Caught by the River

Do It For Your Mum: Revisited

Roy Wilkinson | 7th January 2015

In 2011 Caught by the River contributor Roy Wilkinson published the book Do It For Your Mum – a tale of family and rock music, which became the joint Caught by the River book of the year. Do It For Your Mum is now out as an e-book. To celebrate Roy gives an account of his adventures in DIY book publishing.

DIFYM : CBTR image

As with most things – from an aircraft-carrier to an authentic, hand-touched Baltic/Barbadian breadfruit/beetroot burger, slow-cooked over genuine child-picked charcoal – a book is composed of varied elements. The materials assembled for my own book included Vox amplifiers, Pete Doherty and the tube-nosed mini-albatross that is the fulmar (aka the flying milkbottle).

The book also features our eighty-something ex-anti-aircraft gunner dad and my young brothers in the rock group British Sea Power. And, alongside the mixed fauna that populates the story, there was the paper stock the words were printed on – Munken Print Cream 18, weight 80g/m2, manufactured by Arctic Paper of Poznan in Poland. There were the cardboard mailers in which the book would be dispatched across the globe – Colompac Classic Book Box Brown 21, supplied by Davpack of Derby (with a free Davpack mug).

Do It For Your Mum is my first book, my only book, originally published in 2011. It was wonderful to see the book become the first publication from Rough Trade Books, an all-new adjunct to the great Rough Trade Records. The idea here is to give my account of beginner’s book publishing – publishing a book that, as it happened, had strong connection with Caught by the River, with this website. Rough Trade financed the book. RT bosses Geoff Travis and Jeannette Lee graciously put up the money to produce the book and acted as executive editors. But the production of the book was, for me, a DIY, learn-on-the-job process.

A breakdown of costs and income for Do It For Your Mum is included below. This is intended, in part, as tribute to Scritti Politti and their early DIY single sleeves. These singles, on Rough Trade, came with intriguing screeds of information on the rear – Marxist-syndicatalist comment on the means-of-production; the costs incurred; who did what.

I’d never published a book. A lot of things filled me with anxiety. Making sure I ordered mailers the book would actually fit in. Making sure the book wasn’t full of typographical error. With my ancient computer, going through the verification process for a PayPal Business account seemed fraught with peril. My early-onset technophobia had been confirmed decades ago while I was doing a BSc in Ecological Science at Edinburgh University. We had to do a bit of computer modelling. My own crude computer program was designed to process data from population studies on great tits from Wytham Wood in Oxfordshire. Good old great tits, known in Yorkshire at the black-capped lolly, in Gloucestershire as Joe Bent. I was more than happy to work with these hectoring bullyboys of titland. But the digital world made me feel queasy, something that remains to this day. Nonetheless, as with the way the long-tailed tit – aka bum towel, aka mumruffin – fashions its intricate nest from endless moss and cobwebs, the book had to be tended to, had to be built with care.

The book’s production would include last-minute panic. The main artwork was a big sticker on the front cover, a colourful image of a chamois goat-antelope. In homage to the banana sticker on the first Velvet Underground album the sticker would cover another creature hidden below – a second bog-eyed goat, crazed with fear and confusion. The nutter goat was drawn by Jeffrey Lewis, the esteemed American musician/cartoonist. Hooray! But, as the book was about to be printed, it became clear that it would be best if the sticker was set on an embossed raised section. Bespoke metalwork was suddenly required – terror easily equal to having to call the boiler-repair operative, or purchase a return air ticket to Grenoble.

But, eventually, a book arrived – a book that was greeted with great good will from Caught by the River. My first proper public reading for the book was on the Caught by the River stage at the 2011 Port Eliot festival, in estuarine Cornwall. I was pretty nervous about this reading slot. The last time I’d had to do anything similar was back at Edinburgh University. I’d had to give my classmates a 15-minute presentation, on the life cycles of cicadas. The room span. The 15 minutes seemed to last forever. To ease me into the world of literary proclamation I brought with me an experienced hand – the Scottish poet Jock Scot. Jock has worked with untold greats – The Clash, Ian Dury, The B-52s, Taj Mahal, Vivian Stanshall. Jock had worked as a tour manager, but his essential role was that of Mr Vibes. What good vibes could I glom off this rock Zelig?

Jock preceded my reading spot with some poems. Jock has also worked as the self-described Voice Of British Sea Power – doing voiceovers on the band’s radio ads. But beware! As with the velvet on a stag’s antlers, Jock’s tones combine seductiveness with latent aggression. As I walked up to do my reading Jock called forth: ‘Behold! The author approaches! The narrative is available for purchase!’ I did my reading and no permanent damage was registered. DIFYM was chosen as 2011 book of the year on the CBTR website – well, joint-first with Mike Carter’s One Man And His Bike. Amazing. Something had happened. But how did we get here?

My brothers Scott (aka Yan) and Neil (aka Hamilton) had started writing songs in their early teens, when they growing up just outside Kendal in Cumbria. I imposed myself as manager and British Sea Power played their first show proper in 1999 – at the Betsey Trotwood in London, alongside a nascent Libertines. Both bands were then utterly unknown to anyone beyond family and friends. But both bands would soon be signed to Rough Trade Records.

***R Wilkinon with his dad:hi-res

At this point I’d worked as a music journalist for about 15 years. Almost from the outset I thought the unfolding family adventure with BSP might make for a book – not least because of the increasing interest shown by our dad. Dad, born in Sunderland in 1924, became obsessed by the band. He also became fascinated by the surrounding alt-rock world, listening to ancient Pulp and Swans singles, and reading pretty much any rock biography he got his hands on – Syd Barrett, Nirvana, Nick Cave, Mission To Burma. Dad’s alt-rock auto-didacticism came into vivid focus one day when I was telling him about my BSP-related concerns, about how I thought the band should be doing better. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Dad in his soft north-eastern tones. ‘Just do it for your mum! Do it for the Butthole Surfers!’

I stepped aside as BSP manager in 2006. Some time after that I started writing a book. I sent off a few sample to literary agents. I got a broadly encouraging reaction from a couple – particularly from Matthew Hamilton who is now part of the literary agency Aitken Alexander Associates (whose authors include Sebastian Faulks and the JD Salinger estate). Matthew told me that the family angle – and particularly Dad – was the real story. I wrote some more and Matthew got a couple of offers in, including one from the music-book publishers Jawbone. Their offer included an advance of £6,000. Jawbone seemed like good types. In context six grand really wasn’t a deficient chunk of dosh. But, no reflection on Jawbone, I began to think there might be another route.

I went to see Geoff and Jeannette at Rough Trade. Had they ever thought of putting out books as well as records? One of the wunderbar things about Geoff and Jeannette is that when they decide to do something they’ll just do it, with the minimum of procedural ballast. Pretty soon Rough Trade Books was looking at its first publication. I would oversee all of the book’s production. But to say I was doing this as unaided ingenue isn’t accurate. I have a friend, Wilf, who has worked as a book designer ever since graduating from the Typography course at Reading University – coincidentally the same course my brother Yan/Scott was taking before he left to concentrate on British Sea Power. I first encountered Wilf when our family moved from Carlisle to Milnthorpe, in the far south of Cumbria. I was coming up 14 when I started at the school in the village of Heversham, close to where the sea trout run up the River Leven.

On my first day at Heversham Grammar I walked in with the big crest from Queen’s Night At The Opera album felt-tipped on my haversack. I immediately surveyed a fellow pupil also with a Queen crest on his bag – from A Day At The Races. Thirty-five years later Wilf was in an ideal position to oversee the typesetting and design of my book. Wilf recommended a few printers. I looked into production costs and produced a rough budget. A print run of about 2,000 seemed about right. BSP seven-inch singles had often been put out in limited editions equal to the year of production – 2,005 etc. We decided we would put 2,011 copies of DIFYM on sale. Geoff and Jeannette would equal the £6,000 advance offered by Jawbone and would cover all the costs involved in the book’s production.

In my experience literary agent Matthew is a patient, equable character, likes his laffs. We shared a fondness for the thrilling bathos of Yorkshire rockers Saxon. But when I told Matthew about the Rough Trade plan he became a bit exasperated. He, pretty accurately, detected a kind of enhanced self-publishing. Why would I want to do that? To me it seemed a more interesting way to travel. It would also mean retaining the rights to the book. Even though I hadn’t gone with the offers Matthew had lined up I would, of course, still be paying him his 15 per cent commission. In perhaps un-agent-like style, Matthew volunteered that this wasn’t necessary. But Matthew had put work into selling the book and he’d also had significant input to the book’s content. It would have been wanker-ish to even think about trying to not pay him.

By this point I’d written about 10,000 words toward my book. I needed to write something like another 90,000. Best get on with it, lest this modest goal be forever delayed alongside the other modest goals I’d had stuck up on the wall for the last five years – see some hawfinches (probably in Norfolk); get a motorbike licence and buy a BSA Bantam or a Honda C90; go with lovely Mary to the U Zlatého Tygra (the Golden Tiger, the Prague pub once occupied by the Czech fun-time literary tough-guy Bohumil Hrabal). I felt like I had a lot of stories to work into a book, tales of glory and tales of muppetry. There were good times with Ronnie Corbett, Nick Cave and Oswald’s Mosley’s granddaughter. Getting so drunk in St Petersburg that I was practically begging the cops to relieve me of the tour takings (which they duly did). There was also Dad’s big contribution to World War Two – single-handedly destroying a Spitfire. But, as a freelance hack who’d pretty much never written anything without Fear Of Deadline, getting down 100,000 words took some effort.

The best thing I did to combat doubt and prevarication was to get my friend Steve Lowe to act as de facto editor on the book. I’d met Steve when we were both contributing to the now-defunct music magazine Select. By the time I was writing my book, Steve (with his co-author Alan McArthur) had become an actual best-selling writer – generally proclaiming ‘Fuck you Titmarsh’ across the big-selling Is Everything Shit? series. With my own book Steve’s great ability was knowing which bits were boring or ill-advised and telling me exactly that.

Aided by tough literary love from Steve and spurred on by judicious executive-editing from Geoff and Jeannette I wrote the book. Wilf of Cumbria executive-directed the book’s production and we got ready to have it printed.

We were printing 2,300 books – to include ample free copies for the press and promotion. The books would be sold mainly mail-order, with payment via PayPal. It would also be on sale in about ten record and book shops, but it would not be on sale at Amazon. It was assumed that most of the interest would come from the unusually well-engaged British Sea Power audience, a proportion of whom could be readily contacted via the BSP e-mail mailing-list.

The costs looked like this:

Author advance £5,100
Agent commission £900
Printing (2,300 copies) £3,476.95
Creation of website, inc domain names: £420.00
Proofreading £492.07
Design/printing stickers £951.20
Illustration (J Lewis) £114.60 ($150.00)

Total costs: £11,454.82

Of course, what people paid for the books via mail-order would depend on where they were being sent to – £15 within the UK, £17 for Europe, £20 for the rest of the world. In view of this I’m not including postage-and-packaging costs here, rather showing figures for income after P&P costs. P&P costs were: stamps, the cardboard mailers, PayPal charges and P&P labour charges. I paid myself just over a pound per book – to add the cover sticker and then pack and post, pretty much minimum-wage. After all P&P costs were deducted we were left with income of close to £10.50 per book across all territories.

The books were to be printed by CPI Mackays at their works in Chatham in Kent. They’d promised “Perfect bound (unsewn)… glued to spine and sides to 6mm, trimmed to size”. I didn’t understand all of this, but they were very much on the ball throughout. But, as we prepared to print the books, we’d had the extra charge for the embossing process. We also decided to have a launch night for the book, and some promotional book marks. Oh no, extra costs…

Embossing: £228.04
Launch night: £250.00
Bookmarks: £208.80

This raised the total cost (excluding P&P) to: £12,141.66

The books were delivered – the majority to my house in Devon, 500 to Rough Trade. I unpacked the book and started to add some front-cover stickers. Reviews came in. GQ magazine said it was, ‘Brilliant… the funniest rock book in years.’ Caught by the River said, ‘One of the finest books you will ever read involving the need to transfer the narrative of lives playing rock ‘n’ roll onto the printed page.’ The book was generally delivered to the shops by me in person, on the train, using a converted pull-a-long shopping trolley. I was delighted to see Cumbria County Council order six copies, including a couple for Kendal library, a place very familiar to our family.

Once the news went out to the British Sea Power audience the mail-order payments rushed in. Day and night I was lugging big IKEA bags of books to the post boxes in the town where I now live, Totnes in south Devon. I later learned that local postmen were puzzled by this Mystery Of The Brown Mailers. Where were all these packages coming from, clogging the post boxes and, as often as not, adorned with stamps from the 1979 Royal Mail commemorative set Spring Wild Flowers? Or with some other old stamps I’d got in – maybe a 5 1/2p issue from 1975, marking the bicentenary of the birth of JMW Turner and depicting his proto-impressionist painting Snow Storm: Steamboat off a Harbour’s Mouth.

The books sold out within a few months. The figures stacked up thus.

Income (minus P&P charges): £20,042.94
Costs (minus P&P costs): £12,141.66

Profit: £7,901.28

The profit was divided between myself and Rough Trade: £3,950.64 each.

My income had three components:

Advance (minus agent commission): £5,100.00
Profit share: £3,950.64
Labour for packing and posting: £1,430.00
Total income: £10,480.64

In the context of the publishing industry this isn’t the most tragic return, though I’d probably earned more per hour packing and posting the book than writing it. But, you know, you really can’t beat rock satisfaction. I loved being associated with British Sea Power, a fine rock band. That was rock satisfaction. Writing and publishing this book also counted as rock satisfaction. There were some testimonies to the book I found very gratifying. The broadcaster and writer Stuart Maconie said: ‘As different from the usual rock biography as British Sea Power are from the usual rock band. Funny, literate, touching, ambitious and engaging. A quirky, brilliant story – quirkily, brilliantly told.’ In the Financial Times, Alan Warner, author of Morvern Callar, said: ‘One of the best-written rock books ever… so many beautiful sentences.’ I’m a big fan of Warner, a superb writer and one of the most charismatic Oban-ites of all time. But, best of all, my daughter said she felt very proud when she heard me doing a radio interview.

A mere three years after the book first came out I’ve now managed to upclog DIFYM as an e-book. The techno-fear returned in disabling style. I could have easily had the e-book out 18 months ago. To turn the book’s text into an e-book I engaged a company called Palimpsest, based in Stirling. Palimpsest were great. But by the time the book had become a finished e-book I’d spent £379.60. I asked Palimpsest if this was par for the course and was told book conversion might typically have cost £120-£150. It was my fault, pretty much. Another firm had previously worked on the e-book. They’d made a bit of a mess of this. Also, I’d included the book’s new epilogue before it had been given a thorough reading and copy-edit. Palimpsest ended up adding text corrections which it would have been cheaper to fix earlier. The e-book recently went on sale via Amazon. As orders came in, I was delighted to see the income stream included 49.69 Bolivian Boliviano.

It was fascinating to put out a book – on a small scale, kind of DIY. Perhaps the wisest thing I did was to dedicate the book to all the women at once – to my mum, my wife, my daughter. There was nothing to say I would ever write another book. So far I have been proven one hundred per cent correct.

Do It For Your Mum is now available as an e-book at