How do you go from Railfan to Writer?



October 29th, 2020

Those of us who’ve spotted, photographed and ridden on railways for decades will, at some point, have wondered whether anyone would read the vast amounts we learn as Railfans about railways and railroads across the globe. But where to begin? How do you go about writing a book about rail? We spoke to the staff at Amberley Books, an independent publisher of history and transport titles, with a diverse catalogue of railway books on European, American and British rolling stock, locomotives and routes, to find out what’s required when making a leap into the publishing world:

Images provided by Amberley Publishing. Feature image credit: LMS Black 5s Nos 44871 and 45407 on the descent from Ais Gill, January 2012. (Railways in the British Landscape, by Robin Coombes and Taliesin Coombes. ISBN: 978-1-4456-8231-0)

"I've never published a book before, where do I start?"
Once you have decided on the kind of book you would like to produce, it is time to create a proposal and decide which publisher you would like to submit your idea to. Some publishers will only accept proposals from authors represented by a literary agent but many, including Amberley, welcome submissions from all authors. It is important that you create a clear and concise proposal and that you approach publishers who have published similar titles in the past – it is no good submitting a railway book to a company that only produces works of fiction. We always recommend budding writers invest in a copy of the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook, which is packed with useful information on how to become a published author. For areas such as the railways, specialist magazines can also be a great resource. Look in the review section of your favourite magazine and note down who published some of the titles that interest you. Amberley001 Locomotives of the Eastern United States by Christopher Esposito (ISBN 9781445683027) and Locomotives of Western Canada by Mike Danneman (ISBN 9781445683720) - Amberley Books.

"I want to write about a specific Locomotive Type / Class, do people read books like that?" Yes! Amberley have produced many titles that focus on specific locomotive types and classes, and we have found that there are enthusiasts out there for almost anything on rails. There are obvious fan favourites, such as the InterCity 125, F-Unit or Class 55 ‘Deltics’, but also a clear interest in more niche areas such as wagons.

"Should I focus on technical details and statistics? Or a broad history?"
This really depends on what kind of book is being produced and who you expect to read it. In our experience, the readership of image-led titles tends to be those who are already enthusiastic railfans and enjoy technical detail and statistics that complement and enrich the photographs featured in the book. In this context, a concise history as part of an introduction to the book is usually enough. However, if you are aiming to produce a longer narrative that tells a story to a more casual railfan – think Christian Wolmar or Simon Bradley – it is best to avoid becoming too bogged down in statistics, or to consider the use of appendices.
Amberley002 Anglo-Scottish Sleepers by David Meara (ISBN 9781445672328) and 125 The Enduring Icon by 125 Group (ISBN 9781445678597) - Amberley Books

"Are photographs important? What images are best to feature?"
For image-led titles, photographs are very important – we have worked with many authors with stunning collections of images just begging to be published. Obviously, a very well composed image that frames the subject well is always the ideal, but you do not need to be the world’s greatest photographer to produce an interesting railway book. If you have a notably broad collection of images related to a single topic, for example every member of a class of locomotives at work, this would constitute a very good collection and a few less than stellar shots wouldn’t necessarily detract from the finished book. 082 Countess of Warwick 0-6-0ST Wissington and a vintage train between Sheringham and Weybourne, March 2015. (Railways in the British Landscape, by Robin Coombes and Taliesin Coombes. Amberley Publishing, ISBN: 978-1-4456-8231-0)

"What about whole railway lines, do people write books about those?"
Absolutely. Some lines and sections have been covered quite extensively, so any new title would need to bring something unique to the table, but that doesn’t mean authors should be discouraged. People have a natural affinity for their local rail scene, and it is great to document a line’s unique traffic.

"My local line has been closed for years; how do I find out more information about it?" Thankfully, the internet has made it easier than ever to connect with people and explore history. Search engines such as Google are a great way to uncover information at the touch of the button, but online local history and enthusiast groups offer the chance to interact with members of the community. These groups will often be able to point you towards older books about your local line that you may otherwise have missed, and can impart the kind of specialised local knowledge that may not have been recorded in a published book.

"I've been all over the world as a Railfan, which lines / loco's should I focus on?" There’s no golden rule here – some authors prefer to celebrate their local or national rail scene, while others prefer to cast their eye further afield. The most important thing for any new author should always be that they are working on a project they are passionate about. There will be difficult moments along the way, but ultimately you want this to be a rewarding and enriching experience.
Amberley003 Locomotives of the Western United States by Jonathan Lewis (ISBN 9781445669106) and Freightliner Locomotives by Dave Smith (ISBN 9781445673707) - Amberley Books

"I currently / used to work on the railway - will people read my memoirs?" Amberley receive many proposals along these lines, but publish very few. This does not necessarily mean that a memoir is uninteresting, but as a commercial publisher there is a limit to the number of autobiographical works we can publish. If an author is passionate about producing a work of memoir but it isn’t quite right for us, our advice is to explore self-publishing options. This can allow an author to produce a small number of copies for friends and family, and ensures that their story is recorded for posterity.

"What makes a successful railway book?"
There are many ingredients to a successful railway title. Good material and a strong topic are obviously key, but communication and teamwork are almost as important. Building a relationship with your editor and publicist will give your book the best possible chance of success – don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice, or to get stuck in with promotion opportunities. Remember that you are all working towards the same goal.

Amberley’s full range of railway titles can be found on their website and are sold by retailers worldwide, both online and on the high street: https://www.amberley-books.com/discover-books/transport-industry/railways.html

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