Spotlight 17: Buster Birch
Mark Dawson: I’m Mark Dawson from the Self-Publishing Show, and this is Self-Publishing Spotlight where we shine a light on the indie authors who had changing the world of publishing one book at a time.
Tom Ashford: Hello and welcome to the Self-Publishing Spotlight. We meet indie authors at all stages of their careers and ask them a series of five questions. Five questions about their process, their mistakes, and their successes, five answers that will help you level up your own author career.
My name is Tom Ashford, and I’m part of the Self-Publishing Formula.
Don’t forget that you can get your self-publishing resource kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit.
This week’s guest is Buster Birch. He writes music tuition books and he lives in the UK. Welcome, Buster.
Buster Birch: Hi, Tom. Thanks for having me on the show.
Tom Ashford: It’s very great to have you on. So as the introduction was a little different there because we’re not sure exactly how many books to say that you’ve written because it’s slightly different with music tuition books, isn’t it?
Buster Birch: That’s right, yes. I’ve got currently 19 books published, 17 on the Apple store and two in print on Amazon. But with my books, the way I write them, there are several editions of the same book.
The books I write them are music tuition books, but they’re not about how to play the instrument. They’re about how to play music, and particularly how to improvise.
My specialty is jazz, so the books I write are suitable for all instruments and the nature of transposing instruments tends to fall into four categories. So there are different editions of this same book for concert pitch, B-flat pitch, E-flat pitch and bass clef, if that makes any sense.
Tom Ashford: It makes sort of sense to me. So in the past you’ve been, or currently you’ve been, a jazz musician as your name brilliantly suggests.
Buster Birch: Yes, it does help a bit.
I’ve been a professional musician for almost 30 years now, and a teacher for about 25 years as well. Alongside that, I did a music degree at the University of London and in general music, bachelor music. I moved to New York for years, studied out there, came back and went to the conservatoire at the Guildhall and did a postgraduate diploma in jazz performance.
And since then, I’ve done a lot of freelancing. I’ve worked on cruise ships, I’ve played the symphony orchestras, Western shows, I’ve toured a lot. Basically I’ve played in lots of weird and wonderful places with lots of weird and wonderful people. So it’s been a lot of fun.
I still work as a musician, but I’ve kind of a little bit more focused on the sort of jazz world now, which I mainly specialize in.
I have a few bands that I currently work with. My wife is a fantastic jazz musician, she was with Humphrey Lyttelton’s band for a few years before he passed away, so we do some gigs together. I play with a band called the Alison Rayner Quintet, which we won the parliamentary award last year for best UK jazz ensemble. And I play with a Latin jazz band called Heads South.
Tom Ashford: That’s absolutely awesome.
Buster Birch: Yeah, it keeps me busy.
Tom Ashford: In terms of the five questions, the first one is why do you write?
I guess this is, in this case, more of a what made you want to go into teaching music tuition and writing music tuition books?
Buster Birch: I’ve been a teacher for a long time as well. I’ve taught instrumental lessons in schools. I spent seven years as a visiting professor on the jazz faculty at the conservatoire in Greenwich.
I run a jazz summer school, which I’ve been co-director for 15 years. And we have a one-week residential course for adult learners, and we have some fantastic teachers on there, which I’ve learned a lot from over the years.
I’ve worked for sort of arts companies. There’s one down in Salisbury, actually called La Folia, who do some really amazing work working with children. And so a few years ago, I wanted to get more focused on teaching jazz improvisation workshops and less on teaching instruments for work.
It was about two or three years ago, I set up my first jazz workshop for adults, which was a regular class that I ran, just I set it up myself. Off the back of that, I then ended up running another jazz workshop, and off the back of that, I got involved with the local music center and we set up a jazz school for children.
I’ve got now two classes running there every week for kids, primary and secondary school, teaching them improvisation. And through all of these workshops, which is probably over 150 workshops in the last two, three years, I’ve developed some methods and systems that I found work really well, particularly with less experienced musicians and players. And I basically ended up also with a lot of handouts and worksheets and things like this that I was giving the students exercises, things I’d written out, little things I’d transcribed off records.
So I was looking for a way of putting these all together into some sort of digital format because it was getting ridiculous, there’s all these bits of paper. And that’s when I discovered the Apple books, iBooks Author software. And I found that I could put it all into there. I use all Apple equipment.
And then, as I learned more about how to use it, I discovered the interactive functions built within that, and I could sort of see pretty quickly that this could be really useful for music education because you could embed the audio files directly into the electronic books.
And then me being me, I got pretty carried away with it. That gave me an idea for actually writing and putting together some material into these books. And as I learned more about it, I discovered that you could publish these things.
Originally for me, it was just to put something together to help my students so they could practice. But then I realized I could reach more people by publishing. So I sat up my own little publishing company last year, just so that I could get hooked up straight onto Apple and publish direct.
I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know about these aggregators and third party people that I could use, which would make life much easier if I had known about it then. Then as I started writing more, I thought, “I haven’t had some experience of teaching at the conservatoire.”
Jazz is often taught as something that is kind of like an advanced thing. Traditionally, a lot of students will go through their grades, they’ll go onto music college and then they’ll start learning jazz at that point.
But what I was finding that if you could introduce it at a much earlier stage, and the children love it, they love the improvising, it’s very natural to them. So there were these different things that I was developing and I thought, “There’s a little gap in the market here. If I can start putting some of this stuff out.” From a jazz perspective and improvising perspective, but from sort of day dot.
So as you learn from scratch, you are automatically embedding the improvisation and play into learning. And so I thought that this would be a good thing. And the other sort of students I have are… there’s a lot of classical musicians that have trained, who are very fearful of improvising. So again, I was trying to find some things that would help them. That’s how I got started basically.
And then of course, at Christmas, I discovered you guys, which was a bit of a game-changer. Christmas Eve, I was walking down the high street trying to find a present, and at this point… So I published my first book on Apple last March, and by December I had nine books up there and I was thinking, “I need a bit of help with marketing these things getting the word out a little bit.” And I was walking down the high street and I thought, “I wonder if there’s a podcast or something I can listen to, to help with a bit of marketing.” And boom, you guys popped up.
I thought this was interesting. I had a little listen, and it was the episode where you were interviewing Joseph Alexander, and I literally stopped in the street, and I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was just fantastic because here’s this guy, who’s six, seven years ago done exactly what I’m trying to do now and set up this incredible company and has been very successful. And he was talking about his Self-Published Millionaire book and giving practical advice about people willing to publish. And he has a consultancy that he runs.
So I come straight home and emailed him and sent him my books and said, “I’m looking for some help. Would you be interested in doing some consultancy work for me? I need some help with pushing these books.”
He wrote back, to cut long story short, and said, “It might be good idea if we work together on something.” He liked what I was doing. And so in the new year, I started writing a book for him. He offered me a publishing contract, and now I’ve got two books out on Amazon through Fundamental Changes, and we’re working on getting the third one out very soon.
Tom Ashford: Fantastic.
Buster Birch: That was great. I mean, what a Christmas present.
Tom Ashford: Did you actually find a Christmas present in the end on Christmas Eve?
Buster Birch: I think it was a box of chocolates or something.
Tom Ashford: That’ll do.
Buster Birch: It wasn’t a great present. I think I was too busy. I was just desperate to get home and email Joseph. So yeah, sorry about that. Yes, it’s been quite a roller coaster this year.
And this year has been incredible because then I, from off of the back of that, I came to the London Book Fair. I met all you guys, spent the night in the park with John Dyer, which was great fun. And yeah, and I met Joseph and Tim as well, who works with Joseph.
I feel extremely fortunate now to be in a position where I’m working with these guys. I have that sort of expertise behind me and, and they’re just incredible. They’re just so good to work with, so easy to work with, so helpful. And they’re musicians. I can talk to them about music and they really get it. So I feel very, very fortunate. I’m just sort of carrying on with what I’m doing here.
Joseph is just very generous, actually. He’s very happy for me to keep doing the Apple books. So I just launched eight new books last week, a set of scales, practice guides, that I’d already put together back in March, I think.
When I submitted my first draft to Joseph, there was a little delay because he was away. He went to India and he got sick actually. And then he came back and there was a little bit of a gap, and having been slogging away writing this book, I was very much in the groove.
I had an idea for some more Apple books, so I wanted to get them done. And so they’re out now. I’m back on to pretty much all focused on writing this stuff for Joseph now, these Fundamental Changes books, we’ve got a series of now these fundamental changes books. We’ve got a series beginner jazz improvising and then there’s another series, a followup series to that, which I’m already kind of started on the intermediate series.
And the books that we write for Joseph are slightly different because the Apple books I’ve got are, they’re very generic. So I tend to write the information up the front and then there’s a series of exercises that you play along with, whereas the books Joseph writes and his star, he has a big library of books currently out there. He has a house style, which I had to adjust and fit to. His style is great because it’s much more like a one-to-one lesson and the text sort of runs through the book and each exercise is explained a little more. It’s more like as you go along. It’s kind of like if you were having a lesson with somebody.
That’s the kind of model for that, whereas the Apple books I’m doing are more like practice guides where you get some information, then you get all the exercises on them. So it was some adjusting to that. But yeah, it’s taking up quite a lot of my energy and attention at the moment, but I’m enjoying every minute of it.
Tom Ashford: Question number two is how do you write?
Normally we’d be talking to a fiction writer and there’d be plot but I imagine it’s kind of a different process for writing a music tuition book.
Buster Birch: Yes. I don’t know about other musicians, but the way I work is, running all these jazz workshops that I do, I’ve got a great opportunity to try stuff in there. For start, I’ve already got a lot of material. So it’s a question of how to format that into a book format for me at this stage. I’m not short on things of what to write.
But for instance, this next series that I’m looking at with Joseph is going to be based on playing over what we call rhythm changes, and I’ve got some ideas. I’ve already taken stuff into workshops and workshopped it. I’ve already done three or four workshops on the material that will then go into the book.
So it’s very much tried and tested. I really like to know that what I’m writing and putting in the books really works and it will work for anyone. The idea that anybody could get the book and kind of teach themselves through the process, or other teachers could use those books to teach their students. That’s one thing.
As I was just explaining about the different, slightly different formats with the Apple books, the Apple books have all the audio tracks embedded in them. So those books are all written in iBooks software. So there’s some great interactive things. You can embed audio and video, which is what I’ve been using there.
I tend to put everything together in there. With Joseph’s books, they’re in print and they’re on Kindle, and then all the order goes onto his website so you could get free audio downloads after you purchase the book. So it’s just a slightly different format.
So in terms of software, one of the first things I found… It’s great having an editor now. He tore my grammar apart a little bit on the first draft, which was fantastic and I immediately wrote back and said, “Thanks, this is really just what I needed.” And off the back of that I went out and bought Grammerly Pro, so I run everything through that.
But after having written quite a lot this year, I’m finding now that I don’t tend to need to use that quite so much because there’s things you learn, obviously as you do it, it highlights. So that was really helpful. Unclear antecedents, which I didn’t know existed, but apparently it’s a thing. You can’t start a sentence with this. There’s just little things that you train yourself as you do it. Anyway. So that was a bit of software.
With Joseph’s books we write in Word and so I had to buy that because I’m all Mac. Everything I use is Mac, so that was a bit of learning the software there. What we tend to do is well, we use Dropbox a lot, so that’s a really useful resource to send stuff backwards and forwards. And they have an online version of Word, so you can write online and it’s up there already. You don’t need to back it up, if that makes sense. I’m not quite sure how that works.
But then of course there’s the music software. Within the books obviously you’ve got the explanations of the text and everything, but then we have a lot of notations, examples. The software I use for that is a program called Finale. That allows me to create all the musical templates and examples and all of the scores and write the tunes and things like that. That gets exported out to JPEGs or PDFs, I’m not sure.
Then there’s the actual audio. Every single exercise in the books has a play along audio track, and very often at different tempos as well. These are fantastic resources for practicing and learning. What happens is when you play along with an audio version of the thing that you’re trying to play, which you’re reading from the notation as well, it’s very good for developing your skills. You can hear if you make a mistake, it helps with the timing, it helps with playing the rhythms. A lot of people struggle with reading rhythms, so when they hear the correct version, they play along with it. It’s a very good way to learn. So we create audio files for everything. And actually that takes a lot of time.
So I create all those in a program called Logic Pro. Some of it’s MIDI piano. I had to get piano sample libraries so you get a nice piano sound. Then some of the exercises in the book, which are dealing more with particular instrumental technique I get professional musicians to do recording sessions and we record the audio here. I do it at my home. So again, that’s more audio files, but slightly different to the exercises. So there’s a lot that goes into the books. It’s quite a process.
Tom Ashford: Obviously you’ve got 19 books out and you started, well you said you stated, was it last March?
Buster Birch: Yeah.
Tom Ashford: That’s quite prolific.
Buster Birch: I guess. I tend to get quite obsessive when I get into something. Some of my close friends have recently asked me, “Are you all right? Is everything okay?” I don’t know if I’m having some midlife crisis. But no, I tend to, I just really get going when I get going. The other thing I got last year was I got myself a laptop, which I’d never had before because I didn’t really need one. And that meant I could write also wherever I was. That enables me to get a lot more done.
For instance, I was on tour with the band last September in Germany. We had ten days out there and we were in the tour bus going around. I literally wrote a book in the back of the tour bus between Germany, and we went up to Scotland as well.
The Reader Magnet I wrote in the wings of Glyndebourne Opera House, in between rehearsals. It was very unusual for me, but I was actually in an opera on the stage playing a clay pot, dressed up as a spirit from the underworld.
Tom Ashford: Fair enough.
Buster Birch: Yeah, as you do. It’s a gig isn’t it, someone says. But what was interesting was there was three weeks of rehearsals for that, which I’ve never done three weeks rehearsing for anything in my life. I was driving backwards and forwards to Glyndebourne for three weeks hanging around in the wings. I had my laptop, wrote the Reader Magnet in there, in the wings of the opera house, dressed up as a spirit from the underworld.
But mostly I work at home. I have a study. I’ve set myself up here. I take my laptop into, I still go into school a couple days a week. Sometimes the students don’t turn up, I’ll get half an hour, get a bit done on that. I’ve just tried to use all the time I can, every bit of time I’ve got.
Tom Ashford: That leads into question number three, which is are you a full-time author?
Buster Birch: Well, I guess not. But I don’t really have any plans to be. I certainly wouldn’t want to give up performing and teaching music. It’s what I’ve done all my life now, and it’s who I am. I’m a musician. So obviously I’m never going to give up doing that.
But it would be nice to be able to afford to cut down on a few things, or at least hire a bit help I think. Admin is the thing that I’m drowning in now. It’s the start of a new financial and academic year this week. The admin is unbelievable. But I know what you mean.
I did give up the day job a long time ago. I’ve been self-employed for, well I’m just going into my 30th year of self-employment. The last sort of full-time salary job I had was 1990. And I’ve never had the same week twice since then. But I do have a lot on my plate right now, and I probably can’t keep this rate up forever.
It would be nice to, yeah, just, if the books were too… I think that’s what I discovered through you guys. Originally last year when I was starting this, I was sort of seeing the books as a little bit of a supplement to my teaching. And I think since discovering you and taking the courses and really seeing the potential and the global reach that you have and that Joseph has, it’s made me realize that maybe these books, who knows, possibly, hopefully the books could be the main thing and the teaching could supplement those. Who knows.
I’m very happy with what I’m doing now though. So I’ve no plans to stop anything other than just maybe go a little, plant the foot off the gas a little bit.
Tom Ashford: Question number four is what mistakes do you think you’ve made and what have you got right?
Buster Birch: Well, obviously when I started out last year, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no template to follow. I couldn’t really see, there was nothing really quite like what I was trying to put together. So I think what I did wrong was I put way too much in my first book. I mean it’s absolutely monumental. I think there’s 1,340 audio files.
Tom Ashford: Oh, wow.
Buster Birch: And there’s four editions of that. So that’s over 5,000 audio tracks to get together. That was a mountain to climb. Then once I’d finished it, I looked into getting it online. And I didn’t know about the aggregators and companies like PublishDrive.
So I decided to do my own publishing company so I could publish direct to Apple. That was a lot of pain getting that up and running. Mostly dealing with, they were very helpful, the IRS. You have to get a tax code and all the rest of it, and fill in all the paperwork. For some reason they don’t do email. So they were very helpful on the telephone and offered to fax me the paperwork. So then I thought, “Well, how am I going to get a fax? I don’t have one”.
So then I went into school and I was asking the secretary, I said, “Have you got a fax machine? I need to get a fax.” So she calls the IT guy who’s 23, he doesn’t know what fax machine is, right? So he’s getting this old machine out the cupboard, dusting it off, trying to hook it up to the network. I’m trying to explain to him what a fax is and where the paper comes out, all the while on the mobile phone to the IRS at 35 critical. So that was a bit ridiculous. I could have avoided all that if I’d had known better. So I think doing everything on your own in the dark is hard, but there’s no need for that now.
There’s so much out there. There’s so many things to do. In terms of what I think I did right, obviously when I found you guys, I just jumped right in and so I got straight into the back catalog, which is a great resource. And it was when I was doing the gig, it was an hour each way there and back. So that was like two episodes every day and I just listened to everything on there.
I took the 101 course this spring wasn’t it? I think it came out? And that’s a game-changer. Everything you need is in there. That just changed everything in terms of seeing the bigger picture and setting up the whole platform as you say, with a mailing list and automations and things like this. So that was a really good move.
I’m still very new to this. This is all new to me. And it’s a steep learning curve. I know I’ve got a lot to learn. But I think what I’ve done right is also having the experience I’ve got of 30 years working as a musician and all my years of teaching is I kind of transfer some of those skills and philosophies.
I know that it’s going to take time. I know that I’m going to have to work hard and figure things out and find out as much as I can. And I think what I’ve done is, although I’ve been writing a lot, it’s that awareness of seeing the bigger picture and thinking, “Okay, there’s still a lot to get done here and a lot to learn.”
And not being overwhelmed by that I think is the thing, isn’t it? And the other thing I got, I obviously was reaching out to Joseph and sending him that email on Christmas Eve. That was a very good move. But I think what helped was, basically I was in a position where I could say to Joseph, “This is what I’ve done. Check this out.” As opposed to saying to him, “Oh, I’ve got an idea for a book.” Do you see what I mean?
I think having something there already, however unrefined it was, it shows that you’re serious about what you’re doing, I think. And when you show someone that they can look at that and go, “Wow, that’s a lot of work. This guy’s not messing about.” So I think that was also a factor in what helped with getting the deal with Joseph is that I had something to show him already.
Does that make sense?
Tom Ashford: Very much so. Yeah.
Buster Birch: And I think that’s the thing, isn’t it? You’ve got to just crack on and get some done and get something, written, get something out there, get something to show. You’ve got to have that as your audition piece if you like, in the musical sense.
Tom Ashford: The fifth and final question, which you’ve touched on a little bit just then is what’s your final piece of advice for authors starting out to an indie publishing?
Buster Birch: I feel like too much of a newbie to be giving advice to other authors. But like I say, I’m still learning. But what I do try to do is give myself advice, which I’m happy to share. And as I said, it’s trying to use those previous experiences.
So one of the things I tell my students a lot of course is, you have to do it every day. You have to play your instrument and practice every day. You have to commit yourself to it. And so any new skill that you’re trying to develop is exactly the same. You’ve got to put the time in.
I tend to get, as I said, sort of obsessed with things and I’m literally thinking about it all the time. My wife, bless her, she’s very understanding. But I can see the eyes glaze over when I start talking about an idea for another book again because I’m just on about it all the time. You just have that sort of a bit of obsession I think can be a good thing if it’s channeled properly.
The other thing I would advise people again, in music and that applies to this is find the best teacher you can learn everything you can get from them. For anyone wanting to do self-publishing or, right, I mean obviously SPF is the place to go. So learn, get everything you can get that’s out there.
But then also, and this is something I’ve tried to do for myself because it can get a bit overwhelming, so there’s so much to do. So try not to overwhelm yourself, just focus on one thing at a time. And just deal with that, get it done, then move onto the next thing. And that’s how I try to work. I find I get much more stressed if I’ve got more than one book on the go, which I did recently.
I had those eight books all going out last week and I’ve got this third book for Joseph I’m trying to finish off. And I found that actually quite mentally challenge … it’s a lot on your mind. So once you get one done, you can just get onto the next book. So that’s advice I’m giving myself now.
And the other things are obviously, in music, what we say is always try to play with the best musicians you can. So be humble enough to allow yourself to be the worst player in the band. And that’s how you learn fast. But don’t try to be too intimidated.
So for me hooking up with Joseph and Tim, it’s been a blessing because they’re so experienced and great at what they do and I completely appreciate the opportunity. I’ve got to be working with them.
I’m grateful for any advice that I can get from them. I mean, I know a lot about music, but I don’t know a lot about publishing. I am very grateful for any tips and advice I can receive about that. And it’s great because as I said, they’re musicians so I can talk to them about two, five, ones and mixolydian modes, and they know what I’m talking about. They’re not just fixing my grammar and syntax. And they can completely understand the content of the books and the ideas and methods that I’m incorporating. So I’m very, very fortunate.
I think the last bit of advice is to be brave really. Don’t worry too much about what other people might think. Don’t let people put you off or talk you out of it. If you’ve got something you feel you need to create and express, then you should do it. If you’ve got a story you want to tell them, then write it, life’s not a rehearsal. You’ve got to go for it. You just got to do these things, these creative things.
There’s a tune we play in the Latin band it’s called, Make That Space and it’s dedicated to making space to do creative things in your life that you want to do. Because no one finds time, you have to make time. And with all the incredible resources that are available now on the internet, it’s amazing what you can achieve on your own with just a laptop computer. And so just make the most of it, really, do it, get on with it. And as I heard somewhere, “It’s never been a better time to be a writer.”
Tom Ashford: Perfect. Well those are your five questions and that was fantastic. Thank you very much for coming on.
Buster Birch: It’s a great pleasure. It’s a real thrill to be here and thanks to you guys for all the great work you do for everybody.
Tom Ashford: No problem. Have you got any gigs lined up?
Buster Birch: Well, funny you should say that. I’ve got my website, busterbirch.co.uk has all the gigs on there. We’ve got a tour coming up. We’re going down to the west country. And I’ve got breaking news. This has not gone out before. ARQ are playing at the London Jazz Festival this year, but I’ve also managed to get a slot for my jazz school.
I’m taking all the kids from our BYMT Jazz School uptown and they’ll be performing at the London Jazz Festival in the Royal Festival Hall Free Foyer Stage on 23rd of November. It’s a Saturday. So that will be great to see the kids up there and it’s going to be a fantastic experience for them to be playing at the London Jazz Festival and I’m really thrilled about that.
Tom Ashford: Yeah, fantastic. Well great to have you on.
Buster Birch: Thanks, Tom. I really appreciate it.
Tom Ashford: That’s it for this week’s Self-publishing Spotlight.
Don’t forget that you can get your free self-publishing resource kit at selfpublishingformula.com/starterkit and if you want to appear as a guest on this show, send us brief details about yourself and your writing at selfpublishingformula.com/spotlightdashguest.
Tom Ashford: I’m Tom Ashford and I’ll see you again next week.
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