Category Archives: Reviews
By Humfrey Hunter
It’s all John Sweeney’s fault. Really, it is. He was the one who, back in 2012, when I was his agent and Silvertail Books was just an idea, told me in his typically bullish way that I should publish his book about Scientology because no matter what the church’s lawyers said, they would not sue either of us. The prospect was more than a little worrying, but Silvertail was new and I needed good books to publish. So, after even more bullishness from John, we published The Church of Fear and John was right; they didn’t sue. Fast forward three years, and now Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is being published by Silvertail in the UK and Australia. It is a fact that if I hadn’t published The Church of Fear, Going Clear wouldn’t be coming out now.
So what do I hope to achieve by publishing it now? Selling books, for a start – Silvertail Books is not a hobby, it’s a business. But there’s more than that involved here. Scientology is a fascinating organisation, one which provides news pages with a steady stream of great stories. But it has a dark side – by which I mean the side which breaks up families, treats children in a way I believe is inhumane, sees adults physically abused and reduces them to lives of poverty and so on – and these things are often mentioned in various different media. But for all sorts of reasons, this darkness has not been fully explored in book form in the UK. Going Clear will change that.
At the same time as our publication of Sweeney’s The Church of Fear was going on, another publisher was making the decision to cancel their planned publication of Going Clear. I do not know why they did this, but I would not criticise them for it; the other publisher is part of a huge international corporation, full of brilliant people who know what they’re doing and who make decisions for different reasons and in different ways to the permanent staff and shareholders of Silvertail Books, who can be counted on one hand. Actually, make that one finger – it’s just me. That means if I want to do a book, I can, lawyers permitting, of course. And in this case, they did, partly because in a 2013 Bill, which became legislation in 2014, the law here changed and introduced a defence against defamation lawsuits called ‘Publication on matter of public interest’. Essentially this means that if something is published which the publisher can show is in the public interest, or which the publisher reasonably believed was in the public interest, the law protects them. This matters to me a very great deal.
When I heard Going Clear wasn’t being published back in 2013, I wanted it immediately. I don’t think I’m obsessive about many things, but for the next couple of years I probably went a little bit that way over this book. What a prospect it was: a world-famous New York Times bestseller written by a Pulitzer Prize-winner. How could I not be excited at the prospect? What a coup that would be for Silvertail Books. On top of this, I hoped publishing the book here would do some good for the perception of the UK as a place where freedom of speech matters and is exercised. Finally, I hoped it would be a useful addition to the exposure of the church’s dark side and life in it. On this last point it might not do much because the book has been available for three years and its contents are widely known. But still, the fact it wasn’t published in the UK didn’t feel right. The church has a presence here, after all, so having it available meant something.
Then you add in Tony Ortega, author of the brilliant The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, hero to many, fountain of knowledge about the church, and someone who said Silvertail publishing Going Clear would be a good thing. When you’re sitting at a table with Tony and John ‘Trust me, they won’t sue’ Sweeney and they’re encouraging you to do something they approve of, believe me when I say you end up feeling pretty damn motivated. Finally, late last year, Lawrence Wright himself indicated he would be interested in letting Silvertail have the book. And so here we are. Today, 17 March 2016, Going Clear is being published in the UK for the first time.
John Sweeney’s book tells the story of his experiences investigating Scientology for the BBC. It’s a riot, as you’d expect, but also mildly terrifying that a journalist could be treated that way in a civilised country in the 21st century. The second Scientology book I published, Russell Miller’s Bare-Faced Messiah, revealed the true story of the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. It is a powerful, important and ridiculously entertaining book and Russell is rightly revered as its author. Then there’s The Unbreakable Miss Lovely, Tony Ortega’s riveting biography of Paulette Cooper, the journalist who was the victim of possibly the dirtiest dirty tricks the church has ever pulled after she wrote a book about Scientology in the 1970s. Three brilliant books which belong alongside the best non-fiction of recent years. But something was missing. A portrait of Scientology’s recent history which gives an insight into what’s going on now, how the church became what it is today. And that’s where Going Clear comes in. It is devastating. Like the previous three, it’s impossible to put down because of the human stories it tells. These are real people, from the top to the bottom of Scientology. Real people with familes. Children, brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, all of whom are affected by what the church does. That’s why Going Clear needed to be published here, and that’s why I’m proud to have Silvertail’s name on its spine.
NOTE: If it wasn’t for Amazon and the distribution network they offer publishers through print and e editions, no matter how big or small the publisher is, Silvertail wouldn’t exist, and none of the books mentioned above would have been published. That’s an opinion you don’t see very often: Amazon is a friend of free speech. But it’s true. All the books mentioned above are available thanks to Amazon.
It’s been quite a year for Silvertail Books. Planning year by year in publishing is difficult no matter where you are, but when you’re a tiny publisher moving from year 1 to year 2, it’s a serious puzzle. In mid-year 1, when I should have been lining up books for year 2, I had very little track record and not much in the way of working capital either. So this year – year 2 – was about securing books for next year (year 3) as well as actually publishing. But that is not to say our publishing was weak. Quite the opposite, in fact, because Silvertail put out two books which showed once and for all what a small publisher is capable of doing in the current publishing universe – by which I mean punching way above its weight. Here’s why.
Back in January, I was working flat out on getting Russell Miller’s book about L Ron Hubbard, Bare-Faced Messiah, ready for print. It duly came out in March and has been selling steadily ever since. I was a touch disappointed by the lack of media attention the book got (with the exceptions of this and this) but that doesn’t seem to be holding it back. For me this is simply down to the fact that not only is it one of the bravest bits of authorship I’ve ever come across, it also manages to turn a long, long series of stunning revelations into blissful narrative entertainment in a way which very few authors are capable of. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Bare-Faced Messiah is a truly great book.
Later in the year, I published When In Doubt Be Nice by Peter Mead. Peter is a giant of the advertising industry, one of the founders of AMV, the biggest agency in the UK. A genuine legend of the business world. His book is part business lessons and part life story, and all brilliant. The Financial Times described his advice as ‘wise words’ and Bernard Barnett, one of the most knowledgeable and distinguished writers on advertising around, said the book is ‘The best and wisest book on advertising I’ve ever read – and there are plenty of contenders.’ Given that he has probably read every book on advertising ever published, this is high praise indeed. A wonderful book by a wonderful man.
Speaking of wonderful things, Elephant Moon by John Sweeney, which I published way back in October 2012, has now sold more than 96,000 copies and at the current rate will hit six figures some time in January. Most of these are ebooks (thank you Amazon) but I have also reprinted the paperback three times which shows just how loved the book is becoming. John and I are delighted beyond words by this. Thank you to everyone who has bought, read and reviewed the book. And if you haven’t, you should.
2014, therefore, was quite a year, before I even get onto the books signed up for 2015. I have already announced three books for next year – Gallipoli 1915 by Joseph Murray, The Voyage of The Golden Handshake by Terry Waite and We Are The Cops by Michael Matthews – and there’s more to come. These three, plus a stunningly accomplished memoir about a young man growing up caught between God and sex and a classic Cold War spy novel, (both of which I will be blowing fanfares about in January) are coming out in the first half of 2015.
Further down the line, there’s a sensational literary novel from a former soldier, another devastating investigation into a dark chapter of the history of Scientology (maybe even two of these), a brilliant WWI romance and several more which I don’t want to mention because I might curse my luck. So all in all, things are getting very interesting. Silvertail Books is growing. I am proud of the books I’ve published so far and am excited about what’s coming up.
And what do I think of the publishing world? It’s changing, but doing fine. My view is that as long as publishers keep producing brilliant books, the future is rosy. Bookshops will continue to struggle (I’m sad to say I can’t see their situation improving, although some will do well) and some publishers will find life more and more difficult. But readers are buying books in unprecedented numbers and distributing books is easier than it’s ever been before. So in my opinion the good outweighs the bad. There’s not a great deal of point saying much more than that because even if I wanted to change things, I can’t. I and plenty of other people would be sensible to spend time trying to make the best of what’s on offer rather than complaining about it.
Finally, even if only three people read this (which will include me proofing it) Happy Christmas to you all.
Review by Humfrey Hunter @humfreyhunter
The first Po Bronson book I read, What Should I Do With My Life?, is a collection of true stories about people who decide to change their lives and move in the direction they truly want to go. I read it in my late twenties and it had such a positive effect on me I decided to read everything else Bronson had written, starting with the first book he’d published, a novel called Bombardiers. I skimmed over the description (I didn’t care what it said – I was going to read the book anyway) but picked up enough to know it was set in an investment bank during the nineteen-eighties and Bronson had himself worked somewhere similar. An interesting blend.