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 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 

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.