Why We Wrote Looking Sideways Vol. 1

Have I mentioned we’ve got a book out? 

Yep, Looking Sideways Vol. 1, the book me and Owen Tozer have been working on for the last year or so, is finally out in the world. As the first and best part of the process (making it) comes to an end, and the second, less enjoyable part begins (selling it), I’ve spent much time thinking about the entire project, and pondering the reasons we decided to make a book in the first place. So here are five reasons why myself and co-author Owen Tozer decided to make and self-publish the first Looking Sideways book. 

1. Because We Could

Me and Tozer sipping ten quid halves of lager, Tokyo, January 2020. Photo: Boog

Sounds glib, right? But doing something creative for its own sake was the main reason we started this entire project. And the main reason I started the podcast in the first place, come to think of it. Myself and Owen are very close friends and have always sought out opportunities to work together. Mainly, because we like each other’s company and very much enjoy talking shit together, as anybody who listened to our episode 150b chat can confirm.

So the book was, primarily, just another unspoken excuse to do more self-indulgent creative plotting and see where it would lead. To me, doing work for the sake of it, rather than because you hope it will lead somewhere, is the ‘point’ of creativity. It took me a very long time and a lot of badly-executed ideas to learn this lesson. It’s also one of the fascinating paradoxes at the heart of ‘being’ creative. In my view, letting your ambition lead taints the work. Yet you need ambition to start any work in the first place. I’ve personally found that a large part of the creative process is finding a semi-comfortable midpoint between these two opposing poles.

The other thing I was reminded of as we put this book together is: the ‘point’ of a project isn’t always immediately apparent. Sometimes, the process of making something helps you understand what it is you’re actually making. And that is usually one of the most rewarding aspects of any creative project (Adam Buxton and Laurie Anderson had a very interesting chat about this in a recent episode of his podcast).

Which is what happened in this case. When we started making Looking Sideways Vol. 1, we didn’t actually have a concrete idea. We just knew that we had a lot of material, and that if we kicked it around for long enough, we’d be able to get something good out of it.

In the end, that’s what happened. We’d do a draft, spend some time with it, and then have a lot of honest conversations about what was wrong with it, and what we could improve. (Astonishingly, we only had one major row during this process). And from this gauzy workflow, a book – and a theme – began to emerge.

Naturally, this approach brings its own frustrations (particularly if, like Owen, you had to redesign the entire thing after every round of feedback). It takes fooking ages, for a start. Certainly, there’s no way you could do this with a publisher or third party calling the shots (see point five for more on this). But I’m a big believer in how limitations (something Colin Kennedy also takes about in the book) lead to unforeseen creative outcomes, and thus should be embraced. Without this approach, we’d have ended up with a different (and, to my mind, lesser) book.

2. To Give Owen’s Pictures A Proper Platform

Helicopter over LA, from Looking Sideways Vol. 1. Photo: Owen

Have you seen how good Owen’s pictures are? I mean, seriously? For me he’s the best creative in the game, and I regularly count myself fortunate that he’s chosen to channel these singular energies into Looking Sideways.

During our trip to California, I was continually amazed at Owen’s ability to surmount the – yes – limitations he was faced with to come up with work that got to the heart of an individual’s personality, or captured the essence of a place we were fleetingly passing through.

Herbie Fletcher for Looking Sideways Vol. 1. Photo: Owen

Like all creatives, Owen is constantly fretting about having more time and resources to do his work. But in the end, I think the strictures our schedule placed upon him are what made his work on this trip so effective and insightful. And judging by these words from his essay in the book, he ended up agreeing with me:

“We didn’t schedule much time for photography beyond the 20 minutes or so we scheduled for portraits to accompany each interview. Because of that, the images are very much a sideways look at California as we passed through. Moments snatched in between interviews, or from the odd free morning and evening along the way, spontaneous and unplanned. In many ways, I think it’s better for it”. 

Ventura, from Looking Sideways Vol. 1. Photo: Owen

And this is why Looking Sideways Vol. 1 is, first and foremost, a 256-page photo book. Our little world is so full of chancers: people with huge profiles who’s only discernible skill is looking presentable in photographs and a talent for self-promotion. Giving Owen a proper platform for his incredible work was one of the main reasons I wanted to do this book in the first place, and why I can’t wait for people to see the finished book for themselves.

3. It’s A Funding Experiment For The Podcast

I’m a bit obsessed and fascinated with the total disingenuousness of … well, seemingly everything about modern life. The way that everything’s a lie and a bit of a joke; and everybody, liars and marks alike, is supposed to collectively pretend that it isn’t.

You know the type of thing. Brexit is a triumph, and British businesses are doing better than ever. Britain is the least racist country in the world and, actually, there were a lot of positive things about the empire. And so on.

Once you notice this constant, insidious gaslighting, you see it absolutely everywhere. And, as ridiculous as this sounds, it’s one reason why I still haven’t taken ads on the podcast, and have so far only worked with two sponsors in the four years I’ve been doing the show.

Why? Because one reason I started the podcast in the first place was to have a creative space free from the endless tsunami of disingenuousness nonsense we’re subjected to every waking second.

Yet pretty soon, as the podcast took off, I realised this collective duplicity is at work even here, and that I’d soon have a choice to make. Because that’s one problem this type of hopelessly unfashionable idealism: it makes it difficult to get paid. And I’m no different to anybody. I quite like getting paid for the work I do, preferably fairly. I mean, I’ve done over 180 episodes of the podcast now, which have all been completely free to anybody who wants to listen. That represents a considerable investment of time, effort, commitment and creativity on my part.

The issue for a podcaster like me is that is that, if you do want to get paid, the choice seems to be: charge for the podcast (nah) or fill your podcast with absolutely godawful adverts. I’ve raised the latter idea with listeners and peers over the months and the response I usually get is something like, “Ads, mate? What’s the problem? We all fast-forward them anyway”.

For me that’s exactly the problem. Laughably shit ads phoned in by people who don’t believe what they’re reading, played to people who just fast-forward them anyway? What a colossal waste of time, energy and integrity that is for all concerned.

There’s a bigger point, too. So to be fairly rewarded for the work and value I’ve put out into the world, I need to follow the herd, and take any old ad or brand opportunity that comes along? And hope the audience I’ve carefully and respectfully built up is in on the joke, and knows they’re supposed to fast forward it? I mean … isn’t there enough of this shit in the world? Is this really the best we can do?

Or can you do something different? Can you create something that enriches, adds to the culture you try to represent, provides a platform for people, values their creativity by making sure everyone gets paid fairly – and makes a stand for what’s important in our culture?

Like I say, in 2021 this is a very unfashionable stance. Hell, it was unfashionable when Bill Hicks (shout out to my fellow Gen-Xers) was making the same point in a much, much funnier way twenty years ago (see above). But I think it’s important, this stuff – right now, perhaps more important than ever. That’s why, whenever I have done something commercial, I’ve tried to make sure it’s something I can be proud of, and that has some value for whoever might want to check it out. In this way, the book is an extension of this ethos and, partially, an attempt to answer this question: in 2021, can you get paid in a way that doesn’t involve contributing to the culture of remorseless, tawdry disingenuousness that characterises the modern age?

Guess we’re about to find out.

4. It’s Part Of A Developing Idea

Me listening to another one of Owen’s ideas while trying to navigate rush hour on the PCH. Photo: Owen

If you’ve listened to episode 150b you’ll remember me mentioning Owen’s relentless idea-making. Owen in full creative flow is actually quite a hilarious and awe-inspiring sight. Like a cowboy trying to regain control of a recalcitrant horse, you can almost see him physically grappling with his right-brain as it bucks around from idea to idea.

Endlessly lapping the Pacific Coast Highway between Huntington Beach and San Diego provided many opportunities to witness this phenomenon. And one of the things we ended up talking about a lot during those early morning drives was how we’d do the trip if we had (that theme again) more time and resources.

By the end of the trip, we’d fleshed out the full vision: an action sports version of Parts Unknown, where we’d spend more time with each person and produce a load of film stuff to go with each interview. A behind-the-scenes cut, where we follow the person at work and play. A proper filmed cut of each interview. The podcasts themselves. And wouldn’t it be great if we could then collect all the shots and publish them in some kind of book?

So Looking Sideways Vol. 1 is part of this developing idea. Once things start to open up again, we’ll begin planning our next trip, and see if we can put all these plans into action.

5. I Wanted To Try Self-Publishing

I’ve been lucky enough to have a few books published over the years. I’m still very proud of Snowboarding the World, the first book I wrote for Footprint with my pals Chris Moran and Ewan Wallace, even if it was without question the most stressful deadline of my life. But Footprint were great, and I learned a lot from working with them.

The main thing? Self-publishing is the way to go. From what I could work out, niche publishing was predicated on selling just enough copies of the book for the publishers to make their cash and for the authors to pay their advance back. Sure, if the thing unexpectedly sold lots of copies, then all good. But with that unlikely to happen, it looked like the humble author did all the work for, ultimately, very little reward other than the initial advance and a ‘platform’: that nebulous thing that is used to justify all manner of shit pay structures for creatives. 

Which is one major reason why we decided to self-publish Looking Sideways Vol.1. Sure, working with a publisher brings benefits – distribution, marketing etc. But I’ve got the latter pretty dialled and the internet to take care of the former. 

Self-publishing also means complete editorial control, which was also important for this project. Sure, it means the project has enjoyed a – to put it mildly – leisurely gestation. But we’ve been able to focus on every single detail, and put out something we’re completely creatively satisfied with – and that hopefully Looking Sideways listeners will enjoy too.