Authors: Stephen King
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Â .Â .Â . early SeptemberÂ .Â .Â . the end of a long, late summer day. My assistants had just left the office when the fax machine went off. I figured it must be the
bestseller list, since publishers get the list ten days before it runs in the paper and Signet would be sending over a copy. Each week since the first monthly installment of
The Green Mile
was published in March '96 had been thrilling. But this could be itÂ .Â .Â . a singular achievement. And there it was: six titles on the paperback bestseller list, including the last title,
Coffey on the Mile,
at #1 for that week of September 15. While any new Stephen King work of fiction does well, I hadn't really expected
The Green Mile
to be the success it turned out to be. There were serious risks involved. But there it wasÂ .Â .Â . a huge accomplishment and a new first for Stephen King.
First-time achievements have been the hallmark of Steve's career. Still, when I met Steve in 1978, I had to grapple with disappearing translation markets for his novels. While Steve's sales were growing to phenomenal levels here in the United States and even in the United Kingdom, the initial reaction to his work in translation was lackluster, and sales were diminishing. His U.S. agent at the time approached me with the idea of handling his authors in the overseas territories. Steve had voiced his concern that Doubleday, had controlled the King novels overseas, hadn't been able to build any of these markets and that sales were faltering. My strategy was fairly simple. The European hardcover was the domain of the self-appointed literati, and many of these readers would have a bias against a commercial novelist like King. Also, the very expensive hardcover
(close to $35 in many European markets back in '80) would be a burden for typical King readers, most of them in their twenties. Over the course of the next few years, I resold rights to have Steve's novels reissued in handsome paperback editions that we sold at relatively inexpensive prices. We grew the markets carefully and steadily. By the time
was released in the mid-'80s, King was a household name throughout most of Europe. When King's German publisher released the book in a larger trade paperback edition retailing for about $20, the book sold an unprecedented 700,000 copies. Normal hardcover sales for a German best-seller were around 100,000 copies. So, obviously, the impact of this marketing was huge. This course repeated itself throughout Europe and the rest of the world, making Stephen King the first truly international megaselling author.
The origins of
The Green Mile
look very modest in retrospect. Malcolm Edwards, a British editor who has also been a friend for more than twenty years, and his family were guests of mine on Long Island in December of '94. I was showing Malcolm my collection of autographed King books when we came upon the first three annual installments of a project entitled
which King self-published and gave out to family and friends as Christmas gifts. Steve had abandoned the project because after
Little Shop of Horrors
was released he thought the premise was too similar. But, in his own way, Steve had started his first serial novel back then in the early '80s. Malcolm and I talked briefly about the literary tradition of novels written in installments and notably the works of Charles Dickens. I chuckled about the real estate agent who sold me this house just a few years earlier and told me she thought that the house suited me perfectly because it looked like it came right out of a Dickens novel. Well, I think more Austen than Dickens, but the coincidence was comical.
About three months later Malcolm phoned from London and suggested that I approach Steve with the idea of doing a serial novel. The idea had stayed with Malcolm and he thought that it could be commercially viable. We talked over the logistics. Malcolm's idea was to run the serial for twelve months or more with each installment costing about Â£1. It seemed like a gargantuan undertaking. While it could be
a success, if it didn't catch on, we'd be out there with one big mess. Something about that and the timing didn't appeal to me. I told Malcolm I'd think about it and let him know.
During my more than twenty years working with Steve, people have approached me with all sorts of ideas for himâa Stephen King comic book, a horror magazine, mugs, T-shirts, you name it. Not so long ago I received a brochure from a furniture manufacturer in Europe. They explained that as the manufacturers of “designer chairs,” they would be asking celebrities to allow them to use their names for a particular chair.
“The Stephen King Settee?”
I told them we don't do chairs!
Steve is a writer first and foremost and it's his name and reputation as a writer that's at stake. That's what I consider when I weigh the viability of experiments, whatever they might be. Just a couple of years before, Malcolm had come up with the idea of publishing an illustrated King short story that would have been sold as a high-priced collectors' edition. Malcolm hoped that his then rather small publishing house would publish the book and sell it alongside the new King novel for that year. The problem was that it essentially would be a short story masquerading as a novel with the ticket price of a novel or more. We decided against it. I thought the idea of a serial novel was great but the logistics needed to be worked through and the time wasn't rightâbased on intuition, pure and simple.
Steve finished his new novel a few months later, so I faxed him a short note asking if he'd be interested in writing a serial novel Ã la Dickens. I figured he'd get the note and we'd discuss it in a couple of weeks. I'd sent the letter in late September and I left New York a few days later for the Frankfurt Book Fair, the most important and largest publishing convention held annually in Frankfurt, Germany. The fair is probably the busiest time for an agent. Appointments run at half-hour intervals from the early morning well into the night, and I was just about to turn in after the first of these exhausting days, when I noticed a message under my hotel room door saying that Stephen King had called and would like to hear from me as soon as possible. It was very unusual for Steve to call me at Frankfurt. He knew how hectic those days could get.
I returned the call at once and it turned out that Steve was interested in doing a serial novel. In fact, he was very excited about the idea and he thought he had a story in mind that might work. But he wanted a better notion of how we saw the logistics.
So what would this serial look like? I figured that publishing over the course of a year or more would be drawing it out, but a shorter period with monthly installments could work very well. I thought this could happen sometime in '97. Malcolm was also at the fair and we spoke at length the next evening. We thought six to eight installments would be feasible and we thought they should run between 15,000 to 20,000 words each. I called Steve later that night and we discussed our strategy. Steve didn't want to run it for eight months and he was leaning toward four but I still thought that we needed more time to build momentum. Six made sense to both of us. He also thought that since the idea had been proposed by Malcolm, we would allow it to be published in the United Kingdom only and we would give Malcolm's company the exclusive shot at British rights.
Steve started writing and I discussed the rights situation with Malcolm. Of course, Malcolm was delighted with the prospect of publishing this project. We left Frankfurt full of anticipation of what might develop in the next few weeks. I returned to New York and awaited Malcolm's offer for what certainly seemed like the prize of his career. In the meantime Steve's enthusiasm heightened. He called and said that he thought the project was becoming too important to confine to the United Kingdom, so he asked me to offer the book to Signet for U.S. publication.
As an agent who built my company on the sale of international rights, I suggested to Steve that we seriously consider making the release of
The Green Mile
an international publishing event and offering the project to all of his major publishers throughout the world. He was not opposed to this idea. Suddenly the scope of the experiment widened and I knew I was sitting on a unique opportunity.
Days passed and I wondered why I hadn't heard from Malcolm. HarperCollinsUK, where Malcolm now worked, had never published King, and Malcolm would be delivering Steve's new book in this
groundbreaking format. Unfortunately, corporate politicos were playing their hands and things would not turn out well for Malcolm. He finally called me on a Friday evening in late October '95. He explained there would be no offer for
The Green Mile.
HarperCollins would not participate. Malcolm was devastated.