The Librarian’s Cellar: 31 Years of Hell! 1914 – 1945: An interview with author, Eamonn Ashe

In 1991, along with his sister Sheila, Eamonn Ashe took his mother to visit her late father’s grave in the war cemetery at St. Emilie near St. Quentin in France. She was 75 years of age at the time and she had never been to see his grave. It was also Eamonn’s first time visiting a war grave and on the way home, the idea of writing a book about the war seeded itself in his mind. His initial idea was to write a book about World War I but research quickly told him that there were plenty of books about the Great War. There were also plenty of books about World War II but only a handful which cover both wars, while books on the interwar period were very scarce. Eamonn decided to write a book that covered both wars and the interwar years, resulting in 31 Years of Hell! 1914-1945. I spoke to Eamonn about the process of creating his book, recently described by Joe Duffy ( Liveline, RTE Radio I )  as “ … an incredible book! Beautifully produced. Lots of photographs. Can stand beside any history book in terms of detail… ”

CF: Eamonn, your book is an informative resource that would take pride of place on any non-fiction shelf. Can you give us an insight into your personal research and writing process?

EA: Over the last twenty years (while still working full-time), I researched the book: I gathered and read books, collected newspaper articles and watched every war film and television documentary I could find. My company’s office became a research centre/library and in 2010 the serious writing began. I resolved that the book would be an ‘easy to read’ sectioned book that any reader could easily follow. I realised very quickly that unless I adopted some system of writing, the book would never get written. There were too many interruptions and demands on my time to make any kind of reasonable progress. Since I could always get by on six or seven hours sleep per night, I decided to try writing for two hours every night. I went to bed at 11pm, got up at 3am fresh as a daisy, worked for two hours and went back to bed at 5am. I immediately started to make progress. Initially I used an alarm clock to wake up but my body clock quickly took over and still does. I now read or watch a documentary during my nightly ‘waking hours’.

CF: That’s a dedicated process. You also worked with your daughter, Fiona, on the edit and format of the book. How did you find that process – the advantages – or challenges?

EA: When the writing was well advanced, my daughter Fiona said that she would like to edit the book and publish it through her company FlasheForward Communications. I was chuffed. Even though she had never published a book before, I had no doubts about her ability. I was, however, concerned about the amount of time she would have to spend away from her own business. As the work progressed, though, a different problem arose. I was very keen to publish at the earliest opportunity and Fiona is a perfectionist, so the editing took longer than I anticipated. This led to some differences of opinion, but we are both very protective of our father/daughter relationship, so we ensured that we kept communication about the book separate from family life. We are so alike that we understand each other very well and are extremely proud of each other’s work so the collaboration was a fruitful one. I am glad to say that our father/daughter relationship is as strong as ever and I am delighted with the high production values that Fiona’s perfectionism delivered.

CF: There are some powerful photographic images in the book. Was it a difficult task to find them and secure permissions?

EA: The majority of photographs which relate to the world wars are very powerful, so I had a rich selection to choose from. I was fortunate that the vast majority of images from 1914–1918 and 1939–1945 were out of copyright. Fiona sourced all of the images for 31 Years of Hell! 19141945 and she decided to procure most of them from the USA because websites such as the Library of Congress and the Naval History and Heritage Command facilitate the download of high-resolution images which are in the public domain. Since Fiona is not a copyright lawyer, she had to do a lot of research about copyright. It’s a tremendously complicated issue, not least because each country has a different duration of copyright protection and a different period of renewal of that copyright. There are copyright agreements between some countries. If you’re including images in a book, you need to either source images which are in the public domain in the countries in which you are selling the book or buy the rights to publish the images in those territories; the latter can be expensive. It may be possible to use some images free of charge for non-commercial use but there would be a charge for commercial use, such as publication in a book. Some of helpful resources that Fiona found include the UK’s National Archives, the US Copyright Office and the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

CF: Definitely a gargantuan task! Why did you choose the independent publishing route? What advantages / disadvantages do you see in comparison with a traditional publisher?

EA: I had originally planned to publish 31 Years of Hell! 19141945 through a traditional publisher. The advantages include the credibility of having a reputable publisher, improved distribution options because of their existing relationships and access to their database of customers. However, in light of the massive increase in books being published since the advent of self-publishing, it’s my understanding that traditional publishers have very limited budgets (if any) to provide an advance to authors or to spend on marketing their books. Since Fiona runs a digital agency — FlasheForward Communications — which creates videos and text content, it was a natural fit for her to add book publishing to her media services. Self-publishing has allowed us to design and drive our own marketing campaign. Selling books can be a slow but steady process and because we’ve invested in the production of it, we won’t lose momentum in marketing the book. Whereas traditional publishers have many books to promote, we have the advantage of having only one. It is our single focus.

CF: In terms of print runs and cover design, how easy, or difficult was it to find the right people to work with?

EA: With regard to the design of the book cover, it was not difficult at all to get the right people. I wanted world war scenes painted for the front and back covers. I was absolutely thrilled when a family friend, Olive Eustace — an exceptional artist — offered to paint the world war scenes. Her work was incredible! We then approached Caoimhe Mulroy of Once Upon Design who had designed FlasheForward Communications’ (and its sister company FlasheForward Films’) brand identity. Caoimhe is a superb designer. She took Olive’s paintings and added a gun smoke effect, creating a stunning book cover. I still get excited every time I look at it! With regard to printing, I had a specialised requirement. I wanted the maps to appear in the book beside the text they refer to. This meant placing the maps — which needed to be printed on photographic paper — throughout the book instead of collating them in one section, which is the way most printers print books. I had almost given up hope of being able to do that when Fiona found SprintPrint, which has the technology to place the maps where I wanted them. I am delighted with the result!

CF: How did you go about marketing the book? What worked? What did not?

EA: Securing publicity is challenging! It’s especially difficult to get media coverage or reviews in national newspapers or on national radio. I have the advantage that Fiona (who is also a marketing specialist) is handling PR for me. Writing a great press release is key. My top tip is to target newspapers and radio stations in your local area. I grew up in Galway and have lived in Drogheda for most of my adult life. I also played rugby for Dundalk for ten years, captaining the side in 1968/69 and being part of the team which won the Leinster Provincial Towns Cup in 1970. So Fiona has been successful in securing great print and radio coverage for the book in Galway and Louth. It’s been harder getting coverage in counties to which I don’t have a direct link. One of the best ways to market your book and sell books is to give talks. It’s also important to promote through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Above everything else, though, I recommend submitting your book to the annual Liveline radio programme (early December), which features self-published authors. Joe Duffy interviewed me on the show in 2016 and described 31 Years of Hell! 1914–1945 as “an incredible book. Beautifully produced. A fantastic tome!” He also gave me permission to use that quote on the back of the book when we ordered a second print run. The credibility that this has added to my book is invaluable.

More on Press coverage and Feedback HERE

CF: That is very helpful feedback, Eamonn. And in terms of getting the book reviewed in general, how easy, or difficult, do you find the process?

EA: In terms of national print media, it is very difficult to get reviews. It’s easier in local press and speciality publications. 31 Years of Hell! 1914–1945 is currently under consideration for a review in the magazine History Ireland. In the Galway Independent, historian and author William Henry gave my book a glowing review. (Read it HERE) The fact that Mr. Henry’s speciality is history means his review elevates the credibility of the book. It’s necessary to set aside ‘publicity copies’ of your book to send to journalists who might review it or interview you as the author.

CF: Getting an independently published book into bookstores can be a daunting task for authors. Do you have a strategy you can share that worked for you?

EA: It’s a hard graft getting distribution through Easons or Argosy (which supples Waterstones and many independent bookshops). They are overwhelmed with submissions. I found Dubray Books a pleasure to deal with. They looked at the book and replied very quickly saying they wanted to stock it. If you don’t get accepted by any of these three, then you can approach independent bookshops directly. Our strategy was that Fiona phoned them first, highlighting the positive PR the book has received. Some book buyers were nervous of self-published books: they told me that many contain spelling and grammar mistakes and are poorly produced. Fiona alleviated their fears by offering to have me call in and show them the book without any obligation to stock it. When I did call in, most buyers described my book as “very well produced”. I always brought ‘sale or return’ invoices and copies of the book with me so that if the buyer wanted to stock it, we could do a deal there and then. We’ve had a very high success rate with this strategy.

CF: Do you have any advice for authors who might be considering publishing a non-fiction book?

EA: My advice to an author considering the publication of a non-fiction book is simple: know your subject (this will probably entail a vast amount of reading and research), know your readers and, above all, be patient. Writing a book is not something you can do in a hurry. You will rewrite every sentence and every page umpteen times until you, your proofreaders and your publisher are happy. I would also advise you to either write a book which does not need visuals, or alternatively create your own visuals (photographs, diagrams, etc.) to simplify copyright and keep costs down. If at all possible, try to identify the editing, design and publishing skills you need among family, friends and neighbours who will give you a discounted rate. The costs involved in self-publishing are significant and, even when you get distribution, you will have to pay bookshops approximately 35% to 45% commission. So you have to sell a lot of books to recoup your investment. My premier piece of advice for authors is to quantify success not in terms of recouping your investment (which will be a bonus if it happens) but in terms of the achievement of writing your book and getting it published. Enjoy the affirmation from friends and family, and be proud of yourself!

CF: Excellent, practical advice, Eamonn. And finally, what’s next for your book?

EA: Britain and the US were key players in the two world wars, so they are good markets for 31 Years of Hell! 19141945. Now that Fiona and I have secured distribution throughout Ireland, our next challenge is to break the US and UK markets.

My thanks to Eamonn Ashe for this informative interview. ’31 Years of Hell! 1914–1945′ is available from bookstores nationwide.  A full list of stockists can be found HERE