I was delighted when Nigel Morecroft agreed to be part of my developing series of interviews with authors I’ve worked with. Nigel’s beautiful self-published book, St Andrews: Camelot of Golf, takes a fascinating look at the history of golf through the lens of the town of St Andrews, the home and inspiration of the game as we know it today. I learned a lot through working with Nigel on this book – not just about golf, but about how all the different social elements in St Andrews have influenced it; and how the game has influenced them right back.
Producing a book about something that interests you, and that you have developed into a research project, is something that many new and self-publishing writers want to do, so I thought it would be interesting to discuss what in particular inspired Nigel to write his book, and look at how it came together. I started off by asking similar questions to those I’ve asked other authors about their writing and publishing experience …
Helen: Writing a focused history like this is a big project, especially about a place and a game that has such a passionate following – what made you want to do it?
Nigel: I’ve always been curious about the appeal of St Andrews: golfers come as modern-day pilgrims, seeing it as the trip of a lifetime, while people like me who have known the place for almost fifty years just love to return. Consequently, I felt I would try and explain the factors that make it a special place for so many people. I wanted to capture the ‘spirit’ or the ‘soul’ of St Andrews in print.
That was also the idea behind the title of the book. Camelot was a place grounded in legends (not fairy stories, as you explained the difference to me!) – a mystical enclave of spirituality, high achievement and idealised beauty – so that underpinned the title. The front cover of the book does a good job of capturing some of that appeal, with the attractive use of light and colour; this railway poster from the 1920s could almost have been in an exhibition of post-Impressionist paintings, such is its quality.
H: How did you find the actual process of selecting your key material and writing it up?
N: My research took a number of different forms depending on the subject matter. I undertook considerable primary research on the University (Chapter 2) by going to the archives and requesting information that I knew existed but which was not in the public domain, because this was an under-researched topic.
On the other hand, most of my research on golf and the multiple golf clubs in St Andrews was based on secondary materials, as a lot of detailed work had previously been undertaken by various dedicated specialists. However, my emphasis was different from that of many other writers about St Andrews because I wanted to stress the importance of the working-class and women golfers – participants who haven’t featured greatly in traditional histories of the game – which meant I had an unusual perspective.
A third area, ‘cultural’ aspects, was completely new material to me and extremely interesting, but it meant I had to do a lot of ancillary reading around things like photography, poetry, art and nineteenth-century authors. This really enhanced the content because I discovered two wonderful artists who subsequently figured prominently in terms of both the story and the images: painter Thomas Hodge and photographer Thomas Rodger.
In terms of writing, I tried very hard to keep the word count to around 50,000 words in an effort to focus on the main issues within each of the five chapters.
H: It is interesting to hear how your research helped you discover some of the artists you feature. It’s a beautifully illustrated book – the quality of the images and reproduction is excellent, and they enliven and inform almost every page. I can imagine it wasn’t easy to finalise your selection – did they come first, or was it the text that guided your choice?
N: Good question, Helen, as it was a bit of both but, having said that, from the outset I wanted the book to be attractive to look at – so the illustrations were as important as the text. I also wanted it to be readable, as in something that could be picked up and browsed through, so definitely not a heavy coffee-table tome, meaning I did have a very clear idea of its overall shape and style. In practice, the prose had a major bearing on the images – for example, I include several illustrations showing the British royal family, but before I started writing the book I was only dimly aware of their connections to golf and St Andrews.
H: It sounds as if the book evolved throughout the creation process while you worked towards your initial idea of the kind of book you wanted to achieve. That’s something that I think happens with most books – and it can sometimes come as a surprise, partly because it can extend the schedule and budget. Thinking about that aspect: a heavily illustrated publication like this requires a lot of ‘picture research’ – finding the right images, sourcing high-quality versions, getting permission to use them (and paying for that!). I remember thinking at the start of the project that it might be good to bring a professional on board to help with that. How did you find working with Sharon McTeir, the picture researcher who helped? Did you pick up any handy tips on what to look out for?
N: Sharon was tremendously helpful and saved me a lot of time with her knowledge of image specialists like Getty and Alamy and getting around their libraries. She also supplied images which I would never have found on my own, such as Princess Anne wearing a golf cap and one of the central characters in the book (Renee Powell) wearing a University of St Andrews T-shirt. Renee is an important individual for the story I wanted to tell, because she highlights how St Andrews develops relationships with significant players, like herself and Jack Nicklaus, in ways that include but transcend golf.
Copyright is very important with an image-heavy book and I relied heavily on Sharon for advice and help as this area is a potential legal minefield. Could I have done it without her? Not sure.
H: One of the things I love about my job as an editor, especially when I’m working so closely with a writer from the earliest stages of their project, is how much I learn about subjects that are often quite outside my experience. I certainly learned a lot from you! How did you find the experience of working with an editor? Would you say it made a difference to the finished book? As you’ve said, you had a very clear idea from the start of what you wanted to achieve; I feel I just gave you the odd nudge here and there (I was glad my interest in Fantasy writing came in useful though, when we discussed the difference between legends and fairy tales!).
N: You are being far too modest, Helen. I think you added huge amounts of value in two really important areas. The first was in helping me choose a ‘voice’ by encouraging me to express opinions and introduce some subjectivity into the prose. Basically, you told me not to write a boring textbook and I needed that guidance. Also, you were extremely perceptive, asking important questions about the main ideas in some chapters. You wanted to know ‘Why’ certain things happened and ‘What’ produced some behaviours. These types of difficult questions are best asked by an objective outsider, like you, and enriched the content substantially.
H: Well, I’m very glad to hear that – although I’m appalled at myself for being so blunt! (Many apologies!) Seriously though, I was thinking about the broad readership you’d mentioned you were aiming for; I’m sure many readers would have found a more objective style just as absorbing, but I thought allowing more of ‘you’ into the text would have a wider appeal and perhaps offer more for a greater variety of readers to engage with and discuss.
This raises the question of getting your book ‘out there’ and read: did you originally think about trying to find an agent and/or a publisher, and following the traditional route to getting published? What made you decide to self-publish?
N: I had an academic book published about five years ago by Springer/Palgrave Macmillan and I didn’t feel I received a great deal of support as a first-time author despite the book doing fairly well commercially. Given I knew the ropes, I thought I could do a reasonable job self-publishing and, importantly, retain the creative control I wanted for myself. I also spoke to a couple of acquaintances who had themselves self-published and they made me feel comfortable with taking that route.
H: Yes, depending on the publisher and the type of book, the author/publisher relationship can be different from what one might expect. Still, it’s quite a leap from having a publisher organise everything from the moment you’re signed up, to dealing with the whole process yourself. Because after the edit, of course, there was the translation from a Word file and a collection of images into your rather glamorous finished book. You decided to manage this yourself, rather than go down the Amazon route or work with one of the packagers for self-publishers. How did the process of working with a designer to put it all together go? And then sourcing and working with a printer? (I think they’ve both done an excellent job!)
N: For the Design aspect, it was apparent to me from the start that I needed professional help in order to achieve a high-quality result based on using lots of images. Seeing the book come to life was a lot of fun, because Heather at Raspberry Creative Type was efficient, responsive and creative. We talked about design by sharing images and she gave me four layouts to choose from at the outset. In terms of the process, we exchanged a lot of files on WeTransfer and I felt this all worked very well. Helpfully, Heather also gave me two final PDF layouts for print by a standard printer and for a print-to order/print-on-demand template. We wanted the images to be interesting with impact and Heather achieved this in a number of ways. For example, this is the first image in the book but it’s unusual in that it’s a classic photograph but was taken in the middle of the night.
As to Printing: for the physical book, I obtained about six quotes and that was an interesting process as I learnt much about paper quality and front covers, for example. I chose Biddles, partly because they were able to give me a hard copy sample of a comparable book and I also enjoyed a good rapport with their relationship person.
In terms of online delivery of the book, I also established a link to Bookvault, who provide a very high-quality and cost-effective print-to-order/print-on-demand service which is better than the equivalent Amazon product through KDP. Usefully, Bookvault also have an app powered by Shopify which works on my simple website, so that leads to a seamless and direct click-and-buy experience that I can see and manage myself.
H: So the post-research/writing/editing experience proved very intensive. Did you have any expectations at the beginning of the whole process? How did you find the reality, and how long did it take, from starting to plan and write to publishing?
N: I thought it might take about two years to complete but the reality was closer to three as the book turned out to be about 25% longer than I envisaged, while finalising the handful of outstanding images took perhaps three additional months. The beauty of self-publishing is that I could take the extra time, which is not possible if one is writing to a publisher’s deadline (and contract). The extra time meant the finished product was significantly better than it would have been had I been working to a specific timetable, so I was quite happy to take longer and achieve an improved outcome.
H: I’m sure that will interest others contemplating their own self-publishing projects – the fact that it’s not necessarily the faster option! And of course, producing the book may feel like the end of the process but in many ways it’s only the start. What’s next for the book?
N: The whole area of marketing and distribution is absolutely fascinating because there are so many different routes to market nowadays. My own priority is to have people read the book rather than to generate revenue or profit, so that’s how I have been thinking. My initial focus, which is ongoing, has been to generate some interest in the book within St Andrews and from the university – initial indications are encouraging. Later in the year I will have two interesting challenges: first, I need to consider how to drive traffic in my book to platforms such as Amazon and Waterstones (online); second, I need to think how I might generate interest in the book outside the UK, particularly in the United States. Both these areas remain as ‘work in progress’ but provide an interesting intellectual challenge.
H: I find myself thinking it takes a truly curious and energetic person to approach self-publishing successfully! As always, I can think of so many more questions that prospective self-publishers would be interested in, but we’ve covered a lot here, so perhaps for now it’s best to wrap up. Readers: do get in touch with your questions in the comment box below.
You can get a flavour of the book on Nigel’s website – do pop over and have a look! As he says, you can buy it from there, and via The Great British Bookshop.