Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Self publish and be damned?

An author opts to publish his own book - London Babylon - and in this two-part article he’s still trying to figure out why.

Why do it? Why would anyone write books? Why not just pay someone to beat you up and rob you? It would be the same net effect but you could get the pain all over with in one go. It’s the long drawn out sense of expectation that destroys you. As John Cleese remarked in Clockwise, “It's not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It's the hope I can't stand.”

When I met up with the publishers of my first book, Guns, Cash and Rock ‘n’ Roll, for contract signing and drinks in the Groucho club I thought I’d made it; oh the glamour. Looking around, I spotted Keith Allen heading towards the bogs and thought, ‘This is it. I’m launched into the literati. Boho Soho. Get used to it lad, you’ll soon be spending absinthe-sodden hours in here hallucinating with Damien Hirst and Alex James, fending off starlets and being beckoned into celebrity-stuffed toilet cubicles for jazz dust.’ Some chance.

Six months of editing, fact checking and the treadmill of rights acquisitions soon disabused me of that notion, followed as it was by a further six-month hiatus ‘to give the trade notice’, during which time the libel lawyers expensively tried to rip the book’s heart out. However, the big day finally did arrive and I experienced the buzz of seeing my name on the cover of my book on a Waterstone’s shelf. For me that moment will remain forever bathed in celestial light.

In the subsequent round of press engagements, I began to feel that I really was in show business – that’s if being interviewed by David ‘Kid’ Jensen on Capital Gold counts. Lovely chap incidentally, and he really knew the subject so that was one of us. Then came a chance to travel, well a trip to Manchester to be interviewed by Kerrang Radio’s late night shock jock, who refused to mention the name of my book unless I agreed to be whipped on air by his other guest, a local dominatrix. I don’t know whether it was my venal desperation to shift product that made me go along with it or the desire to find out what it’s like to be thrashed by a fifteen stone prostitute but I suffered for my art.

Other radio interviews were sadly more sedate affairs involving numerous trips to the BBC’s Portland Place studios for ‘phoners’ with the cream of the country’s local radio DJs, sitting in a cubicle with headphones on. “Hello Steve, this is BBC Hoomberside. Can you ‘ear me?” Indeed so often was I loitering in the BBC reception area that I got on first name terms with the commissionaire as well as Terry Wogan who had started nodding at me as he passed through, and there was a serious A-List moment chatting about curry with the Two Hairy Bikers.

When the flurry of publicity passed, I sort of held my breath, waiting for something to happen. I don’t know what exactly, perhaps a call from Tarantino needing a screenplay? Could I knock out a biography for Jagger? Was I free to host the Brit Awards?

Oh and book sales; I anticipated selling books. In fact I expected to sell quite a lot, after all, Guns, Cash and Rock ‘n’ Roll was released in the UK, US, Australia and Canada. Someone was seen reading it on a beach in Goa and a dog-eared copy was spotted in a Bangkok backpacker’s hostel. The reviews had been quite complimentary, there had been a double page spread in the Daily Mail, almost a page in the Telegraph; I’d been interviewed on New York radio. The book had even been translated into Czech.

Giddied by the notion that I must be selling bundles of books I looked forward to a deluge of royalty cheques – free money plopping onto the door mat every few months, and only half jokingly took a peek at the Sunday Times Best Seller list.

Poor, deluded fool; as I now know, that list is the exclusive reserve of misery memoirs, cooks, comics and hacks - Jamie, Delia and Rick, Jeremy, Stephen and Dawn… oh and Jordan. It seems you can only have a hugely successful book if you are already hugely successful or if your huge breasts are already hugely successful. And then there’s Dan Brown.

I can’t be the only small time author who resents these self-satisfied serial word spewers grinning down at me from the shelves of W.H. Smiths. Can’t Stephen content himself with presenting QI, tweeting, and utilising the licence fee to tour the world on behalf of those of us that can’t afford to, giving all the endangered species their last cuddle? Isn’t Clarkson busy enough thrashing around in Aston Martins, putting his name on a newspaper column and running his new farm? Can’t Jamie just clear off and cook the dinner? It’s doubtful any of them even know how many they’ve had published; there’s just a cynical conveyor belt of ‘books to accompany the hit series’ that every Christmas are lugged to the tills by weary gift buyers who can’t find anything else.

It’s hard enough to get published at all but if you’re not a Catholic conspiratorialist, you weren’t raped by nuns or you don’t cook or travel (or cook and travel) on TV, then you won’t be troubling the top 10,000 let alone the top 10.

Read part 2 of Steve’s febrile rant next week

London Babylon: The Beatles and the Stones in the Swinging Sixties is available in local bookshops or from priced £12.99. There are 414 pages of previously untold stories, anecdotes and pictures. Each visitor to the site is entitled to the two ‘missing’ chapters free.

© Steve Overbury 2009

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Self publish and be damned? Part 2

Compulsive writing is a sickness and thinking you’ll earn any money out of it is unlikely to make you well. Writing is a craft; the art is in getting a reader

The sometimes correct Wikipedia states that there are over 200,000 books published in the UK per annum, more than in any other country in the world, 25 per cent more than the USA, twice as many as in Germany and over six times more than in France. However, before we start woo-hooing about the possibility that we’re not as thick as we think we are, maybe we should first consider that three quarters of the books sold in the UK seem to be celeb TV tie-ins – picture rich and literarily light. The others, those written by ordinary, decent, possibly interesting folk will more than likely be condemned to remain unloved and unread until eventually, after a brief spell in the Red Cross shop, they are craned onto Thames barges and dragged down to Mucking Marshes to be bulldozed into Western Europe’s biggest landfill.

My first book writing/publishing experience was such a bruising one that I dumbly volunteered to do it again. The second effort is called London Babylon: The Beatles and the Stones in the Swinging Sixties. It’s a jolly romp around the London of forty-ish years ago when if you spotted a Bentley with someone under fifty at the wheel, he’d either just stolen it or he was one of the Rolling Stones, it’s an everyday story of dolly birds, dope dealers, billionaires, torturers and bum boys, an evocation of who was who and where it was at in Swinging London, and I hope someone reads it.

But whether it winds up in the bookcase or lobbed out in the wheelie bin, one thing is certain, the reader will not give a passing thought to the two years of solitary toil that went into it. Of course he won’t, it’s just a book - not a bad read – now chuck it.

That in mind, I didn’t intend spending another year editing it and schmoozing publishers. Life’s short and the prospect of flogging around for months trying to find someone to sell it, someone who will over time show little inclination to give me anything in return for it seems singularly unattractive.

God knows how the UK’s 200,000 books a year ever get published or why. No one gets paid, so make sure that if your publisher ever offers you a drink you don’t just ask for a half of lager, get a champagne cocktail with a cherry in it. And demand a bag of crisps because all they’ll offer you will be peanuts. I come from the music industry and it’s just the same. Where there’s a hit there’s a writ and the only distinction between the two businesses is that book publishers are a little more gentlemanly than pop moguls and might even offer you a little kiss before they undo your trousers.

So this time I’ve compounded my masochism by publishing the title myself. In other words, I’ve divested myself of several thousands of pounds to a printer who the other day dumped two palettes in my driveway. I lugged the sixty boxes up three flights to the attic cursing each of the book’s 414 pages and now have torn calf muscles that have left me walking like John Wayne carrying another man’s Vaseline. It’s the first day of my new career as a publisher, I am broke and I can’t put my socks on without screaming.

A friend fills me with optimism when he scans the daunting mountain of books: “They’ll be handy for Christmas presents I suppose.”

London Babylon: The Beatles and the Stones in the Swinging Sixties is available from or from local shops priced £12.99. There are 414 pages of previously untold stories, anecdotes and pictures. Each visitor to the site is entitled to the two ‘missing’ chapters free.

Next episode: ‘Punk Publishing. I’ve got nine ISBNs and I’m gonna use ‘em’.

Monday, 1 March 2010

Punk Publishing

I’ve got nine ISBN’s and I’m gonna use them

What is it about the game that you have to play it? Having failed to make a fortune or even part of a fortune out of publishing my own book, I am now contemplating publishing others. Well it’s not contemplation exactly, so much as a mad impulse that keeps sluicing through my head. It’s reminiscent of what they say about teachers: Those who can, do, those who can’t teach.

I blame Nielsens. For those unacquainted with the criminality that is ISBN numbers, publishers register each book they put out with Nielsens who give it a number, an ISBN number, so that any bookstore needing to find your book can contact Nielsens, who will advise the store who has published it. It’s the number above the barcode. If you want your book in a shop or on Amazon, you need a number so don’t think about self-publishing without one; it’s the DNA database of the book trade, without one you are invisible; you have no book.

ISBN numbers are sold in tens so if you are a publisher, no problemo. However if you are the author, you’ve just lashed out £107 (or if you leave it to the last minute, panic, and have to get your order fast tracked £160. Doh!) and you have become the owner of the one ISBN number you need and nine others you don’t. There they lie, anticipating a life of idleness, going, 'C'mon then if you think you're hard enough.'

I didn’t think I would be using any of them anytime soon on a book of mine. My current book London Babylon: The Beatles and the Stones in the Swinging Sixties took me two years to write so at that rate I’ve got enough ISBNs for the next eighteen years of what I laughingly refer to as my career, by which time I’ll be sitting in a room with a lot of other mouth breathers doing doodles with a crayon.

But I have my ISBN and I even have a barcode – getting that was another rigmarole – oh no, they don’t just arrive with the ISBN; however with those devices imposed on the back cover, like the tramp stamps on Cheryl Cole's back, the book finally looked complete, endorsed, a product.

Back at their inception, arty types, musicians and authors, regarded barcodes as abominable scars, crude, disfiguring licences of officialdom on the fragile art of the free spirited, a lurid blotch on the face of an angel, a turd in the swimming pool. However, increasingly they are looked upon as marks of endeavour, badges of merit, a recognition of achievement. To have a barcode affixed to your project means that you are in business, that you have something to sell, and like music and books, something that, in theory, you can sell over and over. All you need is the idea, the energy to execute that idea, a few quid and then the blind stupidity to put it all on a horse.

Back in the punk days, we were taught that anyone could do it; buy a guitar, learn three chords, start a band, make a record – one, two, three, four, see you up the other end. In my case, I managed the bands and now and again put out a record, lacking the money and perhaps the exquisite recklessness to sprint into the minefield, to become a proper record company or die trying. And now it’s too late; most singers I hear these days need throttling not encouraging, most songwriters really aren’t and anyway record companies are so passé.

But publishing; that’s a job for a grown up, a grown up punk in fact. I know absolutely nothing about publishing, so in the great punk tradition, I’m eminently qualified, and I’ve got these nine ISBN numbers burning a hole in my pocket.

Anyone out there got a book they need publishing? Would anyone be crazy enough to hand over their life’s work to an over excited ex punk who can’t even figure out how to sell his own book?

There's always one.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

London Babylon and LED

Like half a million other Londoners, I was listening to Robert Elms on BBC London the other day. It was the Notes and Queries segment of his show; one query was, ‘Where was Brian Epstein’s house?’ and another was, ‘Where in the Kings Road was Nell Gwynne’s house; was it somewhere near a big gasworks?’

‘How odd,’ I thought, because both those questions are answered in my book London Babylon, which was on the verge of being published. I emailed the show and within minutes I was on air explaining that Brian Epstein’s house was at 15 Chapel Street, Belgravia and that Nell Gwynne’s house, Sandford Manor, was in Waterford Road SW6, and indeed it was next to a gasworks. It still is in fact, it’s hard to find but it’s there.

Robert remarked that the book sounded interesting and would I like to come on the show and talk about it? And I did. However before I did, I got an email from the producer of another London-based show from another radio station, Resonance 104.4 FM, who having heard me answering Elms’s queries was wondering if I would like to come in and talk on his show, Lost Steps, presented by Malcolm Hopkins.

I hadn’t planned to start marketing the book until the New Year, it wasn’t in any shops, and now I had two radio interviews in which to plug it, nice exposure but terrible timing; however you can’t turn down free publicity especially with my market trader mentality.

Background research was essential; I knew where I was with the Elms show; I’d been listening to it for years but Resonance 104.4? What manner of creature could that be? The web site reveals that the channel is staffed by volunteers, and that it is sponsored by the Arts Council and Wire magazine. A sampling of one day’s shows offered conversations with intellectuals about the Middle East, a live Country and Western band, a Pensioners show presented by the Deptford Action Group for the Elderly, a music and culture programme from a housing estate in N16 and avante-garde jazz from Chicago which included woodwind instruments ‘of extreme register.’ That’s what I call eclecticism though my dad might have less subtly called it a mongrel.

In one of the Lost Steps podcasts, Malcolm Hopkins delightfully reveals that those with the compulsion to discuss London arcana at every available opportunity are suffering from ‘LED,’ or ‘London Elms Disease.’ So now I know what I’ve got.

Of course when I met Robert in his plush new studios in posh Portland Place, I couldn't resist asking him if he knew what LED was. He didn’t and was thrilled to discover that he had a syndrome named after him. In the interview, he was charming and enthusiastic, talking the book up to the rafters, then when I stupidly didn’t give the web site address - that’s right, the book wasn’t in the shops and now I was making sure that no one would ever try and buy it by cunningly not providing the web site address – he gamely read it out the following day and gave the book yet another plug.

By contrast, the Resonance FM studio was a broom cupboard in grubby Borough High Street but the chaps in charge were equally charming, they let me waffle on for ages, then bought me a Guinness in the pub over the road afterwards and let me waffle on some more. Here I discovered that two of the three were involved in Housmans, the well-known anarchist bookstore in Kings Cross and that they were all into psychogeography, urban wandering, or more simply, walking, talking and drinking. Another enthusiasm was Situationism, which is hard if not impossible to define but suitably wonky.

This was all rather stimulating and definitely not your usual pub chat. But then Resonance is not your usual radio station.

You can hear my ramblings about the darker side of Swinging London on Lost Steps here

The Robert Elms broadcast is here