“The federal government is poised to pursue the most significant cultural policy overhaul in over a decade and Canadian Heritage is holding a consultation on Canadian content in the digital world that will help shape new policy.” – Access Copyright email
It seemed important to me to contribute to this consultation, so I summarized my experience with the extraordinary changes that have hit the publishing industry over the past decade. Many of you who have been following this blog have already heard my story in bits and pieces, but now – thanks to Heritage Canada – I have it all in one place. Last week, I posted it on the department’s site (where there are lots of other interesting contributions which I encourage you to check out). I am reproducing it here:
A Promising Start
In 2000, I was well on my way to becoming at least a mid-list writer when I ran into an obstacle approximately the size of the Canadian shield – and almost as impenetrable and uncompromising.
By then I had published two novels and a collection of short stories. The first novel, The Woman Upstairs, had won a prize for excellence in writing from the Writers Guild of Alberta, and the print run had sold out. I had been eager to continue developing as a writer. However, my experience with the next two books, which came out ten years later (I’d been earning a living and raising kids as well as writing) was entirely different, and left me in despair. The second novel was published just as the director of the book’s publishing house resigned; she was not replaced for several months, leaving my book in promotional limbo. The publisher of my first short story collection went out of business shortly after the book was published. I doubt that either of those books sold more than 200 copies each, and it was no fault of mine: in those days, recent though they were, writers were discouraged from interfering with tasks that were considered to be within the proper purview of publishing – which included book promotion.
I determined to put all that behind me. I was working on a new novel that I hoped would find a larger, “national” publisher, allowing me to move slowly up the firmament of Canadian literary awareness as so many before me had done. My income-earning had included stints as executive director of the Writers Guild of Alberta and editor in chief of Lone Pine Publishing, and as well I’d served as a founding member of the board of the Alberta Foundation for the Literary Arts and on various other literary and cultural arts boards and committees. I knew how the writing and publishing business worked, and I was prepared to move forward with confidence.
When the third novel was complete (it was then called The Whole Clove Diet; it is now called Rita Just Wants to Be Thin), I began to look for an agent/publisher. After sending out nearly 100 queries and receiving fewer than five requests to see even a sample chapter, much less a manuscript, someone told me about BookNet – a data source accessible by booksellers, librarians, agents and publishers but not by writers – which keeps track of numbers of copies of each book sold in Canada. Given that most of the negative responses I had received from agents and publishers had not even requested writing samples, it seemed likely that agents and publishers were taking a look at my BookNet sales figures for my previous two books, and passing on the new book, sight unseen.
It was a tough time for publishers then, as well. Amazon had begun to do serious damage to bricks-and-mortar booksellers, which were the traditional sales outlets for published books, and e-books and other digital changes were eroding the perennially small profits of the publishing industry. As I learned more and more about how book publishing was changing, I understood that if I were not a brand new (preferably young and, even better, sexy) writer, or an already well-established one, I was going to be out of luck when it came to getting a reasonably-sized publishing house to even consider my new novel.
A New Tack
After blowing a gasket or two on my then-new blog (see the first two or three posts of The Militant Writer), I calmed down and assessed my situation. Despite my long-standing anathema for vanity publishing (which I had been actively discouraging fellow writers from considering as recently as 2008), I considered that, given my background in publishing, if anyone could publish a professional-looking and literate book all by herself, it would be me. So I did.
First I learned the ins-and-outs of the self-publishing process by republishing my first novel, The Woman Upstairs. Then I hired an editor and a cover designer, and published the book now known as Rita Just Wants to Be Thin. By then, my friend John Aragon in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had just published his first novel with a small press there, and the treatment his book received from his publisher was even more inadequate and discouraging than my experience with my second and third books had been. We didn’t even consider traditional publishing for our co-authored comic western, The Adventures of Don Valiente and the Apache Canyon Kid – we just went straight to self-publishing, releasing it as a print book and an e-book in 2012.
Battling My Way Uphill
The last four years have been interesting and frequently discouraging. Whether you are a publishing house or a one-person show, it is very hard to get your books noticed by readers. As a self-published author, I had no access to book reviews or bookstore distribution. Without a publishing house, I was not invited to participate in festivals, events like Word on the Street, or most reading series. My books did not appear in libraries, which meant that they attracted no proceeds from the Public Lending Right Commission, nor did they help to extend my reputation through a connection with my previous publications.
Worst of all, I was persona non grata just about everywhere in the Canadian literary community. Five years ago (and even today in many quarters), self-publishing was still considered “vanity publishing” – an indication that you did not write well enough for your work to be accepted by a publishing house. Self-publishing was not yet considered a “choice”: it was only ever a Plan B. I saw embarrassment or disdain in the eyes of my fellow writers and others in the business every time I tried to explain what I was doing, and what the advantages were – the primary one of which was that I now had total control over my books’ destinies and, as far as I was concerned, I had no one to blame but myself if they didn’t prosper. Furthermore, when I did sell a book, the royalty I earned was far more proportional to the work I had put into it than was the royalty on offer from most publishers. Granted, I had invested financially in the books’ publications (not a huge amount – certainly not anywhere close to the amount that many companies today are now charging ill-informed writers to publish their books), but since my books belong to no company’s fall or spring season, but will continue to be promoted by me for as long as I am able to promote them, they go on selling until the upfront costs are paid and the income is all gravy.
The Good, the Bad, the Ugly
I am not in the least surprised that the absolute mountains of indescribably awful, badly written, unedited self-published books continue to scare traditional reviewers, librarians and booksellers away from all self-published books, good as well as bad: these individuals and institutions have yet to figure out a way of sorting the wheat from the chaff without using up time for reading and evaluation that they do not have – and cannot afford to pay for. But the world is changing, and ways will need to be found to address this problem. This year, as an advocate on the National Council of The Writers’ Union of Canada, I am hoping to explore ways in which booksellers, reviewers, granting agencies and other literary entities can figure out how find the self-published books that are of literary merit amid the innumerable volumes of junk.
In my own case, there have been several bright spots. The Woman Upstairs experienced a selling flurry when Claire Messud’s novel of the same name was published: a lot of people bought mine by mistake. And during the past summer, I invested some money in a promotional strategy for Rita that actually paid off – 8,000 people downloaded my e-book for free during one day in July, and the e-book has been selling steadily at its regular price ($2.99) ever since, and has had a lot of reviews. Don Valiente has not yet had its moment in the sun, but those who have read it have been effusive in its praise, and I know its time will come. It is built to last. As are all of my books.
The Ground Settles
In 2016, I am far less of a pariah than I was in 2012. Canada’s professional book writers’ association, The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC), now recognizes that many writers choose to self-publish either because they want more control over their own writing, or because they do not have access to traditional publishers, and it has begun to accept applications from self-published writers, who are then vetted by its Membership Committee. In 2014-15, TWUC invited me to present on the subject of self-publishing as part of a professional development workshop for members and non-members in cities across Canada. If still not respectable, self-publishing is at least becoming acceptable.
Today there’s even a word for writers like me: we’re called hybrid authors – meaning that some of our books are traditionally published, and some are not. I have decided that I want to publish my next book traditionally because I want to regain access to readings and other promotions, to the few review outlets that are still available, to bookstores (partly because of the PLR payments), to festivals and readings, to awards and prizes. And I want to re-establish my reputation with those of my peers whose lips still curl when they hear the term “self-published.”
I have no regrets about the choices I have made. Even in the midst of my times of greatest discouragement, when no books at all were selling for weeks or months on end, I did not regret my decision. I knew I was moving in a direction that many others would have to choose eventually, even if it was only to get their out-of-print books back onto the market. Throughout, I liked the control that self-publishing gave me over every aspect of the publishing process.
Keep Writers and Readers at the Centre
There can be no doubt that the writer is – and always has been – at the centre of the literary world: without writers there would be no publishers, booksellers, libraries or even readers – readers being the only other crucial component of the literary experience. Until this sea change, the publishing business had evolved to the point where the writer was an insignificant pawn in the entire process: the big business of publishing was happening around us, and we did what we were told to do, and we acted like we were grateful: even when our books were not delivered in time for our book launches; even when our books were not submitted for awards and prizes for which they were eligible; even when we knew that there was a market for our books that our publisher was not exploring; even when our royalty payments were one year late.
The world that is now emerging to replace that pre-digital world offers writers choice, power and control over the fate of our own writing, and that is where we ought to be. A cultural system that supports writers and writing in the future will be one that does everything possible to dissolve the boundaries and eliminate the institutionalized gatekeepers that stand between the writer and the reader, instead supporting all of us who live and work in the world of writing and publishing to move forward as a team.