If you’ve ever wondered about the freedom of no agent, no editor, no publisher, just you, your words and freedom – this is for you. Hope it helps.
Anne Wareham, editor
WRITING THAT BOOK by Claire Austin
THE NEED FOR KNOWLEDGE
All gardeners want to grow plants, but what they want more than anything is information. My business is not only about selling perennials, it’s about helping gardeners to make the right choice. It’s something I’ve done for three decades, and during this period the way of providing this information has changed, but not as much as you might think.
When I started working with my father at the age of 25 in the early 1980’s, the ways to buy plants were far more limited than today. Of course there were garden centres, a few garden shows but no selling tables and lots of small nurseries. Like today, for a wider choice of plants you had to go to a specialist nursery, but with no internet the only way to discover what a nursery sold was to send for a printed catalogue usually from a small advert placed at the back of a magazine. One or two nurseries, such as Blooms of Bressingham, produced big, glossy, mouth-watering publication.
But most were often a simple list of plants with prices.
WHERE IT STARTED
Following my father’s example I started to produce a perennial catalogue. Having inherited a dose of the family’s dyslexia writing did not and still does not come easily. With no internet catalogues magazines and perhaps more importantly books were the sole sources of information when researching what a plant looked like and how it grew. Of the many books I referred to two writers became my consistent reference point not just for information but for the style of writing. Frances Perry came from a long pedigree of nursery folk. Her book ‘Border Plants’, published 1957, was a no-nonsense, easy-to-read, catalogue of perennials with personal observations. Much more influential was family friend Graham Stuart Thomas. His book ’Perennial Garden Plants’, still a classic, became my perennial bible. A celebrated plantsman, his writing was not only refreshingly opinionated, but full of detailed observations and quiet enthusiasm. I used to send him my catalogues, which were returned littered with hand written corrections.
Not only was the searching of information traditional, but so was getting it printed. The text was typed up on an electric typewriter, then laid pasted onto a piece of paper the same size as the catalogue before being sent to the printer. Colour printing was expensive so any colour photographs were restricted to specific sections of the catalogue. This laborious method changed during the 1990’s when the use of computers became common place and programmes were developed for professional graphic designers. Having trained as an illustrator this presented no problem. Graham Clarke, then editor of Horticulture Week, once told me that he knew of no other nurseryman who liked Quarkxpress (a programme for designers) as much as plants.
How true. I grew up in a house full of books, and for as long as I can remember I wanted to write a book. Batsfords Books – now long gone – gave me the first opportunity when they asked me to turn my catalogues into a book. It became a part of the 1001 plant series. The next was headlined by Clay Perry whose glamorous transparent pictures of irises made it more of a coffee table book. Timberpress then asked me to write ‘Irises, A Gardener’s Encyclopaedia’. A big book, for which I took many thousands of photographs, it won Garden Writers Reference Book. Sadly, none of these are still in print. But o my surprise it has been “1001 Perennials” that customers still asked for. Their requests lead me to consider publishing another, more up-to-date book about perennials.
THE PROBLEM WITH GARDENING WEBSITES
Like all mail order companies our website (designed and maintained by my son’s company Click) has become our main selling tool. It allows us to immediately update stock levels, add new varieties as they become saleable, delete others that are unsaleable. The large, annually printed catalogue rapidly became redundant. The website, although picture orientated, still contains all the old information printed in the old catalogues. The problem is that a website is not as easy to browse as the printed page. When selecting plants you cannot easily mark a specific plant then flick back and forth to compare notes.
THE LACK OF GARDENING BOOKS
So with the obvious need for printed information asked for by customers I looked at what perennials books were on the shelves in bookshops. The answer – just big tones from the RHS or BBC books written by garden ‘celebrities’. Few of which contain personal comments or first-hand information. With this in mind I approached a few commissioning editors only to be told they no longer published factual gardening books preferring ‘life-style’ books. A fashion trend perhaps, but because of this I decided to self-publish.
Self-publishing is not a cheap or easy option. It will set you back at least £12,000 (2015 prices), much more if you cannot do the layout or photographs yourself. It is also not for someone with absolutely no knowledge of the printing industry, but with a few of the right contacts publishing your own book is certainly do-able.
Firstly, not only must you have a thorough knowledge of your subject, you must have confidence. You need a brilliant editor (thank you, Anna Kruger). It also helps to have a resourceful project manager (thanks to the now retired Sue Gordon) who can find proof-readers, an indexer and a good British printer.
Finally you need customers. For me that was an easy one, but I was also put in touch with the right book wholesaler. Then, if you are brave, you enter the book for ‘The Garden Media Guild Reference Book of the Year’ and win. Thank you GMG.
To date I have sold well over 2,000 copies since it was printed in February 2015. Which for me is so gratifying. Thank you, readers.
Website -Claire Austin Hardy Plants