Creativity and control

By Amy Reiswig, March 2011

Book writers and sellers discuss the self-publishing trend.

With ads promising to “Print Your Book in 2 Days” and websites pointing to Mark Twain as a successful self-publisher, many writers are turning to self-publishing as a vehicle for both self-expression and potential income. Even more encouragement arrived recently with CBC’s Canada Reads Contest: Terry Fallis’ book Best Laid Plans won. Originally self-published, it also won the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, before it was picked up by McLelland & Stewart.

Both Twain and now Fallis are good examples of the bootstrapping nature of self-publishing culture. Successful self-published authors—those who make some money from their books—tend to be entrepreneurial spirits. They are wily, tough, and maybe a little iconoclastic.

 

Victoria’s Janet Rogers is one self-publisher who perfectly fits that bill. Rogers, a Mohawk writer from the Six Nations territory in southern Ontario, recently self-published Red Erotic, a book of erotic poetry. She has self-published previously and has also published with traditional publishers (including Splitting the Heart with Ekstasis in 2007 and a new book with Leaf Press later this year). But during the recent economic downturn, Rogers was having trouble getting response from publishers. Then she realized, “Maybe I can make a place for it myself. And it’s been the best thing. My God, this has taken on a life of its own!” she laughs over coffee in Esquimalt, noting that she’ll be taking Red Erotic to festivals in Vancouver, New Mexico and all the way to New Zealand. 

Rogers, also a visual and spoken-word artist, says she is “a hands-on artist used to starting things up. That’s just who I am as a person.” The self-publishing of her own book was partly an excuse, Rogers says, for starting Ojistah Publishing, which she hopes will become a venue for other aboriginal writers. “I didn’t set this up just to publish me. It was the way to get the press going. I’m not getting any younger,” she laughs. “You can make anything out of thin air. We as artists do that. This press is going to prove it.” That means writing not just poetry but grant applications. Lots of them.

For Rogers, self-publishing is ultimately about honouring the art first and foremost—the voices, the stories—and not being bound by industry restrictions or money. “Is a lack of funding going to stop me? Hell no. If I have to make books out of folded paper from my printer, I will.” 

Even an energetic self-starter like Rogers, though, realizes the difficulty of not just writing and printing but then marketing and distributing your work. She recounts some interesting adventures—and looks—from trying to get Red Erotic into local bookstores, for instance. But she also notes how it builds community. “If you have connections, you use them. You need to tap into your networks,” she explains. She feels the time and trouble are worth it. “If any of this inspires any one, mission accomplished.” 

 

This attitude—of the benefits overshadowing the pains of self-publishing—is shared by Lyn Hancock, author (with Marion Dowler) of The Ring: Memories of a Metis Grandmother. Hancock, formerly of Victoria, is no stranger to traditional trade publishing. She has 19 books on her publishing record, including the well-known There’s a Seal in My Sleeping Bag, There’s a Racoon in my Parka and Love Affair with a Cougar.

However, The Ring is a very personal project involving Dowler’s family history, and so Hancock took on the self-publishing process in order to make the book she felt needed to be made. Like Rogers, she wanted above all to honour the story rather than follow industry direction. 

Hancock, who prefers the term “independent author” to “self-publisher,” didn’t self-publish The Ring because she couldn’t find a publisher but because interested publishers kept making demands. Reached by phone from her home in Lantzville, Hancock explains: “I wanted to finish the book when the book was finished. I wanted the book to tell me that, not some outside influence. I wanted to do it my way.”

Hancock also agrees that it becomes a more community-oriented venture by using networks to get advice, readings, reviews, promotion, and sales. The length of the acknowledgements in The Ring is testament to that community. But it’s a bit of a double-edged sword as well, since Hancock is still learning how to connect with her readership for this book. As she writes on her blog, “The work has only begun. Now we have to tell people about the book. A new world of websites, facebooks, on-line radio interviews, flickers, twitters and tweets.”

While changes in technology have allowed self-publishing to flourish, it can be overwhelming for authors used to toiling alone over a keyboard to then stand up and become not just authors but marketers, distributors, promoters. 

 

While Hancock finds the world of technology slightly alienating, Rebecca Kennel, self-published first-time author of the guidebook Victoria—Bench by Bench, finds it exciting. “There are so many opportunities that we as individuals can take advantage of,” she tells me. “Some of it is technology that wasn’t even available a few years ago.” Envisioning an update to her creative local guidebook to incorporate QR codes (a more complicated version of bar codes) linking to video or archival photos of various places, for example, she likes not having to wait for a publisher’s approval to print a second edition. “I wanted to have control. It seemed like a waste of my time to shop a manuscript around and send queries to publishers,” she says. Instead of waiting months for acceptance then a year or more for publication, it took Kennel just over seven months from idea to opening the boxes and inhaling that new book smell. 

And the book has been well-received. Kennel is being invited to speak at self-publishing workshops, but her community involvement began when she co-organized last December’s Inspiring Authors Celebration of Local Authors event, which showcased 16 local authors who either self-published or published with a small press. Such gatherings allow local independent authors to share their wisdom and talents, and build each other’s confidence.

 

Despite that blossoming confidence, self-published authors still, to varying degrees, face a bias against them from media and retail outlets.

That’s because some of the companies set up to serve self-publishers are not much more than photocopy services. Without the editorial eyes of a publishing company, there’s nothing to stop anyone from self-publishing whatever they want. It’s “democratic,” but raises concerns around content and quality. Established book publishers have built up trust on those fronts among bookstore managers, but a self-published book must be read in order to be evaluated. Since booksellers can’t possibly read all the self-published books they receive, and therefore can’t ensure the books are free from offensive material (racism, hate speech, child porn)—or poor English—they avoid them. (One self-publishing website promises to “offer advise” [sic], not exactly reassuring on the quality front.)

Ruth Linka, the publisher at Brindle & Glass, sees trade publishers as both “serving the market and leading it, to a certain extent—leading it to expect quality.” She notes that genre also plays a role. “As a buyer,” she says, “if I’m looking for a book on canoeing I’d probably consider a self-published and published book equally. But if I want a novel, I’d be very leery of buying something self-published. Publishers are still gatekeepers.” 

So are people like buyers Rob Wiersema at Bolen Books and Dave Hill at Munro’s. “We treat self-published books like we would any other book coming from a publisher,” Wiersema says, “with one caveat: We have to see it.” The standards, he says, vary widely, and any book they carry must meet certain minimum criteria. Other questions Wiersema raises are: “Is the price point right? Many self-published books are priced too high. Will it interest customers? Will it sell?” Ultimately, only a tiny fraction of the self-published books they receive are accepted to be sold on consignment.  

Downtown at Munro’s, Dave Hill notes there is no shortage of books vying for space in the retail stores. He says decisions on what to stock pose a challenge when you are a community-based store. “We can make decisions based on what will interest our community, our market, but we’ve got our own [retail trade] industry we’re dealing with, and that’s tough enough,” he laments, explaining that the self-publishing explosion means sellers simply can no longer offer blanket support for local authors, as much as they would like to. He does point out, though, that there have been some self-publishing success stories, but “the ones that work for us are the exceptions.” 

Colleen Stewart, head of Collections Services at the Greater Victoria Public Library, likewise says that “there has been a huge increase in self-published writers coming to us, and it’s becoming hard to manage.” Like bookstores, the public library buys books for its collection (in addition to accepting donations). However, Stewart says many independent authors seem to be under the impression that the library is a repository for any and all written work in the community. In reality, the public library must implement selection criteria that apply to all books considered for the collection. “We want to support local authors, not throw up barriers,” Stewart says, but the fact remains that the library operates under budgetary and space constraints, and so they must choose books that will be in demand (books not checked out after a few years are discarded) and that adhere to certain standards. As guardians of literacy, one also can’t fault the library for not wanting to carry books full of grammar and spelling errors.

Self-publishers do have at least one bookstore in Victoria that welcomes them with open arms. Barbara Julian, who runs Overleaf Café-Bookshop (and has also self-published), makes a point of stocking self-published books, trying to fill the niche of a non-traditional retail market for non-traditional authors. Unlike people at the other bookstores I spoke with, Julian isn’t concerned with vetting the material. “I want to get a book from every author in Victoria,” she says. 

If regular retail can’t serve independent authors well, then small businesses like Overleaf and the authors themselves will have to work through word of mouth, networking, workshops, and the web to build awareness and sales. Revenue potential is there in self-publishing, but writers can’t expect to make lots of money. In fact, breaking even is usually the target. Kennel and Rogers both say they are “in the process” of making money from their books—whether through selling them in stores or at events they participate in or organize themselves—and view the process as a long-term investment that will continue to bring them money slowly over time. 

Notwithstanding Twain and Fallis, self-published writers can’t expect to get rich, but then neither can most other writers these days. Love’s labours are hard work, but Victoria’s independent authors seem up for the challenge.

Inspired by all the self-publishers and DIY artists in Victoria, writer and sidelined Hansard editor Amy Reiswig thinks that while waiting for the Legislative Assembly to get back to work, it may be time to dust off that shoebox of creative project ideas.