MICHAEL BESSIE: So now, as Cornelia said, she takes the manuscript back to New York, and I take it to London, where the person running HarperCollins--

CORNELIA BESSIE: Let’s do some of the in-between.


CORNELIA BESSIE: Well, what’s interesting is what happened in Russia, then the Soviet Union. Our cover was the Moscow Book Fair, which meant there were a lot of foreign publishers there -- German, English, French -- and as our negotiation went on, the book fair ended and people started to leave. We suddenly realized that the apparatchiks who were going with us for one reason or another, had put all their eggs in one basket, and we had not yet said yes. That they were, in a sense, committed to us because they had said, “This is our choice.” If we had said no, it could be very difficult for their careers. There were a lot of things going on at the same time.2 There was a day when we were told, “The manuscript has left the place where he is vacationing.”

KM (laughing): It sounds like a code!

MICHAEL BESSIE: The whole thing was like Le Carré.

CORNELIA BESSIE: It was Le Carré. Gorbachev had a code name: “The Man,” as in, “The Man has finished the manuscript” -- that sort of thing. And so, we were told, “The Man has finished it, it is in a plane on its way to Moscow. We will put it in translation; you will have it in five days. Where will you be in five days?”

We said, “Er, um, in Leningrad.” I wanted to see The Hermitage. They said, “You will get it in Leningrad in five days.” Now, we had thought that the time would come when we would get the manuscript, sitting cheerfully in our office in New York, so that if we said no, we would be there. We had not thought this would happen. There were these good scenarios we told ourselves -- “Taxi accident on the Nevsky Prospekt.” (Laughing) Anyhow, we got the manuscript; the manuscript came in two copies. We read it; we decided it was certainly good enough to publish; and the contract got signed. And then came the phone call that said: “Do you have any editorial suggestions?” Which we never thought would happen. We had one day before the plane left. So we did something we’ve never done with any other book: we divided it in half, and we each edited half, and sent him those suggestions. We never thought the day would come when he would say, “Do you have any comment?” We were unprepared for that.

KATHERINE MCNAMARA: Neophyte author.

CB (chuckling): Yes.

MICHAEL BESSIE: To finish with the Murdochian point: the head for Murdoch of HarperCollins was Ian Chapman, in London, and he happened to be in London then. I took the manuscript there because it was Sunday, and Ian and a couple of other of the people who ran things were excited about it. The big thing in London publishing for a book like that is to sell serial rights, because that’s big money; and so, we had to decide by Monday morning what we were going to do about serials. Rupert Murdoch owned the London Times. There were four big Sunday newspapers; Ian had decided we should show it first to the Sunday Times. He had also decided, knowing his way around those things, that we were going to ask £200,000, which was a lot of money. So he told the editor of The Times on Monday morning, “We’ve got this very exciting manuscript: we want to give it to you on first offer, not simultaneously with the other papers.” So the guy comes over and spends the day at the office. He read it and was sufficiently impressed to say, as he went back to his office, “I’ve got to call Rupert.” (Chuckling in the background.) And Ian said to him, “I remind you: you love an exclusive, and we’re asking £200,000.” So the guy goes back, and a little while later, calls Ian, and says, “I am authorized to offer you £75,000.” Ian says, “Uh-uh.” “Well, Rupert thinks you’re all out of your minds. A book by Gorbachev can’t possibly be worth any more than that, and I’m not authorized to go beyond £75,000.” We say, “Well, that means that, tomorrow morning, we’ll offer it to the other three Sunday newspapers.” Which we did. And got three offers, of which the highest was £175,000, and that’s what it was sold for.

2 Gorbachev had retired to his dacha, apparently to work on the manuscript; rumors circulated through the capital that he was ill or had been deposed. Mikhail Gorbachev, PERESTROIKA (A Cornelia and Michael Bessie Book, Harper & Row, Nov. 7, 1987)


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