Before anyone else had even read it, Ken realised that Eye of the Needle was much better than anything he had done before. He remembers sitting at the typewriter and saying to his wife, Mary, “this is absolutely terrific!”. Al Zuckerman, who had for years been telling Ken why his books would never sell in America, told him, “this is going to be a huge international bestseller, and you are going to have tax problems”.
Al sold the book to a small American publisher who also saw that it was going to be a big bestseller. Ironically, the British publisher who had actually commissioned it did not see it that way. Although he was pleased with the book, he didn’t see it as a bestseller, and planned to publish it as a ‘paperback original’, a genre adventure which came out straight away as a paperback.
By this time, Ken had left newspapers and was working for a small London publisher, Everest Books, where he had risen to be Deputy Managing Director. He was earning £8 000 a year. Confident that Eye of the Needle would make him more than £16 000, Ken decided that the book would keep him and his family alive for a couple of years, and left his job.
“I didn’t envisage that it would sell ten million copies, but I knew it was good enough to keep us alive. I surmised that it was the moment to quit my salaried job and try and make it as a full time writer.”
It began well. On his first day in his new career, an agent in Scandinavia sold the Norwegian rights to one of his children’s books for £400. Shortly after that, Eye of the Needle was sold to an American publisher for an advance of $20,000. The American hardcover publisher then auctioned the paperback rights among the American paperback publishing houses.
“One day I got a phone call from my agent saying, ‘they are auctioning the paperback rights of your book today and the price has reached half-a-million dollars, but the auction is still going on.’ I figured out that my share of that half-million dollars was about £150 000 and since I was reckoning that I could live on £8 000 a year, this would probably keep me going for the rest of my life. So that was a pretty big day.”
The auction finished at about $800 000. Ken knew that if a publisher had laid out that much money in advance on a book, they would print a lot of copies and promote the book strongly. The book’s sales proved him right, but he did not rest on his laurels.
“Although I had made all this money with Eye of the Needle, I was very worried that I might not be able to do it again. It happens to quite a lot of writers. They write one terrific book and then the next one is not so good and doesn’t sell quite so well, the third one is not very good and they never write a fourth. I was very conscious that that might easily happen to me, and so I worked very hard on Triple, which was my next book, to try to make it as exciting as Eye of the Needle.”
Ken was becoming a perfectionist and took increasing lengths to write each book. He began to plan thoroughly in advance, doing detailed research, and writing and developing an outline. It now takes him around two years to write each one.
Thanks to the success of Eye of the Needle, Ken and his wife Mary realised that they could live anywhere they wanted. They chose the South of France, which they had always had their eye on. They thought it would be good for their children to learn French and broaden their minds. In 1979, they rented a villa near Grasse, a town near Nice, and lived there for three years.
“It’s a part of the world that I am very fond of and I still have an apartment in Cannes. I decided in the end that I didn’t want to live permanently in a sunny paradise because I’m too attached to movies and theatre and all the sort of pleasures of life in London. I also wanted to vote. I now find it hard to imagine living abroad but at that age my tastes weren’t quite so fixed and the South of France was very enjoyable for a few years.”
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