Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publications, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
Well, this week certainly has not been dull. And as with any roller coaster ride, it’s had its highs, its lows – and I’m still a bit dazed. I published, and was then damned!
Some of you will say: “Serves you right, you shouldn’t publish books that question anything about David Cameron or his government”. To that, I reply: ‘bollocks’.
I run a non-partisan publishing company, which publishes current affairs books across the political spectrum. This week, I’ve been accused of being a Tory lackey and, at the same time, totally disloyal for publishing a biography of the Prime Minister which dares to offer the odd criticism and private revelation.
I got a bit annoyed on Sunday night when I realised that neither the Sky News nor BBC newspaper reviews were covering the Daily Mail’s front page with the first extracts from Call Me Dave. They always get frit when faced with a contentious story, such as so-called ‘Pig-gate’. The lawyers go into a frenzy and the editors always play safe. It’s a shame that the paper reviewers on the two channels didn’t question it. It’s happened to me before and, on one occasion, I told the producer that we were supposed to be previewing all the papers, and that if we weren’t allowed to even mention a particular story I’d refuse to go on altogether.
I don’t like being censored. And this goes to the crux of the matter: whether the ‘Pig-gate’ story – the anecdote in Call Me Dave that caused such a global sensation that it almost broke the internet – should have been printed at all. I am still in no doubt that it was right to keep it in the book. Whether it would have made the credibility threshold for a newspaper is a side issue. It is in a book, not a newspaper. When I first read it in the manuscript, I certainly noticed it was only single-sourced – but the authors were entirely upfront about that. Contrary to much of the sloppy reporting of the story, it was never presented as fact. I was comfortable with the way it was written up and, more to the point, so were the lawyers.
What would the reaction have been had I insisted it were taken out? Had anyone found out, I’d have been accused of censoring something and protecting my so-called ‘Tory mates’. You’d think from the reaction that Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott, aided and abetted by me, had accused the Prime Minister of murder (or something). It is no more than a tale of student high jinks – and the authors leave readers to judge for themselves whether or not it happened.
The sight of a former News of the World political editor getting on his high horse amused me greatly. Look in the bloody mirror, mate. The irony seemed to be lost on him.
As you see, I am a great believer in a publisher’s role being to publish and not write the books that he takes on. I have published many which say all sorts of things I disagree with – even loathe and abhor. But I am a publisher, not a censor.
If something is libellous, I will intervene. If I think a fact is wrong, I’ll question it. If I genuinely think something has been misinterpreted then, again, I will question an author about it. But a biography has to be a full account of someone’s life, warts and all. That’s what Call Me Dave is. The fact that the Mail has chosen to publish more or less only the critical bits is not something that I or Michael or Isabel have control over.
This book is a serious work. It is certainly far more than its serialisable parts, as those who bother to read the entire 600 pages will no doubt confirm. I guarantee now that several of the reviews will commence with words roughly as follows: “I was expecting this book to be full of tabloid trash. Yes, the bits in the Mail are indeed in the book, but it’s a really balanced account of the Prime Minister’s life.” That’s certainly what the reviews ought to say.
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The other thing that has royally p****d me off this week is that this is some sort of vanity publishing exercise subsidised by Michael. Let me lay that one to rest too. He has exactly the same terms as any other of our authors. Same royalties. Same terms and conditions. There has been no subsidy to Biteback Publishing. Not a penny. The only difference is that he is giving his royalties to military charities.
Some people have even been to look at our Companies House accounts and discovered – shock horror – that in our first few years we made financial losses. Name me a publishing company that hasn’t. This, apparently, was further evidence that we are just an Ashcroft toy, given that he has invested a seven figure sum in the company.
What a pity these people have no idea how business works. This money is not a gift. It is not a subsidy. It is an investment which he expects to recoup. It is now close on two and a half years since he put a penny into Biteback. We were profitable during the last financial year, and we will be in this one too. Michael has got where he is today not by being a charity, but by investing in businesses that he thinks have a good chance of making a profit. I like to think that we are repaying that faith.
Michael is a perfect investor. On not a single occasion has he sought either to influence the direction of the business or to dictate whether I publish a book or not. Never have I even consulted him over whether I should commission a book. Indeed, I’ve published books by his sworn enemies on several occasions – Denis MacShane’s Prison Diaries being one.
The only occasion I can recall when I felt I had to ask his views on something was when Peter Hain and I were being sued by the Attorney General of Northern Ireland. This could have cost the company a lot of money, and ended up with Peter and me in prison. While the prospect of visiting us in the Maze amused him no end, he had no hesitation in endorsing my strategy to fight this outrageous case, and in the end we won.
I realise that people have a certain view of how business operates and how a relationship between a businessman and someone like me must operate. As ever, truth is stranger than fiction. I’m sure people imagine he pulls my every string, with me performing the role of a puppy dog puppet. These people don’t know me very well, and they don’t know Michael.
The first time I met him was back in 2003 when he had written a book, Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, on his battles with The Times. He called me in to read the manuscript and ask what I thought. I was locked in his boardroom for two hours. “Jesus, I thought, what am I going to say if I think it’s total crap?” It wasn’t – but if it had been, I’d have told him. When I had finished reading it he asked for my comments. “Two thing,” I said. The first was a minor detail, but then I said: “The bit about Tom Baldwin taking cocaine… Your lawyers will tell you to take it out. If you do, you’re not the man I think you are.” He looked me straight in the eye, smiled, and said: “I think you and I are going to get along, Mr Dale.” And we have. Famously.
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As a publisher, I don’t normally give details of print runs for books that I publish, partly because it’s a mug’s game. You never get it right, and you virtually always print too many or too few. But in the case of Call Me Dave, I’m going to make an exception and give a big ‘f**k you’ gesture with my middle finger to all those who wittered on Twitter about it being in the remainder bins on Day One.
Most political biographies do well if they sell 5,000 copies. Some – whisper it – don’t even make it into four figures. But I knew that with a serialisation in the Mail this book was destined to do somewhat better. Our biggest selling book to date has been Damian McBride’s Power Trip. We did an initial print run of 5,000 copies but had to reprint on the day of publicatio,n such was the demand. In the end it has sold around 24,000 copies in hardback, paperback and eBook.
Anyway, back to Call Me Dave. My initial intention was to print 6,000 copies and see how it went. But on the first day of the Mail serialisation I doubled it to 12,000. Over the week, the orders from bookshops and other outlets (including one major supermarket chain) have flooded in – and I mean, flooded – with the result that on Wednesday morning I counted up the pre-orders which totalled a massive 33,000.
So I took a deep breath and told my colleagues to order an initial print run of 35,000. That’s three and a half times more than our previous biggest print run for a book. I don’t believe for a minute that all will be sold because all books are subjected to a rate of returns, but 10,000 of these are firm sale, so that’s not a bad start.
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An early sign of whether a book is going to do well is to look at the Amazon sales rankings. It’s actually quite rare for any political book to make it into the Amazon Top 100, let alone the top 20. By Tuesday morning, the book was at Number 12. So it is competing with bestselling novels and cookbooks. Biteback has only twice had books in the top 20 before.
Anthony Seldon’s officially approved Cameron at Ten peaked, I believe, at around 92. Hey ho. Amazon use algorithms to guess how many they’re going to sell of a book pre-publication. Sometimes it panics me, because they order huge amounts, and I think to myself: “They’ll never sell that many.” But they do. So that’s another 4,000 sold then…
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One other amusement for me were the tweets that reckoned I was only publishing this book because I once worked for David Davis and must thus loathe David Cameron. Oh dear. I’ve never once published a book because of any supposed political agenda that I might have. I have none whatsoever with this book, except for it to sell as many copies as possible – just like any other book.
Cameron came up to North Norfolk for a day when I was a candidate there. We maintained good relations during the leadership contest. If we’re in the same room, we always have a very jovial chat. Four years ago, he rang me to ask if I would go and speak to his Patrons club. He rang me the morning after I’d been there, and we had a 20 minute chat.
The thought that he and I are enemies is laughable. I am sure there are people in Number Ten who are not exactly gruntled at the events of this week, but I would be very surprised if either they or the Prime Minister broke off diplomatic relations. They’re bigger than that.
Call Me Dave is published by Biteback Publications, available to pre-order at £20 and as an e-book at £16.99.