Monday, 5 July 2021

‘One of the true gems on YouTube’ and the way ahead

The last time I wrote on here it was two weeks before Christmas and I was looking forward to the next day’s review in The Sunday Times whilst wrestling with Amazon to get my book properly listed as available. What happened next can best be expressed with this picture:


Over the last few months I've had a number of attempts at writing about what happened, but a combination of exhaustion after three years of effort on this book and PTSD from having to deal with the media in all its capriciousness and limited attention span, and with the unbending 'we're bigger than you' approach of Amazon and the book trade, has meant that I feel I can't find a way of discussing it without going off at great length at the world's injustices, and I'm sure you will be grateful for me sparing you that. No doubt there is some learning from it all that could be generally applicable (and I've just had a kind message from a fellow self-publisher who learnt something from the previous posts on my blog) but for the moment really I think it's best for me to find a way to move on. 

I've started working on a couple of other projects but I thought I should at least write something about the state of play and give you the idea that there is still some life in this old dog.

So, the bottom line is that I have sold around 3,000 copies of 'I Shall Not Be Away Long' at a cost of customers of about £90,000. However the cost of printing, postage & packaging, Amazon fees, PayPal fees, and publicity means that I have also spent about £90,000 - i.e. I've broken even (if you don't include my research costs and my time) - and so any profit I have made is tied up in the just less than 2,000 copies I have still to sell as well as the £10,600 I was kindly given in donations during the run-up to printing. If I'd got all 5,000 copies printed in one run rather than two, then I'd be £10,000 up now but then even spending £29,000 printing 2,500 copies in the beginning was a hell of a risk for me as one guy on my own, and committing more upfront would have been bonkers. I don't regret ordering the reprint - without it I would have run out before Christmas, and how are people going to read my work unless there are copies available? - but certainly now that the big publicity in the mainstream media is behind me, it's going to take some work to shift all these books. Sales are currently sporadic, but I have plans.

One thing that has really helped was reading a book that came onto my radar because it was above 'I Shall Not Be Away Long' on Amazon's Best Seller List for World War I Biographies. 'Red Notice: How I Became Putin's No. 1 Enemy' by Bill Browder may have nothing to do with the First World War and a lot of it is pretty nasty in his dealings with unscrupulous Russian oligarchs and authorities, but it was an inspiring read in the way that he believed that there was always a solution to his problems, that he just had to get the right people together with the right knowledge and then he'd find a way forward. What particularly made a difference for him was making use of YouTube to show videos that captured people's interest and support. My previous experience of the intricacies involved in making videos had made me shy of doing this but recent invitations to give some Zoom presentations about my project led to my eyes being opened as to how to go about it in a simpler manner than before. 

So as a start, here is one of those Zoom presentations now up on YouTube at https://youtu.be/dkEzBMZRBKc (it's about an hour long plus questions). This was for the Western Front Association and has attracted some very nice comments including: 

One of the true gems on YouTube.’ 

‘The Western Front Association has many great lectures, but this one takes the cake for me so far.’  

I'd be hugely grateful for any thumbs-up and comments and pointing of people to give it a look.

Giving that presentation gave me an idea of how I can easily put together the pointing at and description of images in a fairly spontaneous way, and it also reminded me of various original aspects of my work beyond the war stories that have been the main focus of most of the media coverage. There are so many more fantastic tales to tell and in particular I think that my family tree drawings are a good vehicle for them as well as for the opening of eyes to the bigger picture of human life. For me that is what is absolutely central to this whole project and I have recently been reminded as to how the story still goes on with this new arrival, the latest great-great-grandchild of Alf Dobson (6th from the left in the back row of the Group Photograph):

Welcome to Maizie - she looks a live wire and I hope we can find a way to make the world a fertile place for her to light her spark in.

I'll let you know when I start uploading my YouTube videos - probably in the Autumn...

PS 'I Shall Not Be Away Long' now has 93 ratings on Amazon, with 89 x 5-star, 4 x 4-star - and 'A Group Photograph' now has 65 ratings, with 63 x 5-star, 2 x 4-star. Any further reviews would be very gratefully received via these links:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Shall-Not-Be-Away-Long/dp/0993530222

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Group-Photograph-Before-Now-Between/dp/0993530206


Saturday, 12 December 2020

The reprint and the advent of a Sunday Times review

Things have been a bit fraught of late but I am doing my best to ‘Never Ever Give Up’ and even in amongst life’s difficulties there have been some shining lights to lead me on. In this post I’m going to try to concentrate on the shining lights but, as ever with life, you need to have the darkness for the lights to be seen at their brightest so I’m going to try to give an idea of it all without doing too much darkness dwelling.

So, at the end of my last post I was contemplating ordering a reprint. I had people urging caution and people urging confidence and high in my mind was the memory of the last reprint of my first book which was followed by sales falling of the edge of a cliff and my having to pay storage on those books ever since. Past experience can never exactly mirror the future and the cliff fall happened after the 3rd reprint whereas here I am right at the beginning with this book, so thinking that I would never forgive myself if I ran out of books in the run-up to Christmas and with big publicity still possibly to come, I ordered the reprint.

The day after ordering the reprint was eerily quiet on the sales front. I wouldn’t have been human if I hadn’t got the jitters but then there was a flurry of sales and that has mostly continued with my stock going down from 915 books when I ordered the reprint on 18th November to 254 today. Thankfully the team at my printers, Healeys, have been doing a fantastically efficient job of dispatching the orders from the mailing lists that I send them and have also delivered on their promise to have the reprint ready for dispatch on Monday 14th December. That has been absolutely key for me because I am the only customer support operative for my entire publishing empire and if anything major had gone wrong then I would be up to my neck in it.

I have had to field a few customer service issues, from sorting out accidental online purchases, to delays in the post, to one book arriving looking like it had been hit with a sledgehammer, to others that have been soaked through by the rain. Luckily the numbers have been small compared to the total sent out and while even that is frustrating, in some cases it has led to nice exchanges including with one customer who ended up leaving a lovely review on Amazon.

I was very glad of that review because the first reviewer to post on Amazon about this book that has taken me 3 years and untold effort to produce couldn’t stop himself from using 7 of the 13 words of his review to bemoan its delayed arrival in the post. This was soon followed by another review that really irked me not just because of what he said but also because he’d used less words to review my book than he had for other items he’d bought like a portable shower for dogs, some fast grab wood adhesive and a puncture-proof wheelbarrow wheel. Each to their own, but given that they were at the top of the list of reviews for a few days because they were verified purchasers from Amazon, I was concerned about how they might be affecting potential readers. Thankfully with a bit of time they have been diluted by other reviews. I had hoped for a few more by now but I hadn’t counted on the phenomenon that is Christmas. A lot of the books that I have sent out have arrived, been treated to a brief inspection, and then wrapped and hidden. The most extreme example of this was as a result of my sending a free copy to someone who gave me a great deal of help with this book and he told me that on its arrival his wife had kidnapped it and he didn’t expect to see it until after the Queen’s Speech on 25th December – and she hadn’t even bought it! Maybe she thought Santa was dementing and had sent things too early so she had to step in. Whatever, it’s going to be interesting to see what sort of response there is after hundreds of copies of this book get opened on Christmas Day. 

I’ve been very glad to receive lovely messages from those who have got straight into their reading and finished the whole book. After all this effort, it really does make such a difference to hear directly what the impact has been both on people who don’t normally read a lot about the First World War and also from those whose knowledge of that time is deep and wide-ranging. I’ve given a glimpse of some of the responses on www.ishallnotbeawaylong.co.uk including this one that gave me a real chuckle: ‘Even as I type my husband had disappeared into the loo clutching the book - I may never see him again!’

I was also thrilled to receive a letter from Melvyn Bragg with the words, 'It's a wonderful tribute and personalisation of a great historical event. It has all the marks of a true labour of love and a love of essential detail. I'm sure it will be treasured by all who read it.’ He really is the most wonderfully kind and thoughtful man. To think of all the calls there must be on his time and I’d only posted the book to him two weeks before.

It is these sorts of responses that have kept me going, particularly recently as I have been having wrangles with Amazon. When things are going well with Amazon, then it’s relatively plain sailing but if ever anything goes wrong, one can quickly get plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare. There is no way of speaking to anyone so that you can listen to each other and have a true back-and-forth. It all has to be done by their support messaging system and it is obvious that their support staff have such high targets for messages they need to answer per hour that they don’t give anything more than a cursory glance and then cut and paste ‘an answer’ rather than ‘the answer’. I queried why it was that my book was at No 6 on the Bestseller List for World War I biographies when none of the top 5 were World War I biographies (unless David Attenborough’s autobiography documented his forays into time travel, and a businessman investigating a journalist’s murder in modern Russia had found that Mr Putin was blaming Rasputin). Really a minor issue, but I thought Amazon would quite like their book lists to actually mean something. Maybe I should have let it go but I don’t respond well to not being listened to, particularly when I’m trying to be helpful! Eventually someone said that they would pass it to some internal team to investigate but not until after much socially distanced swearing emanating from this particular Norfolk cottage.

More serious has been the appearance of a ‘Temporarily out of stock’ message on the listing for ‘I Shall Be Away Long’. My offer on marketplace is still there but a lot of people don’t understand how Amazon works in terms of what is in their warehouses and what is being provided by marketplace sellers – they’ll see ‘out of stock’ and not look further. As a result there’s been a huge dip in sales and all attempts to get a resolution are being met by the definition of obtuseness. This would be significant at any time but in the run-up to Christmas when the vast majority of book sales happen it is disastrous. And on top of that, it is taking the shine off what should be enormously good news. The week before last I was told that the lead reviewer of the Sunday Times loves my book, that his review is going in on 13th December (i.e. tomorrow) and that it even might be the front of the Book reviews in the Sunday Times’s Culture section. John Carey is an emeritus professor of English Literature at Oxford University and given what he wrote to me about my first book I have high hopes that his review will be more than favourable, and beautifully written too. It seems unlikely that this mess with Amazon will be sorted out by tomorrow, but I’m trying to hold onto the idea that the accolade of a good review in the Sunday Times doesn’t happen to many and will set things up for the long term prospects of this book whatever immediate elephant traps there may be.

There have been so many other things to talk about from the 4 weeks since my last post, but I’m going to leave it there except for a few final notices:   

  • If there’s any chance you could leave a review of ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ on Amazon, I would be hugely grateful. Even just some stars and one sentence would be brilliant. (Note however that if you haven’t spent £40 on Amazon in the last 12 months they won’t allow you to leave a review – and if you’re thinking of spending £40 just to get round that, then I would advise you to step away from your credit card).
  • The Guardian is looking for people to tell them of their favourite books of 2020 and if you were so moved you can do that via https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/dec/02/tell-us-about-your-favourite-books-of-2020
  • Whenever something significant happens with my project it is an opportunity to re-connect with the relatives of the men in the Group Photograph. Though I may have met many of them only a few times, I feel a great connection with them as the time we spent together was often intensely personal as I asked them in depth about their family history. I think about them as extended family to me. When I set out on this project I had no idea that that would happen and certainly not over such an extended period. Sadly that also means that so many of the sons and daughters and nieces and nephews who I shared time and meals with are now gone, and I have just heard of another one. I only met Louis Klemantaski’s niece Betty twice but the first time was such an occasion, a family reunion where some of those present hadn’t met each other for 20 years. Betty’s welcoming enthusiasm made a big impression on me and I am deeply sorry to hear of her passing.

Finally, on a lighter note, I received a very kind email from a baker in Lyme Regis, offering to send me some of her wares with the note ‘I am sure publishers need such sustenance!’. I went onto her website at www.leakersbakery.co.uk and immediately zoomed in on the Jurassic Foot Crunchy Date Loaf, baked in the shape of a dinosaur’s foot, which I chose as it reminded me of holidays looking for fossils on the beach down there. Soon a parcel arrived full of goodies with one special addition being this gingerbread Triceratops:



A timely reminder that in amongst all of the ups and downs of life, little acts of kindness can make the world of difference.

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Riding the Today tsunami

A lot can happen in 10 days. Since my last post on this blog, I’ve had a 5-page spread in the Telegraph magazine, organised the first mailout of ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’, appeared on BFBS radio and RNIB Connect Radio, nearly appeared on the Today programme, been Book of the Week in Country Life magazine, actually appeared on the Today programme, been deluged with a tsunami of orders and brilliant responses from readers, started organising a reprint, and had another champagne moment.

So here it all is. Apologies if the prose is not too polished but I just wanted to give an update and then I’ll need to get back to the nitty gritty of being a publishing magnate and book shipper.

It was brilliant to get the feature in the Telegraph magazine (see https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/shall-not-away-long-tragic-letters-front-line/). It was a pity that it didn’t really show the visual effect of the book but then I recognise that it was difficult to translate that into the format they were working with, particularly given that they had a lot less time to lay it out than I had spent when producing the book. The immediate effect was 80 book sales over the following 4 days, but the bigger effect was that the rest of the media pricked up their ears and started to respond more quickly and favourably to my publicist Angela’s enquiries.

On Sunday evening I prepared the spreadsheets of all the pre-orders and new orders and sent them off to my printers – over 500 in all which then got dispatched at the beginning of the week. And so started a routine of collating all my orders on Sunday, Tuesday & Thursday evenings ready for dispatch on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which if all goes well will continue until at least Christmas.

On Tuesday 10th November at 9.05 a.m. I picked up the phone on a pre-arranged call from BFBS Radio. After fading out the aptly named track ‘Trouble’s Coming’, we were straight into the interview. Verity & Richard had obviously done their homework on what Angela had sent them and asked the right questions to get things flowing and enable me to give a good idea of the book. You can have a listen here.

Meanwhile I’d had notice that the Today programme wanted to interview me and William Boyd. A researcher called on Monday afternoon and we chatted far and wide about my project as a whole, such that afterwards I thought to myself that I had no idea what questions it might lead to when I got on the programme. The interview was scheduled for Wednesday 11th November and we would be told on Tuesday afternoon what time we would be hooked up. Tuesday afternoon came and then Angela emailed to say it was off, and possibly being re-scheduled for the next week. Well, I’d already told people on my mailing list that it was happening on Wednesday. Those of you who have followed this project from the early days will know that this is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened. Back in 1999 just before Remembrance time I went to the offices of the Independent newspaper up in the tower at Canary Wharf and spent a few hours talking about my project with a hung-over John Walsh (he’d been to some awards do the night before). The Internet was still a new thing and most of the people I’d connected with in my project were not on email so I’d printed and posted out an update to them all saying when it was going to appear. And then I heard from the Independent that they’d decided not to run it after all. I pointed out that I’d just spent a load of money getting everyone to know about it and then at the last minute they reinstated it. Move forward to 2016 and I was told a feature would appear in the Daily Mail I think 4 weekends running until it did eventually come out, but luckily I was able to email everyone to let them know what was going on. And now here I was again with a Yes/No/Maybe situation. I sent out an email but it was late in the day and it appears it didn’t get through to everyone as I later did hear from someone who’d got up early and was not too pleased at having to listen to what was not his favourite programme only not to hear what he’d hoped for.

So again there was uncertainty as to whether anything was going to happen on Radio 4. Saturday Live were also interested but if it was going to be on Today then they couldn’t do it too. Apparently last minute changes are all too common these days. William Boyd was bumped 4 times before eventually appearing on Front Row to talk about his new novel. I think the fact that people are not actually coming into the studio and making arrangements to do so must mean that they feel easier about switching things around at the last minute. If we're being interviewed from home via Skype then we're theoretically less put out than if we're having to do all the travelling too.

What did get broadcast on Armistice Day was a piece on RNIB Connect Radio. I’d been in touch with the RNIB to say that I was going to make a donation to them from the proceeds of this book in honour of Charles Bartlett’s involvement with them. Lynne Morgan then did a remarkable job of editing our hour-long chat on Skype into what sounds like me talking continuously and approximately coherently for about 12 minutes. I’m really grateful to Lynne for all her expertise and hard work and you can have a listen here.

Also on Wednesday the 11th, ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ was featured as Book of the Week in Country Life. It was an absolutely tiny piece (especially when compared to their vast spreads dedicated to selling enormous mansions) and was below buying suggestions for Eleventh Hour gin and a very expensive leather dog lead (which caught my eye as the picture echoed the images of the whistle lanyard in my layout of the main letter from the Battle of Loos). The reviewer did do a remarkable job, though, of capturing the essence of the book in the few words she was allocated, including saying ‘Andrew Tatham has produced a remarkable human document’. It’s difficult to gauge how many people read it and were moved to order the book, but I’ve certainly had orders from people living in Farms and Halls, and I’ve had friends who I didn’t even know were Country Life readers getting in touch to say they’d seen it.

Then on Thursday afternoon I got an email to say we were back on for the Today programme, this time for Saturday. I thought I’d leave informing everyone of that until I’d had confirmation and then just after lunch on Friday I got a call from the Today producer to say that we would be on at 8.40 a.m. A call from one of their engineers followed to check the Skype connection and then I told my printers to brace themselves as they might have a busy Monday of packing and posting ahead of them. Luckily I held off sending an update to my mailing list until after my afternoon walk because I then got a text from the producer saying that they wanted to bring the item forward to 8.20 a.m. as 'doing it earlier gives us more time for the item'. That sounded like really good news.

I wouldn’t exactly say I ended up having my best night’s sleep ever but at least my head was clear and my voice was working when I got the call on Saturday morning and really I don’t think it could have gone better. I didn’t know that they were going to do the reading of the letter from the Battle of Loos. The reader made Charles sound younger and more conventionally heroic (and less plummy) than he really was but still it was beautifully performed and despite my having read that letter so many times when giving presentations I found myself welling up at Charles’s report of Leslie Berlein’s death. There was no time for that sort of carry-on though as we went straight into the interview and there I was doing a double act with William Boyd despite never having spoken to him before. All our contact has been by email and even now we were talking beside each other but not to each other and still 120 miles apart. One day when the virus has had its day I hope we will be able to meet somewhere more relaxed than on Radio 4 in front of millions of listeners. He has been so generous and kind, not least in getting up so early on a Saturday morning, and none of what is happening with this book would have been possible without him.

The whole piece lasted 6 minutes (you can hear it here) but I think we got a lot across and I instantaneously saw the effect as emails started pouring in telling me of book orders. By day’s end I had sold 700 books. Luckily I was in a far better position to deal with this than after the Jeremy Vine show 5 years ago. I have a plan in place for distribution and even though it has required a lot of burning of the midnight oil collating the mailout lists, I’m hugely thankful for the sterling work of the team at my printers, Healeys, in Ipswich, and my one-man band is just about keeping on top of things even if I can’t respond at the moment to all the kind emails I’ve been getting. The wave continued on Sunday with 200 sales. Most were of my new book but out of 900 from those two days, 120 were of ‘A Group Photograph’. Some people who were obviously new to my project bought both books and I hope that those who only bought ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ will come back for the first one once they’ve finished their reading. It seems that many people when looking for books only go to Amazon rather than searching more widely via Google as about 80% of the sales were via Amazon. With Amazon taking £6.01 per book plus a monthly fee of £30 as a professional seller (in addition to a change in the way that postal charges were included which caught me out), it’s not great compared to selling direct via my website where this is only a Paypal fee of £1.16 per book. That said, their way of listing things and promoting currently successful books means that I am probably getting continuing sales in a way that would not be possible in any other way so I just have to wear it and get on with it.

At one point on Saturday ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ was up to No 33 in Amazon’s bestsellers list for all books, and it is still No 1 in their bestsellers lists for ‘Military History of World War I’ and ‘World War I biographies’ (and that despite being over 3 times the price of most other books on the lists). The book has its first 5-star review today but that is more for the look of it on arrival than from having read it, and I realise it might be a while yet before there are more in depth reviews from those who have reached the end, given that it is not exactly a short read. I’m hopeful that good reviews will come and am spurred on by the many emails coming in including these comments:

  • 'It's a quite extraordinary work of art'
  • 'It deserves to outsell Birdsong and all the other books written about The Great War' from someone who had got to p.180.

I have worked on this book for 3 years with basically no income and without knowing what sort of reception it would get. I can’t see it getting anywhere near to outselling Birdsong (and if it does I might have a nervous breakdown from the logistics of organising it) but with only 915 books left from my original print run of 2500, and sales still continuing (80 yesterday and 75 today) I am in the process of organising a reprint to ensure that I have more stock before Christmas and am able to benefit from all the reviews that are yet to come (though I’ve just heard that the Observer have decided not to review it because they’ve missed doing it for Remembrance time). The question is how many to get printed? Again! The minimum necessary to keep the unit price to a sellable level is 2,500 but that is £29,000 again and the whole thing is like a gigantic game of Double or Quits in which whatever I do, Amazon wins! The bottom line, though, is that I didn’t do all this work to produce a book that is read by just 2,500 people and their family and friends. I will do what it takes to spread the word and it certainly helps that I have confidence in my book and that confidence is only growing from the response I’ve been getting. And for that I am hugely grateful.

I am also grateful to Louis Roederer Champagne. I received an email yesterday from their brand manager in the UK who had been asked by Florence in their head office in Reims to send me a bottle Louis Roederer Brut Premier in congratulations for my book. I might just save it to share with my parents at Christmas. Let’s just hope that the general situation improves enough that a Christmas visit is possible and I am able to formally toast them in thanks for all that they have done for me.

Saturday, 7 November 2020

Publication and exciting times on the radio and in the press

Other than some satnav shenanigans as a result of a closed road in Grantham, my trip to the binders in Derbyshire went as smoothly as could be expected - not least because the book looks fantastic! I'm really pleased with the way it has turned out. If you had told me at the start of all this that this would be how it would look, I would have been amazed, and after all that has gone into making it over the last three years it was quite a thing to actually, finally, hold it in my hands. Of course the work doesn't stop with publication and behind the scenes I have been working with my printers to come up with a distribution plan for whatever might be thrown at us in terms of orders - and the possibility that things might get 'interesting' on that front has been vastly increased by the brilliant and persistent work of my publicist Angela. Here is what is coming up:

  • Saturday 7th November: 4-page feature in the Telegraph magazine
  • Tuesday 10th November: 9.05 a.m. interview on BFBS radio
  • Wednesday 11th November: interview along with William Boyd on the Today programme on Radio 4 (time still to be confirmed).
  • Wednesday 11th November: publication of Country Life magazine with 'I Shall Not Be Away Long' as their book of the week.
And over the last couple of days I have been sending out review copies at the request of the book editors of, in order of their asking:
  • The Observer
  • The Daily Mail
  • The Sunday Times
Given the huge number of books that are being published at the moment and the limited space for reviews in those papers, that really is quite something. I don't know when the reviews will be coming out but I will post on here when I've got some concrete news. I couldn't have hoped for more - and yet there still may be more - I'll let you know when I know for sure.

I'm aware that some people are not keen on using Paypal or cheques, and now that I've got some actual books there is another option: the book is now listed on Amazon marketplace. The orders still come through to me to organise posting out and with the tight margins on all this I'm afraid the extra fees I have to pay to Amazon are reflected in the fact that the £2.80 fee for P&P is on top of the £29.50 you'd pay if buying direct through my website.

The story with posting out the books is that I brought 70 copies home from the binders and am using those to post out review copies as well as the orders I've had from abroad. With the required customs form needing a signature, it seemed that I had to do it myself and so over the next few days I'll be posting books to Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Bermuda, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the USA. Orders for this country will be going out this week once the full shipment of newly-bound books arrives back at my printers in Ipswich. The waiting is nearly over for all the kind people who've pre-ordered my book over the last couple of months.

And finally, on my way back from the binders on Wednesday I stopped off at Majestic Wines in King's Lynn and took advantage of a great deal to buy a bottle of Louis Roederer Brut Premier champagne (see a previous post for its significance). Luckily it was the night before lockdown so I was still able to stop off at my friend Paul's. He did his trick of wrapping the bottle in a wet towel and sticking it in the freezer and half an hour later we were toasting the book and each other. It's been quite a journey and Paul has been with me every step of the way. I wonder what is going to happen next.


Monday, 2 November 2020

On the brink again, with fantastic printing and publicity

I have recently re-discovered the truth of the saying ‘life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans’. At the beginning of my last post I said that ‘There will be no more tweaking or correcting or fine-tuning’ of my new book. That lasted about 16 hours. I went down to Ipswich to see the start of printing. Item One was the inside of the cover with the maps and list of supporters. A little on-press tweak led to a result that just gave me a huge lift, seeing that it had come out just as I meant it to be (for those not familiar with the vagaries of colour printing: just because something looks good on screen or in a proof doesn’t mean it will look the same amount of good when you print it on the press). Next was the outside of the cover. Again there was a little on-press tweak and things appeared to be OK until I was then shown the result of applying the anti-scuff laminate to the outside (this is essential to protect the cover and hold the creases for the spine and flaps without cracking the card). It was just too dark. The cover is supposed to have a dirty feel to evoke the circumstances in which the letters were written, but there is also meant to be a warmth and lightness that reflects the human spirit at the heart of the book and that just wasn’t there. I made a brief attempt to see if I could make adjustments to the original artwork whilst on site but given that the outside cover alone contains 55 image files and the computer I would have to work on was not running Windows as I was used to, it wasn’t long before I came to the decision that I was going to have to sort it out at home. So after seeing prints of the first few pages from inside the book, I headed back up to Norfolk. 

The next day I produced 12 alternative versions for the outside cover. A rigorous comparison and selection procedure narrowed that down to 3 (two with subtle changes and one with something more extreme in case subtle was not enough). I sent them off and they were printed on the press as a composite alongside the original on Thursday. I waited in for the courier on Friday. No show. I agonised over the weekend. I waited in for the courier on Monday. No show. Two more sets were sent out to me by different couriers. All three sets arrived within an hour of each other on Tuesday morning. And then I had to work out which version was best! I was just too close to the work to decide so I rang my friend Paul who has been with me every step of the way with this book. No answer. I rang the Library. He was there. I drove in to Fakenham and one confabulation later I had a decision as well as a telling-off from one of my ex-work-mates for using the Library as a meeting place in this time of Covid. Completely justified but it’s been difficult to keep thinking of the bigger picture when I’ve got so much riding on this book. 3 years of work plus 42 hours of press time plus a cost of £29,000 is an awful lot to put into something for it to come out less than perfect. And of course perfection is not achievable (at least not without driving everyone completely round the twist). 

The whole process is like buying a house in that it is very stressful because it is such a rarely-done big thing that one is not an expert in and there is the constant feeling that something important might be being missed. Even working with experienced high-quality printers is no guarantee of good results because they are generally used to working with professional designers who are au fait with the way things are supposed to be done, rather than someone like me who has got a pretty good idea of the process but is basically self-taught (and who is pushing the boundaries of things with layered and transparent images). It is also too much to expect of printers to spot the nuances that are important to a designer who has such familiarity with the material having concentrated so much effort into it. 

I am therefore delighted to report that the printing has turned out fantastically well – better than the proofs and better than I could have hoped for at the start of all this. I am thrilled and the icing on the cake was having two of my contacts at the printers separately telling me what a good job I’d done of the design. I’m really looking forward to hearing the reaction of readers. 

Next step in the process is binding the pages into the covers to produce the final books. My printers don’t have the machines to do thread-sewn binding in-house, so all that they have printed is going up by lorry to a binders near Derby to be bound this week. Covid has already thrown a slight spanner in the works because that area is in Tier 2 and quite understandably they are not allowing external people into the factory. The current plan is that I drive over on Wednesday then wait in the car park ready to be shown the first books as they come off the production line. Once they’ve got my go-ahead, they’ll bind the rest and I’ll head home taking some boxes of books (but not so many as to ruin the suspension on my car). The first delivery of finished books is expected to arrive back in Ipswich on 6th November, ready for my printers to dispatch, with the remainder arriving on 11th November. I’m hoping that all that stays on track despite the new lockdown that is starting on Thursday as there are some big pieces of publicity in the offing. 

Firstly reviews have come out in two magazines including these lines: 
  • ‘If there’s one book you read about the Great War during this time of remembrance, I heartily recommend this one.’Britain at War magazine (as part of a whole page review as their book of the month) 
  • ‘Tatham does the roller-coaster ride of Bartlett’s life proper justice in an impeccably produced book.’History of War magazine 
Then coming up are: 
  • On Saturday, 7th November, there will be a four-page feature in the Telegraph magazine, with their response being that they love the letters and think my book is amazing.
  • On Tuesday, 10th November, at about 9 a.m. I’m being interviewed on BFBS Radio (British Forces Broadcasting Service). 
  • On Wednesday, 11th November, Country Life magazine is featuring ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ as their book of the week. 
  • RNIB Connect Radio (for blind and visually-impaired people) will be having a feature based on an hour-long interview I had last week with one of their producers. This came about because I told the RNIB that I would be making a donation from the profits of this book in honour of the efforts made by Charles Bartlett (my new book’s letter writer) in his work for blind people both before and after the war. 
That any of this has been possible is due to the kindness and faith shown in me by people who have made donations and pre-ordered copies of the book (the total is now up to 450) such that I have now covered 75% of the cost of printing. It would have been a much taller order to gather up the courage to commit to spending this sort of money without this support and I am incredibly grateful. The latest donor has been from one of the companies mentioned in the book. In August 1915, Charles Bartlett wrote to his wife to ask her to send him ‘a supply of Keating’s – I have tried every shop in the place, & the powder we are served out with, well, the lice and fleas just grow fat as butter on it’. The motto of the product he asked for was ‘Keating’s Powder Kills with Ease, Bugs & Beetles, Moths & Fleas’. The story of that company is an incredible testament to the will to survive through human ingenuity. I’ll leave it for you to read in the book but you can get an idea of how far they’ve come by the fact that their parent company is now called Terahertz – and I’m very grateful that they should have thought to contribute. 

With a new lockdown imminent in amongst all the current difficulties the world is facing, I hope that my book will provide some distraction and inspiration. I would also like to recommend two books that I have recently read: 
Both achieve what I hope comes through from my book in that they warn of what can happen if we don’t pay attention and don't act soon enough against the evils of the world, and show that simple acts of kindness and love can reverberate through the ages.

'I Shall Not Be Away Long' is available via www.ishallnotbeawaylong.co.uk 

PS In the process of testing things, I’ve discovered that ‘I shall not be away long’ is not as common a phrase as one would have thought – put it into Google and you’re led straight to my new book or commentaries about the story of Joseph in the Book of Genesis, and not much else. Just to be clear: Charles Bartlett does not have a lot in common with Joseph, not least in that his coat was of one colour: khaki.

Monday, 12 October 2020

Green light for printing – and a surprise champagne moment

Last Wednesday I sent my printers the final for-print PDFs of ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’. There will be no more tweaking or correcting or fine-tuning. It is done. The story of this book, though, is still far from done.

On Friday I had to make the decision as to how big a print run to order. So what number should I go for? Before I started taking pre-orders a month ago, the number I had in my head was 1,500 – enough to make a small profit if I sold them, but not so many that I’d get stung for massive storage costs if I didn’t. Even so, 1,500 would cost me £21,685 to print, not a number to be sniffed at with or without a mask on.

At first when I started contacting buyers of my first book last month, I wasn’t at all sure how it would go. I was given a boost when a couple of friends bought 15 copies (thus sorting out their Christmas shopping in one go) but they had seen the PDF of the whole book and knew what they were buying into whereas most people just had a few pages on my website and some very positive reviews to go on. It wasn’t exactly brilliant that email just isn’t as reliable a means of communication as it once was and I got the idea that a lot of my messages weren’t getting through or, if they were, they were ending up in spam folders. Even so, I started taking orders and not only that but finding that there were people willing to put their hands in their pockets to support my work in return for the meagre reward of getting their name in the book and being sent the art films that are such an important part of my Group Photograph project (actually in some ways I would say that the responses I received from viewers of those films were worth more than the money donated and made me realise I must make more effort to get these films seen in a gallery setting).

Still, as a lot of creative people have found when their livelihoods have disappeared in the current crisis, money is important and I was just wondering whether I’d got things all a bit wrong when within the space of a few days I received incredibly generous donations and orders from family and friends. It’s difficult not to feel some sense of belief when someone buys 20 copies of your book (though again he had the advantage that he had seen the whole PDF). I have now made a video flicking through the book which at least gives more of an idea of the whole thing and that seems to be helping to give a better idea of what this book is:


Meanwhile, Angela (the publicist recommended to me by William Boyd) had been going great guns and as it stands I have been promised reviews in the following magazines: Family Tree, Who Do You Think You Are?, History of War, Britain at War, Soldier, the Society of Genealogists, and Stand To! for the Western Front Association – and again it’s words that have made an impact, with one reviewer writing to tell me that my books are 'the best I've read and marvelled at for ages'.

Now I was starting to think that maybe I should print 2,500. I had raised over half of the £29,131 I needed for that and then I heard from Angela that a national newspaper’s Saturday magazine was very keen to run a feature. I started thinking that maybe I should print more. What if things really took off like after the Jeremy Vine Show in 2015 and I didn’t have enough to satisfy demand? Printing another 1,000 would cost just over £7,000 more. It’s the sort of situation that casinos must prey on all the time and I bet even people experienced in the ways of the publishing industry and the media would find it difficult to know what to do. In the back of my mind though was the remembrance that I’d had promises from the media before which hadn’t panned out and that I had printed too many of my first book which I was still paying to store. So the number that I ended up sticking with is 2,500 – and if I need more, I will just have to go to print again (though the decisions about numbers won’t get any easier).

In amongst all that, there was something last week that particularly gave me a great deal of joy. It followed on from something I did a few weeks ago. I’d written to various companies that are named in the book asking if they might sponsor me in some way. It was ridiculously late in the day to be doing such a thing but I thought it better to try late than not at all. I’d received lots of silence and one encouraging No (kind of them to reply at all given their struggles as a result of Covid 19) and then last Tuesday into my inbox arrived an email from France. As you will see in the book, Charles Bartlett was rather keen on champagne – in fact in one letter he relays to his wife the comment he’d heard that “Mrs Bartlett said if there is any champagne about trust the 8th Berkshires to find it”. Even so, in all the letters he only mentions two champagne houses by name, and of those only one is still in existence. That was Louis Roederer and the email I had received was from Florence in their head office in Reims. They got a lot of requests for sponsorship and unfortunately couldn’t give me a positive answer – but they would be very happy to acquire two books and wished me all success. It really gave me a thrill to make this connection after all these years – the sort of thing that one never anticipates when doing this sort of work and which makes it a real pleasure.

So tomorrow I go to Ipswich to see the presses start rolling and check that what comes out matches what I put in – and when I get to the other end on 11th November, publication day, I might just treat myself and a friend or two to a bottle of Louis Roederer and raise a toast to Charles Bartlett. I’m sure that if he’s looking down he’ll be amazed to see what has been happening with the letters that he probably thought would never be kept, let alone be turned into a book over a hundred years later that would end up in the hands of the makers of one of his favourite champagnes.

 

PS Florence also told me that ‘Champagne Charlie', who appears in an illustration in the book, was named after a real person. I’d put in the illustration because Charles Bartlett liked Champagne, and I knew the musical hall song (which appears on the soundtrack of my animated trees film) but didn’t realise that it was based on Charles Heidsieck, whose champagne company is still going, and whose adventurous life (including being imprisoned as a spy during the American Civil War) had been turned into a 1989 made-for-TV biopic starring Hugh Grant.


Tuesday, 15 September 2020

A new book happening now

When I wrote my last post in November last year, I knew 2020 promised an interesting ride but it appears that I underestimated just what that could mean. I was only thinking in terms of how difficult it was going to be to get my book published, but it seems that the world felt the urge to add to that.

So, firstly, I couldn't find a publisher to take on my book. I knew it was going to be problematic. Those publishers who took unsolicited submissions had limits on file sizes that meant I couldn't send in more than a few pages of this graphics-heavy book so they were unable to judge the full scope - and then there was the fact that it was going to be an expensive book to produce, being full colour with lots of pages and in a large format and therefore of limited profit margins. I was also up against my perennial problem of getting people to look below the surface and see that this wasn't a traditional military or family history book, that there was more going on. Still I was not quite prepared for one response which included the line ‘Even if you are unable to find a suitable publisher, and I hope you will, your account will no doubt be of great interest to family and friends’ despite my having told him that Michael Morpurgo had called it 'moving, powerful, important' and William Boyd was writing the Foreword. I hope my measured reply has persuaded the person in question to drop that phrase from their rejection letters. I recognise that publishing is a difficult business full of risk and with many aspiring authors clamouring to get noticed, but still it’s very frustrating to have doors continually being closed in your face. It didn't take me long to realise that if I was going to get this book to see the light of day, I was going to have to do it myself.

In January I met with the printers who did the reprint of my first book and things seemed set fair for being able to print whenever I wanted to proceed, and the price seemed about what I had estimated. I returned home to get on with adjustments to the book that came out of the meeting (including re-sizing to ease readability, and with 464 graphically-laid-out pages any change like that is not a short job). I also had another go at the cover and here is the outside of the whole thing (including flaps inside the front and back covers):


By the beginning of March I was fully committed to publishing the book myself and I got back in touch with William Boyd to see when he might be able to get his Foreword to me. In July last year when he’d agreed to write it, he said he was busy with other projects for the rest of the year (including finishing his new novel Trio which is coming out this October) but that 2020 looked clear. Things were already starting to get interesting on the Covid-19 front when he agreed to a deadline of 1st May to send me his Foreword and then three days later we went into lockdown.

Given that I spend a lot of time on my own in my hermitage working on my stuff, lockdown was not a huge change on the face of it – though, being somewhat rebellious, when I was being told I had to spend time on my own I then didn’t want to do it! But like so many of us, do it I did and I recognised that I am luckier than a lot of people in being able to continue with my work mostly safe from the risk of infection and finding solace in the natural environment around me on my officially sanctioned walks.

One of my jobs at this time was sorting out permissions for some of the pictures I was using in the book. For the most part I have aimed to use pictures that are out of copyright or for which relatives had given me permission but that wasn’t possible for all and I could only fully sort out permissions for the rest when the decision was made about publishing. Some institutions recognised the fact that I was self-publishing by waiving their fees in return for a copy of the book, but still I had to pay out a total of £342 for the use of 6 of their pictures from the National Portrait Gallery and Imperial War Museum who aren’t much interested in helping out the little guy. It’s a wonder that any book is produced that has pictures in it, given the cost and difficulties concerning permissions.

At the end of April, William Boyd sent me his Foreword. To give you a bit of background: I have read every single one of William Boyd’s fifteen novels, starting with ‘Brazzaville Beach’ which was given to me by my sister for my birthday some time in the 1990s. In particular ‘Any Human Heart’ has a special resonance for me. I remember reading it in a hostel in Adelaide during my research trip to Australia in 2003. I was having a difficult time and it enabled me to escape into another life, but it wasn’t just escape reading – I connected with its whole life story of sudden ups and downs, the attempts to navigate a path guided by ideas learned from family and public school and by urges and feelings often not understood, and it gave the idea that ‘anything is possible’ which would later come to me as the most important learning from my Group Photograph project. And now here was William Boyd writing the Foreword to a book of mine and not only that but being bowled over by what I had done and praising it to the hilt. You can read the whole Foreword in the sample pages from ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ but one comment that is not in there is ‘No professional publisher could equal what you’ve done here.’

It is often hard to gauge the value of one’s own work. Family and friends may be biased or not want to discourage you with unwelcome truths, and criticisms can cut deeper than they should though they may be the view of only one person, but there is no way that William Boyd would have written what he did without meaning it and his saying that I had ‘really created something remarkable’, along with the prediction of a great success, was the most colossal boost.

With confidence high, I went back to my printers to start the ball rolling only to be faced with the new not-normal of most of their staff being on furlough, and not only them but also their binders. In the first instance I ordered a bound blank copy, just with the cover printed so I could see how it all fitted together with the paper I had chosen. In the event, even just that took a month to get through, but in another example of unwished-for things turning out to be for the best, that delay led to me deciding to do one final run-through of the whole thing, checking and editing, and with so much having been unread for many months that enabled me to approach it with a (nearly) fresh eye and make some changes that made me feel at last that it was the best that it could be.

I ordered proofs of the whole book and ironed out the issues that arose from them (there’s a short sentence for a not entirely straightforward process) and then there I was, ready to set dates for printing. On 9th October I will tell my printers how many copies I want and then on 11th November this book will be published and ready to be posted out. Sounds simple but boy is this venture full of risk involving sums that are not remotely comfortable to me (to get an idea of what is involved see this document about the economics of it all). In the end I’ve decided on a price of £29.50 (inc P&P) – not cheap but then this is a large high-quality book and not a bad price for what is basically a time machine (and you’d certainly pay more for a similar book from a book shop). You can pre-order your copy now from here, which also includes the option to get your name in the book as a supporter and get access to my artwork films from my Group Photograph project.

Starting my campaign to take pre-orders has been nerve-wracking but as always I’m sustained by the kindness and generosity of people who really support what I’m doing – and in another example of things happening that couldn’t be predicted, William Boyd put me in touch with a longstanding and very well-respected publicist friend of his who is now working on my campaign (as in this press release). I couldn’t be in better hands as I embark on this next adventure.

PS If you’re not tired of my writing, you can see more thoughts and stories from ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ in this guest post for my friend Patrick Miles’s blog.