If You Need Something Doing Properly…The Rise Of The Author-Publisher

(NOTE: Please check the added material at the end of this article from noted exponant of the genre Chris Ellard, added 28/1/18)

I was talking recently with my journalist friend Richy Barnett on the subject of  the motoring book market , how it’s changing and what’s hot/what’s not, for a piece he was writing. Richy knows the subject as he worked for Chaters back in the day so we talk the same language. He asked me what was the biggest recent change and it struck me that it is probably the rise of self-published works by authors who would never have been able to get their books in print before now.

The rise of the author-publisher has coincided with drastic changes in  printing. Digital technology has reduced set-up costs and made very short print runs viable on a limited budget. It’s come along like a white knight on his steed  at the time when some established conventional publishers have either vanished or changed their methods in the wake of the worldwide financial crisis thats been here for a decade now.  Professional authors have been left with fewer potential outlets and comissions but part-timers have been able to fill the gaps with those ‘labours of love’ on which they have been working , often with little chance a commercial publisher would show interest. The result is a groundswell of great stories being put in print for an avid niche market and a sudden rush of titles that are likely to become very collectible in future owing to their very small print runs.  There have been books on motoring adventures ,like Joy Raineys’s coast-to-coast trip in a 1904 Oldsmobile (JOY ACROSS AMERICA above right ), books on obscure but very accomplished coach-builders like COACHCRAFT,  on significant but almost forgotten cars like the FRIEKAISERWAGEN  ( “FRIEK”  – above left)  and on racing drivers like JIM CRAWFORD (right) who didn’t quite reach the Nigel Mansell level (not for want of ability or effort) but still achieved a great deal in the sport outside F1 and are fondly remembered among the ardent fans. All of these titles sold well , FREIK actually went to a second edition (we have a few left)  and the JIM CRAWFORD book has, in the past week, exhausted it’s print run having been available for only two months.  Blink and you missed it…and missed out; it’s a great read.

We’ve been involved with all of these books in the past couple of years as the promotion and distribution arm of the operation . We’ve taken the orders, accepted the credit card payments and put ‘the word around’  in a way that the author, with a normal job to cope with and just one title to work on would find a struggle.  It’s worked well so far, concentrating  efforts on direct sales while cutting down the complications of trying to sell wholesale and dealing with ‘platforms’ like AMAZON  (for which you need to arrange, and pay for, an ISBN number).  No one is about to become the next  J K Rowling off the back of this but it is creating shelves full of gloriously nostalgic reading which many of us can relate directly to. There is more than a touch of the “I was there…” to many titles.  Mike Allen’s WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE GOLD CUP covers the headline event at Oulton Park circuit, for many years a pukka F1 race,  attracting everyone of note (winners include Moss, Clark and Surtees), it also features the support races for saloons , sports cars,  GTs, F3 and so forth. The sort of races you remember seeing but which are unlikely to have appeared in print any for recently than the following week’s edition of AUTOSPORT . In some respects the ‘daddy’ of these books and the one that’s probably most well known among collectors today is Chris Ellard’s THE FORGOTTEN RACES which covered exactly those events about which many of us can say  “I was there” : The Race of Champions and Brands Hatch, the Daily Express Trophy at Silverstone , the Aintree 200 or the Pau GP, all of which were for F1 cars back in the days before TV ruled the sport and there wasn’t a ‘Grand Prix’ in one remote corner of the globe or other almost every weekend.   Ellard’s book appeared well over a decade back now . set something of a trend and sold out very quickly . As a collectors title it has traded for nearly ten times it’s original cover price.  Chris himself produced a follow up LONG FORGOTTEN RACES (on an earlier era) and his new history of European F2 SECOND TO NONE has recently appeared as perhaps the current top-rung of the self-publishing ladder. It’s a lavish hardback with numerous colour photos, high quality paper and the feel of a classy book that could have come from one of the long established publishing houses. It’s pitched at a sensible price, includes a host of familiar names from Rindt and Hill to Moreno and Warwick,  tons of research and there is a softback results booklet thats included for quick reference.  If you remember Formula 2…what’s not to like?

At the moment there are certainly more in the pipeline including a revisionist book on Bentley and a biography of a sidecar racer , but we are always on the lookout for more.

As the saying goes “If you want something doing properly then do it yourself” and when it comes to that book you always knew you were destined to write, it’s never been a more practical proposition. Not that it’s actually easy, you do have to work at it to make it a success, and it’s not risk free. Less is often more. Keep the edition short and you have a degree of rarity value built in. Todays technology allows this in a way the old printing presses never could.

We even have our own efforts on the genre to refer back on. In 2000 we published a book on the regular mid-week testing sessions that used take place forfor F1 cars at Silverstone (before the rules changed). FORMULA ONE TESTING is our own contribution and a bit of a time-capsule now from the days of teams like Jaguar, Jordan, Prost, Arrows and Minardi. How times have changed, and how much more tricky it was back then to get such a book in print.

So are you an author-publisher? Do you have a motoring/motorcycling book you are about to put in print? Do you need the help of an established  specialist bookseller (33 years and counting)? Email us ( simon@simonlewis.com )  or give us a call and maybe we can be of help?


Chris Ellard, author/publisher of FORGOTTEN RACES, LONG FORGOTTEN RACES and SECOND TO NONE  kindly contributed a full and considered comment on this original blog and it adds so much first hand experience to the subject that rather than leave it is a simple “comment”,  I’ve reproduced it here in full …

Filling the Gap

Simon very kindly sent me a link to his very prescient piece about the ‘rise of the author-publisher.’ So, I thought it might be an idea to put down a few of my own experiences to encourage (or discourage, as the case may be!) would-be authors who are thinking of treading a similar path.

Up until recently ‘self-publishing’ has usually been known by the more derogatory term, ‘vanity-publishing’, putting one in mind of the pub singer who re-mortgages his two-up, two-down to hire-out the Albert Hall so he can belt out a rendition of ‘My Way’ to his nearest and dearest.

As Simon rightly points out, times and perceptions are changing. The rise of the self-publisher, through print, as well as social and electronic media has been aided and abetted by digital technology, but also by a change in attitude towards the established norm. Time was when we all got our news and information from, essentially, the same sources. Now, we can pick and choose from a wide range of options. Main stream commercial publishers and media operators are desperately struggling to keep up and adapt to this changing world.

However, it has not always been so. Let us take a trip back to the late eighties’ and, like many before me, I followed that well worn path of touting my proposal (a work on non-championship F1 races), to the major motor-sport publishing houses of the day; Haynes, Crowood Press, Osprey and MRP. Remember them?

I did hear that commissioning editors had a colloquial term for us folk – ‘tyro’s’! To be fair, though, all gave me a hearing before coming up with their own reason to decline this ‘golden’ opportunity, usually distilling down to the bottom line on the balance sheet. It simply made more sense for them to publish another book about Ayrton Senna, or Ferrari because they guaranteed sales.

So that appeared to be that. I knew no-one in the publishing, or the racing world (James Hunt’s utterly charming dad, Wallis, notwithstanding). No, the only contact I had was with the very tall journalist/editor, Russell Bulgin who had spotted something in my ‘on-spec’ article about Steve Soper to offer both a meeting and encouragement. Or, as he put it; “Keep at it, you’ve got something there”. It was a genuine mark of the respect and affection in which Bulgin was held that – on his passing at the all too young age of 43 – friends and colleagues funded a publication of his best writings in support of a local cancer charity.

Timing, of course, is everything in life. My ‘light-bulb’ moment came quite by chance. A client of my accounting practice, a part-time drummer in a band, called round for his annual meeting. His day-job centred round the RNIB, where he worked one-to-one with both children and young adults who had recently lost their sight. Using his skills with the sticks he developed a technique which could be adapted for those using the long-handled walking cane for the first time. At his own expense he patented it and produced a step-by-step booklet that explained everything in detail. Yes, there had been a few sales but – as he put it – it was something he really felt passionately about.

And that is the key. If you feel strongly enough about the subject matter and want to get it out to a wider audience, then the tools to do so are now very much within the reach of the ordinary man on the Clapham Omnibus!

Having had this penny-drop moment I started to write ‘The Forgotten Races’. The initial concept was to produce it in paperback booklet form with, say, around 30-40 pages. By the end it had grown ‘Topsylike’ to around 190 (12×8) pages with 130 photos, all of which pretty much screamed out for a hard cover. A local litho-printer agreed to handle a limited print run, for a reasonable price, and the next thing I knew we had 48 boxes of books stacked up against the wall in the spare bedroom.

What have I done!

Around this time, I remember seeing an article in the ‘Daily Telegraph’ on the subject of self-publishing entitled, ‘What to do if you really want to bring yourself to book’. The journalist had spoken to half-a-dozen authors about the do’s and don’ts. Some were successful, others less so. One in particular stood out. An already published author by the name of Hugh Popham, who had spent five years researching a biography of a Georgian rear-admiral. Apparently, he paid out £ 10,000 to a local printer for 1,000 copies of which – over a 14-month period – only a handful had actually been sold. The remainder were in the printers’ store or stacked at his Cornwall home. Mr Popham conceded that, “With hindsight, we should have sold it for less!”

What have we done!

So you’ve got your books, you’ve given a few to family and friends who have all said encouraging things. Now, how do you go about selling the remainder? Well, as Mr. Popham found out, sending preview copies to the national newspapers had not worked (they were all ignored, apparently), and promotional leafleting of specialist bookshops had only partial success. What next?

Again, timing is everything. In my own case I had been already been corresponding with Simon Lewis on the subject of image requests. He knew of my project and was only too willing to help, coming up with elusive images from his many contacts who had been regular snappers at those seventies race meetings.

I cannot exactly recall which of us actually suggested it, but the next thing I knew we had agreed that Simon would exclusively handle the sales and advertising of the book for an acceptable commission. It was a decision that I never once regretted – although maybe Simon might not whole-heartedly agree!!

Funnily enough there was a postscript to this. Shortly afterwards I was asked by a ‘rival’ bookseller to cut him in on a deal. I politely declined confirming the prior arrangement with Simon. “Why are you dealing with some bloke out in the sticks?” he truculently exclaimed. Interestingly neither Mr. Truculent, nor his mobile ‘library’, were seen at trade fairs much after 2007.

So, then, how do you go about marketing and promoting a tome about a series of F1 races that ceased the best part of twenty years ago? A book about Georgian rear-admirals was beginning to sound more enticing! Well, timing again. Around the mid-naughties’ an internet motor racing forum known as TNF (The Nostalgia Forum) had started to gain real momentum. Pretty much every motor-sport enthusiast, writer, editor journalist, broadcaster, mover & shaker, worth their salt was posting on it. Even a few former F1 drivers were contributors. It was a marque publisher’s equivalent to accessing the Bentley owner’s club list!

At the time the forums’ co-founder, an American writer/historian, Don T. Capps, was the moderator, so a copy was quickly dispatched to him to see if we could get some sort of promotion. It worked. He liked it and allowed a thread to start up that soon ran into several pages. A couple of influential posters, Stuart Dent (ex-Autosport staffer) and Pete Fenelon (in whose memory the book thread is named), bought copies and were kind enough to give positive appraisals which helped sales along nicely. It even brought me into the orbit of that doyen of all Motor Sport Historians, Doug Nye. His message asking to purchase a couple of copies was one of those genuine jaw drop moments.

So, what about the Fourth Estate? As Mr. Popham learnt to his cost, sending specialist books to the National Press is probably not going to bear too much fruit. The specialist media is, however, a different matter and (depending on the review) they can really make, or break, book sales for a small publishing house, not to mention the one-man band, author/publisher.

With some degree of trepidation, therefore, we started approaching the major players, sending out unsolicited copies for review. Why trepidation? Perhaps best not ask fellow self-publisher, Derek Lawson, who experienced something that would probably scar most people for life. Thankfully Mr. Lawson is a resilient fellow and went on to produce subsequent well-received books about his pet subject, but the September 2003 Motor Sport review of his seminal work on Oulton Park, entitled ‘Sun, Rain and … and even Snow’ was not for the faint-hearted.

The review in question was penned by the then editor, Paul Fearnley, at least I assume it was given the initials at the end of his 150-word appraisal of Mr. Lawson’s labour of love. True enough, he did acknowledge that fact, trouble is it all rather got lost amidst a catalogue of perceived short-comings that poured forth, concluding with this damming phrase; “That said, it also falls down as a reference work; no results tables and no index.” Crumbs. But, aside from that Mrs. Lincoln, what did you think of the play?! Perhaps sending those review copies were not such a good idea after all!

As I say, most reviewers of my experience do play fair and – thankfully – Forgotten Races landed on, let us say, more simpatico desks. Over the years I have been grateful to, amongst others, Marcus Simmons, Simon Taylor, James Elliott, Rob Scorah, Sam Dawson, Richard Heseltine and Simon Arron who have been both kind and generous in their reviews of my books.

In re-reading Simon Lewis’ blog piece, I must confess I had not realised he had been established for some 33 years. That adds up to a whole lot of experience and knowledge of the book trade. What he doesn’t know about promotions and sales is not worth knowing. So, if you are a prospective author-publisher then I cannot think of a wiser move than to pick up the phone and ask for his help and advice. You really won’t regret it. I didn’t.

A few ‘Do’s and Don’ts’

Always get your work proof-read. A list of the professional proof-readers and indexers is available online. It helps to choose someone with an interest in your specialist subject and most of them highlight these in their profiles.

Always use a single image on the cover. Including a montage of pictures just confuses prospective buyers. Choosing that one picture that encapsulates the subject matter can be tricky. Sometimes you get it spot on and sometimes you get it badly wrong, as I can testify!

Pitch your cover price sensibly. As Mr. Popham found, charging too much for your book (just to turn a little profit) is not always the most sensible course to follow. Do your research, look at other similar publications (specialist or otherwise) and try and go for a middle course. Short of securing the paperback rights to The Second Coming, it is highly unlikely you are going to be making any money from your venture.

Don’t feel pressured into getting a ‘name’ to write a foreword to your book. It is true that some publishers set great store by them, viewing them as an official endorsement that stamps the work as being authentic. In my own case, I used interviews with Peter Gethin and Sir Stirling Moss as ‘introductions’, which meant they did not feel pressured to treat their contributions as official endorsements, although both were more than happy to do so.

If there is one final suggestion to make it is simply to repeat that old canard about “not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today.” I recall a long distant TNF forum exchange where Pete Fenelon was trying to entice Doug Nye to contemplate a work on his own favourite motor-sport subject, Formula 2. I think DCN’s response was largely in the negative, so Pete replied saying: If I make it to retirement age with my marbles intact I might have to just write the damn thing myself”.

Sadly, Pete never did make it to retirement age, passing away ten years ago at the age of just 40. I hope we did F2 proud mate.

Carpe Diem


Chris Ellard.

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