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Breaking into Print - A Complex World (Part 1)

The second of the two Quebec Writers Federation workshops I took was called "Get Your Words Out : A Primer on How to Publish" and was led by Bryan Demchinsky. Originally planned to be a six-hour, one-day workshop, when moved online it became two three-hour sessions on successive Saturdays. Although it would have been great to have met both Bryan and the other students in person, I almost think the sessions online were as good, if not better than they would have been under the other arrangement. Mr. Demchinsky took it upon himself to video-record several interviews he did with people in the business to help animate the online sessions, and also organized a Question and Answer session with the interviewees during the second three-hour session. This ensured the two sessions were both information-packed and lively. There were over twenty students registered as well, but the sessions were well managed despite the large numbers involved.

Over the course of the six hours, we heard from a variety of individuals - both book and magazine editors and publishers, published authors, and an author who self-published. One of the publishers was Simon Dardick, owner and non-fiction editor for Vehicule Press, a small book publisher based in Montreal. Another was John Aylen, who offers a service for publishing where the author pays for most of the costs ( Greg Santos, editor-in-chief of Carte Blanche, the QWF literary magazine, also spoke to us. Authors included Susan Semenak, a former journalist who has published several cookbooks in both English and French (Marché Jean-Talon : Recettes & Portraits shown), Cherie Hart who self-published her own book (From Hollywood to Holy Wars : Hounding celebs, dodging bullets, raising a family abroad), Trevor Ferguson, a Canadian author who has published 15 novels (The River Burns shown in the image) and Joel Yanofsky, who has published several creative non fiction books (Bad Animals shown). Bryan is himself a published author (Storied Streets, co-authored with Elaine Kalman Naves is shown), and also does contracts as an editor and coach for other writers.

As a result, we got a great cross-section of the diversity and heterogeneous character of the current publishing environment. Dardick's outfit, although they are known for their poetry and fiction, make their money primarily from non fiction books, although their interest in this regard is relatively narrow. They are mostly interested in social histories of Montreal and books about jazz, but Simon noted that they published an award-winning book about birds recently (Bird's Eye View : A Practical Compendium for Bird Lovers by David M. Bird), so the focus can shift depending on what comes in (the bird-watcher describes looking for birds in Montreal, however, so it is not such a large stretch). I actually own that book, as it was one of the books promoted at the ImagiNation book festival at the Morin Centre in 2018. Most of Dardick's acquisitions in poetry and fiction are, however, solicited. They do not, for the most part, publish unsolicited material, but claim they are not closed to the idea either, with the right book.

John Aylen was also interesting, although he was circumspect about exactly how much it costs the author to go that route (that is, indie publishing as a paid service). He indicated that the printing costs dominate all the others - editing, layout and marketing together don't match printing costs. So one can get an idea of total cost if one has done some of these other things, or done a print run before. I estimate my own editing costs to be between 1000$ and 1500$ per book, counting copyediting and proofreading although I haven't actually paid for that, yet. Based on Mr. Aylen's rough calculations, this would mean the total costs might be of the order of 5000$ or more. He also noted that most authors don't sell more than about 200 copies of their books, and most of these are sold at the book launch itself, although these are the printed versions of the books. Sales of ebooks may trickle in later, but the numbers do not usually get very high. I found this to be a sobering assessment of the business of publishing, worth listening to, and very different from the hype and one's own dreams. I remember my wife's poetry books sold about 50 or so copies, so this sounds about right. Essentially, this means one does not recover one's outlay costs when publishing in this way. This was reinforced by Cherie Hart's comments about self-publishing as well, although her costs were significantly lower, because she organised several of the stages herself.

Mr. Santos talked about the importance of publishing pieces in small literary journals like Carte Blanche as a way to get noticed, to develop a readership and to build up a reputation. Getting contracts later on with larger or more important publishing venues may be facilitated by having published pieces that are accessible. Carte Blanche pays an honorarium to its writers, although not all literary journals can afford to do so. He also talked about the success rate of submissions. He noted that the journal is usually closed for submissions, but opens windows from time to time. He gave the example of a recent three-week window where they requested poetry submissions. They received over a thousand submissions, of which they could only publish five or six. So the competition is fierce! But he also insisted that writers should not give up. Sometimes they will ask a writer to resubmit when they cannot take a piece but like the writing.

This got me thinking about my recent adventure with an agent. I mentioned in a couple of earlier posts that I had been in touch with an agent potentially interested in my manuscript, Goodness in Small Doses. They eventually declined to pursue the relationship. The feedback I got was that "holocaust" books are hard to market, and that my book was really a novella rather than a novel, hence not substantive enough to justify the effort. However, thinking back on the exchange, I realize that they came back to me twice before abandoning me, the first time after they had read my sample chapters. So the fact that they were interested enough to keep asking questions for a second round of exchanges suggests that they did find the book well written and worth pursuing the discussion. Although I was disappointed, I take this now as an encouraging note. Although Mr. Demchinsky did not talk a great deal about agents, he did mention that they are a mixed blessing. They want properties that could generate a lucrative market. This was clear from my exchange with the agency. Since one writes what one needs to, being beholden to an agent is not always the right way to go. Although, as pointed out by one of the other participants, if you do secure an agent, he or she will make it their business to try to sell your book, so there are some benefits.

Well, this one blog posting has become quite lengthy and I am not half done with the question, so I will stop here and continue in a new posting later on.

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