26er Gordon Kerr has written lots of books. We think it’s 52 but Gordon’s lost count. They include short histories, collections of poetry, and true crime with gruesome titles like Killers With Cold Hearts. He talks to Elen Lewis about working at Waterstones, discovering electro swing, and not writing in a bubble.
What’s your day job?
I write books for a precarious living. Many of them are commissioned by publishers, although I have had a number of my own published (available at all good second-hand and remainder bookshops). Occasionally, I pick up some copywriting, but, on the whole, it’s unrelenting numbers of books. They have covered a wide variety of genres: travel, poetry, reference, art, true crime, biography and humour.
What are your private passions?
I’ve always loved poetry and have written it most of my life. I love the Beat poets – Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and their ilk – but contemporary writers like Robin Robertson and Derek Mahon really float my boat. Music is a deep passion too, all sorts, and I learn from my kids all the time these days. They put me onto the oddest (to me anyway) things from house to dubstep and I find there’s a great deal to like and admire. Recently, I’ve been enjoying electro swing – give Caravan Palace or Parov Stelar a listen. I guess my third passion is France where I live a part of my life.
What do people get wrong about you?
That I’ve got any money.
What do you like best about belonging to 26?
It has to be the people. I’ve met so many people who I think of as real friends and I seem to meet more of them as time goes on. I also love the events and wish there were more. They’re always entertaining and often inspiring. The recent Pecha Kucha event, for instance, was both these and more.
You’ve written 52 (!?) books. Wow. Which one are you proudest of?
It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I really have no idea how many books I’ve written. They get chopped up and re-published in different ways and the arrival of e-books has made this even more the case. There is a series of short histories that I’ve written that may be about the best thing I’ve ever worked on. So far I’ve covered Europe, Africa and A Short History of China was published a few weeks ago. It looks like Brazil could be next. But I suppose I’m most proud of a limited edition of my poems called You Can’t Get to East Kilbride From Here, illustrated by Ralph Steadman. To be honest, I have no pretensions regarding the quality of the poems – many of them were written when I was young – but the book is a thing of beauty and, somewhat ridiculously, sells for $350 on American rare book websites.
Which one has been the most successful?
There’s little doubt that the most successful would be one of my true crime books, one with a gruesome title like Killers With Cold Hearts or Rats & Squealers that sell huge quantities to sixteen year-old boys around the world.
How many books do you write a year?
I write as many books as I get commissioned to do and I have to work bloody hard to make them pay. It has probably been as many as six or eight in some years, but, although the number of books being published continues to rise inexorably, I find I am receiving fewer commissions. A lot of the small publishers I have worked for over the years have gone to the wall while others are struggling. I am receiving more commissions for short, snappy e-books of around 20,000 words but, sadly, they don’t pay nearly as well.
What advice would you offer fellow 26ers on earning a living as an author?
As with most businesses, it’s very tough out there in publishing at the moment. The industry is in turmoil and the revolution has only just begun. There are fewer barriers to getting your book to market, of course, but it depends to what level you are going to depend for your living on books. These days you have to hit the market as a fully-functioning marketing and PR Exocet missile. Even if you have a ‘proper’ publisher and your book is going to sit proudly on the shelves of whatever bookshops there are left, you have to be prepared to hustle and cajole to create awareness, to get reviews, to interest the deeply threatened bookseller and to persuade the cash-strapped reader to flash the cash. And you daren’t rely on your publisher.
What did your career at Waterstones teach you about writing successful books?
It’s funny, but I left Waterstones only in 2000, and everything is now so very different. Of course, there are still wonderful, handselling booksellers out there, and engaging their passion for your book is worth many copies and the chance of the elusive ‘word-of-mouth’ ripple that has created huge bestsellers such as Stieg Larsson’s wonderful trilogy. I could say that good writing is essential, but, of course, it isn’t. As we all know, there are many massive bestsellers that lack any kind of writerly quality whatsoever. It’s a bit of a lottery. Screenwriter William Goldman’s aphorism about Hollywood can equally be applied to publishing: “Nobody knows anything.”
What’s your best piece of advice for good writing?
It’s like that saying of golfer Gary Player’s. When asked if a degree of his success was down to luck, he said, “It’s funny, the harder you practise, the luckier you get.” Keep writing, get people to read and provide critiques. Don’t write in a bubble.
What are you working on now?
I’m just finishing an e-book, A Timeline of the Popes, which is, of course, now going to be fast-tracked to publication, given Benedict XVI’s decision to take a gold watch and head for the spiritual golf course. Then I’m working on moving to Dorset, but that’s another story entirely.
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