Sunday, January 10, 2010

Why I Published Peter Watt: A Reply to Sunder Katwala

Next Left's Sunder Katwala knows a thing about political publishing, albeit of the academic kind. We first met when I was at Politico's and he worked for Macmillan. He's written an article headlined WATT'S THE POINT? on Next Left this afternoon, which I think deserves a full reply, partly because he is under a few misapprehensions and partly because I think some of my readers might be interested in a few facts about the world of political publishing.

Let's go through his assertions one by one...

1. Will Dale say what his initial print run is? I would be very surprised if it were over 2000 copies, and would guess it more likely to be less than half, or even a quarter, of that. (Pitch it low enough, and you could announce a sell-out and a reprint by next week!). I shall ask him.

Ask and ye shall receive. I think Sunder must be basing his estimate on his former world of academic publishing, where Macmillan would print 500 copies of a book and price it at £50. Print runs are a publisher's worst nightmare. On books like this you run the risk of getting it badly wrong. Back in 2000, the publisher of Edwina Currie's diaries printed 20,000, but had to pulp two thirds of them. The booktrade is very different nowadays. Sales are concentrated on three outlets - W H Smith, Waterstone's and Amazon. This means margins are far tighter and pricing is more competitive. You know that if you sell a book at an RRP of £16.99 each of those outlets will know between 30% and 50% off it from the word go. Economic madness, but there you are. We have pre orders for 8,000 copies - far more than I ever expected. There's no guarantee that all those will sell, but the fact that the book, after a mere 24 hours, is in Amazon's top 10 biography list and is about to enter its Hot 100 sellers, gives me confidence in its performance.

2. I imagine the publisher and author would be in profit, though this will surely primarily depend on any largesse received from Mr Paul Dacre's chequebook rather than the great book-buying British public.

Not true from the publisher's point of view. It's normal that the author keeps the lion's share of any serialisation money, so our profits are very dependent on book sales.

3. The main impact - the whole point - of such an exercise is the media and blogosphere political detonation. The book (co-authored by the Sunday Times' deputy political editor Isabel Oakeshott, making their non-serialisation of the book interesting) is simply a vehicle. It is certainly the type of serialisation which makes buying the book pretty redundant for any but the most dedicated anorak.

Again, a total misreading of motives. Peter wanted to get his side of the story out. My interest in this book is commercial, rather than political. I took it on because I thought there was a fair chance of turning a profit on it. I hope to be proved right. Biteback is not a company with a political viewpoint. I'd be very happy to publish a similar book from a Conservative if I thought it would make a profit. We're publishing Nigel Farage's memoirs, which I imagine will not go down well with the Tories. I've commissioned three books relating to the LibDems recently. We're publishing a series of 7 books prior to the election called WHY VOTE? One book each for Labour, Conservatives, LibDems, Greens, UKIP, SNP and Plaid. Each party has been happy to cooperate. I do not expect the latter four to make a profit - we're doing it because we think it's a good thing for politics generally to have done it.

I have read the book. Sunder hasn't. It is most certainly not a book just for political anoraks. There's a real human story which hasn't come out in the serialisation so far. But he are right in one respect. If people feel they've read it all in the paper, they may not buy it. But bear in mind a serialisation is usually a maximum of 10,000 words. This book is 85,000 words long. And there's gold on virtually every page!

4. If the tell-all memoir of Peter Watt would have not been an obvious candidate for the list of a mainstream publishing house, one might then observe the success of several key players from Britain's political right (particularly the Ashcroft-Montgomerie-Dale triumvirate) in realising the value of creating alternative media channels to make such interventions possible, through whatever combination of strategic funding and individual initiative is involved.

I disagree. I think a mainstream publisher would have seen exactly the same potential for this book as I did. And I know from emails I have had today that there are a couple of them who wish they had had the chance to sign it up. Peter and Isabel came to me because they thought I would know how to market a book like this and they would get personal treatment from me rather than being handed round from department to department in a big publisher. They also presumed we could act quickly, and they were right. I'm not sure what either Ashcroft or Montgomerie have to do with the price of fish here. And I don't think my personal online presence played any sort of role in their decision to sign up with Biteback at all.

5. Whatever Watt's motivation - ego, financial gain, personal revenge, or a botched attempt to participate a weekend late in a farcical coup would all seem to be among the possible contenders - very few in his own party will thank him for his final destructive contribution to the party's general election effort.

Peter can speak for himself, but I have detected no sign of extreme bitterness of revenge in our conversations. He had a story to tell and wanted to tell it. This was the first real opportunity he has had since he was cleared by the Police. A book like this takes a long time to write. He's certainly not motivated by money. If he and Isabel had been they would have gone to a publisher with deeper pockets than us. The point about the botched coup is facile. No one knew it was coming. It would have been virtually impossible to plan the publication and serialisation around such an event. The publication date was set a month ago, and the serialisation was agreed shortly before Christmas. No conspiracy here, honest.

Of course there will be few people in the Labour Party who thank him. He never believed there would be. He would tell you that I went out of my way to warn him about the bile and venom that would come his way. The vicious Tweets that I have been seen today are evidence of that, but he and I both know that people react in this way when they know in their heart of hearts that there is truth in what is being said.

Peter feels a deep loyalty to the Labour Party, but that loyalty has been terribly abused. As he tweeted last night "loyalty is a two way thing". He is still a party member and donates money to the party. It is not his fault that the people at the top of the party he still loves treated him in such a terrible manner. And it is his right to tell his story of what happened, as there are clearly still people out there who believe that Gordon Brown was right to brand him a criminal, hours after telling him on the phone that he would "look after" him.

I am proud of the way we have published this book. And I hope it sends out a signal to anyone out there - whatever their politics - that Biteback is becoming the place to go to publish decent political literature. Take a look through THIS LIST of our upcoming titles and I think you'll be surprised at both the quantity and the quality.

So if you have a book idea, you know who to contact!

UPDATE 8.15: The book has now entered the Amazon Hot 100 and is number 8 bestselling biography.


apricotfox said...

Good on you, Iain. Looking forward to reading it.

Sunder Katwala said...

well, that's a full reply, thanks. (Even if you gave the pre-orders, not the print run).

Trade publishers are a bit wary of political memoir. You mention the heavily promoted, and highly newsworthy, Currie diaries selling about 6000 or so, which would make 8000 for Peter Watt quite an achievement if you don't get most of them back. (I think Norman Fowler's scintillating memoirs sold about 3000). I don't know how many ministerial or other insider memoirs we will actually see in future. Clearly, there

As it happens, I did publish some general/trade politics, including people like John Redwood, the Nuffield election study and so on, though this was the pre-Amazon era.

Bird said...

I'm ordering a copy. Can't wait.

Anonymous said...

Hear, hear. A good story to tell and publish – I hope that the sales do the decision justice. I'm just stunned that the BBC has felt justified in so roundly ignoring/rubbishing the story.

Ean Craigie said...

It really burns me up when the talking heads preach about a book they have not read by an author and ghost whom they have no interviewed. Orders from the Bunker or messaged by flying Nokia

Anonymous said...

Having been involved in legal education and publishing for 25+ years in my past - I know exactly what you mean by risk and the ability of the bookshops to exert downward pressure on margins.

Publishing is a hard business. Full credit to you for taking it on. As you state quite clearly - your publishing is commercial.

I shall buy the book. I am interested in political biographies.

I think it is important to have publishers who are prepared to take on risks. If Watt and your company make a reasonable return on this book - excellent, but I accept Watt may not have been motivated by money.

I have voted Labour since the mid-seventies. I am a 'critical' supporter. The government record on civil rights and human rights has not been brilliant. By the same token the Tory record wasn't brilliant either - so no point scoring there. Mr Watt's revelations, thus far, make rather depressing reading for labour supporters. I like understatement.

The good writers in the press, political bloggers of all persuasions add colour and interest to politics for those of us who are interested in politics. The range of political opinion expressed in blogs alone is truly fantastic - and long may that continue.

AS apricotfox said... Good on you and Peter Watt for bringing an important story out. If labour can't handle it - that is their problem.

It will be interesting to see if they dismiss it as just another 'bit of silliness'. From the extract /excerpt today. I think they would be foolish to do so.

Loyalty goes both ways and it would appear that Mr Watt was hung out to dry - which I find rather distasteful.

Mark Thompson said...

I like the look of the "The Prime Ministers Who Never Were" counterfactuals book but do we really have to wait another 16 months for it?

Tell Francis to get a wriggle on!

OldSlaughter said...

Nice post.

You are at your best like this. Polite, calm, reasoned and right.

Conand said...

@Stevenradams aka weird codename @6:30

I agree entirely. The BBC News Channel has decided to run with two political stories from the Sunday papers on their banner and the BBCi 'Main Headlines':

Story 1:

Gordon's interview.

Story 2:

The Goldsmiths in the Times.

Hahahahaha. Weeers the other storee BeebeeSee??
Where is it? Where?

Talk about counterfactuals!

Unsworth said...

Interesting though the machinations and calculations around publishing may be, I'd query why Katwala is so pruriently interested in your finances and why he deliberately impugns Watts motivations. But perhaps he does believe that is the real story.

I think this is typical of the Left - the constant reduction of political discussion to personal smear, the deliberate avoidance of the serious matters raised. It is a great pity that people like Sunder Katwala expend so much effort in attributing such motivations to others. They are, of course, judging people by their own notably base standards.

Sungei Patani said...

I read the extracts today in the Mail on Sunday and I found them fascinating. Very glad that you published the book Ian.

The thing that astonishes me is the lack of honesty by Gordon Brown about the election that never was in 2007. He has maintained that that he did not intend to call an election and it was all put up by the media.

Perhaps David Cameron can ask him about this in the TV debates during the election.

Unknown said...

Basically, Sunder is saying that you should never publish anything, in any circumstances, that might be seen as remotely critical of the Labour Party. He is also saying that the only motives anyone can have for writing a non-academic monograph are personal revenge, egotism or the pursuit of financial gain - and financial gain, obviously, is as wicked as either narcissism or vengefulness.

I don't know that this post has really shown me a huge insight into the publishing of Watt's book, but it has given me an insight into Katwala's mindset and attitude and I can tell you it is not a pretty sight.

ferial ferret said...

Comprehensive and straightforward response - are you sure you want to become a MP?

Thought I had missed the BBC coverage - they are biased (and their complainst procedure useless)

Jimmy said...

"Peter feels a deep loyalty to the Labour Party"

Well that's nice. Just imagine what he might have done if he didn't.

Sunder Katwala said...


Of course I can't criticise Iain Dale for publishing the book. (My post says "one can hardly fairly criticise Iain Dale for any of this. It is good news for his publishing business, for his media profile and for his political prospects"). Nor indeed Isabel Oakeshott for co-authoring it.

That is what publishers and journalists should do.

What I wrote was that Labour party members will question the decision of a former party General Secretary/Chair/senior figure, etc to produce something in this type of "score settling" tone of today's extract in the first week of an election year, and publish and serialise it in a way which everyone can see is designed to maximise its political impact and damage.

Martin S said...

Good grief.

Sunde4r could have saved a lot of time by writing: "Iain, I am bit jealous. Good luck with the book."

I only wish I could write a book. Too many years spent writing copy to fit 250 to 1,000 word stories has blunted any aspirations along those lines. Still, I can dream!

Iain Dale said...

Yes, Sunder, and I believe the Pope tends towards the Catholic faith.

They would have said that whenever the book came out. What they might want to do - and you too - is actually read the book as a whole before rushing to judgement like you already have. Uncharacteristaically, if I may say so.

Newmania said...

I'd be very happy to publish a similar book from a Conservative if I thought it would make a profit

Is that really true ?
Thats a bit like saying if someone gave me some money I would campaign for the Labour Party. I probably need the cash more than you but I simply could not bring myself to do attack everyhting I believe , for money .

Well ok much :)

Sunder Katwala said...


Sorry, but your position appears to combine the following points:

* declaring that something is the most important news story of the weekend of January 10th;

* embargoing review or media copies until January 25th;

* challenging anybody other than the author, publisher or Mail on Sunday who wishes to comment on said story of a "rush to judgement" for not having read the embargoed book.

This is somewhat illogical, though
uncharacteristically, if I may say so!

Clearly, it is valid to make at least a provisional judgement on the basis of the serialisation which forms the news and political intervention.

Nobody could think Peter Watt too naive to understand the politics of it, as you must accept even if you took an enormously low view of his talents or motives in declaring him "either a liar or an incompetent fool" in November 2007.

Or was that, in hindsight, a rush to judgement?!

Unknown said...


You are merely confirming exactly as I said: you believe that no-one should publish anyone which might shed light into the internal workings of the Labour Party.

You also use the concept of "financial gain" as an insult to belittle and demean an author and to establish some imagined moral superiority on your part.

You are, in other words, acting largely as one would expect a privileged and unashamedly partisan apologist for the Labour Party to behave when faced with hard evidence not only of his party's political failings but of the utter vacuum that exists at the ideological and moral heart of the Labour Party, the Labour leadership and the Labour membership.

As I said, your bitterness, your desperation and your petty denigration of any perspective that deviates from the party line is unattractive in the extreme.

Newmania said...

Sunder if you are going to get sniffy about "financial gain" , should you not tell us what you are paid by the Fabian society and to what extent your continued employment depends on your broadly proselytising on behalf of Labour ? I took it that that was your job

To what extent does that compromise your position ? I doubt the question arises in practice but you should, at least admit the possibility that getting paid for something does not mean you are lying .I speak as a clean limbed Corinthian gentleman addressing a “Player “

Unsworth said...

@ Newmania

"at least admit the possibility that getting paid for something does not mean you are lying"

Precisely. Otherwise all of those paid 'witnesses' (e.g. 'climate experts') who pronounce in favour of Labour policies are equally discredited. Sunder Katwala is dissembling. It is a diversionary tactic designed specifically to avoid direct response to the matters raised in Watt's book.

I would be altogether more impressed if Katwala had the ability to address those matters, but his current 'observations' hardly merit attention - except that they graphically confirm what we all know of the Left, the desperation to close debate and scrutiny by attacking the messenger. In short, his position is intellectually untenable.

When people like the execrable Liam Byrne say to 'interviewers' that Watt 'has a book to sell' they should immediately be challenged to confirm that Watt is lying. The choice is simple, either Watt is factually correct or the book is a tissue of lies. The remedies are in the courts. Is Byrne prepared to take his chances?

Unsworth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.