The Nigel Balchin Newsletter

Issue 1: August 2011

Gerson photo

How to Publish a Biography

In March this year I travelled north to attend the second Festival of Writing (FoW) in York. In essence the FoW is a conference for writers—both published and unpublished—albeit one with a twist. As well as the lectures and workshops that one would expect to see on the programme of such a conference, delegates were also given the opportunity to pitch their work to a range of literary agents and publishers and I chose to speak to two agents specializing in non-fiction about my biography of Nigel Balchin, provisionally entitled The Man Who Never Knew Who He Was.

My meetings with these agents consisted of two 10-minute blocks of pretty solid disappointment studded with dire warnings about the current state of the UK publishing industry and discouraging remarks about the standing of literary biography as a genre at the moment. The agents did however come up with some good suggestions about how I could revise the manuscript to make it more appealing to publishers, and I certainly took these ideas onboard.

I was feeling rather dejected after my two “one-on-one” sessions but my spirits were lifted a few hours later when I spoke at length to a reader for a leading London literary agency. He was much more positive about my work and encouraged me to submit the opening chapters of my book to his agency. I have therefore been honing the first 50 pages of the manuscript repeatedly in recent weeks and submitted them to the agency in mid-August. A freshly written introductory chapter of my biography is included in this mailing to serve as an appetizer for the book itself.

Having reread the manuscript since returning from York, I can now see with the benefit of hindsight that I had made the first draft rather too dry and academic and that the level of detail I had gone into in places was unlikely to appeal to a general readership. So this has been the challenge of the last few months: removing the arcane, irrelevant material, adding new information with a wider appeal and trying to make the writing style livelier and more accessible. I am sure that this new approach will substantially improve the quality of the final manuscript. I have now written the first six chapters of the book (out of a projected 16) and will resume writing the remainder of the text in the autumn after I have made submissions to a few other literary agencies.

Did You Know?

Balchin was so dissatisfied with his novel Mine Own Executioner that he attempted to tear up the manuscript upon its completion. Not being, in his own words, the sort of man capable of “tearing telephone directories in two with his bare hands” Balchin instead threw the pages in the air in frustration. His wife Elisabeth picked them up, the manuscript was restored and Mine Own Executioner went on to become not just a favourite with the critics but also the second best-selling (behind only The Small Back Room) of all Balchin’s novels. See elsewhere in this mailing for a chance to win a valuable signed copy of Mine Own Executioner.

Two other publication strategies were mentioned to me in York which may ultimately prove useful. The first is to try approaching an academic press such as the Oxford University Press. The second idea was to self-publish. I attended a very useful workshop on this in York: it is much easier to self-publish nowadays than it was in the past and there is far less of a stigma attached to doing so than previously, as witnessed by the fact that a great many self-published books are now listed on Amazon and stocked by Waterstones. So this is my fallback position should the conventional routes fail. Rest assured that the book will come out before much longer: I have invested far too much time and money in it over the years to turn back now!

I’ll update you all next time on progress with getting the book published or alternatively you can always follow me on Twitter (@nmbalchinbiog) if you can’t wait that long.

If anyone comes across details of interesting Balchin-related activity between now and the publication of the next edition of this newsletter (which I intend sending out quarterly) then just drop me a line and I will circulate the information to the rest of the community. My antennae are pretty good but I can’t be everywhere at once so please help me to stay abreast of any developments I may have missed.

Thanks for reading this opening bulletin; I’m sorry that it has been far more about me than Nigel Balchin himself but I will address this shortcoming in future and hopefully the other items included with this mailing will compensate for this apparent self-obsession!

 Best wishes,

Derek (backroomboy@talktalk.net)

Did You Know?

Nigel Balchin’s first novel, the highly competent No Sky, was accepted by the first publisher it was sent to (Hamish Hamilton). He received an advance of £30 for it, which was not unusual for the time. According to Balchin, the book went on to sell about 600 copies; however, this may have been wishful thinking on his part because the advance was not recouped by sales of the book and copies of No Sky are incredibly scarce these days, implying that very few were actually printed.

Competition!

For your chance to win a hardback copy of Mine Own Executioner signed by Nigel Balchin himself, just tell me (in no more than 500 words) which is your favourite Balchin novel and why? The closing date for entries (which should be emailed to me at backroomboy@talktalk.net in the form of an attached Word file) is 31 October 2011. The winner will be notified during November 2011 and mentioned in the next edition of the Nigel Balchin Newsletter.

NB. The prize is a 1945 hardback first edition of Mine Own Executioner jointly published by Collins and The Book Society and signed by Nigel Balchin on the half-title page. This is a second-hand book and thus shows some signs of wear and tear commensurate with its age: the dust jacket is intact but slightly chipped and torn in places and there is a Book Society stamp bearing the name of the previous owner on the flyleaf. The book will be posted (by airmail if the winner lives overseas) during November 2011.