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Secrecy and stealth of the West deal

Marianne Macdonald outlines the background to the selling of a story
It was the literary deal of the decade, and it was brokered with the stealth and secrecy of a military operation.

It was also the deal which jerked Peter Harris, the Official Solicitor, out of the slow- moving legal world and plunged him into the publishing shark-pit which accompanies the sale of a best seller.

For what he had to offer was exclusive access to the story of Fred West's life - a life story which West had spent months writing while confined in Winson Green prison, Birmingham, awaiting trial on 12 charges of murdering women and young girls, including his first wife and his daughter.

If that were not enough, Mr Harris also had in his possession the mountain of police transcripts of interviews with West - 13 volumes in all - which revealed unknown details about the man.

The material formed part of West's estate, and had come under the administration of Mr Harris after West died intestate having hanged himself in prison last New Year's Day.

In normal circumstances his widow, Rosemary, would have been appointed executor - but she had also been charged with serial murder and had waived any rights to the estate. Nor could the couple's adult children be given control, because they had sold their stories to national newspapers and so had a conflict of interest when it came to distributing the assets.

Mr Harris was left with the unpleasant task of "maximising" the profits from West's paper goldmine for the benefit of all his eight surviving children.

His solution was to instruct the literary agency Scott Ferris Associates in the spring to sound out secretly possible biographers and suggest appropriate candidates.

By August the agency's two leading figures, Rivers Scott and Gloria Ferris, had come up with a shortlist of about four.The potential biographers were asked to submit an outline of how they would approach the biography. They were then interviewed by Mr Harris and solicitors from Taylor Joynson Garrett. This secretive selection process resulted in the selection of Wansell, who was deemed most likely to produce a scholarly and unsensational account.

They had their biographer - not the best known, perhaps, but with a number of previous biographies on his CV. The next step was to find a publisher.

Not every publishing firm would be interested. And not every firm would be able to pay a top price. But a handful were approached, among them Hodder Headline.

"I saw an outline of what the book was going to contain which is confidential, but also more importantly the details of the resources that would be going into the book - including the autobiography and interviews with various people," said Alan Brooke, Headline's non-fiction publishing director.

"I also met Geoffrey Wansell when he outlined in more detail what he had discovered from the police interrogations and the handwritten autobiography. It was really that which convinced me it would be the definitive biography."

As a result Hodder Headline put the largest bid on the table - which may not be much under pounds 1m - and were awarded the deal. "The remuneration was a large part of it," concedes John Linneker, the solicitor who attended the author selection meetings.

The biography is expected to be on the bookshelves in the second half of next year.

Leading article, page 20