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Breaking into Print - A Complex World (Part 2)

To continue with the overview of the publishing workshop, we also heard from several authors. I already mentioned Cherie Hart. Cherie had a book project she wanted to do, based on her life as an overseas journalist (From Hollywood to Holy Wars : Hounding celebs, dodging bullets, raising a family abroad). The book itself went through several iterations before being completed in its definitive form. As a professional journalist, she assumed she should be able to find an agent and a publisher for her work, but this turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. She spent almost a year doing heavy work to try to engage an agent and/or a publisher, to no great success, although she did receive some good advice about how to reorganize her book. So she turned to the process of self publishing. Again, given that she knew several freelance editors and other people in the book production process, she did extensive research and took on most of the work herself. She eventually decided to hire a copyeditor and a proofreader, as those parts of the job are critically important to get a good product done. She also had some paid help earlier on from a developmental editor. She knew someone who helped her with book design and page layout, although she paid for the cover art. As she eventually published through Kindle, she noted that they also offer guidance and feedback about these aspects of the book. Her total costs were lower than those cited by John Aylen. Again no hard numbers, but it could probably be done for 2000$ to 3000$ if one cuts costs back as much as one can. She mentioned sales of 250 copies for the print version, mostly at the launch, and some sales later as well, in line with what John Aylen had told us. Cherie said the book never did lead to an agent, but it did help her obtain contracts as a freelance writer.

Susan Semanak talked about her experience publishing as well. She landed her first book as a result of an opportunistic meeting with a publisher in another context where she mentioned she wanted to write a book about the Jean Talon Market in Montreal. This developed into a project which the publisher helped her with, and led to her first publication (Marché Jean-Talon : Recettes & Portraits). This was published simultaneously in both French and English. For her second book, the plans were similar, but at the last moment the publisher decided they would do only a French version (Montréal l'hiver). She did most of the marketing for the book herself, however, taking it to food fairs and other venues. That said, the first book sold out, 7000 copies in French and 3000 in English, and on the second, with 5000 copies, the sales are going well. However, she has not made much money on the effort, since the cut that comes back to authors in traditional publishing is relatively small, and publishing both books meant a huge amount of work.

The other two writers who came in were both 'old hands', in the sense that they got into the business in an earlier epoch, before the development of the internet and the wacky world of publishing today. Trever Ferguson is a prolific writer who is in the process of publishing his 16th novel, while Joel Yanofsky has published five books, most in the category of what is called today creative nonfiction, although he has done other genres as well. Despite both being well established and well published writers, both described career 'hiccoughs' that led to substantial changes in what they wrote. Ferguson had published seven or eight books when he got a bad review in the Globe and Mail, at a time when the publishing industry was already changing, and this led to a dry period when his work wasn't selling. He ended up switching to writing crime thrillers, initially under a pseudonym, at which he became successful, and managed to pick up the slack. He also noted that the idea that one book may help leverage sales on other books is, in his experience, a myth. If anything, the effect runs the other way - the more books you do, the less sales they make; there is an effect of diminishing returns. He did note that each book contributes to one's reputation, however, and that this may lead to benefits in the long term. Yanofsky described a painful process producing his books. He claims it never gets easy, and each book he did took several years of work. Yanofsky taught creative writing for many years, and believes that these courses, when done right, can provide useful feedback to emerging writers. Ferguson noted that publishers today simply cannot commit the time they once did to help writers find their voice, and so creative writing classes and workshops have become the replacement method.

Other publishing options that were discussed included straight printing services, if you have everything else done by other means. A Montreal-based company,, offers such a service. Turns out that Simon Dardick, the editor at Véhicule Press, uses the rapido service, which he qualifies as being of high quality, to do short print runs from time to time. Children's books were discussed as being a market where there are possibilities of getting published. Children's books are perennial, and although the market has developed and there is lots of competition, there is still room to get noticed and make a name for oneself. The trick is to develop a network of contacts in the world of children's book publishing, that is, reach out to existing writers, and do your homework regarding publishing requirements. Mr. Demchinsky noted that memoirs are also a going market item.

The other aspect of the workshop that I wanted to talk about is my fellow classmates. I should probably have led with this, but never mind. In the introductions on the first day, about half the class were left out. If I have any criticism about the workshop, it was here. I understand that there were a large number of participants, but I got an idea of what only half the participants are doing in their writing lives, and these people are potentially valuable contacts. Already after the workshop I have exchanged with several individuals and it has been evident that these are all important people for my network. Many of the participants have professional lives in and around writing activities, whether journalism, teaching, editing, coaching or even ghostwriting. They also move between English and French environments as you would expect from contemporary Montrealers - one of the things I love about living in this part of the world.

What are my take-home lessons from the workshop? I suppose the overall lesson is one I already knew but was reinforced here : that not only is writing hard work, but so is publishing! Although Mr. Demchinsky insisted several times that there are lots of possibilities to publish today, he noted that most of these are via non-traditional means, and his guests all insisted on how much effort goes into these diverse entreprises. Indeed, publishing is a kind of enterprise, that is, a business proposition, even should one go via more traditional approaches. For my own needs, I am conscious that a younger person with the potential for a career in writing may have a very different approach than someone like me, who is exploring writing as a second career. I do not expect to make much money at this. I have a pension and still have my hand in the research world via consulting gigs, so unlike others I have no urgent need to make a living via my writing. What I most want, therefore, is to be read.

The workshop did shift my understanding of how to achieve this, although in ways I find difficult to articulate until I have had time to think more about it. For example, the insistence on memoirs as a going market is interesting. I am not particularly interested in setting aside my ongoing projects to develop a memoir, even if there is a market for one. On the other hand, I think I could adapt one of my projects to strengthen its "memoir" qualities, and perhaps pitch the project to a publisher in that sector. The workshop also highlighted my success with my science fiction saga. I have had people comment that I should be able to find a "real publisher" for my science fiction books, that is, as opposed to a small, unknown, cooperative venture, but instead the workshop emphasized the idea that any publishing channel that gets ones books into readers hands is worth gold. Since my publisher will cover some of the production costs, and they are willing to work with me on getting through the steps, and with a vision for the whole 15-book saga, I am in an enviable position with this effort. That message was brought home to me as a result of the workshop. I also found it interesting that one book project won't necessarily support another, something I had been counting on. Perhaps for a book series, however, there may be some leverage. Food for thought, anyway.

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