Thursday, 3 January 2019

The pitfalls of penmanship

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Back in 2006 David Hedley from Hedley’s renowned Masterton bookshop approached me and suggested that perhaps I might like to put a selection of my newspaper columns together in a book. He thought it would sell well and once produced he would arrange a book launch evening to start the ball rolling. 

Naturally I was keen. After all, didn’t people become millionaires overnight writing best sellers and surely my book would be a best seller. I must have misinterpreted “sell well” for “best seller!”

And so I agreed.

He put me in touch with owners of Fraser Books, Ian and Diane Grant, and they told me to sort out what I considered to be my best 150 columns and they would go through them and probably reduce that number to around 100 for the book.

They said I should choose columns that didn’t date, some that were autobiographical and particularly those that were humorous. By 2006 I had been writing my weekly column in the Times-Age for nine years so I had about 450 columns to choose 150 from. So I took what I considered to be the best 150 columns to the Grants and they reduced these down to 110 which they thought would make a saleable book.

And so now we needed a title.

When I was a kid I had read a book which was on my parent’s bookshelf called tales of a Bond Street Jeweller. It was a famous book in its day and I’d always thought that if I was ever to write a book about my experiences I would call it “Tales of a Queen Street Butcher.”

The Grant’s had never heard of “Tales of a Bond Street Jeweller” and they looked it up on Google and Google had never heard of it either.

So they weren’t impressed with that title option.

“How about “One man’s meat?” I then suggested, “And if there is to be a second book after the world-wide acclaim from the first it could be called ..Is another man’s poison.”

The Grant’s liked this option though in hindsight I doubt that they thought there would be any likelihood of a sequel.

Now we needed someone to design the cover they said.

Well since closing the butchers shop I had become a graphic designer of sorts in the Sign Factory which I owned with my eldest son. I suggested I could design the cover, which I did.

I went to school with a fellow named Jim Field who used to draw a regular cartoon in the Times-Age about the exploits of a character called Bill Goodie. On one occasion I featured in one of his cartoons resplendent in my butcher’s apron and boater hat.

So I used this image, which was initially was in black and white so I coloured it up, took the knives out of the butchers pouch an replaced these with a pen and brush. I then chose a quirky letter style that I particularly liked and use this for the title. The Grants seemed happy with this. The Grant’s then wanted photos to back up the claims made, especially to confirm some of the seemingly outrageous I had made in the autobiographical section.

I had plenty of these and they took all of this information to Printcraft who laid out the book which was then sent to book printers in Auckland for the final link in the chain.

Now I am sure you have heard of famous authors being given sometimes millions of dollars upfront for books they are yet to write.

Well for unknowns like me, exactly the opposite occurs.

You have to pay up front - every step of the way.

It was agreed between David Hedley, the Grants and me that the first print run should be 600 books.

My total upfront cost for the 600 books was $10,000. In round figures it was $3500 to the Grants, $6000 to the printer in Auckland and another $500 in incidental costs. I didn’t consider any of these costs to be excessive

The recommended retail price on the book was $32.50. So I multiplied $32.50 by 600 and I came up with $19,500 which looked like I pretty well going to double my money.

Well actually, that’s not how it worked out.

For a kick-off you give the first 100 books away. You send one to every library and by law two to the National Library. Then you send a copy to all the newspapers and magazines around the country hoping they will review the book - and review it favourably. If this happens then the chances are that there will be a big demand for the book and the second and third printings are much cheaper than the first because all the start-up costs have been paid for.

It’s about here that authors start to make some real money.

Also I hadn’t factored in the distribution costs or the booksellers margin. In the end the net profit per book coming to me was ten dollars a book.  So I had 500 books to sell at ten dollars and if they all sold that comes to $5000. Rather than doubling my money I had actually halved it.

David Hedley organised a marvellous launch evening at Solway Park Copthorne and over 250 people attended. There was a hugely entertaining debate that night that included Lyn of Tawa, Michael Wilson and Karl DuFresne.

Great sales that night, but now we waited for the reviews. In the end there were only two. And they were better than I could have dreamed of, but there were only two.

Writing in the Wairarapa Times-Age Marlene Ditchfield said among things: Such is the literary magic of this book. This is high praise and I do not give it lightly. Rick Long is a talented man. His writing is insightful, sincere and warm, but above all very very funny.

And writing in the Northern Advocate, the Whangarei paper, Graham Barrow said: The columns are interesting and chatty and given that New Zealand being short of quality columnists as it is I’m surprised they haven’t had a wider circulation.

But that was it; superb reviews, but just two of them.

I had a phone call from the editor of the Timaru Herald. He said, “I have just read your book and I loved it." I was thrilled, “Are you is going to review it?” I asked. “Oh no, I’m not going to review it,” he said “This is a book for the Wairarapa; I don’t think people would understand it or appreciate it down here. It’s just that back in the early 1970’s I used to be a reporter on the Times Age so I knew you and your butcher’s shop and all the tricks you used to get up to.”

I was disappointed of course that he wasn’t going to review the book.

And so fame was fleeting and fortune never came. The 500 books all sold, but there was no demand for a second printing.

But I had no regrets. In a way it was $5000 well spent. It’s a great history for future generations of our family and I had some wonderful letters and phone calls from people all over the country that had enjoyed reading it.

I was even invited to an all-female book club in Wellington which I duly attended and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

So the message here I guess it you want to lose money in large dollopfulls, write a book.

But actually this wasn’t my first book. I published my first book thirty years earlier - in 1976 - and that one made money, lots of it.

In the early 1970’s I was involved in setting up a New Zealand-wide company called Mastercut Meat Promotions Ltd. This was a forerunner to the Mitre 10 style of franchising for retailers – independently owned, but trading under the one name: Mastercut Meat.

At age 32 I was the national chairman of the company and there were 110 butchers’ shops in New Zealand flying the Mastercut banner and we all put 1% of out turnover into a pool and this money was received by advertising agency Carlton, Carruthers Du Chateau who designed and placed all our advertising. I was flown by the directors of Carlton Carruthers Du Chateau all over the country to encourage more members to join and I found out to my surprise that the retail prices of meat were all over the place.

Every Sunday evening the meat board would put out a schedule of what the wholesale price of meat would be for the week, but the retail prices were different wherever you went.

So I decided that butcher’s needed a book to show them how to calculate their sale prices based on what it was costing to land the meat into their shops. This wasn’t an original idea. I had seen something similar some years prior in Australia.

To help me I need to harness someone who had better mathematical brains than I had and so I approached my accountant, Colin Croskery, and he agreed to assist.

So I had to cut up the various carcasses and slice and then weigh each cut separately and weigh the waste like the fat and bones and Colin worked on all this information and we came up with graduated cost prices to match the popularity of the cut, and finally came up with a number of options for the retail price based on the businesses known overheads.

I wrote some editorial to pad out the pages and we went to Printcraft, then owned by Alec Niven and Wally Seville. I told them we need a book with pages almost as thick as cardboard so they were long lasting and they needed to have a glossy finish because butchers had greasy hands and would regularly need to wipe the book clean. The book also needed to lie flat.

All of this was no problem to the two genial printers and they worked out a price per book at $7.50. Now back in 1976 $7.50 was quite a lot of money; in fact we had intended a selling price of $7.50 and so it looked like our efforts profit-wise would be in vain.

It then occurred to me that perhaps we could sell advertising in the book. I knew this book was going to popular among butchers and in those days there were lots of butcher’s shops in this country. There were 15 in Masterton alone.

So I went and saw all the suppliers to the meat trade, people who sold us string, paper, plastic bags, seasonings and machinery and told them they needed to advertise in this book as it had a clearly-defined target market. They all agreed, and we priced the advertising so the $7.50 per book was covered, and from then on our profit would be 100%.

I was on the executive council of the New Zealand Meat Retailers Federation at the time so I asked the CEO if he could give me the names and addresses of every butcher in New Zealand. He said he would do better than that, he would print out sticky labels from his addressograph machine and all we had to do was attach them to the envelopes.

So we wrote to every butcher in the country telling them this book was about to become available and if they wanted a copy they needed to send us a stamped self-addressed foolscap envelope and a cheque for $7.50 and we would send them the book.

The book hadn’t actually been printed at that stage; we didn’t want to print the book until we knew how many were going to be ordered. I think pretty well every butcher in the country ordered the book.

The checks came pouring in and as soon as Printcraft produced the books we sent them off in the stamped self-addressed envelopes.

Distribution costs: nil.

Books left unsold: nil.

Net profit for the two authors: Priceless.

So you see you can make money writing a book, you just need willing advertisers.

The great thing about this book was that these were inflationary times and the book soon went out of date because of rising meat prices. So we had to recalculate it and reprint it three times. Each time we went back to the advertisers and asked if they wanted to come on board again and they all did.

The first copy had proved lucrative for them as well as us.

Whenever I went on holiday and found myself looking in a butchers shop window in some remote town up north or down south the butcher would inevitably recognise me and come out to say hello and thank me profusely for the book.  It was amazing how many butchers told me they never started to make money in their businesses until that book came along.

In 1978 I took my wife and four young children to Disneyland and Las Vegas on the profits from that book.

On my second book, One Man’s Meat I couldn’t have afforded to take them to Eketahuna!

“Tis pleasant, sure, to see ones name in print; a books a book, altho’ there is nothing in’t.” - Lord Byron