Phil: My latest publication, Modelling British Railway Diesel Locomotives has hit the bookshelves in WH Smiths. In deference to Candice, who I can already hear rolling her eyes, I won’t go on about its anoraky goodness but instead blog about the hard realities of producing something like this.
Having successfully pitched the idea to a magazine publisher I work for last December, the challenge for me was to write short (250 word) histories of 58 different types of railway engines. Next, source lots of photos to accompany these, find out how you could acquire miniatures of each and finally, present them to a public consisting of people who would love to find error or moan that they have “seen all those picture before”.
Of course, I had a deadline to hit and budgets to stay within.
First up, like every publication out there, you have to work out what you are trying to say. Since the emphasis was on making models, anything that didn’t affect the appearance of the locomotive could be ignored in the history. That saved me digging through interminable technical bumf on engine and electrical equipment variations. If you want this sort of details, you need to find two things: More books and A life.
The cover was part of the pitch (I pitched to the publishers, they took it to WH Smith for approval, you don’t go ahead if they won’t take it) so an early version was mocked up. As it is, we ended up with two versions, with and without the “Exclusive to WH Smith” green blob. The mock-up also hit the web about the time I started writing to get the pre-order process going. The finished version differs in detail but then that’s why there was a caveat on the bottom of the page mentioning this. We’d worked out a few promotional points at this stage but since the content wasn’t finalised, some of the brighter flashes were no more than a designers idea.
It’s amazing just how long the writing process took. A deadline move bought me an extra months work – serious relief as at one point I was facing researching and writing 5 histories a day. Don’t anyone say that it should be easy to produce a small number of words. If anything it’s harder to boil down all the information and extract the important stuff. Some of the published information sources contradicting each other didn’t help much either. I did hit the 5 a day a couple of times but most days if I managed 3 I was doing well. Thank goodness for my proof reader – he saved me from a few cockups along the way.
Pictures turned out to be fun too. I promised a comprehensive set and that means talking to photo libraries. Not the big boys like Getty but specialists. Some were excellent and other work like it’s 1932. I needed to say, “Send me what you have on Class 33″ and receive thumbnails the next day followed by the full sized versions, all by e-mail. Working with someone who posts out a pack of prints from which you select a few and then return the others with a cheque just takes too long. Having to scan these prints in isn’t great either especially when the standard 6X4 will be blown up to 2 or 3 times that size on the page. Every hour spent tidying up photos was an hour I could have been writing, eating or sleeping.
Modern technology did come to my rescue with a couple of new faces making pictures available on Flickr. There I could select my pictures and grab them straight from the site. All the owners had to do was await the cheque for payment. Of course, I could have just nicked them without telling anyone, this is why my on-line shots are always too small for print publication, but apart from the legal aspect, morally the concept pains me as I don’t like it when people do this to me.
As it is, the final photo tally worked out at 223 picture of real locomotives and 139 of models. The later were “fun” as I had naively assumed that model manufacturers would be delighted to supply pictures that they would have in stock to publicise their products. The large firms such as Hornby were fine. A quick e-mail and I soon had what I need. A lot of people supporting the hobby are cottage industry manufacturers though and the results were far patchier. Even when all I wanted was a hi-res version of a shot on their website, extracting wisdom teeth would have been easier than getting the picture. Sometimes you wonder if they really want to sell their products…
Unexpected problems can trip you up – one source of photos was on holiday in France. Despite many e-mails, the appalling WiFi he had prevented any images being sent over much to both of our annoyances. Holidays generally were a nuisance, don’t do anything over the summer if you have a deadline!
While all this was going on, I worked with a designer putting the pages together. The deadline meant we didn’t get to produce as many mock-ups as I’d have liked which left planning the flat-plan (A publishing term. The magazine is laid out pictorially so you can see every page at once. If you are at Vogue, there is a room with every page produced full size and fixed to a wall. The rest of us make do with an A4 PDF with titles on each page) rather more flexible than is ideal. I think we ended up on version 4 because I kept moving things around depending on the amount of information available for each locomotive. Changing the page count wasn’t an option and allowance had to be made for contents, introduction and some advertising.
The designer allocated to me, Nikki, turned out to be brilliant. The results are punchy and full of life – not an easy task with this subject matter. Modern communications allowed me to see PDF files of each page. From this I was able to comment and have stuff moved around. Here again, the lack of prototyping caused me a few worries – in some cases I had sourced (and paid for) more images than I really needed. It’s important not to use photos too small for this market, they moan like crazy if the tiny details aren’t visible. Fair enough really, that’s why they bought the thing but it does lead to some serious thinking along the way.
Even the binding caused a headache. Initially, some of the photos were reproduced as double page spreads – this looks lovely on the screen but when Perfect Bound, a strip of the picture disappears down the spine. Now you can leave a gutter in the middle and split the photo but this relies on the printer getting every page perfect and I wasn’t willing to gamble on this. We compromised with a few full A4 photos where the contents could justify it and I particularly liked the picture.
Needless to say, this all came together eventually and I eagerly awaited the result. Seeing it on-screen is one thing, on paper a whole lot more exciting. Just to entertain me, the first I knew that it was out was seeing a forum post by someone who had a copy. Typical – the pre-orders were hitting people’s doormats before mine! It turns out that a certain courier service had managed to lose my box sent out a week earlier. A replacement followed quickly and I then moved on to sending out the contributors copies along with cheques for payment. As someone who has been on the receiving end of this, I know how important it is to do this bit quickly.
Now all I have to do is wait. My job is done apart from some social media promotion efforts. Sales will be what they will be. Initial feedback is promising. The only person who has critiqued it heavily did this in good spirit and proved my point about short histories being difficult. His comments on one type of locomotive ran to twice the space I had for the initial words.
Technically, it all worked well. None of the people involved ever met and we rarely telephoned each other. Photos were generally swapped by e-mail. Larger files by Dropbox.com. None of us worked conventional hours – Nikki would stop mid afternoon to collect her kids from school and then hit the keyboard again later in the day. I dropped in whenever I needed to so some days were long and others less so. 20 years ago you couldn’t work this way but now, with so many people freelancing, it’s the way we work. If we were all in an office I suspect things wouldn’t have been that different.
Modelling British Railway Diesel Locomotives is available from good branches of WH Smith until the end of the year and also from MyHobbyStore.com.