PETER FOERTHMANN, AUTHOR: HOW AND WHY?
Writing about my favourite subject is nothing new for me. I have been at it for a good 25 years and have given full rein to my knowledge, thoughts and musings. The book Self-Steering Under Sail has been translated into six languages and downloaded and digested over a million times over the last 22 years. This – I sincerely hope – will have helped to make an apparently complex subject a little more accessible and comprehensible: the physical laws underpinning the workings of windvane self-steering systems are not in themselves especially difficult to grasp. Modesty fails to prevent me from pointing out that this book must have reached a far larger readership than most technical writings, a realisation I find particularly satisfying at a personal level because the book eventually found its audience without the involvement of conventional publishing houses and their conflicting agendas.
I say the book eventually found its audience because bridging the gap between author and sailor proved far from easy. Initially I did go down the conventional route, so I had all the joy of trying to satisfy publishers, editors and bean-counters and wrangling over the finer points of content, the precise number of pages, the choice of photos, the layout and so on. The relationship between lone author and super-hierarchical publishing behemoth can easily become very unbalanced and not everyone involved has the self-confidence to refrain from abusing their house’s power to try to cow non-compliant content producers. The outcome in my case was a shiny book contract promising me monetary rewards that came nowhere near reflecting the time actually invested. The mismatch struck me as almost comical – but if anyone was laughing it certainly was not me!
Thus disillusioned, I moved on in the hope – a hope I imagine all authors share deep down inside – that in having my words committed to paper in book form I would at least be capturing for myself a splinter of immortality. That would be something nobody could take away! The title “author” suggests membership of some sort of elite community and there are certainly some, in my experience, who happily wield this supposed status to boost their social standing. Having discovered that becoming an author will not be boosting their economic standing, I suppose they feel perfectly justified in trying to wring something else from the deal
The financial argument for writing a book generally fails to stack up in any way and there cannot be many authors in Germany who are able to keep the wolf from the door with royalties alone. Personally, I suspect there are probably just two! Is this the natural state of affairs, I wonder, or a contrived bottleneck that simultaneously maximises income and regulates market access?
The publication of Self-Steering Under Sail launched me into a world of trouble. I ended up spending two and a half years defending (a few short passages) of what I had written before the High Court in London, along the way growing a much thicker skin and experiencing a couple of major revelations. First of all, I discovered that, far from being dependent on publishers, I could manage perfectly well without one – and actually I would be much better off in all respects if I did. Once the initial shock began to wear off and l had time to reflect, I also realised that our journalist friends could not be relied on to ferret out and disseminate the facts after all and were by and large out for themselves. I learned my lesson well and the memory burns just as bright more than two decades later.
The world has changed dramatically over the intervening years and publishing houses of all stripes have had to accept that there is more to the commercial side of book selling than cutting costs and making sure the paper never runs out. Covering the market properly takes hard work, the price of which can be very high in some regions. Traditional forms of marketing like proprietary periodicals, a strong retail presence and events at which authors with a back seat full of books criss-cross the country for talks, presentations and signings have lost their allure, with coronavirus finishing off any stragglers. Boat shows have gone the same way.
For evidence look no further than the new alliances that have appeared, with even quite well-known authors publishing through new companies, putting books on the internet as PDFs and exploring the new self-publishing options available, which remove the need to print anything until a buyer has been found – at which point the text is sent electronically to a local print shop and converted into a physical book ready to be couriered the last mile to the doorstep.
After various unsuccessful attempts to find a publisher to help me bring a few treasures of life experience into the public domain, I stumbled quite by chance across a different solution and since then the pieces have fallen into place on their own.
WINDPILOT BOOKS is going to be releasing new books regularly and making them available on demand in e-book, paperback and hardback format via tredition.de – tredition.com – Bod and all the usual platforms.
Publishing on demand like this solves all kinds of problems: no more kowtowing to publishing houses and, having once managed to make it into print, no more reproaches for failing to generate sales fast enough and no more worrying about the powers that be pulling the plug on the whole venture and pulping the entire remaining stock to save storage costs.
Not everyone will be a winner from the new arrangements I am afraid (at least not in the short term) and if you are adversely impacted by my decision to start offering my technical books for sale in e-book and print formats after 22 years giving them away I can only apologise. He who hesitates… I originally elected to make Self-Steering Under Sail available gratis to help lift the curious fog of mystery and magic that seemed to swirl around a technology whose principles are in truth neither obscure nor particularly difficult to understand. It seems to have worked, as the book has become established as the standard text on the subject.
22 December 2020 Peter Foerthmann