On Song update

21:38, Feb 19 2013

Every Thursday morning I'll ask the followers of the Blog on the Tracks Facebook page for a potential topic for Friday's post - I do this because I'm interested in what you want to read about (relating to music) and I have no reserve of blog-topics. I stare at the blank page for a bit each day, then push something into place. Once there was a list of potential topics. At one stage there was even a spare blog-post or two, written early, "in the bank".  But five years on and nearly 1500 posts I need your help some days...and I'm always grateful for the suggestions.

So the other week someone asked for a bit of an update regarding my book, On Song. There was a request for me to share my feelings on the other side of the writing/PR-treadmill, book written, released, reviewed, I've been interviewed - and now it's all over, post-Christmas. You can still buy the book, or borrow it from a library - but my job is done. It's time for me to move on to the next project.

So, the question from the Facebook reader, from what I could tell, was how did I find it all; how do I think I went? And how has the book been received?

I wrote about On Song the day the book was released - so I'll do my best to not repeat the stories and information in that post.

On Song was my selection of 30 favourite Kiwi songs; 30 pop songs. I wasn't interested in covering material from earlier than the 1960s because I don't think we were writing great songs back then - not ones that have lasted, not ones with stories. And in the rare cases where there was a great song pre-1960 it's been covered already in several other histories - crucial books about New Zealand music to own include John Dix's Stranded in Paradise, the recently published Blue Smoke by Chris Bourke (which looks at New Zealand's earliest musical recordings - and music up to the beginning of the pop music era) and I would also mention Ready to Fly: The Story of New Zealand Music by David Eggleton. I unfairly dismissed this book before reading it - I had skimmed it and figured it drew too heavily on Dix's book. In warming up for and researching On Song I read Eggleton's book and found it to be a great update and beautifully written.

But I needed to avoid copying the style - and content - of those three great books.


I wanted to tell the stories of the songs using the anecdotes from the performers, songwriters and producers, people still alive - and in most cases still working. And I would include some of my story too; any writer brings something of themselves to the work they produce. I'm showing my age with the book, with the selections and in the thinking back to offer my memories of when I was first aware of the songs.

The day the book was released - back when I wrote this post - was like any other day. I'd already seen the book, and beyond fielding a couple of emails from friends looking for copies I didn't really think much about the book. It was a normal day. I got up and went to work.

A couple of days later we officially launched On Song at Slow Boat Records - and that was a hoot. In fact it was close to overwhelming. The shop was packed, so many people turned out for it. And no one was carrying a gun, or knife, or grudge.

I was paid for the book. I was given an advance - some of the money was paid before the book was written, as the term "advance" hints. The second half of the advance arrived after the book was published. From there I will earn some more money from royalties. It will not make me a rich man. I will not retire on it. I still have my job. And my freelance writing. And that will continue. But one of the reasons I wrote the book was to earn some money. I'd be lying if I said otherwise. Writing isn't offered measured out to show off an amazing hourly rate but I've always believed that some money is better than no money. Right? And as a parent, working part-time, working from home part-time, sharing childcare days, any extra money that comes in is a bonus. And always welcome. So we'll welcome the "On Song bonus" if/when it arrives.

But I didn't write On Song just to earn a paycheque.

I wrote the book to learn about the songs, and myself. To extend myself, to go beyond hacking out reviews and blog-posts.

The interview/review/publicity process was fine. No issues there. Again, it was almost overwhelming the interest in the book - I did over a dozen radio interviews, as well as chatting to print media, answering email interviews and being interviewed on two TV shows (Choice TV, Good Morning).

This was all slotted in and around work and life. I flew to Auckland to be interviewed for Good Morning and while there I recorded a series of conversations for National Radio's Summer Noelle show. I sat in the studio with Noelle McCarthy - a brilliant interviewer, passionate and knowledgeable, nurturing and encouraging - for three hours. We talked about every song in the book. These chats were then cut up to fit the format and trotted out each day over summer as part of her show.

The rest of the interviews were done over the phone early in the morning or at lunchtime, weekends, nights...I did a couple in the Wellington studios, including meeting Kim Hill and "playing favourites" on her show the weekend the book was released.

I had a brilliant publicist. She set everything up, I just turned up, or answered the phone. I did my best to share stories from the book, to engage. It was a blast. I didn't dread a single interview. And I think they all went well. And all were different. I repeated a few lines, you definitely get your stories down, but I tried to bring up something new each time.

A lot of people told me they were interested to see how I would handle being reviewed - it was fine. I saw a few of the reviews for the book; maybe I saw all of them even? I was sent a clippings file so I saw most of the print ones - and I assume most of the online ones also. And I thought the reviews were - generally - positive; certainly constructive. There were one or two I read that had just rewritten my publicist's press release. Lazy stuff. But you couldn't say they were negative. I was grateful for (and of) the coverage I received.

I don't know that it was ever weird seeing my book in a store - but there have been a few cool moments and highlights.

Being phoned up and asked to pop into Unity Books to sign their copies of the book was the first real indication to me that I had - on some level - become an author. It was never a moment I thought about beforehand, not something you imagine when you're up at night, late, writing. And more often trying to think of something to write. But it's certainly something I'll think of after. It's a moment that sticks.

Same with seeing the book in a store in Sydney on a recent holiday. It was definitely cool to see the book in a shop overseas.

Facebook friends and blog readers sent me photos of the book - its cover always doing its job, selling the book. I received photos of the book as part of a front-window display, as part of the Auckland Art Gallery's Who Shot Rock exhibition merchandise, in someone's house, as a recent purchase; I received emails from people who had ordered it or had it sent to them as a gift from as far afield as England and America.

The one thing I instantly related to - from hearing a version of this story so many times when interviewing musicians - was the idea that from the very moment of release the book was no longer mine.

It was mine while it lived in my house - and in my head. And on my computer. It was still mine when the first copy arrived - about a month before it hit the shelves. But from the day of the Slow Boat launch it became anyone else's book - everyone else's book (he says, optimistically). Not mine.

My job was done. And I had a new job to do - promote the book.

Now that promotion is done. There might be one or two other things happen - a late event here or there. But the interviews and appearances are over. And the window-displays are down. In book-publishing terms On Song is old news. People have read it and told me they liked it - but generally people will always tell you to your face that they liked something; they won't tell you otherwise.

I have a handful of really special thoughts relating to the book and its reception that I'll share with you.

The first one was when a school kid wrote to me to tell me, with great enthusiasm, that my book was one of the awards at his school prizegiving. He added that he had not won and was deeply disappointed. He was going to reserve a copy of my book from the library.

I really liked that story. Both parts.

My not-quite-two-year-old-nephew spied the book in a shop and trotted over to his mother with a copy. We couldn't decide whether this was because he'd remembered seeing it from when I had shown them an early copy or because a bright orange cover had taken his eye. Either way, it's a good story; once again it's the book cover doing its job.

A woman on the bus, a stranger, congratulated me on the publication of my book.

A friend bought a copy of the book for her brother-in-law. He had worked with Jordan Luck in England, or lived with him. Or both. Or something along those lines...there was a story there anyway. So she posted the book to me to sign for him and I posted it on to Jordan to sign also. Jordan happily obliged and posted the book back. I liked being involved in that. I know I've told you all already that Jordan was very hospitable to me when I interviewed him for the book.

A week after the woman on the bus congratulated me the driver offered his congratulations.

A person at the Wishbone near my work congratulated me on the book.

There was an amazing poster campaign from Phantom Billstickers.

Colin Morris interviewed me at Unity Books and I shared some of the background of the book.

I had several people send me copies of my book to sign - from around the country, or I bought copies for people and signed them and posted them.

It was always amazing to me that people wanted this.

And so now we're out the other end. All done with all of this.

Life hasn't changed. At all. But, as my brother told me, I can now say I've written a book. It is something different from filing newspaper copy and blogging. (My brother telling me that, in his way, in his own time, was also one of the special moments).

Sales have been pretty good - from what I know. I haven't really asked for updates because I didn't write it to be constantly updated, to be a clock-watcher or banker. I wrote it because I wanted to write it; the subject was a challenge and interesting to me. And I had reason to attempt it. I wanted to share the stories behind some of our cultural history. I felt there were stories that should be told.

I'm at the stage - now - where the backhanded compliments are arriving. Someone told me the other day to not take this as an insult, but it (the book) was more crafted than they had expected, "I'm not used to that with your writing," he added.

Several people have commented only on the wonderful photographs. In some cases I've assumed that's meant as a dig - since I had almost nothing to do with the photographs (beyond recommending one or two of the photographers). But perhaps it's meant as a sincere tribute to the quality and range of photos - and that is certainly something worth celebrating.

We have one copy of the book in the house now. We had a couple of dozen at one point. We were a production line - Katy was wrapping them for people or organising postage, I was scribbling something not even feasibly close to decipherable as my name inside the front covers...and there was always a copy on the coffee table or by the stereo or on my desk or somewhere. And it was always, for a while anyway, a talking point when there were visitors.

But now there's one copy of the book. I wrote an inscription in it about two weeks ago. I have dedicated it to Oscar, our first born child. He's nearly 16 months old. I told him in the inscription that by the time he can read the book it might mean nothing to him, might be of no interest but hopefully he has a go at the book and takes in that it was written by the guy that he calls dad. And he might find out something about me from a time before he and I met. Something like that. The one copy of On Song in our house now sits in Oscar's room. On the shelf. In between Oh, The Places You'll Go! and The Red Tree.

Oh, and just the other week a very definite reminder arrived that in some senses the life-cycle of the book was complete, an emailed photo of that orange cover beaming out - doing its job, er...for the second time.

Postscript: The On Song radio series from Summer Noelle is available here at the Radio NZ archive. Also I made a list of all the songs, compiling the YouTube clips for them all, a video playlist if you like. And for Spotify people, I believe someone made a Spotify playlist for On Song.


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