departments less involved in the acquisition process than at other publishers?

HEATHER: We have sales projections but Yale is a much more editorially driven company. We take on some books that are cross-subsidised but mostly we do expect books to make money, but not in the hundreds of thousands. We know we’re in an exceedingly privileged position.

NICK: In the past, the way to publish many historical or literary biographies was to pay unfeasibly large advances because authors couldn’t write them otherwise. Is this model increasingly under threat?

ALAN: Recently an agent was offered £25,000 for a biography, which is quite a lot these days, and she said that the author lived in a mews house in Chelsea and had a son at Westminster and couldn’t possibly afford to accept £25,000. I said, in a polite way, ‘Tough.’ It really isn’t the publisher’s problem. We’re a commercial organisation and not here to subsidise or pay a salary to writers. That model is now under scrutiny, and some good books will not be written, but the notion of an author sitting at home writing is probably long gone.

PAUL: I agree that it’s impossible to fund books that don’t have a audience. On the whole, if you look at the figures for an average historical biography – and they’re even worse for a literary biography – you’ll sell about 3,500 copies. I’d love to publish these books but there isn’t an outlet for them.

NICK: How often do you have to say no to books that you would love to publish, and is it increasing?

JOHN: If the author is prepared to take a realistic advance we’ll fight tooth and nail to publish. This month I had phone call from agent who had an author with a wonderful story to tell. Within an hour we’d agreed an advance of £25,000 with no synopsis, no details. Purely on this one conversation, and based on one chapter, we already have six-figure offers coming in from newspapers. It was intuition. We rarely turn down books we think will be commercial.

HEATHER: We get a lot of submissions and we have to turn down books that have no market at all.

PAUL: There are plenty of books I was passionate about and would love to have published, but at meetings [with sales, marketing, rights, publicity et al], I have to submit to a Star Chamber inquisition, and if you can’t get a book through that meeting it’s had it.

ALAN: John has a certain freedom to publish, and even though some of us have deeper pockets, we have other restrictions. Not only because you see an anniversary ahead but because you feel there’s something in the air, the tendency is for the editor to want to break the mould but the sales people want to repeat recent successes. The frustration is when you sense the tide is turning and the world is moving in a different direction and you think, ‘If only I could get this book through this meeting I know it will sell.’

Unlike popular science, with history, and perhaps it’s because of the way history is taught, everyone wants the First and Second World Wars, the slave trade or the Tudors. Then you get a brilliant book on Walpole’s first cabinet in the 18th century and because no one teaches the 18th century you’re told it won’t sell. History is the oddest subject because people want more of the same but they don’t want to fill the gaps.

QUESTONS FROM THE FLOOR: The role of agents, how important are they and does the panel consider scripts that come out of the blue?

JOHN: With fiction you’ve got to have an agent or you won’t succeed. For non-fiction, if an idea is good it grabs you and these writers don’t really need an agent. They might get an auction going, but I’ve had more than a dozen books where I half-liked the book and the writer was rather nice, then the agent comes in and goes on and on and gives you ten pages of additions and revisions, and you think ‘Life’s too short for this rubbish.’ So agents can kill deals as often as they make them. There are many brilliant and creative agents but if your idea is sound it will sell on its own.

HEATHER: We deal with agents far less than commercial publishers. Between 20 to 30% of our books are agented. You develop relationships with agents and frequently they bring us ideas that we wouldn’t find elsewhere. They’re quality control and submit better proposals than from unsolicited approaches. In terms of obstructive agenting, there are times when you think ‘Yes, I can work with this writer’, then the agent comes in and you suddenly feel you can’t be bothered or it’s not worth your while. There is definitely a role for agents, but for us they’re not essential.

PAUL: I’d agree they’re not absolutely essential but around 90% of our business is with agents. Most publishers are now scrupulous with contracts and agents are useful for this, as well as having the sophistication to look at other markets and drive deals forward. On the whole, I’d recommend you have a good agent.

ALAN: I’d like to turn this slightly on its head and say that about 20 to 25% of our books are our ideas, and we go to agents in search of the right author for the project. I receive around 3,000 unsolicited submissions a year and another 3,000 from agents. I look at the agented ones first.

Having said that, the good unsolicited proposal stands out a mile. We publish maybe one or two out of the 3,000 unsolicited each year. I’d say you’re reducing your chance of being taken seriously if you don’t have an agent. The odd thing is, in my experience, is that some of the unsoliciteds are among the best books I’ve ever published. Perhaps it’s the effort they had to make, the needle in the haystack that makes them a gem. They are exceptional books and for the most part are still in print. Some leading publishers won’t look at unagented submissions, but you’d have to be pretty curmudgeonly to ignore all that hard work.

PAUL: I still do it, but maybe it’s an old-fashioned thing.

HEATHER: We do too, and we also go to agents with an idea for a book.

JOHN: Less than 20% of our books come from agents. We don’t pay huge amounts of money but we do open the door and give people a chance as long as we think the book is commercial.

QUESTION: How important are proposals and should they include synopsis, chapter breakdown, sample chapters and so on?

ALAN: The difference between the level of proposals is astonishing. Some are back-of-the-envelope and full of spelling mistakes, while others are 100 pages, which is certainly the American way – they’re far more extensive and detailed than the English equivalent. We tend to follow our hunches but it really does help to have a detailed proposal because it shows commitment and organisation. Although I have bought books based on a couple of pages, at Orion we’re encouraged to get detailed proposals, in part because we need to show them to our colleagues.

JOHN: If you get three pages from someone you know that’s fine, but in general the more detailed the better, since you have to convince your colleagues.

HEATHER: Agents work very hard to give us thorough proposals and it’s something we really value since for us content is very important.

JOHN: What I dread is complete manuscripts. Your heart sinks because you don’t have time to read the whole thing, but you do want to know what it’s about and where it’s going. With certain books you can sum it up in one page, and generally I’d say keep it short because it needs to grab me straightaway. But whatever you do please don’t write things like, ‘Diana Ross has two million fans across the globe and if 10% buy the book it will be a bestseller.’ It’s always annoying and will get sent straight back. Say what the book is about, not why it might sell.

QUESTION: How do publishers see themselves in the e-publishing/digital world?

PAUL: It’s just another way of distributing work. It’s the bookshops that have trouble with this, but the product is still the same.

ALAN: The challenge is for high street retailers. As publishers, we’ve got to reach the maximum number of readers, and if that’s through digital and downloads that’s fine by us. In the 1930s it was the paperback and now it’s digital, but it won’t kill off hardbacks. In fact, a lot of people are buying both. It’s probably no surprise that our biggest download was the Keith Richards biography, about 4,500 last year and it was the only non-fiction title in the top ten downloads in our company. It’s still a small part of our business but it’s going to completely change in the next two years.

HEATHER: The number of books that have sold well for us in e-publishing – and again it’s a tiny proportion of sales – might be higher than in the general market because our books are seen as reference and perhaps essential in some cases.

JOHN: What’s sad is that we all love bookshops and with e-books you can’t stumble across glorious treasures the way you would in a shop.

ALAN: For biography, there’s a sense that you should title the book with the subject. Years ago there was a biography of Shelley called Ariel. If you’re browsing in a bookstore you’ll find it but you probably won’t find it browsing for e-books. Biography titles need to include the name of the subject.

NICK: The retail price for the Keith Richards was a lot lower than the hardback. How will publishers survive in a world where e-books are so much cheaper?

ALAN: In America and Australia they’re well ahead of us and in some cases, particularly with fiction, the e-book has overtaken the paperback sales, never mind the hardback. It’s a brave new world.

QUESTION: How do you distinguish between trade and academic?

HEATHER: Even our most commercial books are of a scholarly standard but on the trade side we publish books that we feel have a broader market. It’s not a distinct division, we’re not big enough for that. It’s also the case that some trade books turn out to be academic, and vice versa. It’s an inexplicit art.

QUESTION: Is it ever worth it to self-publish first, then approach a publisher?

JOHN: I’ve fallen love with books that people have published themselves and then taken them on to new heights. I’m not sure it’s the same with e-books though. If there are millions of titles out there, how are we going to filter them?

ALAN: Our most famous examples of this are The Midwife which became number one paperback bestseller, and Belle de Jour. Overall, I’d say the grail isn’t there yet.

QUESTION: How important are youth and good looks in getting your book published?

ALAN: It’s true with certain kinds of fiction, such as chick lit, but with historical non-fiction or biography it wouldn’t remotely influence us. The quality has to be on the page and the rest is a bonus, but it wouldn’t affect a publishing decision.

QUESTION: Is the panel concerned about unauthorised biographies in these times of super injunctions, data protection and libel cases?

JOHN: We publish a lot of unauthorised biographies and we try to show the manuscript to the person involved. There was a book about Bernie Ecclestone a while back which someone had paid a very large advance for and then said it was unpublishable when he threatened to injunct. It was offered to somebody else but they gave up when there was an injunction. Then my friend Robert Smith [agent] persuaded me to take it on for £1,000 or so. So I wrote to Bernie Eccelstone and said, ‘You keep injuncting this darn book, do you want to see what it’s about?’ He wrote a note saying, ‘You cheeky so-and-so. Send it round.’ His only objection was that it didn’t have enough funny stories in it. So we added some and he was fine about it. If you treat them in a fair way, rather than sneaking around, most people are pretty reasonable.

ALAN: Not only libel but the laws of privacy become much more challenging for unauthorised biographies. There was a whole range of books that I published in the 80s and 90s that I wouldn’t do now for legal reasons. We’ve become more of an ambulance-chasing culture. With the Keith Richards book, I never thought that Mick Jagger or Marianne Faithfull or someone like that would sue. My fear was that the roadie who’d had a spliff with Keith in the back of a car and who was now the mayor of . . . might sue. Or the woman who was quite a naughty girl in the 60s and is now a headmistress.

PAUL: I’m publishing a book on the Duchess of Windsor in April and you’d have thought we’d be relatively safe but the legal reading has been industrious to say the least. Several years ago I did a book on Mohamed Al-Fayed and Tiny Rowland and their conflict and we were sued by both of them.

NICK: I’d like to end by asking the panel how generally optimistic you are about publishing and particularly biography?

JOHN: Books are a bit like movies in that I won’t go to the cinema for a few months then suddenly there are several films I want to see, such as The King’s Speech, True Grit and Black Swan all out at the same time. If you produce books people want to read they will beat a path to your door. Even without marketing, if you have a good book people will want it, but you have to give them books they want to read.

HEATHER: Yale has been slightly insulated in that our imperatives and our market are different. Quality will out, and if a book is truly excellent there will be a readership for it. It’s very heartening when that happens.

PAUL: I really want to keep the optimistic line going . . . I’m publishing five biographies this year. The first two haven’t sold that well, but I have hope for the other three.

ALAN: Biography is changing and perhaps should change a little faster. Since the terrible period from 2006 when Ottakar’s folded into Waterstone’s, then Borders collapsed and we saw the virtual end of British bookshops – it’s an awful time in terms of retail. But this doesn’t mean that great books aren’t being written and published.

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This event was a full house of 100 guests, nearly all of them writers. We were encouraged, enlightened and occasionally alarmed by what the panel had to say. Once the Forum on the Noticeboard page of our website is running (and apologies for its temporarily complex format), please add your views and feedback for debate.