4 Reasons Why My Book Had a Crossover Success
For my first published book I revised and expanded my doctoral dissertation on the late Victorian monarchy. Next I brought out a book on roughly the same subject, but which made a much bigger splash. Believe me, I hoped for this, but I was as surprised as anyone when it actually happened.
It crossed over from the tiny audience for academic history, bought mainly by university libraries, to the much larger audience for history and biography in the general reading public. It was my first contact with “trade” or commercial publishing. It didn’t make me rich, but it earned a first advance from a publisher. It won me time off my academic job to work on it. It had breathtaking publicity and was reviewed in major newspapers. It also led me to my first literary agent. How’d all that happen?
1 I had unusual sources
The world thinks writers work alone in attics, and many of us do. Nevertheless, to garner attention for your work of nonfiction, you often need to go out in the world and collect unusual sources. For this, my second book, Henry & Mary Ponsonby: Life at the Court of Queen Victoria, I had access to the Royal Archives. That access was partly based on the PhD dissertation I’d written before, but it was also because several archivists continued to be interested in what I was doing and encouraged me.
I wouldn’t have been given that continuing access to Windsor unless I’d been spoken about in a friendly way to the queen’s private secretaries, and possibly to HMQ herself. I don’t know. The papers I was working on belonged to her and they were the foundation on which my book rested.
In my corner I also had Kate Russell and Laura Ponsonby, descendants of the Victorian couple whose story I was telling. Their belief in me was also key to my writing the book. They were fonts of family lore. Even more importantly, they had on hand in their medieval priory many letters and other papers that had not been written about or quoted from before.
2 By hook or by crook I recruited key people to support the book
I went to academic conferences I didn’t always enjoy, but which led to important meetings and friendships. At one I met the historian, David Parrott, who knew an editor at one of the trade publishing houses in London. Through David, I met Martin Rynja, who was an editor at Duckworth. This was an old publishing house with a distinguished literary history. They’d published Evelyn Waugh and Virginia Woolf. The spines of their books featured a famous duck drawn by the artist David Gentleman.
Martin was looking for books that had some academic authority, but which could also be marketed to a broader audience. When I told him about my Ponsonby project, he was enthusiastic. He offered me a contract and £7,500 as an advance on royalties. It was the first time I’d been paid up front for a book. I was able to take this back to the college where I was teaching and use it to negotiate a semester off teaching in order to finish the research and write the book.
There were glitches. Martin needed the book quicker than I then realized was possible for me to produce it. I thought book deadlines in contracts were flexible. They were not. We had several telephone conversations where we shouted at each other. He was fired, not because of the lateness of my book, but because Duckworth was then having financial difficulties. It led to his being less interested in being friendly. Even now I’m not sure how responsible I am for this. He went on to found his own publishing firm, Gibson Square Books, where he has had several enormous successes.
While Martin was still at Duckworth, he commissioned a cover design. I remember the afternoon he showed it to me. It was the result of splicing together two different nineteenth-century photographs of Henry and Mary Ponsonby, superimposed on a photograph of some of their letters that I had via the two sisters. It was a perfect foretaste of what the book was about. It was a visual translation of both the source materials and the personalities of the book.
After Martin went back to work I drifted down from Duckworth’s Soho townhouse to the river. It was an early evening. It was dark. The Thames tide was in full flood. There were barges and pleasure craft tied up alongside the bank with plastic tarps rattling in the breeze. There was a muddy, riverine smell. It was one of the first times a publisher had read my book and made it yield an image that surprised and pleased me. I had a premonition then, next to the river, looking out at the choppy current, that the book would be a success.
3 Chance played a role
The book was published in the year of the current queen’s golden jubilee in 2002. If I’d turned it in on time, this would not have happened. As a result of the queen’s jubilee, media outlets were looking for stories that shed some light on the current queen and the monarchy. There was a chance hunger in the media for the subject I’d been writing about.
4 The publisher’s publicity person played an ever bigger role
Duckworth had an excellent woman who worked the phones doing marketing and PR. She managed to get Henry & Mary accepted as a book of the week on Radio Four of the BBC. This was one of the British equivalents of being invited on Oprah Winfrey in the States. The BBC hired an actor, Geoffrey Palmer, who’d played Henry Ponsonby in a major film, Mrs Brown. Palmer did readings from the book that were divided into five different episodes. They began to broadcast these on the radio on the very day and at the very hour that the queen was driving to St. Paul’s to give thanks for fifty years on the throne. All this gave my book a boost. I did almost nothing to make it happen other than to write it and to hand it in late, such that Victorian subject matter and a contemporary royal event coincided.
There were still problems. Duckworth may have had a long history, but it was then a small and struggling operation. During the week the book was being broadcast, and even afterwards, it was difficult to find Henry & Mary in bookstores.
At the launch party, the young people representing Duckworth didn’t bring along enough copies. They sold out before the evening was over. Amazon didn’t then exist. There was no such thing as the ability to buy any book online twenty-four hours a day. Nor was the book ever published and distributed in the States, though there would have been a market for it here, just as there’d been Americans who went to see Mrs Brown.
Still, Henry & Mary launched me into the world of commercial publishing. I wrote letters of enquiry based on this “book of the week” to ten British agents based in London. As a result I found my first literary agent, Zoë Waldie, at Rogers, Coleridge & White. She wanted to represent me. I began work on a new project. I ended up being given an advance for the new project that was double what I’d been given for Ponsonby. That was Zoë’s doing. I felt as if I’d arrived.
I was standing on one of the rear balconies of Carlton House Terrace that overlooked the Mall, running back on my right to Buckingham Palace. I was listening to my book being read via BBC broadcast over a transistor radio, held to my ear, at the very moment the queen drove by in a new maroon Bentley on her way to a service of thanksgiving at St. Paul’s. The crowd lining the Mall clapped for her. Inwardly I felt that somewhere strangers, listeners, and readers might be paying attention to me too. A few hundred yards in front of me was the lake where a duck had waddled away with my schoolmate’s blazer when I was 11. It had sunk under the water. I wasn’t sinking, I was floating on my back and looking at the sky. It was what my retired diplomat friend had taught me to call a golden moment.