How’s this for a Guinness world record: we and another publisher have just published a book with the same title, on the same day, about the same person, with the same retail price. We’ve published Kevin Rudd by a journalist called Nicholas Stuart. Penguin have also published Kevin Rudd, in their case by a journalist called Robert Macklin. Our sub-title, though, is ‘an unauthorised political biography’; theirs is ‘the biography’. Is this coincidence, conspiracy, or cock-up? And what is the significance, if any, of the differing sub-titles?
To get an answer to these questions, sit back and relax while I tell the tale of the bringing of our book to market.
When Nick Stuart pitched his idea for this book to us in December 2006, very soon after Kevin Rudd had ascended to the leadership of the parliamentary ALP, it was cast as a conventional political biography, with an emphasis on the nature and source of Rudd’s political ideas. When we discussed his proposal and how he’d go about writing the book, one of the first questions I asked Nick was whether he’d have access to Rudd (as getting information and quotes from Rudd was obviously going to be a pre-requisite for a book of this kind).
No worries, Nick told me. He knew Rudd, was on good terms with him, and was sure he’d able to interview him for the book. With this out of the way, we talked about the very tight schedule the book would involve. The key publishing decision was picking a publication date; and this, in turn, was based on picking the earliest date on which we thought the election might be held.
We estimated that the prime minister would probably not go to the people before October (because of the time he’d need to try to wear the new leader down, and because he wouldn’t want to be accused of going too early). If we were right, and given our sense that we needed to have our book in the shops at least three months before the election for it to have maximum impact, we had to publish at the beginning of July.
In order to meet this date, though, we had to have finished copies in our distributor’s warehouse by late May. And in order to do that, we would have to send the files to our printers in early May. I calculated that, before then, we would need about a month to edit, typeset, and proof the manuscript (by way of comparison, most books would take several months for this process). So Nick had to deliver his manuscript in early April — in four months’ time, from a standing start, with no research or writing yet started. It was a very big ask, for him and us. But we both committed to it, with our eyes open.
Then a series of unexpected events happened. In the new year, I undertook a review of our sales and distribution arrangements, and eventually decided to move them from Pan Macmillan to Penguin. I decided that the change should take place at the beginning of July 2007, as it would be the beginning of our new financial year, would give added impetus to the launch of our July–December list, and would be the least-disruptive time for what is intrinsically a difficult procedure.
Before we’d decided, though, we read that the publishing arm of Penguin had also contracted a biography of Rudd, and that it, too, was going to be published in July (presumably, they’d gone through the same thought-processes that we had). This led to an interesting conversation, when I felt obliged to tell Penguin that one of the first of our books that their sales representatives would have to sell-in to the book trade would be competing directly with one of their own titles. To their great credit, they handled this inconvenient news with aplomb — and, indeed, their sales force went on to do a highly professional job of convincing booksellers of the respective merits of both books.
Nick got to work, we briefed a cover designer (an important part of which was our projected sub-title: ‘a political biography’), and we felt even more committed to the tough schedule we’d set. Now that there was competition, we certainly couldn’t afford to be late.
Then, a month or so later, I started to intuit that the fabled ‘access’ to the subject of our book was becoming tenuous. I don’t know what it was: some murmurings of Nick’s, and a realisation that I wasn’t getting any reports of interviews with Rudd. When Nick and I spoke about this, it soon became obvious that Nick was being given the runaround by Rudd and his staff, and that it would be wise for us to assume that he would be denied access for the duration.
At this point, I made a small instantaneous decision that in hindsight turned out to be crucial: we would call our book ‘an unauthorised political biography’. If Rudd was going to refuse to talk to Nick, and would instead be talking to the author of Penguin’s book, we had to make a virtue of necessity. We had to prevent any perception taking hold that our book might be inadequate by comparison because it lacked first-person quotes from Rudd, and we had to take the initiative by making it clear that our book was spin-free, neither endorsed nor supported by Rudd.
Nick had to change his plans considerably, and inevitably had to take longer than we’d allowed for the manuscript to be written. In the end, we received it in late April, and we had just 13 days to edit, design, and typeset it, have it corrected by Nick, and proof-read by us. Somehow, working night and day, we managed to do it, and the book reached the warehouse in time.
(Later, as if to vindicate our sub-title change, when both books were launched in late June, Rudd attended the Macklin launch, and signed copies of it alongside the author; and several early reviews of the two books pointed out that, having been denied access, Nick had been forced to dig deeper and to talk to a wider array of sources.)
The marketplace will decide which of the two books is better or more interesting, and both sets of authors and publishing houses are, of course, waiting for this verdict with bated breath. It is an unusual situation, unparalleled in its details, and I tell the tale of it here to demonstrate just how uncertain and weird current-affairs publishing can be.
There is another important point to make. I still don’t know why Kevin Rudd refused to talk to Nick. He claims that it was because he was too busy, but this is implausible — to put it mildly. I suspect it was because of his now-well-known desire to exercise control over his media image and the messages that come out of Rudd Central. If this is the reason, it is understandable but mistaken. Hagiographies are not appropriate for prime ministerial contenders, and playing favourites always causes collateral damage.
The result has been that a well-disposed author and a politically sympathetic publishing house has, in effect, provided ammunition to those who are wary of or hostile to Rudd’s leadership. Already The Australian has used snippets from our book as part of its anti-Rudd campaign.
A few years ago, the then reviews editor for The Australian, the late James Hall, looked at my list of forthcoming titles and asked me, in his quiet, sardonic way, ‘Still trying to overthrow the Howard government, Henry?’
I was then, and still am. No political event could give me greater pleasure. I just wish that Kevin Rudd realised who his friends are, and didn’t allow his mania for control to play into the hands of his enemies.