How Angolan river adventurer Oscar Scafidi got his expedition book into publication
Oscar Scafidi is a 33 year old travel writer, risk consultant and history teacher. He wrote the Equatorial Guinea guide for Bradt Travel Guides and contributed to their Angola guide. Having completed his Kayak The Kwanza expedition with team-mate Alfy Weston - the first source-to-mouth expedition along Angola's longest river - he then had to work out how to get the story into print.
- Read our post on Outbound's publishing model.
- Read our profile of Oscar Scafidi - how he makes a living, how he planned the adventure, how he managed the money and media, the Guinness World Record, the film and the book.
This is the story of Oscar's (ongoing) journey to publication.
You’ve written travel articles. You’ve written a travel guide book for Bradt Guides (about Equatorial Guinea). How was writing the book of the Kwanza trip different?
In many ways writing the Kwanza book was a lot easier than some of my other assignments. Guidebooks and travel articles involve editors, house writing styles and strict deadlines. When I started writing a book of our adventure, I had none of those things. The only challenge was staying motivated to keep writing given that I had no delivery date and no idea how I was going to get it published once it was finished.
Did you both keep expedition diaries? Did you have access to Alfy’s diary to write your book? Any surprises in it?
Neither of us kept proper diaries. I tried to get us to do a diary cam entry every night while camping, to put in the documentary. However, we often skipped it due to exhaustion, and even when we did film, it was generally factual information about our progress rather than dramatic emotional scenes of us fighting or giving up hope!
I also tried to jot down a few things each evening in a notebook in terms of distance kayaked and interesting events from the day. Ultimately, when it came to writing the book the best resource was my memory, often jogged by our film footage from that day (we kept the GoPro with us at all times in the kayak). I kept my diary in a dry bag but it still got wet when we sank the kayak in rapids. Alfy's diary was even less detailed than mine, so there were no surprises in it, I'm afraid.
How did your diary entries compare with your memories of the trip afterwards?
Even the small amount of detail I included in mine was enough to bring back all sorts of random memories from the day that probably would have been lost otherwise. However, as the diary was more of a trip log, there was nothing in there about how I was feeling or how the trip was going to look back on. I am sure that as time passes we will look back on the trip with rose-tinted glasses, but right now it still feels pretty recent and pretty raw.
Did you have any conflict between you and Alfy during the trip? If you did, how did you deal with writing about that, while keeping your friendship with him in tact?
We argued a few times, but never anything serious. This was very surprising to our friends, given that the most time Alfy and I had spent together before this trip was a long weekend of camping! All the arguments are in the book, and Alfy has read through and agreed my account was accurate.
There was no need to gloss over anything on account of our friendship: we solved problems between us as and when they came up. Our first big argument related to the distances Alfy had budgeted for us to cover each day in his logistics plan. I was mainly upset because after the first day of 60km+ paddling, my back was spasming and in serious pain. However, it turned out this was not because Alfy had been overly optimistic about our abilities to paddle. It was actually because my seat was fitted incorrectly. As soon as we adjusted it this problem disappeared, which was a relief.
We bickered occasionally about my paddling style and the speeds we were travelling: Alfy thought we should be going faster, I thought he was basing his judgment on a previous trip with his brothers in a section of the river where the flow rate was faster. Also we had a few arguments about risk exposure: it turns out I am the cautious one when it comes to paddling past hippos or flying over the edge of rapids!
What bits of the trip were easy to write about? Which were hard? Why?
The beginning of the trip was hardest. Firstly, deciding where to start the story. Sam Jordison said I had given too much context on Angola, and that readers did not want to wade through 50 pages of information about the country before we got out onto the river. I think he was probably right.
Also, it was difficult to convey our emotions and (lack of) apprehension at the beginning of the trip in retrospect. I really don't think we knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into in those first few days. The further into the book I got, the easier it because to write.
Our journey was handily punctuated by regularly spaced dramatic events (the sinking, the hippo attack, the arrest) so that did a good job of keeping me on track and pacing the action.
Is there anything in the book that is going to surprise your family / your fans who followed the trip?
After Alfy read the first draft, he said he was surprised that I had not been angrier at him when my feet were injured and we had to hike 32km. Perhaps I had given that impression at the time, growling and hobbling along behind him. But in reality I was simply frustrated at myself. It wasn't his fault my hiking boots had floated away down the river in the crash!
I think we were pretty honest about what was happening on the journey as it happened. Whenever possible I would text something to my brother using the satellite phone so that he could update our Twitter account @KayakTheKwanza for our followers, so most people already knew about the most dramatic aspects of the journey. Perhaps people will be surprised by just how many hippos we saw, or the levels of diamond mining activity occurring in the isolated stretches of the upper Kwanza.
Also, I am a lot more honest in the Epilogue than I was with my friends at the time about the difficulty of returning to civilization after such an isolated expedition. Life in the UK took a lot of readjusting and I found that very hard to communicate to those around me.
THE WRITING PROCESS
I started work on the book about our journey while I was living and working in London, in December 2016. I had just finished editing the documentary film, and was basically tired of the story having pushed it hard for the previous five months. I wrote about 10,000 words then completely lost interest. The draft manuscript sat on my computer untouched for about five months.
In May 2017 I finally decided to finish it. I am not sure where this sudden motivation came from. It could have been the fact that I was due to move to Madagascar for work in August, and knew that I would never get it finished once I had emigrated. Whatever the reasons, I decided to get the project finished and smashed out another 50,000 words in 30 days!
In early 2017 I was self employed and based in London, mainly doing risk consultancy and some tutoring. My work space in our tiny flat in Kennington was not ideal. We only had three rooms: a bedroom, a bathroom and an open-plan kitchen and living room. My desk was in the living room, looking out over Kennington Park Road, right near Elephant and Castle roundabout. I was constantly disturbed by roadworks, traffic and in the evenings drunk people moving between the pubs and kebab shops.
Being self employed my timetable was completely flexible. I just set aside a fixed amount of hours per day to write and did not book in any other work (although I would still head to my MMA gym in Angel to have a break).
To escape my flat I wrote the vast majority of my book in the members' room of the Royal Geographical Society in South Kensington. It's basically a library with free tea and coffee for members. I sat on my Mac laptop with my earphones in and just plugged away on Microsoft Word. I also use SugarSync to stop me being paranoid about losing my work.
THE EDITING PROCESS
I sent Alfy a draft of the book very early on. He read it very quickly and sent me detailed feedback to help with the editing process. To quote him: "It’s a great account. I loved reading it and reliving the journey...your characterisations are great. For example, the meeting Ali and his diamond trading. Vivid and they tell a good story."
Alfy did express some concern that I needed to add some more historical details to digress from the day to day format a little. He also thought I did not say enough about our emotions in the first draft, and especially about our relationship.
I liked this comment: "I think people will be interested to hear more about the dynamics of our relationship. Overall, I think we got on remarkably well, but that doesn’t always make for interesting reading." He then went on to mention a couple of times where we got annoyed with each other that could be expanded a little in the story (and I have done so in the final version).
I then quickly shopped around for an editor and heard about The Writers' Workshop. For a fee (based on word count), they give manuscript feedback and try to get the book placed with a literary agent. I chose them because I had heard good things about their service and liked their transparency about what you were getting for your money.
My book was sent off to author, literary journalist, publisher and teacher Sam Jordison for feedback. He was the perfect man for the job, having helped to edit Phil Harwood's epic 2012 book Canoeing the Congo. Sam gave lots of very valuable feedback and did not sugarcoat the fact that getting such a niche story published would be extremely difficult.
He sent me a 3,996 word manuscript assessment. This started with an introduction, in which he stated that he felt "duty bound to provide a bit of brutal realism" about the prospects of getting published and making a fortune. His feedback was given under the subheadings of Show don't Tell, A-B logistics and small details, Repetition, Other loose editorial notes. He then highlighted a bunch of sections that he particularly liked, before writing a conclusion. Each section was essentially a series of direct quotations from the book, with his advice on how to edit the passage. Really useful feedback.
I also sent the draft to about ten different friends. Many of them also provided useful comments, although nothing as detailed as Sam.
I changed a huge amount in the second draft. There were some major structural changes, with the main one being we got out on the river much sooner! This second draft was very close to the finished product we are publishing today.
FINDING A PUBLISHER
I toyed with the idea of self-publishing briefly, having met the self-published author Dominic Canty at Oval Farmers' Market, while he was selling his debut spy thriller Dead Men Should Know Better. He had loads of great advice on how to go about it and what to expect. But in the end it was a financial risk I was not willing to take.
I did a lot of research on agents and publishers who represented similar genres or had published similar stories to mine in the past. Every submission was different, depending on their requirements, and was a complete pain. I am not sure how sustainable this model is that they work on, taking three months plus to get to a submission!
The book was sent to about eight agents and publishers for consideration, including:
- Unbound: A fascinating London-based crowdfunding publisher.
- Summersdale: A great UK publisher that puts out a lot of great adventure travel content
- Janklow & Nesbit UK: One of the world’s leading international literary agencies, with the UK office founded in 2000. They represent Tim Butcher, who wrote the excellent Blood River about his journey along the Congo in 2008.
- TMA Agency: TMA is a creative management company founded by Toby Mundy in 2014 to represent authors, speakers and to help brands to publish. They represent Daniel Metcalfe, who wrote Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey Into Angola in 2014.
I received a few template-based rejections and a few did not even bother to get back to me. No publisher or agent ever sent back a personalised response. No feedback was given.
Did you take Unbound as the best of your options or because it was your only offer?
I had one agent who took an interest in the book and pointed me in the direction of a few publishers, with specific contacts. However, even he suggested that Unbound might be a good route for such a niche topic.
WORKING WITH UNBOUND
It was all pretty informal. My commissioning editor Kwaku sent me an email saying he loved the story and wanted to Skype. We talked through the business model and then he took my book to their pitch meeting to get approval from the rest of the Unbound team.
They look at your book and work out how much it will cost to print. Mine was either £4,000 for the paperback or about £15,000 for the hardback, due to the number of colour images involved. You collectively decide what type of book to aim for (this can always be changed further down the road).
After that you basically supply them with the information they need to populate the fundraising page, decide what the various pledge levels will get you, and then it goes live. They decide the cost of each pledge, as they understand the costs of printing. You are totally free to decide what the rewards are! I worked it out by browsing a few fully funded projects and using my imagination.
The site goes live well before you sign any sort of contract. In fact, I still have not signed a contract and we are already at 16% funded at the time of writing! It's a great business model because there is no risk: if you get the funding, great, you publish. If you don't, no worries, nobody is ever losing any money.
THE CROWDFUNDING PROCESS
The only “crowdfunding” experience I had was persuading people to part with USD25,000 in donations for The HALO Trust during our journey. I did a lot of work on social media to build a receptive crowd to drive donations, support the film release then support the book sales. I use Manageflitter and Hootsuite for this.
Unbound help out on Twitter and Facebook using their presence there. I had a lot of friends and family queueing up to buy one before it was released, but no, no pre-sale pledges to the general public.
To keep the pledges coming in, I am tweeting like a madman, cultivating my following using Manageflitter. I’m writing as many blog entries and magazine articles as possible, as well as doing interviews for podcasts etc. The more marketing the better at this stage.
How long do they give you to reach your number before they eventually pull your book?
Three months is the initial date, but I imagine we could extend. I am quite glad the deadline is not a hard one. I would be quite stressed if they threatened to kick you off!
Your Reddit AMA led to an uptick in video views. Did it have any impact on the book crowdfunder?
It did, but nowhere near what I was hoping. I think we sold about 5 or 6 books off the back of the AMA. However, the thread has 85,900 views and 555 comments as of today. What I hope to do is keep engaging with those people people over the coming weeks, and see if that leads to more sales.
Also, I hope to try and record an audio version of the book, which might appeal more to some users of Reddit, and could be an instant download. The one issue with the crowdfunding model for publishing is you have to wait ages for your book.
Right now, how are you feeling about Unbound and about the book?
I feel great! It's amazing that there is this new resource out there for getting your story to a wider audience without having to go through a traditional publisher. Back in 2006 I wrote a book about an overland trip my friend and I completed in a 1973 Land Rover Series III from London to Liberia in West Africa. I spent ages writing and editing the book and faced a wave of rejections.
However, back then, there was no alternative route for publication, so the book never went anywhere (well, apart from a short article up on Polo's Bastards. If you look on Unbound they have some hilarious titles up there, things that a traditional publisher would never touch.
Unbound can take more risks and therefore bring a far more diverse range of titles to the public. This can only be a good thing.
All the media links for Oscar Scafidi and Kayak The Kwanza
Kayak The Kwanza Book Crowdfunder on Unbound
Oscar's Travel Guides for Bradt
The Halo Trust Kayak The Kwanza JustGiving fundraising page