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By Ralph Vicinanza
Wednesday night...early September...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 NYT 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 it...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 was...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 It 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 The Plant, 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 £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 him -- a 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 right -- based 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 à 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.
It was possible that this would kill the project. After all, if it was such a great idea, why wouldn't Malcolm's company offer on it? I was afraid that if Steve had any doubts whatsoever, this decision would confirm and magnify them. But one of the reasons why Steve and I have worked so well together for so long is that parts of us are still boys who want to have fun despite what the "grown-ups" say. We were going to do it! We had something special and we knew it. So I offered the rights to publish the serial in the United States and the United Kingdom to Penguin, Signet's parent company. With HarperCollins no longer in play, it made sense to reverse the deal and start with Steve's U.S. publisher. The Penguin people were in a tizzy. They knew that HarperCollins had gotten a shot at this even before they were aware of it. It was the only time Stephen King had allowed that to happen during his more than fifteen-year exclusive relationship with Signet. As anxious as they were to make a deal, they didn't have a clue as to what they were buying. We had already established that there would be no hardcover. The novel was not only unfinished, but it would be published as it was being written. It was difficult for them to assess the value of this project. I made it as simple as possible so in the event of a failure, we could all pull back the rights and lick our wounds. We accepted less than the usual advance Penguin paid for a King novel, but we retained more than the usual rights; we exercised control in many areas normally reserved by the publisher; and we licensed them the rights only for a short period of time. This would be an experiment in publishing and I wanted to protect my client as well as I could.
The negotiation was done, the contract drafted and the deal closed in two weeks. Publishing deals can take months to negotiate. From my first discussion with Steve during the book fair to the execution of the contract, four weeks had passed. It was early November. No one was sure how this serial format would be received by the public. We hoped it would inject a badly needed dose of adrenaline into the tired mass-market business. But no one was sure. Though Signet moved quickly to secure the rights, their uncertainty was being communicated to Steve in a variety of ways. Steve was getting nervous, and he asked that the schedule be accelerated so the first installment would be released in January. He didn't want the publisher's cold feet to lead to second-guessing.
Steve was well into the first installment and promised a December 1 delivery. Signet were now in a frenzy. They would publish in late February, early March at the latest. I had several meetings with all the people who would be involved with the project -- promotion, advertising, sales, editorial. Things were rolling on a power of their own. The meetings generated excitement and enthusiasm. I had faith that this was going to work and I communicated it in the best evangelical style.
Signet felt that they were still hitting some walls. Account managers were nervous about returns. They were afraid that their mass-market accounts would buy lots of copies of the first installment as a novelty and return the unsold copies before the release of the other installments. That fear can be haunting when you consider that publishers sell mass-market books on a returnable basis. The retailer can get full credit simply by tearing off the front cover and mailing it back to the publisher; the rest of the book is thrown away. Our idea was that new readers would come to the series as the excitement grew over the months, but if accounts returned the copies of the first couple of installments before the series was completed, it just wouldn't work. In such a case, the publisher would have to reprint earlier volumes as the series caught on. It would be a publisher's nightmare, large returns and then more demand. But there could be no room for fear here. I was certain that the dynamic that followed King throughout his career would create such a groundswell of excitement that these concerns would evaporate.
The next key issue was pricing and that's one that both Steve and I were sensitive to. An important point of the serial was to sell large numbers of each installment at a relatively inexpensive price. We figured that the cost of the set should run less than what a new King novel would have cost in hardcover. The difference between the total cost and a normal paperback would be offset by this exciting new format, so we wanted the total price to fall between that of a paperback and a hardcover. Price point is an extremely difficult figure to gauge and it's an especially delicate issue to authors like King, who have a devoted readership. Initially, we thought about a $1.99 paperback, but the figures just didn't work. The cost of printing and manufacturing and shipping the books didn't make economic sense. We were being pressed into a $6.99 price per volume and neither Steve nor I liked this at all. We resisted and settled at $2.99 with the longer sixth volume at $3.99. Even then, Elaine Koster, the publisher of Signet, called to run through the figures, pointing out to me that because of Steve's high royalty and the low price point, Signet's profit margin would be so low that, if this experiment didn't work, they'd suffer large losses. I've felt it's important in business ventures for both parties to make a handsome profit and enjoy the mutual benefits of their relationship. The figures spoke for themselves, so we agreed to lower Steve's royalty on the assumption that the lower price would result in more sales, and a lesser percentage of more would exceed a greater percentage of less...funny how percentages work that way.
While all of this work was going on with Signet, I also had my office busy selling the international rights in The Green Mile. Some foreign publishers like Rolf Schmitz of Bastei in Germany got it instantly...others didn't get it at all. Regardless, the project moved forward on its own steam. The excitement was real and everywhere. By January '96 we were ready for a simultaneous release in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Holland, Spain, and Italy, with the other markets joining in soon after.
The promotion and advertising for The Green Mile was a blitz. All the print media were covered. Steve (and the mouse, Mr. Jingles) agreed to do TV advertising spots to promote the book. The first title in the series, The Two Dead Girls, went on sale at the end of March...and within days we knew it was a hit. It zoomed to the number one position on the New York Times best-seller list. Sales were heavy in all locations. We were pleased with the general reaction. While some critics seem to be able to find the cloud in every blue sky, the industry was thankful for the success. Of course, we were far from home free, with five more installments to publish. Would the momentum continue? But from there on, it was about writing rather than publishing. Readers were hooked by the story. Stephen King is an absolutely brilliant writer and this was clearly evident in The Green Mile.
The serial format wasn't just about slicing up a novel and publishing it in pieces. Steve devoted a great deal of time and thought to the format. He delivered six separate stories, each with a satisfying ending, as well as an overall story that unifies them and brings the tale of Coffey and Edgecomb to a conclusion. Each installment works by itself but also recaps the previous work and hints at more to come. Few writers have the talent and vision to write like this and tackle a new format so successfully that the casual reader might not be aware that it was a challenge at all.
In the end, The Green Mile was an enormous success. Roughly 18 million of those little chapbooks were sold. Afterward, Plume, the trade paperback imprint of Penguin, offered the book in a single volume that sold more than 500,000 copies. And then the novel became the basis for the Frank Darabont movie, which is one of my all-time favorite movies based on Steve's work. In 1999 Pocket Books did a single-volume mass-market edition to tie in with the movie and sold over 2 million copies. The book has now been published all over the world in thirty different languages.
Malcolm Edwards left HarperCollins eventually and took a key position at Orion Books, where he published the single-volume U.K. trade paperback edition of the book. It was a huge best-seller. And here it is, The Green Mile in hardcover. Now that the movie will soon be released in video and DVD formats, we thought you might like to have a more permanent edition for your shelves. This is just my version of the story of how it got there.
May 24, 2000