This week on WHITEBALLOON INSIGHTS award-winning travel writer Nick talks to us about the importance of stories, why he set up Master Storytellers, his mission and their vision for the future.
Q: Everyone has a story – and Master Storytellers provides a wonderful service producing biographies and memorial books to keep peoples’ stories alive. What first inspired you to set up Master Storytellers?
The idea came to me during the pandemic when we were in lockdown. I was watching the news, it was devastating, and I was thinking about all of the stories that were suddenly lost and gone forever. I reflected on my own grandmother. She was a very important part of my life, I adored her. The day she died I realised just how little I knew about her. I know she went from leaving school at 14 to working at Kensington Palace and owning an antique shop, but I don’t know the journey.
I wish now I could pick up a book to find the answers to all of the questions I have. So I thought that if I could create something that stops other people from suffering a similar fate, then that would be great.
Having been a writer for years, I know many amazing talented interviewers, editors and designers. So I thought if we put all of this talent together we could create something really incredible for people.
Normally that approach level of quality is only reserved for celebrities who have their biographies in the shops but I wanted to offer it to ‘ordinary’ people. Our clients are interviewed by the same people who sit down with the A-listers, and the designers are those who have created the covers of iconic magazines. It gives everyone the chance to tell their stories to pass down the generations. We write a lot of memoirs for people in their 80s and 90s and they want to do it for their grandchildren. We ask them to tell us about their parents and their grandparents to provide a really rich and detailed account of where that person has come from.
Q: You have a stable of award-winning writers, editors and designers, so they bring together an incredible wealth of experience. What are the steps your team takes to guide people through the process? I notice the books can even be turned in to an e-book for Kindles!
Yes, all of the writers do it professionally for newspapers, magazines and commercial biographies for major celebrities so they are used to getting subjects to open up. They know how to make people feel at ease, to extract the right stories and the right detail and to do it sensitively and respectfully. A lot of care goes into the writers we assign to each biography. It’s not just first in the queue – we think about who will bond with that client and who has similar interests.
With e-books, yes we can do that as well as audiobooks and translations. Whatever the client wants, really. We currently have someone printing over 500 copies of their biography. Everyone has a different approach and we work to meet those needs.
Q: Digital printing has transformed publishing. How have these changes helped you to develop your business?
Digital printing has made a huge difference, it has opened it up to so many other people. The problem with self-publishing is that there are different methods and the quality isn’t always there. With Master Storytellers we use the same printers as major book publishers so our clients receive a finished product fit for the shelves of Waterstone’s.
Digital e-books have been a game changer, but we don’t push that as a standalone product. I am a purist and so I love books. But if somebody wants an e-book we will do it – but no one ever wants just an e-book. It’s a bit soulless, it’s so lovely to have a physical copy with thumbed pages to pass down the generations.
Q: Do you feel people are becoming increasingly open to recording their stories in print?
Yes I think so, the pandemic did a lot for that. People started thinking about their stories and those of their immediate family in a different way. In years gone by it’s been all about DNA and ancestry, but the shift now is firmly towards finding out about your more immediate family, the people you share a dining table with or the people you have memories of sharing times with – not just names on a family tree.
I think the pandemic has taught people that this is important and it needs to be done. We are all quite naïve, we think we have all the time in the world. I certainly thought that with my Nan, I thought I would sit down with her another time and that time never came.
Q: It must be fascinating hearing people’s life stories. Is there one in particular that stays with you and sticks in your mind?
It’s interesting because we do so many different types of books. We are currently writing a book for a man in his 80s that was bought for him as a gift by his children. He was cabin crew on Concorde for 30 years and his stories are amazing – all about flying on the world’s most glamorous jet, the people onboard and the adventures he had. We have also had some really heartfelt stories of people who didn’t necessarily do anything dramatic with their lives but they are quite charming simple stories.
Q: I know that giving back is important to you and that you work with local charities and hospices. Can you tell us a little bit about this?
We have a partnership with a charity that is very important to us. We are working with a hospice that is celebrating a milestone anniversary and we are producing a beautiful book that they are going to give out to members of the community. It includes people’s stories, the history of the hospice and its journey so far. We are also gearing up to offer our services to their patients, with a number of memoirs written for free every year for people who may not have the means to pay for it.
We recognise it’s an expensive product due to the calibre of the books, but we don’t want it to be so exclusive that people can’t do it. Everyone has a story and we want to give as many people as possible the chance to record their stories for their families.
Q: You must be passionate about books – is there a particular author or book that has inspired you or that you keep coming back to over the years?
I am reading a book at the moment that has been on my bookshelf for years but I got Covid before Christmas and so finally had a chance to read it. It’s called Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts and tells the story about a man who escapes prison in Australia and starts a new life in the slums of Mumbai. It’s beautifully writtern, incredibly evocative and richly detailed – all things I hope we achieve in the books we produce.
I have always loved books and bookshops although that relationship has changed somewhat since I started Master Storytellers. Now when I go in to a bookshop I am looking at the cover concepts and fonts they’ve used and what paper they’ve printed on – so a slightly different experience to other people.
Q: And finally, when you are not writing and editing books, how do you like to spend your time?
My main love is travel. Not so much in the last couple of years, of course, but it’s picking up again. Travel has been my life for the past 20 years. I was a travel writer for most of that time completing assignments to more than 100 countries. l love it, I’m obsessed with it, there’s nowhere I wouldn’t want to visit. Any spare time I have I want to be off having an adventure somewhere. High up on my list are Mongolia, Madagascar and Ethiopia but my next trip is California, a place I have visited countless times and have real affection for. We are launching Master Storytellers out there which is exciting.
Thank you Nick for sharing these insights
If you would like to find out more, visit the Master Storytellers website.