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Bringing Back Uncle: How fans on Kickstarter are helping restore a lost children’s classic

14 April 2013 | Tom Hunter

Beloved by children and adults alike for their subversive and surreal humour, and fantastic illustrations by Quentin Blake, the UNCLE books by J.P.Martin were originally published in the 60s and 70s but have disappeared since. Now a massively popular Kickstarter project is looking to bring them back and London Calling talks to organiser and fan Marcus Gipps about his plan to return the complete series to print.

London Calling: What do the Uncle books mean to you?

Marcus Gipps: I first came across them when I was a kid, and fell in love with the surreality and, of course, the wonderful Quentin Blake drawings. Having disposed of them at some point when I turned to more adult pastimes, it was years later that I remembered them and searched for copies, only to find that they were selling for about £1,000 the set! I thought it was a great shame that such wonderful books had been forgotten, so when I thought I had enough experience to bring them back myself, I decided to give it a go!

LC:  How did you first start connecting with other 'secret' fans of the books?

MG: Mostly through my time in Blackwell's bookshop on Charing Cross Road. When the NYRB reprinted the first two I used to import them and always kept them up front in the staff reviews, and was surprised how many people remembered them with delight. And I'd bring them up in conversation with authors etc every so often, and watched for the tell-tale widening of the eyes...

LC: Why have the books never been reprinted? Quentin Blake alone would seem to be a big draw.

MG: I really don't know, but I would guess that when the first two were released by Red Fox in one volume, it just didn't sell enough to suggest the rest would be viable. Now, I think that might be because it was a very ugly edition text-wise - badly laid out and scanned in the early days of digital printing, but once a series looks unprofitable, it can be hard to turn that perception around.

LC: You work in publishing but this is a personal project isn't it? Do you foresee a time when publishers might turn to crowd-funding platforms for new or reprinting projects like this in the same way that software and games companies have, or do you think they'll always leave things for the independents?

MG: I think, as many computer game companies have done, that someone will give it a go. But if it's one of the really big companies - like the one I work for - someone will always ask 'why not just pay for it yourself with your massive amount of money', and that's not an unfair question. i could see it working really well for the independents - Salt publishing, for example.

LC: You hit your funding target in record time, well done. What did you do in advance or any tips for other people considering a Kickstarter project of their own?

MG: Thank you! Mostly I made contact with the small but devoted group of Uncle fans online. There is a yahoo group (remember them!) with around 200 members, but no posts since mid 2011. I dropped them a line, and found that more than a few were still getting the emails, and were thrilled that there was a chance for the books to come back. I also set up a facebook page and started talking about it on twitter, so that people would know it was coming. Obviously, it helped to have Neil Gaiman tweet about it in the first few hours as well! But I wasn't prepared for how quickly it took off - I was left flailing a bit as most of the stretch goals I'd planned were reached overnight while I slept!

LC: And finally, what are your plans for the book when the project closes and the real work begins?

MG: Well, I've already OCRd and prepared for design 3 of the 6 books, so I need to finish that off. Then send them to my designer, along with the newly scanned art (which I can't start doing until I have the kickstarter money...) and chase up my new contributors. The typeset pages will then need to be proofread, both by me and a freelance professional, and the final specs of the book confirmed. But I'm most looking forward to getting into the archives of Random House and the Martin family - from the brief descriptions I've had, there is some very interesting stuff to be dug out and shown for the first time ever!

At the time of writing eager Uncle fans had already smashed the original fundraising target, with famous fans such as Neil Gaiman and Will Self lending their support to the project. The project runs on Kickstarter until April 26th. Click here to visit the Complete Uncle Kickstarter page and lend your support

Interview by Tom Hunter, editor-in-chief for LondonCalling.com. If you have a great story or event to share with us, you can contact us here.

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