Books by Philip Matyszak



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The gestation process
Way back when, I finished my first book, and thought'That was fun! But there's this idea for another ...'. That was a decade ago, and every book sparks an idea for another two that just have to be written. So the backlog in my 'Ideas and Projects' folder keeps growing. And after each book is done it's straight back to the folder for the next proposal to present to a commissioning editor.

Then the idea bounces around the publishing house, and comes back adapted by discussions about the best approach. Then I prepare a timeline, with milestones such as the completion of research and notes, draft sample chapter, and completion of first draft.

After that, it's time to settle down, tune out the planet, and emerge blinking into the sunlight after about a year immersed in writing up the topic. Even though other things happen, I tend not to be really there. I once left a dinner party to write up the First Battle of Bedriacum while a fresh idea was still clear in my mind.

Once a book is written, it probably won't end up in the shops for at least another year. There's edits and re-writes, indexing, captions, indexing and design. And that's apart from the stuff that happens in the background such as publishers meeting with distributors and retailers to determine where, when and how the book will be published.

Then, once it has been released, assuming that the book gets good reviews and sales, the book starts to pay off the publisher's advance. Every author wants the advance paid off as soon as possible, both because that's when the book rewards the effort and enthusiasm put into it, and because this means that the public like the end product.

Overall, a the project will take about four years to go from notes in my ideas folder to something which earns royalties. It's not a quick process, but there's nothing more satisfying than helping an idea to become a book.
Videre est credere (Seeing is believing)
It is beginning to dawn on me that re-enactment is a much under-rated academic tool. When a member of the general public thinks of re-enactors, the general perception is of an amiable yet somewhat batty group of people running around the woods in fancy dress pretending to be civil war soldiers, Vikings or whatever.

Now some re-enactors will agree with this definition (I told you that they are a generally amiable bunch), but only if our hypothetical member of the general public will admit to a sneaking suspicion that it all seems rather fun, and he wouldn't mind giving it a go.

Yet I'm beginning to depend more and more on re-enactors. I am encouraged by their generosity and enthusiasm, and with most, their relentless determination to get things right. This is important for a historian. We can speculate how something worked, or what it might be like, but re-enactors give us the nearest thing to asking someone who has actually done it.

That's how we know (for example) that without a scarf a legionary's chest armour chafes his sternum, and that breathing can get difficult in a parade cavalryman's helmet. There's a lot re-enactment can't do, partly because the people inside the costumes are still 21st century humans, and have no choice but to sometimes think and act accordingly.

But until we get a time machine, it's as close as we'll get to understanding how some aspects of life in antiquity actually worked.
Going Mythic
As I write, there's a new film out called 'Clash of the Titans' and I want to thank the makers of the film for providing such excellent asdvance publicity for my new book 'The Greek and Roman Myths'. Keep it up, Hollywood!

Actually I think it is no co-incidence that we are getting more films dealing with myth recently. People are beginning to realize that there's a whole chunk of their history and culture out there that no-one bothered to teach them at school. On the bright side, this means that discovering it later for oneself is all the more rewarding.

My involvement with Greek mythology began as do many of my books. I found a gap in my knowledge; and once I had filled it I developed an overwhelming need to tell the rest of the world what I had discovered. In fact, Greek mythology - with some Roman additions -is one long, rambling action-packed story. And I was surprised to note that no-one, in all the books on Greek myths out there, had actually bothered to summarize that story from beginning to end. So I did it.

I also left out all the modern academic stuff about 'motifemes' and 'phenomic content' and concentrated on trying to explain what the Greeks and Romans (including sophisticated characters such as Cicero and Plutarch) got out of it. And, as is my wont, I had a lot of fun while putting it all together.

The book is out at the end of the year and I shall sacrifice some Xmas pud to Athena in the hope that you will enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Historian of the Apocalypse
The other day I was discussing one of those survival shows where they take a group of celebrities and dump them in the middle of the wilderness (but unfortunately retrieve them afterward). It occurred to me that if civilization did suddenly come to an end, ancient historians would prove to have very practical skills. I was researching sword-making recently, and have a working knowledge of how to make metal tools from scratch. (I'll need earth rich in iron ore, and lots and lots of charcoal.) You can't do archeology without knowing the basics of building anything from a basic wattle and daub hut to a fully-fledged marble temple. I could do the hut in less than a week, but the temple might take much, much longer.

Again I know basic hunting techniques for everything from doves (lime) to wild boar (spears, preferably wielded by someone else), and how to do highly organic farming, with basic irrigation, thanks to my studies of the Archimedes screw. Give me a sheep, and I know the processes for turning the wool on its back into a tunic, and the skin into either parchment or a leather coat. In short, apart from one very minor problem I'd be the perfect person to get civilization re-started after, say, a giant meteor strike. That minor problem is that all my knowledge is theoretical. And whilst in theory I know how to (for example) assemble a flat-pack bedside table, my nearest and dearest are well aware that the practice is somewhat wanting.
Serious stuff
Many people won't have noted a dispute between publishers MacMillan and Amazon at the start of this month that resulted in Amazon briefly withdrawing from sale the entire MacMillan catalogue. And even now it appears that many titles are not available. There's all sorts of arguments going on here, but what should be a dispute between two corporations has involved a lot of writers being harmed as collateral damage. I particularly feel for some debut authors - imagine a favourable review coming out, and the public not being able to buy the book?

Amazon dominates the online bookseller's market. As far as I can tell from discussions with other writers and editors, it seems that Amazon is trying to be the only seller of books online, but also the only customer for books offered by publishers. And as a customer it's trying to set really, really low prices. Now I'm all in favour of cheap books, and if I can get a book at half-price I'll do it like a shot. But I'm not the world's biggest book retailer, and I know that if Amazon gets its way, a lot of publishers and writers are not going to survive the transition to the digital era.

This is not in itself a bad thing, but it might be if Amazon starts selling books supermarket style. You don't expect a huge range of books at a supermarket, either of authors or topics. And if the price of books is forced right down across the whle market, some books will no longer be available simply because they won't get written.

This particular fight between Amazon and the publishers is about the maximum cost of eBooks. People expect eBooks to be cheaper than paper books, but at present they just aren't. That's because distribution and printing is where eBooks make savings, but these are a minor cost compared to paying authors, editors, proofreaders, indexers and illustrators. And to make a proper eBook of anything but a plain text narrative you need another editor, and at least one or two computery types to make it work. And this cancels out printing and distribution savings, which in these days of container transport and printing in China weren't too expensive to start with.

It looks as though the digital wars have started for the book industry. As writers and readers there's not much we can do in the short run. In the long run, it's how writers and readers react to the antics of the big boys in the publishing and wholesale markets that will determine the future of the industry.

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