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Interview with author Neil Daniels
13 July 2010
THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE POWER-CHORD
Interview with NEIL DANIELS by Bruce Mee
Ever wondered what it takes to write a book on your favourite band? Fireworks, Rocktopia and Powerplay contributor Neil Daniels did, and went the extra mile by writing the first extensive biography of UK metal heroes Judas Priest, a result of which has lead to several further books being commissioned and published. I thought it would be an interesting subject for taking a closer look behind the scenes, so had a chat with Neil for Rocktopia.
So, how did you get started in writing music biographies? How did you get your first book deal?
I knew I wanted to sink my teeth into a book at some point; I’d always had the idea at the back of my mind but it was just a matter of, who do I write about? Around the time I was thinking of writing a book, Judas Priest had announced their reunion tour as part of the Ozzfest bill and some European dates had also been scheduled; they had also announced plans for a new album and a world tour. I knew there’d only ever been one Priest book and that was an official but very slim illustrated book by Steve Gett published in the early eighties. I thought about it and asked Joel McIver for advice; he told me to write a detailed proposal and shop the idea around to various publishers. I did that before he gave me an email address for Chris Charlesworth at Omnibus Press. A few months later I got a reply from Chris saying he was giving the idea the green light. It was amazing luck, really. The timing was perfect. I went down to London to have a meeting with Chris and a couple of weeks later I got the contract. I wasn’t sure if I could do it; whether I was kidding myself or not, and I had a real lack of confidence when the contract arrived. If it wasn’t for one person – and she knows who she is – I would probably have bailed out. I have to thank her for everything, really. It took a year for me to write and research the book and there was a lot of negativity from the band’s management but when it was published it got a lot of good reviews. In terms of the actual writing of the book, it was a real learning curve and I’ve come along way since then. I know what I’m doing now!
Did writing for rock magazines help you get your foot in the door, or did you have to write your first book then try get a publishing deal with it?
Yes, you do have to have some background in writing. Even now with eight books published, editors always ask me for copies of my books to see what my writing is like. Back when I first started I had written bits for Record Collector, Powerplay, Fireworks and several websites but writing a 90,000 word book is a hell of a lot different from writing a 100 word review. I learned that from writing the Priest book which was very hard indeed. Of course, you can self-publish your first book – as Martin Popoff did – and work that way up before you get a deal with a mainstream or independent publisher; but they will ALWAYS ask ‘What have you written?’
Obviously it helps if you are a fan of the band ... was this the case with your first book? What about later books, were you a fan, or did you have to push yourself into writing the book based on the financial aspects?
Good question and the answer is a bit of both. Yes, I was – and am – a Judas Priest fan so that was no brainer; similarly I wanted to co-write ‘Dawn Of The Metal Gods’ with Al Atkins because it’s a different angle on the Priest story. With the other books I’ve written, well, I was offered the Robert Plant book before the O2 reunion and knowing that I was not an expert I still liked his music enough to want to write a book on him, and there’d never been a book on his solo work before which is what compelled me to write it. It got some dubious reviews but I’m still proud of it and I wasn’t given very long to write it. I do like Bon Jovi though they have never bettered their first four albums and probably never will – I’m very critical of a lot of their recent work. Surprisingly, I’m also a fan of Linkin Park though I can’t stand ‘Collision Course’, the album they did with Jay-Z but I love their debut ‘Hybrid Theory’ and thought ‘Minutes To Midnight’ was excellent and deserved more attention from critics. I would never write a book on an artist I don’t like in some way.
Do you find the artists quite opposed to the idea of you doing biographies? What is the general kind of reaction you receive from the artists?
Well, Judas Priest were totally opposed to the idea of writing a book on them. They did challenge it and their lawyers sent me an email requesting copies (obviously to see if there was anything libelous in it, which there isn’t) and we even changed the title ‘The True Story Of...’ to ‘The Story Of...’ just to please them because they moaned it can’t be the true story if they are not involved. The best thing happened when Jayne Andrews, their manager co-ordinator – or whatever her title is – posted a notice on the official website telling fans that my book has nothing to do with the band thus giving me lots of free promotion. The news post was taken down shortly afterwards when the likes of Blabbermouth got hold of it and news spread like wildfire that a book on the band was to be released. Not the cleverest of moves on her part, really. Would an official Judas Priest biography include a personal letter from Dave Holland? Would an official book even mention Dave Holland’s imprisonment? I doubt it. Judas Priest have made some silly mistakes in their career – probably one reason why they’re not as big as Iron Maiden – so an official book would be nothing more than an extended press release for the band. They’re not like Motley Crue or Aerosmith – they’re very secretive so an official book would probably be quite dull. Besides, its way too late now anyway – there’s my book, the book I did with Al Atkins, Martin Popoff’s excellent bio and Mathias Mader’s German book. There’s no room in the market for another Priest book. As for the others, it was better to publish them as unofficial books because most official ones are watered down avoiding the nitty-gritty of the artists’ career.
Have you ever done an official biography? And if so, how much easier is this than a non-official, when you don’t have the co-operation of the artist?
This ties in with the last question. I’ve never been offered to write an official biography but if the offer did arise, depending on what the circumstances are, sure, I’d consider it. It would depend on the artist and how much information they want made public. I co-wrote ‘Dawn Of The Metal Gods’ with Al Atkins which is his autobiography covering his stint in Priest from 1969-1973 and the rest of his career, so that can be classed as an official book. From what I know of other writers’ experiences it is much easier – and makes a far more effective book – to write an unofficial one if you have interviews with those that have worked with the artist and lots of first-hand research. A lot of the time too, artists want a lot of money which is why official books are published through massive companies like Random House etc.
How long does it normally take to write a biography, and how much research goes into it?
It depends on the type of book. My books on Bon Jovi and Linkin Park are not biographies per se so they took around 8 months, but my Judas Priest one took a year with 6 months on research and 6 months on writing it. I’m much quicker these days and could probably write a book in 6 months with first hand interviews, printed and internet research. I always check my facts though because the net has a lot of errors. It really depends on how much I know about the artists, what the word count is and how much research is needed. Each book is different.
Is the writing something you can see yourself making a living at, or is it more something of a side project you have? I would have expected the Judas Priest and Robert Plant biography to have sold quite well – what are the typical sales figures for rock biographies?
Huh, at one point I thought it might happen but not now. Advances haven’t gone up, magazine work is drying up and book sales are sluggish because people aren’t buying them. I’ll stick with a day job and write as a side project, and what money I do make covers the bills etc. I’ve never had much paid work from magazines anyway – I wrote some bits for two popular rock magazines but the money was terrible. It just wasn’t worth the hassle. You write because you want to write and enjoy the music. I obviously still write for Fireworks and Powerplay because I love it and its fun, but I’ll stick with my books rather than venture out into other magazines. I’ve made some money from books but not enough to live off. You’d have to have 2 major book deals a year and some paid magazine work to justify making a living from it. I know only a handful of writers who can do that. I’ve earned very little in the way of royalties, actually.
You’ve also published several collections of interviews with both rock artists as well as the journalists behind the scenes. How did these ventures come about?
Well, the idea for ‘All Pens Blazing’ (a pun of the Priest song ‘All Guns Blazing’) was triggered after I started publishing interviews I’d done via email with writers on my website www.neildaniels.com. I’d been emailing with Martin Popoff and the idea came up to publish a book containing those interviews. I’d gotten a lot of positive feedback from the ‘Interviews With Writers’ section of my site. I like the ‘Paris Review Of Books’ style idea – a library of books that contains interviews with famous authors, but my series would be specifically rock and metal scribes. I also like Popoff’s ‘Ye Olde Metal’ library of books and I wanted my own. It’s a nice area so I reckoned I could justify it and have enough interest from fans and readers. I consider the ‘APB’ books to be documents of rock history because they do tell the story of rock journalism albeit in a dis-jointed way through interviews. Volume I features 65 interviews, some of which were published on my site, but most of them are exclusive to the book. Volume II, which is out in a few weeks from now, contains 69 interviews. The first volume got some great reviews and a lot of positive feedback because I had interviewed a lot of Kerrang! and Metal Hammer writers that were popular in the eighties and don’t really write anymore, so Derek Oliver, Dave Reynolds, Paul Suter, Howard Johnson as well as big names that are still popular like Geoff Barton and Dave Ling. It’s a small but meaty book.
My other collection is called ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Mercenaries’ and it is basically a collection of interviews I’ve done over the years with rock stars/bands, including Dio, Sammy Hagar and Mick Jones et al. I might publish a second volume at some point.
Details can be found at www.authorsonline.com and you can buy them from Amazon.
I think those collections are self-published. Can you tell us how this works, and how you compare it to working with a deal from an actual publisher?
Not specifically, no. This is where it gets slightly complicated – self-publishing is entirely DIY, so you do everything yourself including buying an ISBN, having the cover designed and formatting the text, finding a printers, selling and marketing the book, etc. It costs a lot of money too from what I gather. Again, Martin Popoff does a brilliant job with his many self-published tomes but I know he spends a lot of time at the post office mailing his books. I don’t have anywhere to store a print run of 500 copies too.
The ‘All Pens Blazing’ and ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Mercenaries’ collections are published through print on demand. There are literally hundreds of POD companies online all offering FREE publishing because of the brilliance of digital technology but you still have to pay for the publishers services (ISBN, putting the book for sale on Amazon, etc). It is still cheaper than self-publishing and the royalties are higher than your usual publishing deal. In the States a lot of authors use lulu.com but here in the UK I’ve gone for AuthorsOnline. They’re both very similar and the basic service packages are about the same price. It was cheaper for me to pay a designer (James Gaden) to design the covers for ‘APB2’ and ‘R’N’RM’ than it was to have a more expensive package with the publisher that included the full design of the book. (You will have to research this; it gets complicated.)
The first POD book I did – ‘APB1’ – was a real learning curve because I had no idea what I was doing and neither did my friend and webmaster who designed and formatted the text, so the text came out too small and the cover was very dark. He gave up a lot of his free time for which I am still eternally grateful for, but for the next two POD books I had to hire the services of a professional designer. I’m going to go back to ‘APB1’ later this year and have it redesigned and formatted so both volumes make a nice neat pair.
As the name suggests, books are printed on demand so there is no set print run and no copies hiding in a warehouse somewhere. Each copy is printed specifically for each order. No money is wasted. You go online, order the book and it is printed for you. Anybody can do it, be a writer that is. You will need to spend some money but it is not a lot. The hardest part is marketing the book and letting people know it is out there. It’s much better for non-fiction because you know the market you’re aiming for. Also, if you want reviews published you have to buy the books yourself but so far I have learned that there is, in fact, not correlation between reviews and strong sales. It is just a matter of promoting the POD books via press releases and internet presence. Each book is a learning curve in that sense. I spent a lot of money buying copies of ‘APB1’ and sending them out to reviewers and getting good reviews but sales were not special to be honest. I do like being in full control of the books though so I will publish more POD books and work with indie and mainstream publishers too.
Dave Thompson is the man to watch – he writes so much and his books come out in all sorts of ways. The same can be said of Martin Popoff. They’re creating a legacy and adding something to history however small it might be. It is very admirable, I think.
Are you working on any biographies at the moment? What are your plans for the future?
‘All Pens Blazing Vol II’ is out in the next few weeks and you will be able to buy that from Amazon and AuthorsOnline; I’ll then be working on republishing ‘APB1’ though I won’t make any money from it, it’ll be for personal satisfaction. I’m waiting for a contract to be sent to me for a bio of a major American rock band which will be published next year. For the first time, I worked with an agent in getting this deal. We’ve also got an idea for a bio of a major British rock band so I’ll be working on a proposal with my agent for that soon. I can’t really give details in case my ideas get stolen which happens all the time. Check out my website and thanks for the exposure!