Cautionary Tales of Self-Publishing
April 02nd, 2008
There are many reasons why self-publishing may be the wave of the future, for sale but for me it was a matter of necessity. Not long after I turned sixty-five, I had one of those ‘senior moments’. My own future, I suddenly saw, lay spread out before me less spaciously than my past lay spread out behind. If I was ever going to fulfill a decades-old dream of producing a book, I had better do it now. And what’s more, I had better do it myself. The alternative—since I had spent thirty years working with words but what I wanted to make now was a book of pictures—was to spend a further decade or two building up enough of a reputation as a photographer that it wouldn’t be completely absurd for me to start knocking on the doors of legitimate publishers.
So I did it myself. Or rather, we did it ourselves. You need lots of help from your friends. And you need lots of friends.
True friends, especially, though even a false friend can serve a project that has been lying dormant for years. I was chatting with a fellow one day in a Mission art gallery, tall chap, business suit, smiled a lot, never seen him before in my life, said he was running for office, shook my hand, told me he liked my stuff, I told him I’d always wanted to do a book, he said I’ll help you, you do the art end and I’ll do the business end, we shook hands again, he polled one point three per cent of the vote, I phoned him, I emailed him, I wrote him, I never heard from him again. But the die was cast.
Lesson #1: (a) take your inspiration from anywhere you can get it; (b) have a fallback plan if your gift horse turns out to have bad teeth. I was now going to be responsible for both ends of the project—the art end and the business end—myself.
Well, not all by myself. Lynne, who is also in business, is a true friend. I said, “Lynne, how does self-publishing work? Do I pay for it all myself?” She said, “There’s an article on Bob Bossin’s website: How to Raise $25,000 for Your CD.” Bob said, “If you don’t ask, you won’t get. Start with your relatives and friends.”
I came up with a title: Around Mission. I whipped up a snazzy fundraising brochure. I explained in the brochure the various levels of support, all turning on the basic idea of prepurchase: I get your money now, you get the book later. You get your name in it.
I sent these out to everyone I know. Support started coming in. Some people I never expected to hear from came into the project big. Some people I thought would come on board didn’t. Eventually, I raised enough money to cover the entire print run.
Lesson #2: (a) don’t be shy; (b) keep meticulous accounts and send out receipts promptly; (c) be grateful; (d) don’t hold grudges.
Meanwhile: I might be able to publish this thing myself, but publishing a book is not the same as printing one. I went into bookstores, looked at books of Canadian photography, saw that 85% of the good ones were printed by Friesens. I went to see the Friesens rep in Vancouver. Jorge spent hours leading me through the minutiae of a job like this. My head swam. Jorge went over things again. Lynne had come with me. Lynne asked questions. Lynne took notes. We went home. Jorge answered emails promptly. Promised to have a detailed quote ready in ten days. It arrived in ten days.
Lynne cautioned: shop and compare! I got a quote from one other printer, also Canadian and much nearer home. Their estimate came in at exactly double Friesens’.
Jorge made a suggestion about marketing: come up with a publisher’s name that isn’t just your own. It’s a transparent gimmick, but for reviewers and potential retailers this takes some of the stigma off ‘self-published’. I love the magic of spirals, especially when the energy flows toward the centre, so I googled Spiral Publishing. Taken. Vortex Publishing. Taken. Helix Publishing. Coil, Whorl, Spinorama, Curlicue, Screw Publishing. All taken. But finally I got lucky. I submitted my name request to the appropriate authorities, got it approved and registered, and lo! seventy-five dollars later, Gyre & Gimble Publishing was born!
It was time to roll my sleeves up. I had questions. Am I good enough to get my image files ready for publication? Am I good enough to actually design this thing? Am I willing to pay somebody else to perform these functions for me? I found answers: not yet, not yet, and not at all. I took night courses in Photoshop and InDesign. My friend (and wife) Judy took them with me. Together, we’d be good enough. Together we were more than good enough.
Did I mention an editor? You can only edit your own stuff up to a point. Luckily, Judy is not only a computer wizard—she also has an eye. She said, “You’re actually thinking of putting that one in, are you?” She said, “What? You’re considering not putting this one in?”
Lesson #3: (a) some of your editor’s advice you take; (b) some of it you don’t; (c) none of it, especially if your editor is your wife, you ignore.
Months went by, and between what I remembered from those classes and what Judy remembered and what my instructors provided by way of email support long after both courses had ended and I was in the throes of deadline angst, I clambered over the last of the technical hurdles and … the job was done. I sent the files off, Friesens told me the books would be delivered to a certain Fraser Valley loading dock on a certain date, and they were there on that date. I arrived, box-cutter in hand, slit open the first carton, pulled out the first book, and almost fainted dead away, I was so pleased.
This was the climax of the whole thing. Up to here the project had been hard work but it had been fun. There had already been too much of the business end, but the business end was tolerable because the art end lay ahead. From here on in, though, it was all business. Self-publishing doesn’t end with the arrival of a pallet of books at a loading dock. No, now you’ve got to move them. First you have to move them from the loading dock to your bedroom. Then you have to move them out. What had been a thousand copies of one’s pride and joy had become inventory.
I had morphed from photographer to fundraiser to publisher to book designer with my joie pretty much intact, but now I had arrived at a place where the gyre had reversed directions and its energy was spiralling rapidly outward. My father was a salesman all his life. I vowed never to follow suit, and yet here I was, newly minted as publicist and marketing guy. The book’s images are of the Mission area. Getting copies into Mission-area retail outlets was not hard, and the local media were hugely supportive. But I was also hoping the book would have a wider appeal. I began sending out review copies to Vancouver and beyond. With covering letters, of course. I considered cranking out a page of all-purpose boilerplate and letting it go at that. But I am an unknown, and so each letter had to be carefully tailored to fit.
B.C. Bookworld was the first to bite. Followed, mirabile dictu, by the Vancouver Sun, and then a nice piece in bcartnews.com. The Georgia Straight? The National Post? The Globe & Mail? Quill & Quire? Still, I counted my blessings.
Then I started hitting Lower Mainland bookstores. Duthie’s took three copies right away. 32 Books in North Van took a couple. The Vancouver Art Gallery passed. Hager’s passed. Others passed also. Thanks but no thanks. Not our cup of tea. Both Vancouver Chapters stores eventually agreed to take some books on consignment, but by now the road to market had begun tilting sharply uphill, just as my interest in all this was falling into steep decline. People didn’t answer emails, didn’t return phone calls, and while some booksellers (independents, on the whole) had a cheque ready for me the same day I come in, others (notably, the Black Bond chain) seemed to have a policy of paying their suppliers no earlier than three months after the invoice date, if then.
It’s easy to get disheartened at this point, and I did. And I’m content to end this tale less with a bang than a whimper. There are plenty of additional sales and promotion options, of course—wholesalers, distributors, the internet, even taking out ads, God knows, even hiring an agent—but when you’re stalled between your first burst of enthusiasm and your second wind and your project seems to have begun riding madly off in all directions, the temptation is to lie back a bit and mope. So beware.
Lesson #4? There are people who do for a living things you don’t always have the experience or the stomach to do for yourself. Maybe . you . don’t . have . to . control . every . single . solitary . aspect . of . this . precious . project . of . yours . after . all.
Further advice? None. In fact, I could use some. On the other hand, I would do it all again in a minute.
Essay Date: 2007