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.