Please welcome author Ian Probert to the blog today discussing how he has reached the younger reading audience with his book Johnny Nothing.
Last year I read and reviewed his book, here is what I thought.
Johnny Nothing is written for children aged 11 upwards, but is readable as an adult. This book should appeal to young boys and girls and should do a good job in encouraging boys to continue reading.
Johnny is a dull child, bored with life, ordinary and poor, until he’s left £1 million by Uncle Marley. The adults in Johnny’s life can’t believe his luck and there is the chance to inherit more. If Johnny can come back in 1 years time with proof of a profit, then he can get £10 million.
Johnny is given a cash card, but as soon as they leave the funeral his Mum snatches it and goes on a very long spending spree, without spending any on Johnny. After 8 months of spending Johnny can stand it no more and puts a stop to his mother, but he finds himself giving away his money to people in need. Suddenly there is nothing left and Johnny once again has nothing. Is there any possible way Johnny can still get hold of the £10 million at the end of one year? You’ll have to read the book to find out.
To celebrate the launch of Johnny Nothing in paperback Ian has come along today to chat about his writing and the book.
In the past I’ve often toyed with the idea of writing a kid’s book. Way back in 1989 my first attempt at ever writing a book was a kid’s thing entitled ‘Star Maker’. It was readable but it certainly didn’t make me a star. While in 1995 I became obsessed for some reason with the name ‘Stephen Dawkins’ (a strange combination, I presume retrospectectively, of Stephen Hawkins and Richard Dawkins), and decided that I’d write a series of books about an ordinary boy having the obligatory extraordinary adventures in Narnia-like worlds. This is how ‘Something Is Wrong With Stephen Dawkins’ began:
“According to some notable physicists there is a very good chance that more than one of you has just reached the end of this sentence. The theory goes that at this very moment in time there are millions or zillions or squillions of identical copies of you sitting in an identical copy of the seat you are sitting in, reading an identical copy of the book you are now reading at precisely the same instant as you are reading it. Just like you they may have also gone back to the first sentence of this paragraph and just like you they may be wondering if the person who wrote this book was completely sane when he wrote it. The trouble with theories, of course, is that they remain just that until somebody can be bothered to get around to proving or disproving them.”
Something is Wrong With Stephen Dawkins, 1995
Like a lot of projects that I start, this one, perhaps thankfully, came to nothing. As did the enigmatically titled ‘Room 23’, ‘Maisa My Dear’ and ‘Patricia Perkins’ Perfectly Paranormal Pet Shop’. As you can see, I’ve tried. I’ve really tried.
Johnny Nothing came about after my daughter was born. One of the great joys of parenthood is reading to your kids. One of the great pains of parenthood is reading particularly awful books to your kids. In reading to Sofia I discovered that books such as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Charlotte Sometimes, Caroline Dreams and H. E. Todd’s Bobby Brewster series were just as fantastic as I remembered (Prince Caspian was just as awful). But when it came to the dreaded TV tie-ins that saturate book stores there were just too many titles that I was forced to read which were poorly written rip-offs designed to relieve parents of their cash. I also noticed that it was rare for Sofia to laugh when I was reading to her. I mean really laugh. Guffaw. Belly-laugh. That sort of thing.
Sofia reaching ten-years-of-age happily coincided with me finally getting diagnosed for a disease that had plagued me for years and years. I won’t bore you with the details but if you’re interested you can read this Guardian article I wrote about it: http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/sep/08/underactive-thyroid-was-slowly-killing-me.
Freshly cured like boiled ham and ready to go, I set about writing something that would make Sofia laugh. Except I could never just do that. When I showed the opening chapters to friends I was dismayed to discover that they were not laughing. It wasn’t enough for Sofia to laugh, I wanted everyone to find Johnny Nothing funny. And that, I believe, is the true test of a good children’s book. For it to have any worth at all it should provide entertainment for all ages. A big ask. A tremendously big ask. Whether I’ve succeeded is, of course, not for me to say.
Marketing the book has been incredibly difficult. Writing the book, illustrating it, designing the cover, publishing it. That’s all the really, really easy bit. The hardest bit – obviously – is getting people to read it. And it’s getting harder.
My problem is that in the past everything was given to me on a plate. The first magazine article I ever wrote was immediately published; the first publisher I approached with an idea immediately went for it; I actually chose an agent from a list of four or five who offered my their services; the first book I had published – which is utter crap – sold 100,000 copies without me doing any promotional work whatsoever. All I did was sit on my fat spotty backside collecting cheques.
Now I’ve getting my reward for all that ill-deserved good luck. Being ill and sliding down the greasy pole of failure has given me a long overdue reality check. I now know that if you want success in writing, if you want to sell books, you have to work, work work. How could I ever have thought otherwise?
I had an indie publisher approach me recently wanting to publish ‘Johnny Nothing’ and we both agreed that the number of books that you sell is directly linked to the people you meet, the people you contact. The amount of effort you put into being a salesman.
I have a very strong feeling that we are now in a period that Neil Young would describe as ‘After the gold rush’. The problem is that everyone and their aunt is now able to self publish a book. It’s a subjective thing, I know, but if you spend any time at all on Amazon you will not fail to notice the vast numbers of truly awful ebooks that are now on sale. Sofia has become adept at spotting a bad one and will sometimes laugh uncontrollably when she reads it. The market is choking for air and the traditional role that the big publishers played, i.e. as an editorial system that separated the wheat from the chaff, has more or disintegrated.
At the moment it’s chaos. And it will continue to be so until people like Amazon begin to exercise a little quality control. I think it’s beginning to happen but it’s early days.
The cover of ‘Johnny Nothing’ is probably completely inappropriate for a kid’s book cover. Everybody keeps telling me that. But that’s good as far as I’m concerned. The image depicts one of the book’s supporting character ‘Ebenezer Dark. He’s that most unusual of characters – an honest solicitor. Initially, my idea was to change the cover every couple of months, putting another cast member on the front of the book. That, to me, is one of the advantages of digital publishing. It’s fluid. It can change whenever you like it. You can add chapter. Remove chapters. Rewrite. Change illustrations. What a fantastic thing to be able to do.
The cover was created entirely on an iPad, using a Jot Touch pressure sensitive pen and five or six different apps.
“Great new kids book alert! My two are in hysterics reading Johnny Nothing by Ian Probert (and I am too).” Jane Bruton, Editor of Grazia
“Oh, Wow! Dark, sordid, grotesque and hilarious are only a few words I can conjure up to describe this hilarious book.” Lizzie Baldwin, mylittlebookblog
Critics are comparing Ian Probert to Roald Dahl. And Johnny Nothing we have a modern successor to Charlie And The Chocolate Factory.
Johnny Nothing is best-selling author Ian Probert’s first ever children’s book – although adults are enjoying it too. The story of the poorest boy in the world and the nastiest mother in the universe, the book is earning rave reviews. Children and grown-ups are all laughing at this incredibly funny kids book.
Take a look for yourself:
To celebrate the paperback launch of Johnny Nothing we are offering a free Kindle copy of the book to the first 100 people who Tweet the following message:
@truth42 I’m reading Johnny Nothing by Ian Probert. http://geni.us/3oR8 #YA #Kindle #kidsbooks
The first ten readers who answer the following question will also receive a signed print of one of the book’s illustrations.
Q: What is the tattoo on Ben’s arm?
Send your answers to firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian Probert has been scribbling down words ever since he learned to spell the phrase: ‘Once upon a time…’. He is the author of Internet Spy, Rope Burns and a bunch of other titles. Internet Spy was a bestseller in the US and made into a TV film. Rope Burns is a book about why books shouldn’t be written about boxing. Ian has also written things for a shed load of newspapers and magazines. When Ian was a student he used to write lots of letters to the bank manager.
Bill had a shaven head and was wearing a blue tracksuit. He was almost seven feet tall and built like an outdoor toilet made of brick. Bill didn’t realise this but he was a distant descendent of Neanderthal Man. He had only one eyebrow – one long bushy eyebrow that reached right across his forehead. He looked like what you might get if you force fed a member of Oasis with a half-tonne black plastic sackful of steroids.
And if you were brave enough to be present when he took off his tracksuit you would discover that his back was so covered in hair that he was able part it with a comb. If Bill had had more of an interest in fashion, he might even have considered giving it a curly perm and perhaps a few extensions
On his right arm, Bill had a tattoo which simply read ‘Bill’. This was in case he woke up one morning and forgot who he was. This was actually less unlikely than you might imagine because standing next to him was his twin brother. His name was Ben and he was identical to Bill in every way except that the tattoo on his arm read ‘Bin’ (the tattooist was either South African or not a very good speller). He was wearing a red tracksuit.
Bill gave Mr. and Mrs. MacKenzie the tiniest of smiles and managed to grunt ‘hello’. Ben gave the couple exactly the same tiniest of smiles and also managed to grunt ‘hello’.
The two men were standing protectively close to Johnny. They were so large that in the confines of Johnny’s bedroom they looked like giants, which they were. They were so enormous that each of them had their own postcode. They were so gigantic that they had their passport photos taken by satellite. They were so humungous that you could spend all day thinking up rubbishy jokes about how big they were and never adequately describe just how indescribably, earth-shatteringly ENORMOUS they were. By no stretch of the imagination could you call them small (unless, of course, you were a lot bigger than them).
The pair of Goliaths were having to stoop slightly so as to avoid head-butting the ceiling, which actually even looked a little scared itself. They were a terrifying sight. Even scarier than a school trip to a Weight-Watcher’s nudist camp.
There was a long, pregnant silence in the room like this:
This eventually gave birth to an even longer post-natal silence, which, in the interest of preserving the rain forests or the battery on your Kindle, I shan’t demonstrate.
The four grown-ups eyed each other nervously. Bill and Ben looked at the Mackenzies like they were looking at insects that could be squashed into pulpy insect juice any time they so desired.
The Mackenzies looked at Bill and Ben like they were looking at two giant skinhead Neanderthal bully boys who had just appeared from nowhere in their recently and unexpectedly decorated council flat.
Johnny looked a little scared.
Finally Billy Mackenzie managed to get his mouth working a little and spluttered: ‘Who are you?’ And then: ‘What do you want?’
There was another long silence – let’s call it a pause – while Bill and Ben looked at each other as if trying to decide who was going to answer. Finally Bill spoke: ‘You the boy’s parents?’ he demanded in a voice that sounded like an angry rhino with horn-ache. Although if he was clever enough he would have realised that this was a rhetorical question.
There was yet another long silence (you’ll be relieved to hear that this is the last silence you’re going to get in this chapter) before Billy Mackenzie mumbled ‘Yes’.
‘We’re Johnny’s bodyguards,’ continued Bill. ‘We’re here to make sure that everything’s hunky dory.’
‘Hunky dory?’ Mrs. Mackenzie suddenly found her voice. ‘What do you mean ‘hunky dory”?’
Now Ben spoke: ‘What my brother means to say,’ he explained. ‘Is that we’ve been – how shall I say – contracted – to make sure that this young feller’s affairs are in order.’
‘Get out of my house!’ interrupted Mrs. Mackenzie, suddenly feeling a little braver, although she had no idea why.
Bill and Ben looked at each again for a moment. They did this almost as much as your mum looks in the mirror. Or you dad looks at websites that he shouldn’t be looking at. ‘First of all,’ said Bill, ‘This isn’t a house – it’s a flat.’
‘And second of all,’ said his brother. ‘We ain’t going nowhere. And neither are you.’
‘Johnny who are these men?’ Mrs. MacKenzie asked her son, ignoring the two giants.
‘I’m sorry mum but…’ Johnny started to speak but Bill cut in like a pair of scissors that chops sentences into bits.
‘…What the young feller means to say is that the fun’s over.’
‘The fun’s over?’ repeated Felicity MacKenzie numbly.
‘That’s right,’ continued Ben. ‘You’ve had a right old time. You’ve been spending his money like it’s your own. You’ve been ripping the poor young feller off. And we’re here to put a stop to it. From now on things are gonna be different.’
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ said Mrs. MacKenzie. ‘Nobody speaks to me like this in my house…’
‘Flat,’ corrected Ben.
‘Nobody speaks to me like this in my flat. Billy, call the police!’
As usual Billy MacKenzie did as he was told. He reached into his pocket for his mobile phone. Before he had the chance to even turn it on the gigantic frame of Bill was towering over him.
‘That an iPhone?’ asked Ben.
‘Erm… Yes,’ said Billy, who could only watch as the huge man took it from him and with one hand crushed it into a chunk of buckled metal and shattered touch screen.
‘I think it’s broken,’ said Ben. ‘You ought to take it back to the Apple store. Tell ‘em that you’re not getting a decent signal.’
‘Right!’ cried Mrs. MacKenzie. ‘We’re leaving! You’ll be very sorry you did that. I’ll fetch the police myself!’
Now the giant frame of Bill was standing in front of her. He was holding something in his hand that looked a little like a child’s toy space gun.
‘Know what this is?’ he asked. Although once again he wasn’t clever enough to recognise that this was a rhetorical question.
Mrs. Mackenzie regarded the object for a moment. Then she shook her head. Whatever it was she guessed that it was not intended to provide pleasure, happiness or fulfilment. Anything that has a trigger and a barrel and goes ‘bang!’ seldom does.
‘Come on Billy!’ she said. ‘We’re leaving!’
Bill stood in front of her blocking the doorway. ‘Not so fast,’ he said, not so slowly. ‘It’s called a Taser. See this little trigger at the front? If I press this it’ll give you a small electric shock. It won’t hurt you…Well not too much anyway.’
Bill raised the object and gently touched Mrs. MacKenzie on the arm. There was a loudish bang and a flash of blue neon light and Mrs. MacKenzie collapsed groaning to the floor. She was conscious but wasn’t able to move her arms and legs
‘Oh my gawd!’ said Billy Mackenzie bravely charging out of the room in terror. He got as far as the stairs before there was a second flash. He, too, crumpled to the floor. Bill dragged him back into the bedroom by the scruff of his neck.
Johnny Nothing got to his feet and stood over his two parents. He looked anxious. ‘Are they… Are they… OK?’ he gasped.
‘Don’t you worry yourself,’ smiled Ben. ‘Give em a few minutes and they’ll be right as rain.’
‘But they’ll think twice before they try to run off again,’ said his brother.