37 monuments in 30 days, and what I learned along the way.
Tuesday 1 August 2017
This Editorial is long overdue.
I just checked back to see when I last posted one, and it was April – just before I ran that big tour in the Balkans.
Well, first things first: the tour was fantastic. Honestly, I was expecting at least some kind of minor disaster along the way. I decided that given the unpredictable nature of the region, one small disaster would be acceptable as part of the ‘experience.’ But nothing. It all came together perfectly, and it was an excellent group of people to travel with.
Suffice to say, there’ll be more of these. In fact, I’ve already booked up a whole load of tours for 2018 – Bulgaria and Ukraine in January, the Balkans again in April, back to Ukraine in August and September and then most likely, I’ll run my regular Bulgaria trips again in September and/or October.
I will add some dates to the Tours page soon… I don’t quite feel ready to spend too much time thinking about 2018 yet though. I still have a lot of 2017 stuff to deal with.
In the meantime, I finally got around to sorting and uploading the photos from all my past tours. All of them. I’m sharing some of them in this Editorial, but you can browse through the whole back catalogue here.
The Rest of the Summer…
Ever since that tour in the Balkans, in April, I’ve stayed put in Bulgaria. This has been the longest I’ve spent in one single country for several years now. In some ways it has been refreshing, and I did get to enjoy a few little trips around the country – I went climbing and exploring caves along the Danube in June, attended a rock festival at the Buzludzha Monument in July, and just last week I got back from a trip through the picturesque little villages of the Rhodopes, right down in the southwest of the country.
I have photos to share from all these trips, so look out for those… I’ll get round to publishing them on The Exclusion Zone soon, I hope.
In between those little expeditions though, I have also found this summer at times quite difficult. Brace yourselves. This might end up being a bit of a rant.
For over a decade now I’ve been researching and photographing communist-era monuments in Eastern Europe. I have had great success running tours to these places, but ultimately, that’s not what I want to do. Leading tours is hard work, and – although I’ve met some wonderful people in the process, and of course, I love the subject matter – I would much rather be writing books than explaining the same points over and over to groups of 10 people at a time. Running tours is a very good job… but publishing books is the dream.
I have really struggled though, to find any success on the book front. I’ve been pitching my massive volume about Bulgarian monuments to publishers for years now – and though I’ve had curious and encouraging responses, they have all been, ultimately, encouraging rejections.
The problem is this: I’ve written the book the way I write this blog. Part history, part adventure, lots of photos. But as a result the academic publishers don’t want to touch it, because there’s too much first-person travel narrative. The coffee-table photo book publishers find it too dense and nerdy. The book is massive, it would cost a lot to print, so for any publisher to take it on there’s a significant element of risk involved. I’ve reached out to plenty of them so far, but despite being ready to go, the book remains in limbo.
So for now, I keep posting my best work to this blog instead… but even that doesn’t always seem to work in my favour.
Last year, a famous architecture critic stole my work. Up until then, almost every English-language article dealing with the monuments of former Yugoslavia suggested that President Tito had personally commissioned them all himself. I disproved that though, in my big article about these Yugoslav memorial sites.
Two months after I published that article, the British architecture critic and Guardian columnist Owen Hatherley authored a similar piece for The Calvert Journal. It was bizarre, reading what he had written – I could almost hear my own voice in it, as I came across some of my best points rewritten here, and even backed up with the same references to obscure Slovenian philosophers. I kept expecting to find a mention of my own piece, a link, a credit… but there was nothing.
Of course, it’s impossible to prove anything here – there’s always room for coincidence. But I’ve had my photography shared alongside one of Hatherley’s published articles before, we’ve interacted on Twitter, I know that he knows my work and it would have been impossible for him to research the subject of Yugoslav monuments without having landed, at some point, on my own article. Besides, a colleague of mine challenged him over the article and suggested that he was “indebted” to my blog – and when Hatherley responded, he did not deny it.
Anyway, the result is that now, as far as the world is concerned, some of my best research on this subject has been credited to someone else.
For example: earlier this year, The Independent newspaper invited me to write an article for them about communist-era monuments in Eastern Europe. I was travelling at the time though, and by the time I got home and pitched an article proposal to them, the editor I’d spoken to had left the company. I contacted her replacement, but never heard anything back.
Later, I saw that they’d ended up running a similar article instead – it discussed the monuments of Yugoslavia, and featured my conclusions credited to Owen Hatherley.
I think some people, particularly academics, have a tendency to look down on blogs. They’re seen as inferior, unprofessional perhaps, and apparently, fair game for sourcing information from without the due referencing that might be given to a similar article published in a book or a journal.
This has all left me in a very strange and difficult situation. Most of my best work on monuments hasn’t been published online, because I wanted to save it for a book. But publishers won’t be interested in that book, unless they can see some evidence of my knowledge on the subject. As soon as I start to put my research online however, content gets taken and credited to people who are already respected book authors.
I had some more frustrating news just the other day. Last year I contacted a particular British publishing house, pitching the idea of a book about Bulgarian monuments to be followed, soon after, by a second book about Yugoslav monuments. They rejected my proposal… but I’ve just discovered that they have now commissioned someone else to write a book about Yugoslav monuments for them, much like the one that I outlined for them.
Some days I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.
So What Now?
As I mentioned before, this month I’ve been writing a (very) long blog post about communist-era monuments in Bulgaria. I am beginning to feel though, now, that perhaps I shouldn’t publish it on my own blog. It contains all my best and most original ideas on the subject, the summary of a decade’s research, and I know that if someone else stuck their name onto that I’d be heartbroken.
The truth is, my blog is not big enough, nor respected enough, to be safe from plagiarists. Most of the time I don’t mind that happening – but I do when it’s a subject I’m working hard to build a career in. So I think maybe this is the way forwards:
My blog remains a place for travel stories, for adventures, reflections, photographs and playful exploration. But the big stuff, my 8,000-word articles challenging the conventional narratives about architecture and politics and history, are going to need to find new homes.
As I said, these things need to be visible – it’s the only way to convince publishers that I’m capable of writing a book on the subject – but I’m going to start pitching such articles mostly to larger media outlets, to newspapers and architecture magazines instead.
I have already begun, this summer. Just last week I submitted an article about political monuments in Eastern Europe to Mental Floss. This week, I’m working on an article about Yugoslav Monuments for Atlas Obscura. Next week I plan to contact other websites with an idea for an in-depth article about the Buzludzha Monument.
And as for the book? Well, I’m still trying. I have a completed manuscript here for an in-depth study – part history, part travelogue – exploring communist-era monuments in Bulgaria. But that’s pretty niche, and I’ve had no luck so far. In the past I have joked to people that I should have just made a glossy picture book titled “100 Weird Communist Monuments Around the World”…
But actually, that might not be such a bad idea.
You may have seen the page I made on Tumblr, Monumentalism.net, where I’ve been sharing a constant stream of photos from communist memorial sites around the world. Well, it’s already close to getting more traffic than The Bohemian Blog does. It has been shared all over social media, including by some notable art and photography galleries.
What I’m going to do, I think, is keep pitching the Bulgaria book to people… but at the same time, begin drafting a picture book proposal that uses Monumentalism as its template. Lots of images, lots of countries, and just the minimum amount of text to tie it all together. Ultimately I believe my first book is going to be the hardest one to crack – so if a history-light picture book is an easier sell, what’s the harm in starting there?
As exhausting as it all feels right now, the only way is forwards.
So, looking ahead – I’m about to enter a very busy few months. On Sunday I fly to Azerbaijan. After that I’m heading to Georgia, then Armenia, and then I’m running two back-to-back tours in Ukraine. I have to fly right back to Bulgaria to lead another tour after that, then I go back to Kiev to speak at a conference (a terrifying thought), and then it’s back to Bulgaria again for one last tour.
The past few months have been physically relaxed, but emotionally draining. I’m expecting the next couple to be quite the opposite – constant movement, non-stop touring, but packed full of all kinds of life-affirming adventure.
Well, I’m sorry if this Editorial has been a bit of a downer. I expect a lot of people who read this site come here for thrills and escapism, so the last thing you probably want is to hear all my bad news. But like I said, there are some very exciting things ahead.
Right now I am so ready to leave my desk, stop looking at rejection letters, and go find out what Azerbaijan is like instead. I’ll be sure to let you know what I find there.
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