Author, journalist and publisher Mark Allen speaks to Francesca Tyer about poetry, prose and commercial publishing.
Having spent his professional life working as a journalist and publisher, Mark Allen recently turned his hand to a different kind of writing. In March 2021 his debut novel Life Term hit the shelves, marking the start of his new venture as an author. Curious to learn more about Mark’s career journey, I set up this interview which proved to be as fascinating as I’d hoped.
Allen’s real interest in writing began to develop during his teen years. It was during this time that he discovered a passion for poetry, a love that has remained with him ever since.
“In terms of writing, poetry was my first literary interest,” Allen begins. “I love dealing with words, rounding and polishing them. When I was at school, I launched a poetry magazine, so I’ve always written a lot of poems. I’m now a bit erratic about how I write. I feel I need to have something to say. As a writer, you have things you want to express and it becomes compelling, so when I feel in that state of mind I tend to write.”
Even though Allen continues to write poetry, his favourite poem is still a verse titled ‘Illumination’ which he wrote at the age of seventeen. As we sit drinking coffee, he recites the first two verses.
Despite Allen’s passion and aptitude for poetry, it was journalism that captured his professional interests. Post university, he worked as a reporter, then editor, then publisher before establishing his own company in 1985.
“Launching my own company wasn’t exactly planned,” he admits. “I was working in a fairly senior position for a company called Reed. I’d become an editor of two different magazines and then I became a publisher. Out of the blue, I was approached by a head-hunter who said there was a company interested in me. I met the company but turned down the job about two or three times before eventually accepting their offer.
“A year or so later, the company no longer wanted to be involved in medical publishing and offered me another job. I was frustrated and so asked to buy some of the titles. I bought two titles and in 1985 set up my own company. It was all done on a bit of a wing and a prayer but slowly but surely I managed to get things going in the right direction.”
There’s still a long way to go; we’re halfway up the mountain.
From two magazines and no money, the Mark Allen Group has developed into a hugely successful company, boasting more than100 titles, 250 events and awards, and a turnover of £60 million.
“It’s one of the top two fastest growing companies in publishing at the moment,” Allen states, “but I think we’ve got plenty of room for expansion. We’re in the process of buying another events business and I can see ourselves developing even further in the next few years. Hopefully, in ten years’ time, we’ll be turning over one hundred million pounds. There’s still a long way to go; we’re halfway up the mountain.”
Allen admits that he became an entrepreneur out of accident, due to the way he’d been treated at work. However, it was this unexpected turn that set him on a new path and exciting path.
“When I became a journalist, I didn’t expect to be wealthy,” says Allen. “I expected to have an interesting career. One thing has led to another. When I set up the Mark Allen Group, I wanted to develop a substantial company that I could be proud of and which would provide opportunities for a lot of people. So that’s what I’ve tried to do.”
I have no idea how I managed to survive, but I did.
As with most new endeavours, setting up a company came with its challenges. Allen recalls one particularly difficult situation and the strength he required to overcome it.
“The second year I was in business, I bought a magazine and there was a great conspiracy led by another organisation who thought they could wrest it away from me. I was served with a writ for being in breach of a publishing agreement. It was a ridiculous allegation so I decided to fight and won with damages. However, because there had been publicity, I lost the commercial battle and had to close the magazine.
“I have no idea how I managed to survive, but I did. It was a painful part of my life but I learnt a lot, such as never to do joint ventures. I make my own decisions and I stick by my own decisions. Something like that builds a lot of resolve. Now, in business, I don’t think anything could match that experience.”
Having managed various challenges throughout his career, Allen recently set himself a new task. During lockdown in March 2020 he began completely rewriting a novel he had first started 10 years beforehand. His debut novel, Life Term, was born – a psychological thriller about an abused boy who takes his revenge.
“This story had been embedded within me for a long time, for I suppose personal reasons, and I wanted to get it out in the hope that there may be some cathartic benefit. When I wrote the first draft, it wasn’t necessarily for publication purposes. I then showed it to one or two literary friends who said I ought to try and get it published. Having written a lot of poetry and articles, I also wanted to see whether I had the stamina and skill to write a novel. So in a sense, it was a test.”
Published by Colenso Books, Life Term has been excellently received, the striking narrative draws the reader into a complex and beautifully written tale.
“My style is part of my journalism really,” Allen reflects. “I’m reasonably adept at recalling and accurately describing things. I think the part about the book I enjoyed the most was the narrative and that surprised me because I didn’t think I would necessarily be good at it. I wouldn’t have been able to write the book in the way I did without a journalist background.”
As most writers know, drafting a book is hard work and inspiration can’t be forced. For Allen however, powerful moments of inspiration aren’t always essential to the writing process.
“I don’t think you always have to have this inspiration to write,” he states. “Sometimes, if you have something vaguely in your mind and have the discipline to do it, you can still write. It doesn’t have to be a magic moment. A lot of writing is about having the commitment to put things down on paper.”
Nobody knew I was writing a book apart from my wife.
While this may be true, finding the commitment to keep writing can also be a challenge. Allen speaks about the long hours and the dedication required to complete such an epic writing project.
“When I first wrote Life Term, I had to isolate myself. I would go to France for a week or so by myself and I would engross myself in the writing. Every morning, I’d write from about eight until twelve. Then I would take a break, wander to the village café and then come back and write until five. I then edited the book back in England. When several years later I rewrote the novel during lockdown, I wrote from three to eight each morning. I would then spend the rest of the day at work, which, because of the pandemic, was a very challenging and stressful time for my company. Nobody knew I was writing a book apart from my wife.”
It was not just the long hours that proved tough however, but also the emotional toll – a feeling experienced by many writers after days or months locked away in their own minds.
“When I first went to France to write the book, I set myself a target to write no less than 2,500 words every day,” Allen explains. “It was emotionally and physically draining. I used to wake up every morning feeling knackered from the day before because it was an exhausting process. Writing can be a lot of fun too, however. As soon as you get into the flow, it becomes almost effortless at times. The days I enjoyed the most were when I’d start writing and my brain would go in another direction. Those are often the best parts, when you follow the logic of a surprise route.”
With much of the hard work complete, the focus now falls on marketing. Allen’s experience as a publisher has given him an insight into this often complex side of the process.
“Publishing is all about coming out at the right time,” Allen states. “If we’d done a little bit more marketing at the right time it could have been significantly better. I’ve had incredibly good reviews but it lacked a national newspaper review. Because the whole market has become so fragmented and downsized, the major publishers are really interested in building on an established author. It doesn’t matter what book they write, they’ll still promote it.”
Out of any art form, writing must be one of the hardest.
With Life Term now flying off the shelves, Allen has already turned his thoughts to a second novel. Set in Bosnia during the Civil War of the 1990s, the research and writing will draw on Allen’s journalistic capabilities.
“When the Civil War in Bosnia erupted in the 1990s, the three main faith groups - Muslim, Croatians and Serbians – competed for power,” Allen explains. “Up to the time of the civil war, these different groups were living in relative harmony. After the war, the whole country was fragmented. I went out to Bosnia for a week – I wanted to see if I could write something involving different people growing up during this civil war – so I've done a lot of research. It remains to be seen whether I will be able to weave an authentic tale: it’s a daunting task and I have not yet started the writing process.”
As our interview comes to its natural close, Allen offers some final wise words of advice to all new and aspiring writers.
“Start. Everyone is fearful about writing and I can understand why because it’s an enormous process. Out of any art form, writing must be one of the hardest. You're on your own and you know you're going to be engaged in it for a long time. You just have to start the process – it is something you can revise and perfect. Have a bash, you've got nothing to lose.”
With many thanks to Mark Allen for this interview
You can read more about Mark and his work on his website