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Things have been a bit fraught of late but I am doing my best to ‘Never Ever Give Up’ and even in amongst life’s difficulties there have been some shining lights to lead me on. In this post I’m going to try to concentrate on the shining lights but, as ever with life, you need to have the darkness for the lights to be seen at their brightest so I’m going to try to give an idea of it all without doing too much darkness dwelling.
So, at the end of my last post I was contemplating ordering a reprint. I had people urging caution and people urging confidence and high in my mind was the memory of the last reprint of my first book which was followed by sales falling of the edge of a cliff and my having to pay storage on those books ever since. Past experience can never exactly mirror the future and the cliff fall happened after the 3rd reprint whereas here I am right at the beginning with this book, so thinking that I would never forgive myself if I ran out of books in the run-up to Christmas and with big publicity still possibly to come, I ordered the reprint.
The day after ordering the reprint was eerily quiet on the sales front. I wouldn’t have been human if I hadn’t got the jitters but then there was a flurry of sales and that has mostly continued with my stock going down from 915 books when I ordered the reprint on 18th November to 254 today. Thankfully the team at my printers, Healeys, have been doing a fantastically efficient job of dispatching the orders from the mailing lists that I send them and have also delivered on their promise to have the reprint ready for dispatch on Monday 14th December. That has been absolutely key for me because I am the only customer support operative for my entire publishing empire and if anything major had gone wrong then I would be up to my neck in it.
I have had to field a few customer service issues, from sorting out accidental online purchases, to delays in the post, to one book arriving looking like it had been hit with a sledgehammer, to others that have been soaked through by the rain. Luckily the numbers have been small compared to the total sent out and while even that is frustrating, in some cases it has led to nice exchanges including with one customer who ended up leaving a lovely review on Amazon.
I was very glad of that review because the first reviewer to post on Amazon about this book that has taken me 3 years and untold effort to produce couldn’t stop himself from using 7 of the 13 words of his review to bemoan its delayed arrival in the post. This was soon followed by another review that really irked me not just because of what he said but also because he’d used less words to review my book than he had for other items he’d bought like a portable shower for dogs, some fast grab wood adhesive and a puncture-proof wheelbarrow wheel. Each to their own, but given that they were at the top of the list of reviews for a few days because they were verified purchasers from Amazon, I was concerned about how they might be affecting potential readers. Thankfully with a bit of time they have been diluted by other reviews. I had hoped for a few more by now but I hadn’t counted on the phenomenon that is Christmas. A lot of the books that I have sent out have arrived, been treated to a brief inspection, and then wrapped and hidden. The most extreme example of this was as a result of my sending a free copy to someone who gave me a great deal of help with this book and he told me that on its arrival his wife had kidnapped it and he didn’t expect to see it until after the Queen’s Speech on 25th December – and she hadn’t even bought it! Maybe she thought Santa was dementing and had sent things too early so she had to step in. Whatever, it’s going to be interesting to see what sort of response there is after hundreds of copies of this book get opened on Christmas Day.
I’ve been very glad to receive lovely messages from those who have got straight into their reading and finished the whole book. After all this effort, it really does make such a difference to hear directly what the impact has been both on people who don’t normally read a lot about the First World War and also from those whose knowledge of that time is deep and wide-ranging. I’ve given a glimpse of some of the responses on www.ishallnotbeawaylong.co.uk including this one that gave me a real chuckle: ‘Even as I type my husband had disappeared into the loo clutching the book - I may never see him again!’
I was also thrilled to receive a letter from Melvyn Bragg with the words, 'It's a wonderful tribute and personalisation of a great historical event. It has all the marks of a true labour of love and a love of essential detail. I'm sure it will be treasured by all who read it.’ He really is the most wonderfully kind and thoughtful man. To think of all the calls there must be on his time and I’d only posted the book to him two weeks before.
It is these sorts of responses that have kept me going, particularly recently as I have been having wrangles with Amazon. When things are going well with Amazon, then it’s relatively plain sailing but if ever anything goes wrong, one can quickly get plunged into a Kafkaesque nightmare. There is no way of speaking to anyone so that you can listen to each other and have a true back-and-forth. It all has to be done by their support messaging system and it is obvious that their support staff have such high targets for messages they need to answer per hour that they don’t give anything more than a cursory glance and then cut and paste ‘an answer’ rather than ‘the answer’. I queried why it was that my book was at No 6 on the Bestseller List for World War I biographies when none of the top 5 were World War I biographies (unless David Attenborough’s autobiography documented his forays into time travel, and a businessman investigating a journalist’s murder in modern Russia had found that Mr Putin was blaming Rasputin). Really a minor issue, but I thought Amazon would quite like their book lists to actually mean something. Maybe I should have let it go but I don’t respond well to not being listened to, particularly when I’m trying to be helpful! Eventually someone said that they would pass it to some internal team to investigate but not until after much socially distanced swearing emanating from this particular Norfolk cottage.
More serious has been the appearance of a ‘Temporarily out of stock’ message on the listing for ‘I Shall Be Away Long’. My offer on marketplace is still there but a lot of people don’t understand how Amazon works in terms of what is in their warehouses and what is being provided by marketplace sellers – they’ll see ‘out of stock’ and not look further. As a result there’s been a huge dip in sales and all attempts to get a resolution are being met by the definition of obtuseness. This would be significant at any time but in the run-up to Christmas when the vast majority of book sales happen it is disastrous. And on top of that, it is taking the shine off what should be enormously good news. The week before last I was told that the lead reviewer of the Sunday Times loves my book, that his review is going in on 13th December (i.e. tomorrow) and that it even might be the front of the Book reviews in the Sunday Times’s Culture section. John Carey is an emeritus professor of English Literature at Oxford University and given what he wrote to me about my first book I have high hopes that his review will be more than favourable, and beautifully written too. It seems unlikely that this mess with Amazon will be sorted out by tomorrow, but I’m trying to hold onto the idea that the accolade of a good review in the Sunday Times doesn’t happen to many and will set things up for the long term prospects of this book whatever immediate elephant traps there may be.
There have been so many other things to talk about from the 4 weeks since my last post, but I’m going to leave it there except for a few final notices:If there’s any chance you could leave a review of ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ on Amazon, I would be hugely grateful. Even just some stars and one sentence would be brilliant. (Note however that if you haven’t spent £40 on Amazon in the last 12 months they won’t allow you to leave a review – and if you’re thinking of spending £40 just to get round that, then I would advise you to step away from your credit card).The Guardian is looking for people to tell them of their favourite books of 2020 and if you were so moved you can do that via https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/dec/02/tell-us-about-your-favourite-books-of-2020. Whenever something significant happens with my project it is an opportunity to re-connect with the relatives of the men in the Group Photograph. Though I may have met many of them only a few times, I feel a great connection with them as the time we spent together was often intensely personal as I asked them in depth about their family history. I think about them as extended family to me. When I set out on this project I had no idea that that would happen and certainly not over such an extended period. Sadly that also means that so many of the sons and daughters and nieces and nephews who I shared time and meals with are now gone, and I have just heard of another one. I only met Louis Klemantaski’s niece Betty twice but the first time was such an occasion, a family reunion where some of those present hadn’t met each other for 20 years. Betty’s welcoming enthusiasm made a big impression on me and I am deeply sorry to hear of her passing.
Finally, on a lighter note, I received a very kind email from a baker in Lyme Regis, offering to send me some of her wares with the note ‘I am sure publishers need such sustenance!’. I went onto her website at www.leakersbakery.co.uk and immediately zoomed in on the Jurassic Foot Crunchy Date Loaf, baked in the shape of a dinosaur’s foot, which I chose as it reminded me of holidays looking for fossils on the beach down there. Soon a parcel arrived full of goodies with one special addition being this gingerbread Triceratops:
A timely reminder that in amongst all of the ups and downs of life, little acts of kindness can make the world of difference.
A lot can happen in 10 days. Since my last post on this blog, I’ve had a 5-page spread in the Telegraph magazine, organised the first mailout of ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’, appeared on BFBS radio and RNIB Connect Radio, nearly appeared on the Today programme, been Book of the Week in Country Life magazine, actually appeared on the Today programme, been deluged with a tsunami of orders and brilliant responses from readers, started organising a reprint, and had another champagne moment.
So here it all is. Apologies if the prose is not too polished but I just wanted to give an update and then I’ll need to get back to the nitty gritty of being a publishing magnate and book shipper.
It was brilliant to get the feature in the Telegraph magazine (see https://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/shall-not-away-long-tragic-letters-front-line/). It was a pity that it didn’t really show the visual effect of the book but then I recognise that it was difficult to translate that into the format they were working with, particularly given that they had a lot less time to lay it out than I had spent when producing the book. The immediate effect was 80 book sales over the following 4 days, but the bigger effect was that the rest of the media pricked up their ears and started to respond more quickly and favourably to my publicist Angela’s enquiries.
On Sunday evening I prepared the spreadsheets of all the pre-orders and new orders and sent them off to my printers – over 500 in all which then got dispatched at the beginning of the week. And so started a routine of collating all my orders on Sunday, Tuesday & Thursday evenings ready for dispatch on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, which if all goes well will continue until at least Christmas.
On Tuesday 10th November at 9.05 a.m. I picked up the phone on a pre-arranged call from BFBS Radio. After fading out the aptly named track ‘Trouble’s Coming’, we were straight into the interview. Verity & Richard had obviously done their homework on what Angela had sent them and asked the right questions to get things flowing and enable me to give a good idea of the book. You can have a listen here.
Meanwhile I’d had notice that the Today programme wanted to interview me and William Boyd. A researcher called on Monday afternoon and we chatted far and wide about my project as a whole, such that afterwards I thought to myself that I had no idea what questions it might lead to when I got on the programme. The interview was scheduled for Wednesday 11th November and we would be told on Tuesday afternoon what time we would be hooked up. Tuesday afternoon came and then Angela emailed to say it was off, and possibly being re-scheduled for the next week. Well, I’d already told people on my mailing list that it was happening on Wednesday. Those of you who have followed this project from the early days will know that this is not the first time that this sort of thing has happened. Back in 1999 just before Remembrance time I went to the offices of the Independent newspaper up in the tower at Canary Wharf and spent a few hours talking about my project with a hung-over John Walsh (he’d been to some awards do the night before). The Internet was still a new thing and most of the people I’d connected with in my project were not on email so I’d printed and posted out an update to them all saying when it was going to appear. And then I heard from the Independent that they’d decided not to run it after all. I pointed out that I’d just spent a load of money getting everyone to know about it and then at the last minute they reinstated it. Move forward to 2016 and I was told a feature would appear in the Daily Mail I think 4 weekends running until it did eventually come out, but luckily I was able to email everyone to let them know what was going on. And now here I was again with a Yes/No/Maybe situation. I sent out an email but it was late in the day and it appears it didn’t get through to everyone as I later did hear from someone who’d got up early and was not too pleased at having to listen to what was not his favourite programme only not to hear what he’d hoped for.
So again there was uncertainty as to whether anything was going to happen on Radio 4. Saturday Live were also interested but if it was going to be on Today then they couldn’t do it too. Apparently last minute changes are all too common these days. William Boyd was bumped 4 times before eventually appearing on Front Row to talk about his new novel. I think the fact that people are not actually coming into the studio and making arrangements to do so must mean that they feel easier about switching things around at the last minute. If we're being interviewed from home via Skype then we're theoretically less put out than if we're having to do all the travelling too.
What did get broadcast on Armistice Day was a piece on RNIB Connect Radio. I’d been in touch with the RNIB to say that I was going to make a donation to them from the proceeds of this book in honour of Charles Bartlett’s involvement with them. Lynne Morgan then did a remarkable job of editing our hour-long chat on Skype into what sounds like me talking continuously and approximately coherently for about 12 minutes. I’m really grateful to Lynne for all her expertise and hard work and you can have a listen here.
Also on Wednesday the 11th, ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ was featured as Book of the Week in Country Life. It was an absolutely tiny piece (especially when compared to their vast spreads dedicated to selling enormous mansions) and was below buying suggestions for Eleventh Hour gin and a very expensive leather dog lead (which caught my eye as the picture echoed the images of the whistle lanyard in my layout of the main letter from the Battle of Loos). The reviewer did do a remarkable job, though, of capturing the essence of the book in the few words she was allocated, including saying ‘Andrew Tatham has produced a remarkable human document’. It’s difficult to gauge how many people read it and were moved to order the book, but I’ve certainly had orders from people living in Farms and Halls, and I’ve had friends who I didn’t even know were Country Life readers getting in touch to say they’d seen it.
Then on Thursday afternoon I got an email to say we were back on for the Today programme, this time for Saturday. I thought I’d leave informing everyone of that until I’d had confirmation and then just after lunch on Friday I got a call from the Today producer to say that we would be on at 8.40 a.m. A call from one of their engineers followed to check the Skype connection and then I told my printers to brace themselves as they might have a busy Monday of packing and posting ahead of them. Luckily I held off sending an update to my mailing list until after my afternoon walk because I then got a text from the producer saying that they wanted to bring the item forward to 8.20 a.m. as 'doing it earlier gives us more time for the item'. That sounded like really good news.
I wouldn’t exactly say I ended up having my best night’s sleep ever but at least my head was clear and my voice was working when I got the call on Saturday morning and really I don’t think it could have gone better. I didn’t know that they were going to do the reading of the letter from the Battle of Loos. The reader made Charles sound younger and more conventionally heroic (and less plummy) than he really was but still it was beautifully performed and despite my having read that letter so many times when giving presentations I found myself welling up at Charles’s report of Leslie Berlein’s death. There was no time for that sort of carry-on though as we went straight into the interview and there I was doing a double act with William Boyd despite never having spoken to him before. All our contact has been by email and even now we were talking beside each other but not to each other and still 120 miles apart. One day when the virus has had its day I hope we will be able to meet somewhere more relaxed than on Radio 4 in front of millions of listeners. He has been so generous and kind, not least in getting up so early on a Saturday morning, and none of what is happening with this book would have been possible without him.
The whole piece lasted 6 minutes (you can hear it here) but I think we got a lot across and I instantaneously saw the effect as emails started pouring in telling me of book orders. By day’s end I had sold 700 books. Luckily I was in a far better position to deal with this than after the Jeremy Vine show 5 years ago. I have a plan in place for distribution and even though it has required a lot of burning of the midnight oil collating the mailout lists, I’m hugely thankful for the sterling work of the team at my printers, Healeys, in Ipswich, and my one-man band is just about keeping on top of things even if I can’t respond at the moment to all the kind emails I’ve been getting. The wave continued on Sunday with 200 sales. Most were of my new book but out of 900 from those two days, 120 were of ‘A Group Photograph’. Some people who were obviously new to my project bought both books and I hope that those who only bought ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ will come back for the first one once they’ve finished their reading. It seems that many people when looking for books only go to Amazon rather than searching more widely via Google as about 80% of the sales were via Amazon. With Amazon taking £6.01 per book plus a monthly fee of £30 as a professional seller (in addition to a change in the way that postal charges were included which caught me out), it’s not great compared to selling direct via my website where this is only a Paypal fee of £1.16 per book. That said, their way of listing things and promoting currently successful books means that I am probably getting continuing sales in a way that would not be possible in any other way so I just have to wear it and get on with it.
At one point on Saturday ‘I Shall Not Be Away Long’ was up to No 33 in Amazon’s bestsellers list for all books, and it is still No 1 in their bestsellers lists for ‘Military History of World War I’ and ‘World War I biographies’ (and that despite being over 3 times the price of most other books on the lists). The book has its first 5-star review today but that is more for the look of it on arrival than from having read it, and I realise it might be a while yet before there are more in depth reviews from those who have reached the end, given that it is not exactly a short read. I’m hopeful that good reviews will come and am spurred on by the many emails coming in including these comments:'It's a quite extraordinary work of art' 'It deserves to outsell Birdsong and all the other books written about The Great War' from someone who had got to p.180.
I have worked on this book for 3 years with basically no income and without knowing what sort of reception it would get. I can’t see it getting anywhere near to outselling Birdsong (and if it does I might have a nervous breakdown from the logistics of organising it) but with only 915 books left from my original print run of 2500, and sales still continuing (80 yesterday and 75 today) I am in the process of organising a reprint to ensure that I have more stock before Christmas and am able to benefit from all the reviews that are yet to come (though I’ve just heard that the Observer have decided not to review it because they’ve missed doing it for Remembrance time). The question is how many to get printed? Again! The minimum necessary to keep the unit price to a sellable level is 2,500 but that is £29,000 again and the whole thing is like a gigantic game of Double or Quits in which whatever I do, Amazon wins! The bottom line, though, is that I didn’t do all this work to produce a book that is read by just 2,500 people and their family and friends. I will do what it takes to spread the word and it certainly helps that I have confidence in my book and that confidence is only growing from the response I’ve been getting. And for that I am hugely grateful.
I am also grateful to Louis Roederer Champagne. I received an email yesterday from their brand manager in the UK who had been asked by Florence in their head office in Reims to send me a bottle Louis Roederer Brut Premier in congratulations for my book. I might just save it to share with my parents at Christmas. Let’s just hope that the general situation improves enough that a Christmas visit is possible and I am able to formally toast them in thanks for all that they have done for me.
Other than some satnav shenanigans as a result of a closed road in Grantham, my trip to the binders in Derbyshire went as smoothly as could be expected - not least because the book looks fantastic! I'm really pleased with the way it has turned out. If you had told me at the start of all this that this would be how it would look, I would have been amazed, and after all that has gone into making it over the last three years it was quite a thing to actually, finally, hold it in my hands. Of course the work doesn't stop with publication and behind the scenes I have been working with my printers to come up with a distribution plan for whatever might be thrown at us in terms of orders - and the possibility that things might get 'interesting' on that front has been vastly increased by the brilliant and persistent work of my publicist Angela. Here is what is coming up:Saturday 7th November: 4-page feature in the Telegraph magazineTuesday 10th November: 9.05 a.m. interview on BFBS radioWednesday 11th November: interview along with William Boyd on the Today programme on Radio 4 (time still to be confirmed).Wednesday 11th November: publication of Country Life magazine with 'I Shall Not Be Away Long' as their book of the week.And over the last couple of days I have been sending out review copies at the request of the book editors of, in order of their asking:The ObserverThe Daily MailThe Sunday TimesGiven the huge number of books that are being published at the moment and the limited space for reviews in those papers, that really is quite something. I don't know when the reviews will be coming out but I will post on here when I've got some concrete news. I couldn't have hoped for more - and yet there still may be more - I'll let you know when I know for sure.I'm aware that some people are not keen on using Paypal or cheques, and now that I've got some actual books there is another option: the book is now listed on Amazon marketplace. The orders still come through to me to organise posting out and with the tight margins on all this I'm afraid the extra fees I have to pay to Amazon are reflected in the fact that the £2.80 fee for P&P is on top of the £29.50 you'd pay if buying direct through my website.The story with posting out the books is that I brought 70 copies home from the binders and am using those to post out review copies as well as the orders I've had from abroad. With the required customs form needing a signature, it seemed that I had to do it myself and so over the next few days I'll be posting books to Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Bermuda, Canada, Australia, South Africa and the USA. Orders for this country will be going out this week once the full shipment of newly-bound books arrives back at my printers in Ipswich. The waiting is nearly over for all the kind people who've pre-ordered my book over the last couple of months.And finally, on my way back from the binders on Wednesday I stopped off at Majestic Wines in King's Lynn and took advantage of a great deal to buy a bottle of Louis Roederer Brut Premier champagne (see a previous post for its significance). Luckily it was the night before lockdown so I was still able to stop off at my friend Paul's. He did his trick of wrapping the bottle in a wet towel and sticking it in the freezer and half an hour later we were toasting the book and each other. It's been quite a journey and Paul has been with me every step of the way. I wonder what is going to happen next.