Monday, September 14, 2009

Codici Segreti

A week or so ago, the more-or-less daily mail delivery brought us a happy little package from HarperCollins Publishers.

Does it sound too high-falutin’ to say that HarperCollins is our publisher? Perhaps. It is not quite accurate in any case. More properly, I should say that HarperCollins was our publisher.

Pam and I were fortunate enough to have signed a multiple book deal with HarperCollins several years ago. Under the pen names of “P.J. Huff and J.G. Lewin” we wrote four books of popular history: How To Feed An Army, Witness To The Civil War, How To Tell A Secret and Lines of Contention: Political Cartoons of the Civil War. In conjunction with The Smithsonian Institution, HarperCollins was the publisher.

The genre was “popular history”, which means the books were long on stories and short on footnotes. They were all accurate, of course. Various curators from The Smithsonian read the pre-publication drafts and made suggestions and requested changes; we needed their approval before going to press. Everything we said required documentation and we were prepared with at least two sources to backup the facts and conclusions we made. Still, the books were designed to be fun reads, and not serious, ground-breaking works of history. (Although I pride myself as having been first to make the connection in print between Watergate's "Deep Throat" and the so-called "Smoking Gun" tape.)

Writing the books was a fun exercise. And we made a few bucks. But not a lot, actually. The contracts stated that HarperCollins would pay us an advance against future royalties. But in order for us to actually get any future royalties, the books would need to sell-though their initial print runs. That makes sense. The publishing company is in it for profit, after all, and you can’t expect them to give away money if they’re not making any. Maybe if we'd had an agent we could've gotten a better deal. But that wasn't as important at the time as just getting a deal.

None of the books sold-through. One of them, Witness To The Civil War, did generate additional revenues. It was featured one month by the History Book Club and Easton Press bought the rights (from HarperCollins) to produce a beautiful leather-bound edition. We didn’t get anything extra for that, other than a copy of that edition (now on display inside the shop), and, perhaps, some bragging rights.

But it was all a pretty wild ride.

How To Feed An Army got us on national television when the Food Network did a show on military cookery. We were on for all of about 90-seconds. But…we were on.

And, when How To Tell A Secret was published, we did a national radio tour. For a period of about three weeks, we were guests on radio shows across the country. Over the phone interviews with upwards of 40 radio talk shows. One was at 5:30 on a Sunday morning (live, or as live as I could be at that hour), but most were mid-day. And they were in some pretty big markets…Boston, Philadelphia, Denver, Los Angeles. One interview was supposed to last 15-minutes, but went on for the better part of an hour-and-a-half (we were a pretty big deal in Cleveland that afternoon). It was all kinda fun.

The last of the books, Lines of Contention, was published in November 2007; just about two years ago now. And while all are still available on, chances are you won’t find many on the shelves of the national chains of book sellers. And that’s OK; they’ve run their course.

But that’s also why the package from HarperCollins was happy. For it contained authors’ copies of Codici Segreti. It seems that an Italian publisher, AVALLARDI, bought the reprint rights of How To Tell A Secret and issued it in Italian.

Yet another notch in the belt, as it were: international publishing. Again, we don’t get a nickel out of it. But that’s OK. We do get more braggin’ rights.

And I’ve just exercised those rights. Thank you for participating.