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The Table Read Most Read Awards

Stephen Ellcock talks on The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, about his new book, England On Fire, and the creative writing process behind it.

JJ Barnes editor of The Table Read online creativity, arts and entertainment magazine

Written by JJ Barnes

www.jjbarnes.co.uk

I interviewed author Stephen Ellcock about the new artbook, England On Fire, written with creative partner Mat Osman.

Tell me a bit about who you are.

I am a London-based online collector, wrangler and curator of images, writer, researcher and former musician, who also spent many years working as a bookseller and within publishing, specialising in illustrated books.   

Author Interview, Stephen Ellcock, England on Fire, The Table Read
Mat Osman

When not researching, compiling, and creating books, I spend almost all my available time creating an ever – expanding, virtual archive of images on Instagram and Facebook.

My obsessive, but no doubt doomed, attempt to create the ultimate ‘Museum Without Walls’ has so far attracted an audience of more than 600,000 followers worldwide. 

Reading Never Goes Out of Style

When did you first WANT to write a book?

I was quite a precocious and possibly quite obnoxious teenager, who self-identified as a budding poet and ended up winning a few prizes and quite a lot of local media attention for my work (and, yes, I DID cringe inwardly while typing that sentence!)

I studied Drama at university and wrote, co-wrote several plays, scripts and, in particular, sketches, but after graduating I basically withdrew from polite society for a number of years, completely abandoning any attempt at a conventional lifestyle or career. I ended up in the music business for a while and when fizzled out I managed to get a job in bookselling.

I did continue to write throughout this time, either completing or abandoning various books but I never really did anything with them. I neither submitted them to publishers, agents or even authors I knew, nor showed them to anyone, even my partners or closest friends.        

When did you take a step to start writing?

After I was ‘made redundant’ (a euphemism for ‘being unceremoniously booted out and paid off’) from my last job in publishing, I was offered regular freelance work writing texts for illustrated, children’s and gift books, card games, ‘oracle’ decks etc.

These were all ‘work-for-hire’ contracts I accepted to pay the rent and are not really part of my ‘official’ CV.  I am, however, quite proud of some the finished books and games, particularly the children’s titles, although others are definitely best forgotten, even if they occasionally return unbidden to haunt me.  

As my social media following continued to grow, publishers began to take notice and approach me with proposals and offers.  I turned several offers down, including those from some prestigious, major publishers. This was obviously quite a gamble, but I felt the publishers in question had spotted a potential opportunity and hadn’t really given much real thought as to how best to translate what I am attempting to achieve on social media into book form.

I eventually signed a deal with September Publishing, a small but very ambitious, independent publisher because their pitch to me was the most thoughtful, imaginative, and appealing. Crucially, their deal also gave me a considerable degree of creative control plus a generous budget for image rights and clearances

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How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?

I spent about 18 months in total working on All Good Things, although I had been thinking about the basic concept for several years before starting work on the actual book and had already accumulated a vast archive of appropriate images from which to choose.

How long did it take you to complete your latest book from the first idea to release?

England on Fire was originally commissioned back in October 2019. The publication date has had to be delayed and postponed a couple of times not only due to the challenges, interruptions and problems caused by the pandemic, but also because I had a serious accident early last year, from which it took me a long time to recover.

Focusing on your latest release. What made you want to write England On Fire?

There have been many books published about English art and visual culture in the past few years, most of them focusing on the landscape, and romantic and pseudo-mystical representations of England and English identity, encompassing both traditional and ‘modern’ traditions (‘modern’ usually signifying the first 50 or 60 years of the last century).

I wanted to create a book that is truly representative of 21st century England, featuring a genuinely representative, diverse selection of contemporary artists alongside the great names of the past, and then mix them all up with unfamiliar images, illustrations, photographs, maps and documents I had unearthed deep in the archives of libraries, institutions and museums worldwide.  

What were your biggest challenges with writing England On Fire?

Although I have written the texts for my previous books, the text for England On Fire has been written by Mat Osman, who has done a remarkable job , his words complementing the images and encapsulating the themes embedded in the book perfectly.

Obtaining rights and permissions to use images that are in still in copyright, which meant that we were constantly having to revise our selection and required us to improvise both images and Mat’s text.  

Contacting living artists or their representatives is also incredibly time consuming but, thankfully, my editor was brilliant at dealing with all that and the overwhelming majority of the contemporary artists we contacted were incredibly helpful, encouraging and generous.

What was your research process for England On Fire?

Spending many, many thousands of hours rooting and rummaging around in the archives of museums, galleries, libraries and various institutions worldwide.  

As with my other books, I do tend to focus on American library and museums when I am searching for public domain material or anything created pre-1950, because many of their major institutions allow free downloads of non-copyright material via Creative Commons licenses. The type of illustrated books I create would almost certainly not exist without such licenses and free material.

How did you plan the structure of England On Fire?

As with other projects, I had a basic structure in mind and a mental list of what I felt to be the key themes, but once I had selected an initial shortlist of 2-300 images the structure and themes do tend to become apparent and suggest themselves.  

Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did England On Fire need?

I received an incredible amount of support and encouragement, from both an editorial and administrative point of view.

Fiona, my editor, displayed extraordinary patience, diplomacy and determination in the face of some very difficult challenges and I don’t think this book would have ever seen the light of day without her input, energy and focus.   

What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?

This is not exactly writing advice per se, but I would strongly suggest that any aspiring author should spend some time researching the publishing, and bookselling industries, investigating how they function and operate and, most crucially, the relationship between publishers and booksellers and internet retailers.

It is well worth paying particular attention to the sales and marketing departments of publishers, both large and small, and how vital their roles are within the industry and how the powerful roles they can play in determining the success, or otherwise of a particular book.

An understanding of the basic economics of the business, as well discount structures, trade terms, distribution networks etc may also come in very handy.

This may sound incredibly tedious and mundane, but even the most superficial research and insight into the economic realities of the book trade can be quite a wake-up call and may turn out to be extremely helpful in the future and save a lot of trouble.

Also, try to find/ cultivate/ woo / befriend a sympathetic and forbearing lawyer who can be an indispensable ally and occasional attack dog when it comes to contracts, royalties, agents, and the like.

As a general rule it is also worth remembering that Big is not necessarily Best and that Small is not always Beautiful.

Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?

My next book, ‘The Cosmic Dance’, will be published by Thames and Hudson in the autumn. This basically takes the form of a lavishly illustrated journey from the microcosm to macrocosm. This is a long-cherished project that I have been planning and working on for the past decade or more.   

I am also working on a book on textiles, which should appear next year plus a couple of limited edition, non-trade artists books which will appear at some point or other.   

And, finally, are your proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?

Absolutely. I probably spent far more time working on this book than any other, often in difficult and challenging circumstances but I was determined that it should see the light of day and that it should also reflect my original conception.

England On Fire is definitely a collaborative achievement , so any credit has to be shared with Mat for his wonderful text, with Fiona, the editor, with Josse, the designer and with all the artists who so generously contributed to the book.    

England On Fire: A Visual Journey Through England’s Psychic Landscape

 is available to buy on 10th May on Amazon and in all good book stores.

Pop all your book, website and social media links here so the readers can find you:

England On Fire, with text by Mat Osman (Watkins Publishing, May 2022)

https://www.watkinspublishing.com/shop/england-on-fire-a-visual-journey-through-albions-psychic-landscape/

All Good Things (September Publishing, 2019)

https://septemberpublishing.org/product/all-good-things/

The Book of Change (September Publishing UK, Princeton Architectural Press, USA, 2021)

https://septemberpublishing.org/product/the-book-of-change/

Jeux de mains, a collaboration with Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi (Chose Commune, 2021)

https://chosecommune.com/book/jeux-de-mains/

Instagram:

https://www.instagram.com/stephenellcock/

Facebook:

https://www.facebook.com/stephen.ellcock/

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