It’s my pleasure this week to share an interview with career journalist, “hybrid” author, and most recently, illustrator Ian Probert. Ian’s latest genre (ad)venture is Johnny Nothing, a sly, riotously funny book written ostensibly for children that parents will want to read before sharing with their progeny.
Unlike many author’s taking their first stab at publishing, Probert is a veteran with decades of experience as a professional journalist, as well as the author of many traditionally published fiction and non-fiction books, one of which became a best seller and a made for TV movie. But with Johnny Nothing, he’s taken a new direction, both in genre as well as in path to market. He’s also created a series of strikingly effect illustrations for that book, created completely on an iPad.
In this interview, we discuss how that direction came about, Ian’s reflections on self-publishing versus the traditional path, and much more. (My earlier review of Johnny Nothing is here).
Q. You have a long and successful career as a published author and journalist. What led to your decision to self-publish a book ostensibly aimed at children (although equally enjoyable for adults)?
A. Well it’s pretty well documented elsewhere that I was too ill to write for a very long time. When I was eventually well enough to come back and work I had no agent, no publisher, no nothing. So I wrote the book and sent it to a couple of agents. I was really cocky. I thought it would be like the second coming, like everyone was sitting there waiting for me to write something. But it’s easy to forget that this is a business. One of them got back to me and said it wiped the floor with David Walliams. The problem is I’m not David Walliams. I don’t have a fan base of hundreds of thousands. Nobody knows who I am. And if nobody knows who you are nobody is going to buy your work. sent it off to more agents and got similar responses until eventually a publisher was willing to take a punt. They offered me an advance that redefines divisive. Back in the 1990s I would generally get an advance for a book of around 10-15k. It sounds a lot but you had to live on that money and be able to write. What I was offered was a LOT less than that. It was a joke really. So I took a look at publishing it myself.
What swung it was that a neighbour of mine self-published her first book and it got to number one on Amazon and earned her a three-book deal with Penguin. How difficult can this be? thought I. Very, thought the rest of the world.
Q. Is this a genre you would try again, and if so, would you form the story around the same protagonist, Johnny Nothing?
A. To be honest I don’t really understand genre. I have a way of expressing myself that is pretty difficult to deviate from. I wrote Johnny Nothing no differently to some of the adult titles I’ve written in the past. Maybe there were less swear words and no sex.
I can’t get into the mindset that because you’re writing for children you have to somehow dumb it down. Children are no less intelligent than adults – they merely lack the experience. If you set out dumbing down for your supposed audience you will probably end up alienating all but the most dense.
I’ve never done this before but I’m seriously considering a second Johnny Nothing book. I did start writing another book in which the main protagonist was called ‘Dan’. Then it occurred to me that after spending so much time crafting the characters for Johnny Nothing it would be a shame to just dump them. Maybe it’s laziness. I don’t know.
What I do know is that people seem to like the characters in Johnny Nothing, particularly the mother. And I’ve had a fair few requests for a sequel. I did purposefully leave the ending open.
Q. Did you learn anything new about writing, or your own goals or satisfactions as an author, in the process of addressing this new genre? If so, what?
A. Well you’re always learning aren’t you? However, there was nothing groundbreaking that I learned from Johnny Nothing. This is probably because I’ve written for children in the past – a lot. Although you won’t have seen what I’ve written though because everything has gone into my dump file, which is inconceivably vast.
After being unwell for such a long time and not being able to concentrate it was reassuring to discover that I was finally able to finish something that I started. The last time I actually finished a book was in 1999.
Q. What did you learn about your main character in the course of writing Johnny Nothing that you didn’t know when you started?
A. Well the main character is most probably me. It was only recently that I realised that everything I’ve ever written is about me. Me and my father actually. He died recently and it’s no understatement to say that we didn’t have a great relationship. In one of my earlier books, Rope Burns he gets a whole chapter to himself, although I don’t think he ever read it. In another, called Shrink, the main character ends up kidnapping his own father and forcing him to lose weight. In How to Lose 14 Pounds In a Week the main character is forced to meet his dying estranged father. In Johnny Nothing he locks his parents up in their bedroom for months and forces them to do things.
There’s a definite theme there. Although, as I say, I only realised this recently. Sometimes one is extremely adept at avoiding the most obvious things.
Q. Like thousands of others, you are sampling the Brave New World of self-publishing in the era of the Web. What about that process have you found to your liking?
A. I’ve found that it’s incredibly difficult. Writing the book, illustrating it, designing the cover, publishing it. That’s all the really, really easy bit. The hardest bit – obviously – is getting people to read it. And it’s getting harder.
My problem is that in the past everything was given to me on a plate. The first magazine article I ever wrote was immediately published; the first publisher I approached with an idea immediately went for it; I actually chose an agent from a list of four or five who offered my their services; the first book I had published – which is utter crap – sold 100,000 copies without me doing any promotional work whatsoever. All I did was sit on my fat spotty backside collecting cheques.
Now I’m getting my reward for all that luck. Being ill and sliding down the slippery slope of failure has given me a reality check. I now know that if you want success in writing, if you want to sell books, you have to work, work work.
I had an indie publisher approach me recently wanting to publish Johnny Nothing and we both agreed that the number of books that you sell is directly linked to the people you meet, the people you contact. The amount of effort you put into being a salesman.
Q. What has frustrated you the most?
A. What frustrates me most is that all the good reviews the book has seem to be inversely proportional to the number it has sold. Reviews, one assumes, should help you sell books. They don’t seem to.
Q. Do you believe that we have already seen the golden days, or are we still in the early stages in an evolutionary process that will lead to a new and more supportive ecosystem for authors not represented by traditional publishers?
A. I have a very strong feeling that we are now in a period that Neil Young would describe as ‘After the gold rush’. The problem is that everyone and their aunt is now able to self publish a book. It’s a subjective thing, I know, but if you spend any time at all on Amazon you will not fail to notice the vast numbers of truly awful ebooks that are now on sale. My eleven-year-old daughter is adept at spotting a bad one and will sometimes laugh uncontrollably. The market is choking for air and the traditional role that the big publishers played, i.e. as an editorial system that separated the wheat from the chaff, has more or less disintegrated.
At the moment it’s chaos. And it will continue to be so until people like Amazon begin to exercise a little quality control. I think it’s beginning to happen but it’s early days.
Q. Your site and your book have wonderful illustrations created in an unusual way. Can you tell us who the artist is (it’s not mentioned in the book) and also a bit about the technique used to create their unusual texture and effect?
A. Well I did the illustrations but didn’t want to mention it in the book and I thought it might detract from the writing. I did them reluctantly. Just as it’s been almost 15 years since I wrote anything it’s been a lot longer still since I drew anything. There was a time when I thought that I was going to be a painter but writing got in the way.
Initially I really wanted my daughter to do the drawings. I wanted something childlike and naive. However, for various reasons she lacked enthusiasm so with the clock ticking I had to do it. This sudden need coincided with my wife buying me a Jot Touch pressure sensitive pen for my iPad. I often find that a new tool can provide the incentive to start working. The iPad has a lot of really great apps that mimic traditional media. A bit like painter did or does for the Mac.
For the majority of the illustrations I used Procreate, Inspire Pro, Art Rage, Flip-ink, and various grunging apps. The technique was to start with a photographic reference and use the pen to draw in details. I wanted something dark and a little scary. One person has likened the images to Tim Burton meets Quentin Blake, which I think is quite a good description.
I think they’re reasonably effective but I can’t see myself picking up the pen again any time soon.
Q. What can we look for from you next?
A. Well for better or worse more kids books. At the moment I like the fact that you can be really silly. And I like the fact that if I am to believe the reviews I am making people laugh. I think the ability to write something down that empowers people to laugh is beyond mystical. If I died tomorrow that would be my one, small, minute achievement.
I also want to do more with music. After many years out of the system I began playing clarinet in public a little last year. I want to do more of this. And maybe a little classical guitar.
Q. What didn’t I think to ask that potential readers should know about you and your work?
A. Well I’m an odd bloke. I’m fully aware of that. My career – if you can call it that – is somewhat convoluted. To some I am a sports writer and will never be anything else. To others I’m a techie writer who writes about the internet and hacking. I’m definitely not that. To a lot of people I’m a mini-spokesman about thyroid disorders. At the moment I’m trying to be a writer who writes funny kids books.
When I was at art college one of my tutors wrote in an assessment: ‘Ian would do well if he didn’t try to be Renaissance Man’. And that, I think, is both my blessing and curse.
* * *
To celebrate the paperback launch of Johnny Nothing, Ian is offering a free Kindle copy of the book to the first 100 people who Tweet the following message:
@truth42 I’m reading Johnny Nothing by Ian Probert. http://geni.us/3oR8 #YA #Kindle #kidsbooks
And the first ten readers who answer the following question will also receive a signed print of one of the book’s illustrations.
Q: What is the tattoo on Ben’s arm?
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org
What is Johnny Nothing like? Here’s an excerpt:
Bill had a shaven head and was wearing a blue tracksuit. He was almost seven feet tall and built like an outdoor toilet made of brick. Bill didn’t realise this but he was a distant descendent of Neanderthal Man. He had only one eyebrow – one long bushy eyebrow that reached right across his forehead. He looked like what you might get if you force fed a member of Oasis with a half-tonne black plastic sackful of steroids.
And if you were brave enough to be present when he took off his tracksuit you would discover that his back was so covered in hair that he was able to part it with a comb. If Bill had had more of an interest in fashion, he might even have considered giving it a curly perm and perhaps a few extensions.
On his right arm, Bill had a tattoo which simply read ‘Bill’. This was in case he woke up one morning and forgot who he was. This was actually less unlikely than you might imagine because standing next to him was his twin brother. His name was Ben and he was identical to Bill in every way except that the tattoo on his arm read ‘Bin’ (the tattooist was either South African or not a very good speller). He was wearing a red tracksuit.
Bill gave Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie the tiniest of smiles and managed to grunt ‘hello’. Ben gave the couple exactly the same tiniest of smiles and also managed to grunt ‘hello’.
The two men were standing protectively close to Johnny. They were so large that in the confines of Johnny’s bedroom they looked like giants, which they were. They were so enormous that each of them had their own postcode. They were so gigantic that they had their passport photos taken by satellite. They were so humungous that you could spend all day thinking up rubbishy jokes about how big they were and never adequately describe just how indescribably, earth-shatteringly ENORMOUS they were. By no stretch of the imagination could you call them small (unless, of course, you were a lot bigger than them).
The pair of Goliaths were having to stoop slightly so as to avoid head-butting the ceiling, which actually even looked a little scared itself. They were a terrifying sight. Even scarier than a school trip to a Weight-Watcher’s nudist camp.
There was a long, pregnant silence in the room like this:
This eventually gave birth to an even longer post-natal silence, which, in the interest of preserving the rain forests or the battery on your Kindle, I shan’t demonstrate.
The four grown-ups eyed each other nervously. Bill and Ben looked at the Mackenzies like they were looking at insects that could be squashed into pulpy insect juice any time they so desired.
The Mackenzies looked at Bill and Ben like they were looking at two giant skinhead Neanderthal bully boys who had just appeared from nowhere in their recently and unexpectedly decorated council flat.
Johnny looked a little scared.
Finally Billy Mackenzie managed to get his mouth working a little and spluttered: ‘Who are you?’ And then: ‘What do you want?’
There was another long silence – let’s call it a pause – while Bill and Ben looked at each other as if trying to decide who was going to answer. Finally Bill spoke: ‘You the boy’s parents?’ he demanded in a voice that sounded like an angry rhino with horn-ache. Although if he was clever enough he would have realised that this was a rhetorical question.
There was yet another long silence (you’ll be relieved to hear that this is the last silence you’re going to get in this chapter) before Billy Mackenzie mumbled ‘Yes’.
‘We’re Johnny’s bodyguards,’ continued Bill. ‘We’re here to make sure that everything’s hunky dory.’
‘Hunky dory?’ Mrs. Mackenzie suddenly found her voice. ‘What do you mean ‘hunky dory”?’
Now Ben spoke: ‘What my brother means to say,’ he explained. ‘Is that we’ve been – how shall I say – contracted – to make sure that this young feller’s affairs are in order.’
‘Get out of my house!’ interrupted Mrs. Mackenzie, suddenly feeling a little braver, although she had no idea why.
Bill and Ben looked at each again for a moment. They did this almost as much as your mum looks in the mirror. Or you dad looks at websites that he shouldn’t be looking at. ‘First of all,’ said Bill, ‘This isn’t a house – it’s a flat.’
‘And second of all,’ said his brother. ‘We ain’t going nowhere. And neither are you.’
‘Johnny who are these men?’ Mrs. MacKenzie asked her son, ignoring the two giants.
‘I’m sorry mum but…’ Johnny started to speak but Bill cut in like a pair of scissors that chops sentences into bits.
‘…What the young feller means to say is that the fun’s over.’
‘The fun’s over?’ repeated Felicity MacKenzie numbly.
‘That’s right,’ continued Ben. ‘You’ve had a right old time. You’ve been spending his money like it’s your own. You’ve been ripping the poor young feller off. And we’re here to put a stop to it. From now on things are gonna be different.’
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ said Mrs. MacKenzie. ‘Nobody speaks to me like this in my house…’
‘Flat,’ corrected Ben.
‘Nobody speaks to me like this in my flat. Billy, call the police!’
As usual Billy MacKenzie did as he was told. He reached into his pocket for his mobile phone. Before he had the chance to even turn it on the gigantic frame of Bill was towering over him.
‘That an iPhone?’ asked Ben.
‘Erm… Yes,’ said Billy, who could only watch as the huge man took it from him and with one hand crushed it into a chunk of buckled metal and shattered touch screen.
‘I think it’s broken,’ said Ben. ‘You ought to take it back to the Apple store. Tell ‘em that you’re not getting a decent signal.’
‘Right!’ cried Mrs. MacKenzie. ‘We’re leaving! You’ll be very sorry you did
that. I’ll fetch the police myself!’
Now the giant frame of Bill was standing in front of her. He was holding something in his hand that looked a little like a child’s toy space gun.
‘Know what this is?’ he asked. Although once again he wasn’t clever enough to recognise that this was a rhetorical question.
Mrs. Mackenzie regarded the object for a moment. Then she shook her head. Whatever it was she guessed that it was not intended to provide pleasure, happiness or fulfilment. Anything that has a trigger and a barrel and goes ‘bang!’ seldom does.
‘Come on Billy!’ she said. ‘We’re leaving!’
Bill stood in front of her blocking the doorway. ‘Not so fast,’ he said, not so slowly. ‘It’s called a Taser. See this little trigger at the front? If I press this it’ll give you a small electric shock. It won’t hurt you…Well not too much anyway.’
Bill raised the object and gently touched Mrs. MacKenzie on the arm. There was a loudish bang and a flash of blue neon light and Mrs. MacKenzie collapsed groaning to the floor. She was conscious but wasn’t able to move her arms and legs
‘Oh my gawd!’ said Billy Mackenzie bravely charging out of the room in terror. He got as far as the stairs before there was a second flash. He, too, crumpled to the floor. Bill dragged him back into the bedroom by the scruff of his neck.
Johnny Nothing got to his feet and stood over his two parents. He looked anxious. ‘Are they… Are they… OK?’ he gasped.
‘Don’t you worry yourself,’ smiled Ben. ‘Give em a few minutes and they’ll be right as rain.’
‘But they’ll think twice before they try to run off again,’ said his brother.