What should London’s anthem be?

If it goes independent, obviously. And who knows post-Brexit?!?

London Calling?

West End Girls?

Dizzee Rascal’s Fix Up, Look Sharp?

“Er… What?” I hear you say. Yes, Dizzee would be a strange choice. But he’s mine, and for a good reason, which you can learn by listening to Adrian Lacey’s great London Podcast at his site, via iTunes or here if you’re using Android.

I’ve never been asked the question before, which is surprising given so many cities, at least in the US, have anthems.

Adrian gave me one of the best podcast experiences I’ve had, taking me back to my childhood school in the London suburbs to stand in pouring rain (that wasn’t his fault) and explain where my love of music came from, doing a full, fascinating interview about the book, and even getting me to do a reading.

In the episode, he also goes out on London’s streets to ask people what their anthem would be. And he tells a brilliant story about his (white, lower-middle class, British) parents trying to write Nigeria’s anthem when it became independent.

It’s a real fun and interesting listen. And few podcast presenters go to such efforts, so, seriously, head here to hear it.

Adrian’s done some amazing other podcasts on everything from the Fire of London to Bob Marley’s London home, so check out other episodes if you can. Huge thanks to him if he’s reading.

Listen to me on Little Atoms!

This isn't actually the podcast, but click it and you'll be right there!

This isn’t actually the podcast, but click it to be flown right there. The wonder of the internet!

Any of you listen to Little Atoms? What do you mean, “No”?!? You should. It’s, like, the best books podcast in the UK and I’m not just saying that because they’ve got me on it this week.

If you want to hear me talk about my book and national anthems – covering everything from the Olympics to ISIS’s music – head here or subscribe via a site like iTunes. Although you should also just trawl their website, as on it you can listen to everyone from Jon Ronson to Jonathan Meades talk about their amazing books.

Neil Denny, the presenter, interviewed me about 10 minutes after talking to Marcus du Sautoy about his latest book, What We Cannot Know (listen here). He couldn’t find a spare mug for me to drink from, so I used Marcus’. I had a cold for the next week. Make of that what you will.

Oh, look out for Little Atoms’ magazine too since it contains original journalism as well as long extracts from their best interviews. And go and see Neil interview Hadley Freeman in London this September as Hadley is hilarious and you are 110% guaranteed to fall in love with her, even though you know she’s happily married with multiple children.

Get on your bike! What to do once your book’s out, advice from a new author

Bike and Clapham Books

My book – an “endlessly enthralling” part-history, part-travelogue about national anthems – came out last August on Random House, but since it’s just emerged in paperback, I thought someone might appreciate this guide of what to do after your book appears. Because I’d have really liked it when mine did!

1) Visit every bookshop you can

Random House did an amazing job of getting my book into Waterstones, the UK’s largest book chain, but I quickly discovered it wasn’t in many independents – the stores I buy books from. And to me, that meant it was like it didn’t exist.

What did I do? I cycled to every independent in London I could find. This took ages – the best part of two weeks – and was at times utterly dispiriting. In one, I asked if I could have 30 seconds of their time and got the reply, “You’ve already wasted more than that, goodbye.” In another, I was asked two questions:

“Is it self published?”

“Has it been reviewed in The Times?”

It was only because I replied, “No,” and “Yes”, that they agreed to take the book’s name.

But other occasions were, frankly, brilliant. The Stoke Newington Bookshop in north London already stocked it and almost instantly booked me for their festival. While Newham Bookshop in east London ordered some and arranged a talk based partly, it seemed, on the fact I “looked alright”.

I dread to think how hard it’d be cycling around shops if you’re a fiction author – “Can I tell you about my book? It’s a modern retelling of Jonah and the Whale”. I also dread to think what it’d be like if you’re self-published.

But I would still recommend doing it above anything else.

Oh, I took a CD of brilliant anthem covers with me to give to shops in an effort to guilt them into stocking the book. I wouldn’t recommend doing that, though. It turns out most shops, like most people, don’t play CDs anymore.

2) Contact every festival and event organiser you can, and do it NOW

Of all the things I’ve done, events have been the most successful in getting the book ‘out there’.

I did a 5-minute reading at the Brixton Book Jam recently and sold out of books immediately afterwards. I’d taken along 15 copies, which I thought was somewhat optimistic; turned out to be the opposite. Saying that, at other events, I only sold a third of that, but that’s still five more I would have otherwise

I would recommend doing as many events as you can, but contact people early. And I mean E A R L Y. Like yesterday.

I didn’t realise that book festivals book a long time in advance – literally six months, a year in some cases. Most of the ones I contacted loved the idea of me doing a talk, but had already filled all their slots, which was, again, quite dispiriting. Your publisher may actually arrange events for you, but mine largely left me to it and it took me too long to realise I needed to act fast.

Be creative too: schools, your local library, universities – all may like you to come in, especially if you’re writing non-fiction. I write that not having done any talks at schools or libraries, but I’m sure it’s true.

3) Practice signing books

I’ve written some utter rubbish in books I’ve signed – “I hope this gets you singing!” being perhaps the worse. Make sure you don’t write anything as bad.

4) Do as much press as you want, but don’t get ripped off

I honestly haven’t got the faintest idea what the best form of press is. I’ve written articles about anthems, listicles, I’ve been on TV talking about them, I’ve popped up on radio shows and done podcasts.

I haven’t checked how many copies my book’s sold after each bit. That might be a mistake as it’d be good to realise what works and what doesn’t, but I long ago decided I didn’t want to know how many copies my book had sold (it’s not good for your mental health, especially after your agent tells you a good non-fiction sells a paltry 1,500 in the UK and not to expect any more).

I admit I might have found it easier getting press than others do. I’m a journalist so am used to pitching to editors (and dealing with the rejection). I also have a very helpful PR person, and I a topic that’s regularly in the news. But do keep plugging away no matter how many editors ignore your calls.

When you are doing press, though, keep in mind it’s always impossible to get across what your book is. Some articles I’ve written have made my book seem like a wacky fact book (it isn’t); others have made it seem like a deathly serious analysis of nationalism (it isn’t). Also, don’t be ripped off. If someone’s asking you to write something that requires original research, ask to be paid. If someone’s asking you to go into a radio studio, always ask for an appearance fee. You may not get any money, but you’ll feel better for asking.

Where have I drawn the line? To be honest, I haven’t turned down much. It’s only really been from US publications who’ve asked me to do work on the basis it’ll be “good exposure”. My book isn’t out in the US and spending several hours on a piece for a one-sentence quote hasn’t seemed like a good use of my time when I could be writing blogs like this instead!

5) Enjoy every minute

The first few weeks after my book came out were such a panic I didn’t do one thing: enjoy the moment. I had a book out! I’d worked on it for years, I was proud of it, and now people were reading it. Some were even enjoying it. That is utterly amazing.

And then I met another author one night who literally said, “You’ve done something thousands want to. Have fun with it.”

I’ve tried to ever since, and it’s led to some of the most amazing experiences – seeing a man buy my book in a shop, making over 500 people laugh at a Book Slam, being interviewed by journalists I admire, meeting Hadley Freeman at a literary festival and having her drag me around like her fake husband…

For all the slog of cycling around every book shop in London, it’s worth it, I promise.

How to write a book proposal (off topic, but hopefully helpful posts #1)

I get asked, bizarrely frequently, how to get a book published. Bizarrely because I’m not J K Rowling; I’m someone who’s written a book on national anthems.

But if I can help, I will, so how did I get a deal?

If I’m being honest, one of the key moments was when an agent approached me after seeing an awful article I’d written for the BBC which dodgily claimed I was writing a book on these songs (I hadn’t written a word; I was more marking territory). They gave me some guidelines explaining how to write a proposal and asked me to get in touch when I’d finished it.

I wish I could simply paste those here, but it’s not my work (stealing is bad, kids!) so instead I’ll just give you the gist. And the gist is a proposal needs to answer five questions:

  • What’s your book about? Obviously
  • What’s new about it? That’s especially important for non-fiction. Think how many books there are about the Second World War
  • Why are you the person to write it?
  • Why’s it time for your book? Anniversaries always help apparently. I think my proposal banged on about the World Cup and Olympics a lot and how anthems are in everyone’s minds every two years
  • Who is your audience and why will they buy it?

The proposal itself should be split into several sections, they suggested:

  • an introduction explaining what the book is and answering everything above
  • a chapter-by-chapter outline
  • a section containing all the boring, but important, details like expected length (75-90,000 words is typical), delivery date, what extras could work for an ebook, and whether you’re going to insist on including lots of pictures or music you don’t have copyright for (I was asked repeatedly about who owns national anthems)
  • A biography to explain who on earth you are and prove that you can sell the book once it’s out. Have you done any public speaking or radio, for instance?

I didn’t actually go with that agent – they simply weren’t right for me – but I did follow their guidelines to the letter, wrote the proposal and a sample chapter and sent them off to another who I knew had dealt with similar books.

He loved the idea, fortunately, but told me it was so bizarre (part-travel, part-history) – and me so unknown – that I needed to write two more chapters before he’d consider taking it on.

That took me ages (I was fitting research into holidays, and writing late at night), but it worked out.

How important was the proposal? Vital. No agent would have taken me on without it. But it was also just personally helpful, as it made me work out exactly what I wanted to do and think about such topics as who my audience was which ultimately improved the writing. It was a lot of work (5,485 words, 19 pages), but I wouldn’t hesitate doing it again. Although saying that, the chapters were what actually got me the deal, especially one on Nepal’s national anthem, through which showed I could take the story of a minute-long song and make it have broad relevance. And that chapter was funny. That really helped. Buy my book if you want to read that and wonder why on earth a publisher liked it!

I’ve heard of people securing agents and deals without a proposal just an idea – and obviously you don’t have to get an agent or publisher at all these days – but if you think it’d help you, I really suggest giving it a go.

Apologies to any regular readers for posting something that wasn’t about national anthems. But so many people helped me with my book, I thought I’d try and help a little back. Over the next few days, I’ll do a couple of other posts featuring advice I wish I’d had when I published. Feel free to share/bear with me [delete as appropriate].

Everything you should see at this weekend’s Stoke Newington Literary Festival


Most importantly, me! On Sunday at 2pm, I’ll be revealing everything you need to know about national anthems just in time for Euro 2016 and the Olympics. I’m even going to shoehorn in the EU referendum, which should please Boris Johnson. Or maybe not. Get tickets here.

But as I’m all about spreading the love, I also seriously recommend:

David Quantick, Saturday at 1pm, who is talking the art of swearing. TicketsIf you can’t get into that, at the same time Thurston Moore, once of Sonic Youth, is talking about free jazz. Afterwards, he will presumably dodge your questions about his ex-wife. Tickets for that are here.

Sarah Perry. She’s written a great sounding book about Essex, where I’m from. She is apparently one of 2016’s most exciting literary voices. That’s all you need to know really, isn’t it? She’s speaking Saturday at 4pm, and it’s free. Details are here.

Hadley Freeman, the hilarious journalist, is being hilarious about ’80s movies Sunday at 5pm. If you’d like to get a ticket, you know what to do.

And finally, at 6pm on Sunday, David Mitchell – DAVID MITCHELL! – is talking all his amazing books. I probably shouldn’t go as I’m a bit obsessed – if you and I were ever to go out, I’d give you a copy of his book Black Swan Green – but you should. Tickets are at that link!

My paperback’s outtttt – win a copy

Republic or Death paperback

My paperback’s out!

It’s basically the same as the hardback except it’s had the mistakes removed (especially the bit where I said someone was dead when they actually were very much alive – whoops!). The French chapter’s also changed a lot to reflect everyone in Paris singing la Marseillaise following the terror attacks in Paris. Never write a book about a moving subject.

Basically, it’s better all round, although I admit it is less good for hitting people with or for killing spiders.

You can buy it here, but if you’d prefer getting it for free, my publisher’s giving away 20 copies over at Goodreads (COMPETITION CLOSED SORRY) where you can also marvel at its 4.21/5 rating and such reviews as “Who knew national anthems could be so fascinating?” and “I enjoyed this book a lot more than I imagined I would from the title.” Good luck!