The Accidental Surf Writers
For some authors, the process of writing and getting published is a deliberate and lifelong ambition. For others, it’s almost accidental, a book emerges from an idea, a need, a desire. For collaborators Chris Tola, John Waring, and Brian Birkefeld, it was all of these things and more. In Surfing Roadies, they wanted to capture in writing, an almost extinct surfing life, and culture, one immersed in spontaneity and adventure.
While books can entertain and free us from the everyday routine, others can educate and inspire, and Surfing Roadies does this in spades. The power of this book is in its authenticity and simplicity.
How an idea becomes reality
This trio of old friends committed themselves to recording the stories of older surfers, and this almost unrecognisable part of Australian surf culture, embarking on their first book publishing journey. But it wasn’t without its headaches. In our Q&A below, Chris Tola shares the difficulties faced when the unthinkable happened.
The friends recorded stories from surfers across the country capturing a snapshot in time before the internet, before the complexities of life in the new millennium. Through Surfing Roadies, the authors have cleverly documented the uncomplicated innocence of a life, less hurried, more spontaneous and freer. They deliberately reproduced the stories as they received them, leaving spelling and grammar mistakes and the language of the day intact, which adds to the book’s authenticity.
Look for accidental audiences
Whilst setting out to be a book about surfing, the authors inadvertently produced a book that appeals to a wider audience, not just surfers and those aged 40 plus. It’s a book for anyone interested in the surfing lifestyle of days gone by, and pre-internet Australian history and culture. The book has also found an audience with older motorcycle riders, who were also prone to fits of spontaneity with last-minute, unplanned road trips.
Younger surfers might be inspired by the older generations’ ability to live a less organised and controlled life, when surfers would on impulse hit the road, with little money or possessions, no pre-booking of accommodation, or any idea what they’d find at their destination. But that was part of the fun, and Surfing Roadies captures in spades, that wonderful innocence, and adventure-seeking.
Q: How did the idea for the book come about?
John waring who is in his mid-60s was having a conversation about going away, and having to book flights, check the weather, online maps, accommodation, etc. He suddenly realised that everything had become less impulsive and more technology-based and that people were planning accommodation 12 months ahead. It’s so different from the old days. We were spontaneous, deciding at the last minute to get away on a Friday night, pinch some food from mum’s pantry, and a bit of money for fuel, and we’d just take off. No plans, just a sense of adventure. Everything is so perfect now. The spontaneity of a surfing trip has almost gone.
Don’t get me wrong, now we can go to so many amazing places, but it also needs so much more planning.
Q: So where did you start?
John approached me (Chris) with the idea, particularly as I’ve spent a lot of time in the surf industry. John suggested we join forces to maximise our industry contacts, and include Brian Birkefeld who has graphic design experience.
Next, we asked friends and strangers about their surf stories; anyone who was happy to share a moment in time that reflected not just surf culture, but the wider Australian culture.
In total, we collected 75 real-life stories, some happy, some funny and the odd curveball just for good measure. We also gathered a wonderful collection of photographs to visually illustrate the tales, and Surfing Roadies was born.
Most of the stories were left intact, just as we’d received them with spelling mistakes and all, but some we had to curate. We didn’t censor the stories but had to make some a little harsh or sexist – it was the time! We also made a real effort to get more stories from females but struggled. Many of the girls felt embarrassed to tell their stories, which is a shame. We will try again for the next edition.
Q: Was it difficult to get other people on board?
No, not really, everything seemed to fall into place, the stories and even an angel investor, who was also a surfer and who helped fund the publication through a friend of his. It was amazing to have his support. With the money secured, we published 2,000 copies of the book, but sadly our publisher went broke.
Q: Did you have any previous writing or publishing?
Very little experience. I did a little bit at University contributing to the Student Magazine called OPUS, along with helping out on a couple of surfing books, but nothing on this scale.
Q: You said that your publisher went bust. This must have been difficult for you all. With this experience behind you, can you offer any advice to would-be authors diving into printing their first publication?
My advice would be to connect and network with other wonderful writers and publishers, use that network, ask for advice, take more responsibility and oversee the process. Don’t have blind faith in someone.
Q: Can you expand a little on what happened during your publishing process? I can see from your book that you don’t have page numbers and only a few photos.
I guess because we were dealing with long-term friends and their recommendations, we kind of felt happy to be guided by them.
My friend Peter is our ‘Angel Investor’ and he thought he was doing the right thing as he was also dealing with the publisher and thought he’d recommend him. Our publisher said all the right things and was supportive to start with, but then it all went to custard!
Firstly, we became aware that something wasn’t quite right when communication between the publisher and our team lapsed. Even Peter was expressing concerns, but we soldiered on thinking everything was going to be OK. We received intermittent emails and every now and again snippets of what the book would look like, so we kept going.
Then, we received news that the photograph files that we’d painstakingly secured were not big enough to be reproduced properly. We’d sent through a stack of pictures that were often less than I meg. So, Brian went through and enhanced them to a more suitable size and we resupplied them. We were told they were much better and so were pleased. But, when we finally received the book, the publisher had used the original smaller files of the pictures and only included a handful of images. Plus, he never included things like an index or page numbers. There was basically no formatting. He never explained why, just tried to blame others sadly.
Q: Do you plan to produce a follow-up book?
Yes, we’re still in the planning process for the second edition. We’d like to put a call out to your readers for a potential title, eg: MORE Surfing Roadies, or something like that.
The group would like to do produce an electronic version through Amazon, and if we can make some money, put it towards publishing a hardcover again. Most of the people who purchased the book like having a small easy-to-read book to carry around; it’s the kind of book you take to the toilet or read when you’ve got a spare five/ten minutes!
Q: How did you promote your book and what kind of media coverage did you receive?
Each of us used our existing networks and did a lot of cold calling, to see if people would like a copy to review. Some places declined, saying the book wasn’t for them, which is understandable. But lots of local places were happy to stock our book – like surf shops, a couple of museums that are in ‘surf towns’ and local cafes.
When we do a road trip, we take our book with us, and go into the local surf shops, cafes, the bakery, etc. and show them the book. They love it and are happy to display a few copies for us.
We sent out close to 200 books for reviews and promotion which is something new authors might want to consider. Facebook was important too, but we haven’t looked into Instagram or other platforms yet, as we’re pretty much Luddites really …
Our local bookstores and media were very supportive. According to Dymocks, it’s outsold every other local book put together, which was a real buzz. We’ve also had sales around the world, which is great.
We appeared in the news on our local TV network, in the Newcastle Herald and Weekly, as well as local and Melbourne ABC Radio. We were also featured in a range of other surf-related publications. Sadly, we never heard back from the big city newspapers, but I suggest, start with your local media, as you’re more likely to get their support.
Our book was distributed through Woodslane, and they also did the initial marketing for us. We’re also stocked in Dymocks, Amazon, and in the Booktopia catalogue giving us international exposure.
Q: What difference did it make having an angel investor?
Our Angel Investor paid the costs of publishing, and for this, we will be eternally grateful. Peter is a retired lawyer who now supports a range of not for profits and startups, plus he’s a top bloke and fellow surfer. Unfortunately, he also had two other surf books in the pipeline with the same publisher.
Q: Why was it important to capture these stories?
To record a part of surfing culture that’s disappearing. The whole randomness of life back then, days when guys from Sydney would head off interstate without a plan, now they’re off to Guatemala to surf, amazing times but that simplicity and naivety that we had, we wanted to keep as a record.
Q: Who did you write this book for?
Our main target is obviously surfers and beachgoers and anyone who is into that lifestyle. Funnily enough, we tapped into an unlikely market, motorbike riders. They enjoy the book because it’s similar to their stories, that spontaneity of just driving off somewhere, without a plan, taking off anywhere in Australia.
Nowadays, everyone has done everything, it’s hard to be different. Back in the day, it was fun to be a surfer, to enjoy the ratbag element, it meant you stood out from the crowd, you weren’t necessarily a conformist, you treaded, or surfed your own path.
Q: Did you target the book to a particular age group?
No, not really but it’s probably of greater interest to people in their 40s to 70s and they were the ones who supplied the stories too.
Q: I’d like to know what young readers think of it?
We often chat with the young fellas about ‘Van Life’, living out of a van, stopping where we wanted, nothing planned, it was simple. No rent or bills or anything like that. We just paid for the diesel as we used it and made sure we have the best van insurance at the best price. That was it! The good thing is many are interested in doing the same, it’s just that they have their iPads, but there is great interest from the younger surfers.
Q: What do you hope it will bring to the reader?
As I mentioned before, the three of us agreed that it would be a great ‘toilet book’, (laughs). You could go to the loo and read a few pages, and have a giggle, you know, like the one story we have in there about going nude surfing.
One of our goals was to capture the diversity of experiences and tried to get more female surfers involved but it was difficult. We also included pictures and stories about the boards used back then, the people, cars, the clothing, scenery, etc.
Disappointingly, even after Brian had done all the typesetting, the publisher ruined it; they took out most of the photos, the glossary, page numbers, they really messed it up.
We didn’t get to see the drafts either. We’ll make sure we do with the next edition. We plan to put those elements back in and top it up with the original photos.
Q: Are today’s young surfers interested in this history?
They’re interested because they can see how different it is to now. A lot of them love the idea of impulsiveness and a time and place when you just had more time. Now we’re so scheduled – school holidays, four weeks annual leave, more restrictions. They love the idea of loading up a car, heading off and not knowing when they’re coming back.
Q: So what have you been up to since the book was released?
Trying to sort through the challenges of being done by our former publisher and getting the book back on track. We’re also busy maintaining Facebook pages, and our next book launches. We’d also like to include more stories from women and learn more about Indigenous surfers.
Q: What have you personally gained from this experience? I take it, it wasn’t about the money?
Yes, you do need some money, but also passion. It’s like being an artist. Follow your passion. We never did this for the money. It was about capturing surf stories because we’re passionate about surfing and capturing our surf history. We’ve loved talking to people face to face, it’s been amazing. We spent 3 hours in Port Macquarie’s surf museum chatting with people. It was amazing.
Q: Final bit of advice to anyone considering writing and/or publishing a book?
Just do it. Everyone can sing, everyone has a story. We were fortunate that our book was popular. Getting it published, seeing it in the stores is amazing. It feels amazing.
Got a taste for history?
If you enjoyed learning about Australian surf culture and history, you might like to read ‘Cane Cutter‘ by David A. Cottone. ‘Cane Cutter’ is a historical fiction novel that’s an evocative account of the life journey of Sicilian immigrants to Babinda in North Queensland in the early 1900s.