By guest blogger, author Alastair Loudon
Gentry Links is a heavily illustrated book that focuses on the characters depicted in the world’s most famous painting about golf, The Golfers (1847), by Charles Lees. Alastair – who has never written a book before – researched the history of each character and their family, and found an overarching metaphor linking them all together. He then wove this into a fascinating analysis of the painting, revealing the society and culture of its time, and bringing the artist and his theme to vivid life. He chose to have this book printed, rather than produced as an e-book, to help readers better appreciate the beautifully reproduced illustrations, and is producing special limited editions for golf clubs around the world. As he says, the book may be ‘niche’, but it’s a big niche! I was fascinated by the stories he discovered, and greatly enjoyed working with Alastair and my colleague Heather Macpherson. I feel lucky to have been able to be part of Alastair’s adventure in bringing this book out into the world.
A few years ago I used to be a lawyer but early retirement was forced on me when the bank I worked for was taken over, in more ways than one. I had an idea about a book I wanted to write: I am a mad-keen golfer and have always been intrigued by the mass simultaneous adoption of golf by the Americans. I knew that there was a story there which was waiting to be told. I first thought about studying for a PhD on the subject at St Andrews University. I saw a Professor of History and he told me I could do it, but that it would probably take me seven years. I politely scoffed at that and went on my way. Instead I went to Edinburgh University’s Department of Lifelong Learning, and signed up for three courses – one on Scottish history, another on creative writing and a third about writing a script for a documentary.
I realised that there were a number of critical factors for success.
The first was that I needed to spend a lot of time on research. In that regard, we are hugely fortunate to live in a time when research has become very accessible. I joined the National Library of Scotland, and through that wonderful organisation’s digital platforms got access to libraries all over the world.
The second was to pick the brains of others who had leading reputations in golf history.
The third was to recognise that as a first-time writer I would have little, if any, chance of being able to find a publisher who would be interested in a subject that would most probably be regarded as very niche. So that presented another challenge: how do you publish a book without a publisher – what is otherwise referred to as self-publishing. For some time that seemed a very difficult and high-risk thing to do.
So I decided to break a publisher’s job into its component parts, and see where I might get to.
As an author you are responsible for the research, the ideas that emerge, finding the images that illustrate your work, and putting it together to meet the rules of writing – beginning, middle and end.
What a publisher would do is address copyright and intellectual property issues [actually, this is usually – officially – the author’s responsibility – HB], and employ a graphic designer, editors and proofreaders and a printer to produce the books. Thereafter the publisher would market and distribute the books. The publisher would bear all these costs and take on the financial risk of the book failing to sell, but the author would get back only a few pennies in the pound for each copy sold.
So I thought, why couldn’t I manage those tasks? Things started to fall into place when I appointed a graphic designer. I wanted someone in Edinburgh, working freelance, who had an appetite for taking on an unusual book, and who had a track record in different genres. I landed on my feet when Heather Macpherson of Raspberry Creative Design agreed to work with me. Heather then strongly recommended Helen Bleck as an excellent copyeditor, and I soon had a great working relationship with Helen too. Better still because Heather and Helen had worked together before, so they knew what each would do.
That left the questions of printing and production of my book, the risk involved in printing a large number of books that could end up gathering dust of shelves, how I would distribute my books, and how I would get my money back, instead of paying huge commissions. Again Heather pointed me in the right direction, and all of those issues have been addressed.
So that leaves the question of marketing – traditionally one of the key reasons, I believe, for appointing a publishing house. Here all I can say is that the avenues to market are different for each author, dependent on a wide range of circumstances. So if an author has worked out on a spreadsheet the costs that he or she is prepared to underwrite to get the book to the point of production, it is possible to work out how many books have to be sold to reach a break-even point. Each author, knowing his or her intended readership, can then assess whether the risk is worth taking, and the print button can be pressed. All I can say it’s a wonderful, exciting and extremely satisfying moment to be presented with your first box of books!
Note from Helen: You can find out more about what inspired Alastair’s book on his blog about it on his website.