Interview with author Colin McKeeman

In 2015, we printed and bound a book called a History of the Birdlip Aeronautical Communication Complex, which was written by Colin McKeeman. The book takes a nontechnical view of the UK based long-range aeronautical communications station, which is based on the Cotswolds. With over 300 A4 pages and over 250 illustrations, it will come as no surprise to learn that the book took over five years to research, write and edit before going near us for printing and cover design.  In winter 2018, Colin returned to us with a new edition of the book, this time with almost 470 pages in it. We recently sat down with Colin to discuss the book and his experiences in writing it.

SPB: First of all Colin, of all the topics that you could have chosen, why did you decide to research and write on this topic?

Colin: I have always been interested in aviation communications and a friend of mine recently published a similar book in connection with an Irish based aeronautical communications centre. On searching for a book covering the matching U.K. based facility (at Birdlip, Gloucestershire) I discovered that there was a ‘gap’ in the market for a consolidated history of Birdlip. So combined with my interest in this topic and the apparent lack of information, I decided to attempt writing its history. This was my first experience into writing a book but I considered the subject matter suitably narrow to make it achievable

SPB: There is a lot involved when taking on a book project, no matter the size and scale of it or the author’s own background, from software, to writing to research methods, what did you learn during the process of putting this all together?

Colin: I started from a position of being quite familiar with the Microsoft Word software package and so the concept of actually creating the document didn’t particularly concern me. I decided that the Internet would be a good starting point and I think I had created less than ten pages after some considerable research. I then discovered that material was held in a local Gloucestershire based archive, which necessitated a visit to both it and the nearby location of the subject matter. This research led me to more material held in the major Kew Archives in London, which involved several trips, armed of course with my camera. I had quickly discovered that photographing archive material (were permitted) was the most effective way of gathering information quickly. Our local National Archives also contained relevant material, which I discovered through my own aviation interest. I contacted various U.K. based interest groups and this yielded information from various staff who worked at this now closed facility. This proved to be a great source of photographs and stories of their personal experiences whilst working at the station.

SPB: What surprised you the most about your research? Did anything emerge that you didn’t expect?

Colin: The way that the apparently smallest piece of seemly insignificant piece of material can lead to extensive data being discovered from unlikely sources. I was over-whelmed by the number of photographs that emerged during my research and how quickly so many people were prepared to assist me.

SPB: You published a new edition of the book recently, what extra information did you find that you wanted to put in?

Colin: This arose mainly from the excellent feedback and additional material that readers submitted to me from their own experiences. So much so, that the revised edition runs to some 470 pages, almost 1/3rd larger than the first edition. This covered personal reflections from whose who worked there, their photographs and additional material on re-visiting the various archives. Already some 30% of this edition are sold with minimal advertising.

SPB: When you finished writing it, you could have gone down a few different avenues with the book, why did you decide to self-publish it with us?

Colin: Primarily I would say having total self-control over the whole project, from layout, structure, cover design, size, etc. Secondly, obviously was cost and the ability to be able to have a small volume print run, this being such a niche subject I had no idea how it would be received. I have to say the patience, support, service and quality of production provided by ‘Lettertec’ was fantastic.

SPB: We are glad that you are happy with everything. Selling books can be challenging for all books, how have sales been so far?

Colin: Considering the limited appeal that a book of this nature would attract, I was very surprised with the sales and I would estimate that from the first print of 100 copies, some 50% were sold. The remainder having been given away for advertising and promotional purposes. This I discovered to be an important aspect as book reviewers need to obtain a physical copy of a book to write a proper appraisal. I should mention that I never intended this to be a profit making venture as I wrote this book simply to create a single, comprehensive, consolidated history of the subject matter.

SPB: Not many come to us with the aim of making a profit, for most, break-even point is the aim. Was it all a worthwhile venture?

Colin: Yes, without a doubt as it have given me a great sense of achievement and worth, in addition to filling a gap in the history of aviation. The project took some four years to complete, over which time I learnt a lot more about the subject matter and researching procedures.

SPB: What has feedback been like for the book?

Colin: Excellent, even from readers who would not be technically minded and this was an aspect at the forefront of my mind when writing it. As a result of this feedback I decided to write an enlarged, revised edition, also since all the copies from the first print run were now gone!

SPB: Do you have any tips or advice for those thinking of taking on similar books?

Colin: Regardless of how little material you might have at the outset, persevere as you will be amazed how quickly this grows and the number of sources that will open up for you. Use all the facilities of your word processing package, as indexing, caption numbering, spellchecking, etc., are all vital tools in such a project. Most importantly, have your work proofread by someone totally devoid from the subject matter as it is impossible to catch all the mistakes and/or inconsistencies yourself. When costing the project, don’t forget to include packing and postage costs, as the latter can be considerable for a heavy book. Give yourself plenty of time as gathering material can be a slow process but well worth the wait.

SPB: Finally, where can people buy a copy of the book?

Colin: It can be purchased directly from me, Colin McKeeman via my website https://www.colinsphotos.net/section863377.html