What the Dickens...

Ah, coincidence… from Dickens to Didion it’s the meat and drink of the writer’s art. Even readers know that. But what they don’t know - and we do - is just how big a role it plays before we begin to write the story.

It matters not at all whether our specialty is fiction, memoir, non-fiction or even fantasy, the moment we start researching a new book the coincidences arrive thick and fast. A newspaper article on your subject opens an unexpected door the very day you begin; a randomly selected television program supplies a vital link; friends have relatives at the heart of the matter; even Aunt Maud produces a letter from her glory box that adds a totally new dimension.

In fact, so common is the phenomenon that I no longer call them coincidences. In my book (as it were) they’re just incidences. But I was unprepared for this one for it’s been 40 years in the making - totally unexpected yet it could hardly be closer to home. A little background if I may: I was born and raised in Queensland’s bible belt, became a fierce young Methodist, signed the pledge and ran the local Order of Knights until suddenly at adolescence reason kicked in and I was bereft. I realised it wasn’t true. The Trinity thing was absurd; and if God ran everything, how come I’d been born in a war where millions died; and what about those poor Jews? Not even the arrival of the Billy Graham caravan could quell the growing certainty that the whole religious bucket was full of holes. But if so, what about Jesus? As an only child Our Lord was like a big brother to me. He became the core of my struggle to escape the childhood propaganda and the conflict tore me apart. And though I searched the local libraries for some guide to the reality of his place and person, the shelves were bare. Fast forward 20 years and I was determined that when my own sons reached adolescence they would have a book that told the ‘real’ story of Jesus, stripped of its supernatural absurdities, so they wouldn’t have to endure the agonies I’d suffered. I set to and researched what became, seven years later, The Secret Life of Jesus published in 1990 by Pan Macmillan. Long excerpts were run by the Murdoch press throughout Australia that Easter and it caused quite a stir. But because of the conservative (or apathetic) nature of Australians towards religion it was ahead of its time and didn’t run to a second printing. However, in 2006 came Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, quickly followed by Chris Hutchins’ God Is Not Great, and suddenly the whole subject was open for discussion. So I returned to Jesus and rewrote the book to incorporate my more finely honed views, the revelations of priestly predation and the new rigor able to be applied to the subject. And I called the new work, quite appropriately, The Jesus Delusion. But there was a problem. Its appeal was international and the eighteen books I’d published in the meantime had been directed almost exclusively to an Australian (and Chinese) readership on very different subjects. My Australian publisher, Hachette was reprinting my latest work, SAS Sniper for the sixth time and its marketing people would be totally opposed to something so different. Despair raised its gloomy head. Then came the (co)incidence. My son Ben for whom I’d written the book (though unlike his father he’d taken the whole religious thing with a grain of salt) had been gaining masters degrees in the law of the internet and other associated subjects, then working in New York, Paris and London as a senior internet analyst. Now he’d returned to Australia and had quietly embarked on an exciting new venture. He had just completed all necessary research and was ready to launch an e-book publishing operation - BWM Books - that offered authors a terrific deal on resurrecting their backlists. He had secured scanners in the UK, the US and Australia for those works without an electronic version; gathered a team of image makers to produce exciting internet-friendly covers; and most importantly, had navigated all the sites (Amazon being only one of very many) to get the best exposure for each new publication. His contracts with authors involved a combination of up-front payment and/or a share of the returns…but here’s the best bit. He’d decided to work out all the bugs in the system using his father’s books! The Jesus Delusion was posted several weeks ago and I’ve been delighted with the result. Good reviews followed and sales began what Ben calls ‘a typical slow burn’. The Sniper book is just published in the U.S. but Jesus is more than holding his own. There are three steps, he tells me, that the author should take in preparing a book for e-book publication. First, format the electronic MS so it fits neatly into the e-book reading devices such as Amazon’s Kindle, Apple’s iPad/iPhone, PC’s, tablets and other such contrivances. For example, if you’re using WORD, don’t use the tab to indent paras or the space bar to centre text. They don’t translate into an e-book format. Second, you should create an interactive Table of Contents so readers can move back and forth between chapters and from text to references. Third, you’ll need an electronic cover image. Bear in mind the print book cover might have copyright protection. The costs of resurrecting a print book to a new life in this cyberworld are relatively modest but must be taken into account. To scan a print book into a WORD file costs 20p a page (if the book can be destroyed in the process), almost double if you want the book back. The preparation for e-book devices can take up to four hours for an expert. BWM charges about AUD$200 for the process which includes publication on Amazon and Smashwords. Then of course there’s the promotion and marketing of the book on the Internet, a very different exercise from the usual book tour or radio blitz. This is an area, thank goodness, where Ben has the expertise and it can be part of the package. But the financial returns - with the author typically taking up to 70 percent of the sale price - can be substantial. All I can offer is a confident prediction: more than one author reading this will mutter in astonishment, ‘Blow me down; I was just about to go looking for info on e-books for my backlist. What an extraordinary coincidence…almost Dickensian…Didionesque…’ If you are interested, his address is ben@bwmbooks.com

Robert Macklin is the author of 20 books, mostly non-fiction. He is the biographer of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and winner, with co-author Peter Thompson, of the $30,000 Blake Dawson Prize of 2009 for THE BIG FELLA - The Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton.