The Pitfalls of Writing a Book

by A N Rosser

Writing a book is an experience not to be missed. Positives outweigh negatives by the score. Pitfalls are few. However, when they do appear they rate fairly high on The Richter Scale.

I did not intend to become a writer; it just happened; I just drifted into it. Least of all did I intend to become a writer of history books. My main subjects as a teacher were Religious Education and Art, though I also had special responsibility for Physical Education.

During a period of illness, I decided to keep my brain ticking over by doing a part-time history course. My tutor was impressed with a 5000-word essay on Quinton and twice urged me to get it published. Encouraged by this, I agreed.

"I'll just add another two or three thousand words and report back to you in about eight weeks," I said. In the event, I added 175,000 words and I reported back nine years later! By this time, my tutor had moved away to Wiltshire and, so it appeared, did not even remember who I was!

The main reason for this mammoth growth in subject matter was that, on hearing of the project, local people kindly inundated me with old photographs, letters from great aunt Maude, books, memorabilia from the attic and medals from the war. If I interviewed one person then he knew two more, and so it went on. Everything snowballed. The end result was "The Quinton and Round About" volumes 1 and 2, and, I may add, one very weary author.

This leads us to pitfall number one - underestimating the task in hand. In my case, it took over my life! I met many interesting and charming people. Quintonians are a good bunch and I am grateful for all their help. On the other hand, nine years of burning the midnight oil while writing up all their contributions took its toll and sometimes my health was at a low ebb. Contrast this with the widely held perception that writing is just a part-time leisure activity. I lost count of the number of people who asked me if I was enjoying my retirement. Others asked what I did to while away the time and was I looking for a job!

Another pitfall for a writer (especially of local history) is to believe everything you are told. I soon learnt not to do this. It is not a question of people's honesty-only their memories. One person's recollection of events did not always agree with another's. Even books and documents sometimes contradicted one another. I found, for instance, more than half a dozen different names for Ambrose Foley's house. Even allowing for changes, they could not all have been right. Getting at the truth sometimes calls for the perceptiveness of Sherlock Holmes and the patience of Job. Many "facts" needed to be checked and re-checked before I was confident enough to record them. All this protracted detective work was the main reason why publication of my book was delayed for so long.

Then I would warn against being carried away with false hopes. Ask a friend to give you a frank assessment of your work. You may not like what he or she says but that is better than the heartache of pressing ahead with a product which is unmarketable. I can tell you of a woman who had 9000 copies of her life story printed and sold only three!

I would also caution aspiring authors against getting involved with the wrong kind of publisher. Beware those who will publish anything for anyone as long as they are paid up front. This kind of offer can often be found among small ads in newspapers and magazines. This is the murky exploitative world of vanity publishing. Avoid it like the plague. Horror stories abound. To quote just one case, a customer placed a large order with just such a publisher, which was duly processed but, when the books arrived, they had no covers. Having said that, let me emphasise that the vast majority of people in the business are both competent and of the highest integrity. However, do make enquiries and seek references. Insist on a contract, go through it with a fine toothcomb and, if you can afford it, get a solicitor to check the details for you.

While discussing legalities, we should address the matter of fair dealing. The most dangerous pitfall for any writer is the inadvertent breach of copyright.

By nature, I am never cavalier about such matters and yet I very nearly came unstuck. The penalties for breach of copyright are- and I do not exaggerate-draconian. You stand to lose not just your shirt but also, quite literally, your house. One particular incident brought this home to me. A polite request for the use of some material from a certain well-known local journal was met with blood-curdling threats the likes of which you would not believe.

I was left in no doubt what would happen to me if I dared to use their material, even if I gave them full credit. As it happened, I was able to find most of the information I had to delete from other (and more reliable) sources. This sobering experience made me exceedingly cautious. After reading the law of copyright at the library, I set about the task of making my work as unassailable as possible. The provenance of every paragraph and every illustration was checked and permission to use them was sought and obtained in writing wherever possible. Mere verbal permission is unsafe unless one is dealing with a trusted friend. In certain cases, I found a fee was payable-for use. 20 to Hendon R.A.F. Museum for a photograph I wished to use. This whole process took over 21 months to complete.

Another pitfall is the possibility of losing control over the editorial process too soon. It is natural to assume that all publishers are fully literate and that your precious manuscript is safe in their hands. This is no longer so in some cases, and there are reasons. Let me explain. As a teacher I was once told by an inspector to throw away some brand new English textbooks. Grammar, you see, was "elitist". In fact, I wrapped these books in brown paper, hid them in the darkest corner of my stockroom and prayed for a return to sanity. Much permanent damage was caused by this kind of thinking. Utterances such as "Me and John Suchet will be back at 6.30", "It's goodnight from Moira and I", "I'm doing a P-haitch-d in engineering" and "The caller withheld their number" are now commonplace.

In such a climate, is it any wonder that some editorial work is so slapdash? In Volume 1 of my book, I correctly used the word 'advowsons'. On three occasions as the manuscript was processed, various people altered this to 'avowdsons' and it appears as such in the final draft. Similarly I am made to say that pupils at Quinton C.E. School were lined up 'by the church hall' to watch the Prince of Wales drive by. In fact, the manuscript says 'by the church wall'. The main road is not even visible from the hall. From there they would have seen nothing of him- nothing at all.

The lesson is clear, do not be elbowed out of the publishing process too soon, retain your interest to the last. Do not put up with slipshod work. Even stop the printing machine if necessary, I did. Have your say at every stage as to what is done, how it is done and by whom. To my mind, the ideal combination for a local history book would be Sutton Publishing (text), Understated Publications of Preston (graphics) and Redwood Books or Reliance of Hales Owen (for printing).

The next pitfall is one you can do little about except to be ready for it : falling foul of critics. Once the book is published, there will be those ready to challenge the accuracy of your work. In a few cases, this may be justified, especially if it is a large work. Obviously, the more you write the more vulnerable you become.

Nobody should mind those who come with constructive criticisms. Others however will dip into the text, looking for family name or a cherished event and, having ignored the context or relied too much on faltering memories, find fault with your work. Any mistake is immediately assumed to be yours, even though as many as 300 people may have contributed to the book in one way or another. You will not even know some of them. Expect all this but do not lose heart; there is no such thing as a perfect book.

With hindsight, I would avoid one other pitfall: that of allowing libraries to issue the book too soon. In my case, Quinton Library (among others) kindly agreed to withhold the book for three months after publication to encourage sales. After receiving information from the Public Lending Right office this January, I realised I should have asked for longer. Last year 357 loans at 2.49 pence brought in a grand return of 8.89. The same number of book sales would have yielded approximately 3500.

Yes, that was me you saw at the soup kitchen last weekend.

QLHS - A N Rosser

Ed's comment - I am sure all aspiring authors will be very wary, having read the above.

Click here to go back to the Oracle page.