Ms. Amiel's Friends & Enemies

Longtime Maclean’s and Times of London columnist Barbara Amiel’s memoir Friends & Enemies will be released next month. I haven’t read the final version but I did read an earlier, uncut draft. It was smoothly written and fascinating from end to end. It tells her whole life story, dwelling, unlike most memoirs, on the ride down rather than the ride up — what happened, from a very personal point of view, after attacks on Conrad Black’s business practices blew up their lives.

The late Peter Worthington once told me that when it comes to writing about herself, Barbara is compulsively revealing. He described it as a form of incontinence.

He’s right, and if you have doubts look at the three excerpts that ran in the Daily Mail (UK) last week. You can read about what it’s like to spurned by shopgirls here, the bitchy world of billionaire wives here, and why George Weidenfeld had to settle for blowjobs here.

They’re called excerpts but a better term would be abridgments. The Mail took a bunch of paragraphs from all over the book and slapped them together into three roughly coherent narratives. They don’t give you a sense of the book’s style and storytelling—there’s a lot of humor and self-deprecation in it—but they do deliver some of the juicy parts.

Barbara also gave the Daily Mail, which is touting the book as the jaw-dropping, eyeball-popping “memoir of the year,” an interview in which she savages Justin Trudeau (“a handsome face but nothing between his ears”), reports that she (approaching eighty) and Conrad (not far behind) enjoy regular sex, complains about the size of the swimming pool in her new north Toronto home, signals her intention of moving the household back to London, and left her interviewer wondering:

Was I dreaming, or did she really get drunk with Leonard Cohen on the night before her first wedding?
Did she really bump into ‘a tall African-American’ with a handsome Doberman dog on a New York street, go back to his apartment for sex, then allow him to spray whipped cream on her nude self before he invited his dog to lick it off?
Did Vogue fashion boss Andre Leon Talley really send her mad, hysterical faxes from the Paris fashion shows, advising her what to buy? (‘Steer clear of anything edged in sable at Balmain!’ ‘Let rip at Gaultier!’)
Can it be true that her butler was mauled in the snow by one of her dogs after he had eaten a baked salmon dinner (the dog, not the butler)? Or that Barbara once cut off her nose to spite her face quite literally, as an early botched nose job left her with barely a snout and she had to have another operation using a bone graft from her hip to build it up again?

It wouldn’t do to say more about the book in advance of its publication (although last time I spoke with her she mentioned there are literal lists of friends and enemies in the back pages which, if I was still in the newspaper business, I’d be looking to get my hands on).

I want to talk instead about the boring stuff: the unique circumstances of the book’s publication. It will give you a sense of how weird the book business can be.

Friends & Enemies has three publishers: Signal in Canada, Pegasus in the US, and Constable in the UK.

The project originated in Canada with Douglas Pepper at Signal, a division of McClelland & Stewart, itself a division of Penguin Random House Canada. Pepper is one of few publishing executives in Canada who actively courts writers of a conservative bent, like Ms. Amiel. He has also published Mr. Amiel in the past.

Pepper acquired Canadian rights to Barbara’s memoir about five years ago, which was a smart and necessary move: he couldn’t publish the book in Canada without the Canadian rights. Often, however, Penguin Random House Canada and subsidiaries like Signal will buy world rights to a book. They’ll publish the book in Canada and then attempt to sell the rights to other houses that will publish it internationally.

From what I’ve observed, the motherships, Penguin Random House US and/or Penguin Random House UK, get first shot at buying those rights (for their markets), but seldom makes use of the opportunity.

When I published The Uncrowned King: The Sensational Rise of William Randolph Hearstwith Penguin Random House Canada in the late nineties, they bought world rights from me, and the US rights were subsequently sold to Counterpoint, an independent publisher based in San Francisco. Counterpoint published the US edition, which involved designing a distinct cover jacket for the book, getting copies printed, selling the book into US retail outlets, and getting it published — duplicating all the work of Penguin Random House Canada. I was disappointed that Penguin Random House US didn’t want to publish the Hearst book. I thought it was a natural fit for them. They didn’t agree, perhaps because it wasn’t good enough, perhaps because New York publishers are generally sniffy about literature produced in their branch plants. Regardless, Counterpoint did a good job.

Sometimes Penguin Random House Canada buys world rights to books and can’t sell the non-Canadian rights within the larger Penguin Random House universe or anywhere else. This was the case with Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life. There were no takers in the US, the UK, or Botswana, so Penguin Random House Canada, having no other option, kept the world rights and made the book available everywhere. It wound up selling millions of copies around the world. That was a highly unusual situation, and a very happy one, as things transpired, for the Canadian operation which raked in all the cash.

As a branch plant of a multinational, Penguin Random House Canada and its subsidiaries such as Signal constrain themselves to the Canadian market because that’s what they know, but also for reasons of corporate politics. It would be dangerous for the multinational whole to let its Canadian or Australian or Botswanan subsidiaries buy rights to books with the intention of selling them directly into the bigger, richer US and UK markets. The regional markets would soon be neglected, and the various divisions would wind up competing against each other for books to sell in those high-potential markets, bidding up their cost. Better to have the divisions work their own patches and sell international rights where they can.

Back to Barbara. The unusual thing in her case is that Signal only bought Canadian rights to her memoir. She retained the international rights and as recently as last fall wasn’t sure what to do with them. She turned to her agent who sold them to Pegasus in the US and Constable in the UK.

While all three publishers are using essentially the same text, each seems to be designing, printing, and distributing its own copies. Three different covers are being used. At the top of this page is the UK version, in the middle the US version, and directly above the Canadian version.

Publishing in this manner is hugely inefficient. I don’t know how many copies each publisher is printing in its own market but say each is printing 10,000 copies. Printing benefits enormously from economies of scale. Printing three runs of 10,000 copies costs a far more than one run of 30,000 because much of the work and expense goes into setting up the press. Once it’s running, it doesn’t cost much to keep it going, and the cost of producing each individual copy gets cheaper and cheaper the longer the run. Printing, along with marketing & publicity, is the biggest expense for publishers. (It is also expensive to ship books overseas so a single, long, press run might not have worked in this case).

Each publisher, then, will have an inefficient press run. Each publisher has also paid to design its own cover because each is convinced that the other doesn’t understand the sensibilities of this market. And each publisher is preparing its own marketing materials and applying its own marketing and publicity teams to promote and sell the book. It’s duplicative and much less profitable than it could be.

The burden of these inefficiencies falls on the originating publisher, in this case, Canada’s Signal, because it will have paid Barbara a substantial advance to write the book and it has had to handle the usual editing, copy-editing, proofreading, and lawyering. On the other hand, Canada is presumably the best market for the book so Signal has a reasonable shot at recouping its investment.

Constable, meanwhile, is sitting pretty. Rights are a buyers’ market. There are so many books to choose from. I don’t that what the UK paid for rights to Friends & Enemies, but they apparently got that money back and then some by selling the three excerpts to the Daily Mail. No mainstream Canadian or U.S. papers or magazines, to my knowledge, pay for book excerpts anymore.

When a book is coming out in several markets, all of the publishers pledge to collaborate with one another regarding timing and promotions, and so on. It seldom happens. As a practical matter, each publisher will take advantage of whatever opportunities it can. It’s hard to get attention for books these days, so if the Daily Mail, with its cash and its huge circulation, is ready to run three excerpts but insists on being out a month in advance of the official publication date, the Daily Mail is likely to get its way. And, in this case, it did.

News, of course, does not respect rights markets. It’s as easy for people in Canada or the US to log onto the Daily Mail as it is to read the Toronto Star or the New York Post. If a book has interesting content, it spreads immediately. With UK media more robust and aggressive than their Canadian counterparts, the UK is driving the bus on Barbara’s book.

The odd thing about this insanely inefficient system is that it can benefit the author. If Penguin Random House Canada had bought world rights to the book, and somehow its semi-sovereign US and UK operations had been compelled to bring it out in their markets, they would have done so grudgingly, preferring to husband resources and energies for projects they’ve originated themselves. Having a different publisher invested in making the book a success in each market can be best for the book.

One could go on forever about the odd ways of publishers, and the various angles and implications of the global rights markets (in which Sutherland House is still amateur). The one last thing we’ll address, because it strikes us as most absurd, is the three covers. As mentioned previously, this happens because publishers can’t help but leave their fingerprints on a book, regardless of whether or not they are actually improving it.

You would think, in these days of global markets, it would help to have the same cover everywhere. After all, the reading public is not going to be constrained by regional markets. So if Barbara goes on Piers Morgan’s show in London next month (which is in the works), he’ll flash the UK cover, not the Canadian or US covers, which will be confusing to people who see the interview on YouTube or elsewhere online.

You would also think, in these days of affordable market surveys, that publishers would run a test to see which version of the cover appealed to book buyers in their markets, and all use the most effective cover (presuming it would be the same in each market which, in our experience of testing, is usually how it plays out). They don’t. So we did.

We’ve paid $20 for a bargain-basement Google survey that will show 100 American women the three covers and ask them which they would buy. We have sixty responses at our newsletter deadline, and contrary to expectations (we like the London cover), the Canadian version is far out in front. If anything changes as the last respondents trickle in, we’ll let you know next week.