Last week a couple of exciting things happened to me. On Wednesday I spoke to someone who could put me in touch with Silvia Hussleman, the 1961 water skiing world champion from Luxembourg. Then on Friday I managed to track down Vicki Van Hook, the American who Silvia beat in 1961, together with Jean Calmes, another Luxembourg water skier who won the European championship in 1962.
Okay, none of that sounds particularly enthralling, but for me it represents what started off as a joke, a fantasy, becoming very much real.
It’s all happened very fast. For years I used to joke that, as an academic expert on heavy metal and the British Jewish community, I was simply a biggish fish in a smallish pond – like the best water skier in Luxembourg. I’m not sure what caused it, but driving down to Bournemouth for the Easter holidays last April, I suddenly thought: ‘maybe I should try and find the best water skier in Luxembourg’. An idea for a book quickly followed and a synopsis suddenly poured out of me, seemingly fully formed: a book about big fishes in small ponds, started with the eponymous best water skier in Luxembourg, then moving on to others like the best bassoonist in Finland and the top novelist in Surinam.
I didn’t really expect anyone to be interested in my idea. I only sent it off to the just-launched Unbound in May because I thought there was a tiny opportunity to be in on the ground floor of an interesting new project. I didn’t expect a reply, but to my astonishment, John Mitchinson responded enthusiastically.
From then on, everything turned a little unreal as what had for a long time been an idle joke suddenly become real. In early August I found myself at a water skiing club in the New Forest, filming my pitch video. By the end of the month my project was live on the Unbound site and live appearances talking about it quickly followed at the Voewood Festival and the Unbound Live event in Notting Hill. It’s now late September, my project is nearly 60% funded and in anticipation of full funding I’m starting to do the research. There’s a good chance that I will be visiting Luxembourg by the end of the year.
I can safely say that becoming an Unbound author has been one of the more surprising yet exhilarating experiences of my life. My previous experiences with publishing have often been positive, but they have always been slow and immensely laboured. Writing detailed proposals and getting them accepted takes months if not years. Steering books through editing and production is also a lengthy process. In contrast, with Unbound all I really needed was a germ of a good idea and the support of the Unbounders themselves.
Of course, getting funding takes work. I’ve spent a lot of time hustling to get support for my book, using all my contacts to try and bring supporters on board. It’s not easy and there are no guarantees that my book will ever get fully funded, but it has been hugely enjoyable. In the process of hustling and pitching I’ve clarified and refined my ideas for the book. I’ve tried to create a germ of a community around it. Books are nothing without readers and being forced to recruit every reader yourself is a very good antidote to smugness and superiority. The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg is about meeting people and it’s entirely appropriate that I should start doing so even before the research and writing starts.
I don’t think that Unbound needs to become the dominant model in publishing. However it is definitely a good thing to have a space in publishing for people to take some risks, to offer new and quirky books to new audiences. Wherever Unbound goes in the future, whether or not it succeeds in sending me to Luxembourg, it has made publishing fun - at least for me – and in the context of an industry struggling to adapt to new conditions that is quite a feat.