Self-publishing: your help needed!

I decided a while back that I would self-publish my forthcoming book on the Brunel and Barry families.

This has meant foregoing current earnings to spend time writing and there is no guarantee how I will do with my first (and possibly only!) book.

I have also spent money on an editorial assessment and buying image rights, plus I am committed to further payments for editing, proofreading and design and marketing costs. Since I don’t know what sales will be like, it’s difficult to estimate future income from publication. This also depends on the cover price and whether I market it only as an e-print or also as a hard- or softback.

That being said, the people I am writing about were very familiar with the concept of risk. Isambard K Brunel’s father Marc was thrown into debtors’ prison as poor cashflow held up his ground-breaking projects. It was only the threat of him returning to the old enemy France that precipitated action at the highest levels to release Government funds. Sir Charles Barry and his son Edward Middleton Barry were consistently at loggerheads with Parliament over delayed payments for building the New Palace of Westminster.

So, it would help me greatly to know what interest there might be out there for this book. The current favoured title is “Barry, Brunel and sons:
Builders to the British Empire”. My only concern is there is too much alliteration going on in it. What do you think? Tell me in a comment below.

To get a flavour of the book please look at the content of this website – it develops from the main focus here on John Wolfe Barry, to a wider scope looking at his father, brothers and close relationship with Henry Brunel, hence brings in the latter’s famous father IK and grandfather Marc. It also makes connections between Victorian architecture and engineering and modern day structures such as the world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in the UAE.

P.S. The illustration of Big Ben is made from a photo I took of it at night time before the current renovation works. Another Barry structure!

Half way there

I’ve written half my target number of words for my book on the 19th Century Barrys. The rest needs to be completed by mid-June latest.

One thing that changes as I add words to the draft is the title and structure of the book. It has now moved on from a central focus on Sir Charles Barry and his three architect/civil engineer sons, to a wider scope including the great Isambard K Brunel and his son Henry Brunel.

This makes for a better connection with the themes of family, recognition and building that run through the book, as well as allowing me to look even more closely at the relationship between architecture and civil engineering.

What, you might ask, is the connection between the Barrys and the Brunels?

John Wolfe Barry and Henry Brunel were close friends and business partners who lived and worked in the Brunel family home and offices in London for the first years of their civil engineering collaboration. Once John was married and children started arriving, Henry had to leave his parents’ house as a lifelong bachelor and hand it over completely to his friend. This can’t have been easy for him!

The fathers of each son knew each other and were both Fellows of the Royal Society. They had also worked together on designing a venue for the 1851 Great Exhibition in London which became known as the famous Crystal Palace. There is no evidence of any close personal or business relationship between them and this could be said to typify the traditional space between British architects and civil engineers.

The book will expand on the above and is currently due for publication by end September 2019. Fingers crossed!

To judge a book by its cover?

I’ve sent off a possible cover design for my forthcoming book on the 19th Century Barrys which I pulled together in a few minutes using a cheap software programme.

I didn’t plan to do this but an opportunity came up for a free assessment by a cover designer so I thought I’d give it a go.

I found a template with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on it and then played around a bit with the title and my name. Of course for this book the structure could be one of many towers, depending on how I want to represent the Barrys visually without just sticking their portraits on the cover.

They say you should trial a range of different cover designs with audiences to see which ones work best, but I don’t have the budget for that.

What criteria do I think should be important for a potential reader?

  • Confirmation that they are looking at the right category of book e.g. historical non-fiction about buildings and their builders
  • Sense of pleasurable expectation of an experience that opening the cover might lead to.
  • Hint of quality of a product that can’t be touched before purchase as it will be marketed electronically, and you can’t get refunds on books you don’t enjoy reading, caveat emptor.

I will reveal the design stages later down the line.

Becoming an expert

One thing I’ve realised since first starting to work for and with professional and learned bodies in 1998: experts are not always what they are made out to be.

I had high regard for academic experts when I started my undergraduate degree, influenced by my grandfather who had taught engineering at university and then become a UN advisor on industrial development in the less advanced parts of the world.

This was slightly dented by some of my senior lecturers who you couldn’t even understand because of their research jargon or lack of training in how to teach. But occasionally I would meet remarkable professors or other less elite staff and understand that experts came in different shades.

This was reinforced by a Masters course and as I have said, daily work with leading scientists and engineers who were trying to reinforce the credibility of their professions. I may now have become an expert myself as I probably know more about Sir John Wolfe Barry than any living person.

This has its pros and cons. It helps me have conversations with people who are also very knowledgeable about other famous engineers. We can share our reflections. On the reverse side of the coin, it can cause friction with experts who actually come from those and allied professions. My stance is that as a trained historian who has specialised in economic and technical history but not completed a PhD, I may not be as good as others, but my arguments are valid and can always be critiqued, preferably in public.

So I hope the forthcoming book on the 19th Century Barrys will be well received and not simply shot down by those better equipped to fire arrows. Not that it matters to me personally I should add.

Structuring a book on structures

I never realised it would be so hard to write a book!

In my case not only have I started to write my first one, but I’ve added to the challenge by deciding to self-publish it.

But it seems that there has been a break through after a period of editor’s block. In the post I described one or two issues going on which were holding me up – now I feel that progress has been made and I wanted to share this with you.

After a number of conversations with different prospective editors I chose one of them to do an editorial assessment for me. This was relatively simple and inexpensive and helped me focus my writing on key tasks. Then I asked for offers to undertake bigger editorial tasks. The problem was I didn’t really know how big these tasks were going to be. So this time round my conversations with prospects were more about eliciting advice on the editorial process for self-publishers. I am much clearer now.

Finally, I selected one candidate to take me on. This wasn’t easy as there were good offers coming in including from one individual who probably knew more about architectural history than me. However, I decided to go with a different choice because I liked the way they presented themselves and we spoke on the phone at their suggestion.

The other thing that helped me was finally getting in touch with the acknowledged expert on Sir Charles Barry. I had put this off for many years, partly through not being easily able to contact him electronically, my favoured medium. In the end I simply tracked down a phone number and called, not being sure of what reaction I might get. To my surprise we had a great conversation and informally agreed not to get in each others’ way. My focus will be on the Barry dynasty, his on the great architect. I have to admit some relief about this!

I now have a clear goal of writing a specific number of words on a contents list of headings for the book. Should be plain sailing then …

Editor’s block

I’m getting my book on the 19th Century Barrys assessed by an independent editor. This is because I want to be sure that it is headed in the right direction.

To do this I’ve sent on my draft text so far plus a chapter summary. My chosen editor lives in the States and will skype with me once she has assessed things. I hope I can take her critique!

While awaiting this essential feedback I feel I’m in a bit of a limbo. I’d like to keep writing but see no point in this until I know better where to head. So I am continuing with research for the book and some local volunteering plus thinking of tasks that can usefully be done to our house. This latter means building up confidence in my DIY abilities! The wife and I will also take a break to Paris for a few days, our first mini-holiday together for quite a while other than weekend breaks in England.

The world moves on around us with both certainty and surprises. I’m less keen on the latter nowadays, perhaps out of sheer frustration that we never seem to learn from history, or worse, wilfully ignore its lessons.

I also miss many of my office colleagues, left behind when I committed to writing the book. The loneliness of the long-distance writer.

A brief pause before the writing really begins

I’m using this blog to share my thoughts about issues related to the life and impact of Sir John Wolfe Barry, 19th Century civil engineer and builder of Tower Bridge.

I’ve been in a pause phase as I’m now committed to writing a book about John’s father and brothers and their relationships with him and each other. I’m planning the book project as I wind up full-time employment commuting into Central London which I have been doing for the last 17 out of 21 years (there was a four year hiatus).

The key goal is to write words!

Photo by on

This is sooner said than done. Words don’t come easy, to quote a song lyric. I’m setting up an environment where I can focus 100% on writing without distraction. My chosen location is the rear bedroom in our house which overlooks the garden. I will remove the temporary bed there and set up a desk in front of the window. It doesn’t get direct sunlight until the afternoon so I will start early and write until lunchtime.

I will somehow need to avoid referring too much to my many sources as this will hold up the flow. Blogging has probably helped with this. The key is to establish a good framework for the text and themes and then fill the space with words.

I know I can do it. I may review the product of my first draft but I must avoid perfecting things continuously as I go along – this just serves to slow down momentum and lead to self-doubt and questioning. Wish me luck!