In this Q&A we hear from Harry Bingham, whose latest book, Talking to the Dead, is the first of the Fiona Griffiths novels. Harry is also the founder of The Writers’ Workshop in the UK.
From banking to writing – how did that come about, and what drove you to set up the Writers’ Workshop?
I always wanted to be an author, from childhood onwards. Banking, for me, was just a lucrative detour en route. The actual trigger of change occurred when my wife became ill fifteen years ago. I gave up work to look after her and wrote my first novel, pretty much literally, at her bedside. I got an agent, then a publisher, and have never looked back.
As for The Writers’ Workshop, the truth is that writing isn’t really a full-time job. With the time I had left over, I thought I might as well offer what editorial knowledge I possessed to others. Soon I received more manuscripts than I personally could handle, so I recruited some similarly minded fellow novelists. Today we have around eighty working with us, along with children’s authors, screenwriters and non-fictioneers. It’s a genuinely awesome array of talent.
Do you think the ongoing revolution in self-publishing is beneficial to the writing community?
Abso-blooming-lutely. And for two reasons, mostly. First, it gives all writers a route to market. Even if the market is ‘just’ friends and family, that’s still utterly worth having – not least to honour what is quite likely a labour of love that took a year or two to complete.
Second, the existence of self-publishing is slowly forcing a degree of honesty from publishers. If publishers know that authors have an alternative route to market, it will, in due course, force them to up their game or reduce their take of royalties. Either way, it’s good news for authors.
In your experience with the WW, do you find most writers are spending the necessary time and money to have their work properly edited and prepared, to achieve the best possible product that they can put on the market?
Most? No, definitely not. In a way, you could say that new writers only ever make one of two mistakes: writing something that, even if well and capably done, could never find a meaningful audience – a thriller that doesn’t thrill, or a literary novel that isn’t particularly literary, for example; or else they don’t execute their concept well enough to make it dazzle. Some writers make both mistakes, of course.
Assuming you’ve avoided the first error, it all comes down to execution, and that means countless hours of work. Rewriting, editing, re-rereading, re-editing. I was absolutely obsessive with my first novel. When I realised that the first 60,000 words wasn’t as good as the last 60,000, I just deleted the stuff that wasn’t right and then rewrote it. And I kept on tinkering with the whole thing, until it was right.
In actual fact, I didn’t pay for an editorial assessment – there were fewer such services around at the time, and in any case I was fairly careful with money. But it’s not the payment that matters, it’s the attitude towards what you’re creating. If you demand the very utmost from your work, are remorseless about identifying and eliminating weaknesses, and willing to toil endlessly until those things are accomplished, you’ll do fine. And most authors, alas, don’t do that. What’s more impressive, though, is that large numbers still do. Good for them.
I was really happy with the assessment I had done by the WW, and my manuscript is all the better for it, although it felt like another mountain to climb to do the rewrite. Do you ever have would-be authors throwing their toys out of the pram and complaining that the assessment is wrong, wrong, wrong..?
As you know, we don’t mess around with our critiques. In the battle of honest vs tactful, we tend to side with the former every time. But, remarkably I think, very few writers get upset with us – and if they do, it’s normally because we’ve been clumsy in our phrasing or approach, rather than because the writer has an actual problem with the things we are saying. I think our clients are a strikingly mature bunch actually.
How do you think traditional publishers and agents will react to the rise of self-publishing over the next five to ten years?
In complicated ways. Already we can see agents scouring self-published work for clients. Publishers too, to some extent, as the success of Fifty Shades of Grey makes clear. A number of agents are setting up their own e-publishing imprints, and some traditionally published authors are experimenting successfully with self-published work. More broadly, I think conventional publishers will find it harder to defend the 25% net royalty on e-books, and there will be an increasing diversity of business models from authors, publishers and agents.
I’ve read a lot about how writers who secure a traditional publishing deal still have to undertake most of the marketing themselves, and that there is only a brief window of opportunity for their books to sell in the high-street stores – if they don’t start to sell quickly, they are sent back. Is there much truth to this, because on the face of it, that would seem to make self-publishing, with higher royalty rates and no time limitations dictated by available shelf space in bookshops, an attractive option.
Hmm. One does read a lot about how authors have to be their own marketers at the moment. But it’s not really true – I do almost nothing at all to market my books. I’m useless at Twitter. I don’t get out and about much. Of course, I do anything my publisher wants me to – attend a festival, write a blog, do an interview – but I’ve always done that, and not more now than I did fifteen years back.
And that’s simply to talk about the UK. I’m also published in the US, Germany, France and Italy, along with a load of other places. What do I do there? Absolutely squat. Nothing at all. It’s not my job to sell books, it’s my publisher’s job – and one that they do just fine at. My Dutch publisher, for example, has given my detective Fiona Griffiths her own Twitter feed. Brilliant! And that’s wonderful salesmanship with zero input from me. I should also say that my literary agents don’t just sell my work, they also try to sell it to publishers who will handle it with proper care and thought.
As for your comment about that brief window of opportunity in retail – well, yes, that is true, but it has been true for as long as I’ve been an author. And the fact is that any book that is really going to grasp the public imagination will need to be available in all outlets and all formats, so it doesn’t really make any sense to retreat to one single sales avenue, or at least not if you have ambitious goals for your work.
Self-publishing also works much better in some genres than others. For example, people are happy to buy short, fun, raunchy crime novels for £1.99, even if the writing and quality of finish is less strong than it would be in a regular novel at £7.99. So there are plenty of self-published authors who – with the plumper royalty – make a perfectly fine living out of such books. But literary novels? Or more demanding crime novels? Or intelligent historical fiction? It’s pretty hard to think of self-publishers who make a good living in those fields.
If you were starting out again as an author, what would you do to build a reputation? I’m guessing that social media would play a major role.
Um, not really. In effect, I am starting out again as an author – Talking to the Dead was my crime debut, and my previous books made no difference to crime readers. But my social media presence is pretty minimal, and I forget to do anything at all for months at a time. So, in terms of sales, I rely on my publishers. In terms of reputation, I rely on my books – and, indeed, I’ve had some very nice book reviews and been given flattering promotions by some tremendous retailers. Those haven’t come about because I’ve done anything in particular, except write a book that people want to read.
If, however, one of your WW clients was unable to place their first manuscript with an agent or publisher and therefore decided to self-publish, what advice would you give them to start getting the word out?
It totally depends on the book. If, for example, the MS is niche non-fiction, you need to tap into the relevant networks or societies; if it’s memoir, you need to address family, friends and local news networks and bookshops; or if it’s young adult fiction, you need to be active online on things like Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and so on. And of course, you’ll need to put as much effort into marketing as you did into writing and editing.
What does the future hold for the WW, particularly in light of more people going it alone?
Compared with when we started out, there are loads more people now offering manuscript assessments, and of course far more people self-publishing. And yet, weirdly, our business goes on growing every year. In part, I think that’s because we are very responsive to what people want. For example, there are lots of writers who want to go on a writing course to develop their skills but who really don’t want all the hassle of a creative writing MA. So we built a range of courses that would suit those writers. And we’re pretty keen on Agent Hunter – a tool developed to help writers locate agents in a far more rational and systematic way than has been possible previously.
Ultimately, we know writers really well and we know the world of agents and publishers really well, so we just do whatever serves the former and makes sense with the latter.
Many thanks to Harry for taking the time to answer my questions. For more information about the man and his work, visit www.harrybingham.com
Talking to the Dead is available on Amazon and in bookstores worldwide.
To find out about the Writers’ Workshop and the services it offers, including critiques and courses, go to www.writersworkshop.co.uk
And you’ll find Agent Hunter at www.agenthunter.co.uk