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.