Support for Independent Publishers in Canada

(This article was published on the Heritage Canada website on Nov 14th 2016, where it got some attention before being drowned in that tsunami called the “Newsfeed.” I salvaged the article and am publishing it here to give it an extended life)

After a successful career in business, which I gave up to pursue writing, I graduated from the Humber School for Writers in 2002 and realized that, at the age of 47, I had arrived at the CanLit party too late. I was too old to be picked up by an agent or a mainstream publisher and too removed from the established literary community. I ended up self-publishing my first novel that was recommended by my mentor at the Humber School to its in-house literary agency, but which wasn’t picked up by that agency. My next two works, a collection of short stories and a novel, the latter which won an award at Write Canada, were published by a small Ontario trade publishing house that has never enjoyed subsidies from Federal or Provincial arts agencies despite being in business for over 20 years.

In 2011, realizing that I could do better, I decided to set up my own publishing company with my money to publish my work and the work of other deserving writers across Canada who were having difficulty getting through the narrow portals of publishing. In particular, I have focussed on the writers of Northumberland County, Ontario where I live, publishing two anthologies of their work and planning another for next year. I have operated on the trade publishing model, selecting manuscripts, editing them, and providing authors with publishing and global distribution via Ingram, because I haven’t found a Canadian printer/distributor who provides a more cost-efficient service, despite having a low-dollar advantage. I use POD (print on demand) not because it is a vilified technology but because it is cost-efficient and saves trees. I also publish in e-book form (Kindle and e-pub). I pay my authors royalties and promote them via social media and fund their book launches. I wish I could do more for them, but my resources are limited. I have been publishing an average of three books per year as that is my maximum bandwidth as an unfunded independent operator who quickly came to the realization that he still had to make his living with a second job. I have incorporated my publishing company and have submitted tax returns for every year of its operation. I have not taken a cent in salary out of my publishing company for the hours I have toiled in it.

My requests (to whomsoever needs to action them) in this note, are the following:
1) Simplify the grant application process so that new entrants can understand it and play equitably alongside incumbent recipients.
2) Hold Canadian printers and distributors responsible for bringing their costs in line with global standards. Currently grants to publishers are going to subsidize printers and not to help promote authors or defray publishers’ other costs. (It would also be nice to see Canadian distributors being open for business and not act as cartels that shut out new entrants, but I am not sure if this is something anyone can influence other than market forces).
3) Make the grant system a dynamic one based on merit and not one that has become an annuity for incumbent recipients.
4) Create grant categories for “author promotion by the publisher,” if these don’t exist today; and if they do, make them more transparent. Traditional media channels are closed to small publishers and we have to find new channels – social media being our best avenue. But now social media has moved away from “free” to “paywall” when it comes to advertizing, and this needs money.

Subsidy or not, I will continue to write and publish, for I have a deep commitment to my art and to this industry. It would be nice to see our Federal and Provincial bodies recognize the fact that publishing has changed and morphed into many hybrid models compared to the original upon which CanLit was founded. These hybrids need assistance to grow and stand on their own, just like the fledgling CanLit once did. And, aren’t we all parts of an evolving CanLit, incumbents and newcomers alike?

I thank you for listening to me and look forward to seeing a more inclusive system of publishing emerge in Canada during my lifetime.

The link to the article on the Canadian Government website is:
http://www.canadiancontentconsultations.ca/stories/stories/support-for-independent-publishers-in-canada?fb_page_type=story_telling_tool&fb_tool_id=6028

The Artist’s Career Progression

There is a progression in a successful artist’s career. First, toiling (for several years, sometimes) in the trenches to reach base camp, then beginning the climb up the mountain of fame, then reaching a point on the gradient where a magic elevator suddenly appears and creates an inverse tipping point that starts to hurtle the artist to the pinnacle with no further effort required on his part. Finally, a period of success-building-upon-success, of walking on clouds, until disability or death intervenes to close that chapter. The last period is the posthumous one, when the artist’s work in enshrined and cleverly marketed to keep his spirit and estate alive.

Take our Joe, a budding writer, who writes some pretty decent stuff but who has to compete with every other Tom, Dick and Harry, along with Ann, Meg and Sally who are also writing pretty decent stuff. Joe meets Mike, an influential person in publishing, at a bar, where they both get drunk and wax lyrical over everything from Homer to Hitler, and realize that they have a lot in common. “I’m going to help you… hic,” says Mike, as they stagger homewards. Mike keeps his promise, and Joe gets a publishing contract from a decent publishing house. Unknown to Joe, he has arrived at base camp. Mike exercises some marketing muscle and introduces Joe to a movie director. Film rights, foreign rights and a literary prize follow. Joe is on his way, leaving his cohorts in the dust of self-publishing where he too once worked his heart out; he is now into cleaner air. He churns out a book per year, easy to do now that he does not have to worry about earning a living elsewhere. His publisher, and his agent (yes, he needs an agent now, and an agent sees value in Joe at this point) realize that to keep Joe’s books moving, he has to be in the news; therefore, more literary prizes, more film deals, foreign translations, and a couple of celebrity romances (and failures) should be part of the continuing life of Joe. When anyone is thinking of holding a literary conference or organizing a literary awards gala, they must invite Joe. Our Joe is on that magic elevator ascending the mountain. Now he does not have to think of ideas for his next book – his publicist (yes, he has one of those now too) and his script development team (fancy!) provide him with what he needs to write. His publisher will even fly him to the locale of his next book so that he can immerse himself in the scenes he is going to write about. Joe is now at the “walking on clouds” stage. Sounds familiar? I think you get it, so we can skip describing the “posthumous stage.” And this story is not quite fiction, for a chosen few in every generation have done it.

But that is not the main point of this article. The main point is that the pinnacle is the most important stage, and it must be defended at all costs and made to last as long as possible. When Joe has reached the top of the mountain, and when anyone thinks of literature, they must think only of Joe. His social calendar must be overflowing and he must decline a number of invitations so that his “decline factor” will create even more mystique and increase Joe’s appearance fee at future events. Meanwhile, Tom, Dick and Harry, and Ann Meg and Sally will be still waiting hungrily for their call to climb the mountain, churning out angst-ridden tomes, that if only someone had the time to read, would probably be far more authentic than Joe’s scripted deliveries. At this point, Joe’s management team will further determine that in order to extend the life of their “product” they need to create barriers to entry; therefore subtle attempts will be made to keep Tom & Team, and Ann and Associates or anyone creating “Joe’s look-alike literature,” or “better than Joe’s literature” out of the running until targeted returns on investment in Joe are met. Upstart attempts to dislodge Joe off his pedestal will be…ah…resisted. Creative destruction is healthy for society, but not for those who have their investment in the incumbent cash-cow.

That “the cream rises to the top” is true in this business as in any other. And once there, it stays at the top until death or disability renders the cream no longer edible, and investors have to either go into the posthumous stage of the artist or go looking for new talent development.

And then, the next Joe (or probably even Tom, Dick or Harry, or Ann, Meg or Sally, if they are not too old and beaten by then) will be waiting in a bar, scanning the crowds for Magnanimous Mike to start their climb up the mountain…

Manuscript Auctions are anti-literature

As publishers narrow the number of titles they select to put their promotional dollars behind, there is a disturbing phenomenon that is distorting the allocations of funds in book marketing, and consequently, influencing what we read. Let’s talk about the manuscript auction.

Typically literary agents resort to an auction if more than one publisher is interested in a particular manuscript. This front-end loading process can get hot and expensive (the price tags are now in the $millions for the most prized books) if the participating publishers get into a bidding war that is fueled by egos rather than by the intrinsic value of the manuscript under auction. If discernment gives way to greed, the winner standing after the dust settles may have exhausted their funds and be left holding a sub-par manuscript that now needs to be further marketed to cover its costly investment. And the sacrificial lambs: other books in the publisher’s upcoming catalog that have to forego their marketing budgets to help pay for this spoiled child who has edged them out for the wrong reasons.

Auctions unfortunately do not look at literary merit as much as they look at commercial merit. And when heavily marketed commercial books hammer the message: “read this book, read this book,” it skews independent judgement of even the most die-hard reader, forcing them to, at least, take a peek at this latest curiosity that everyone is talking about. Given that time is our most precious commodity these days, such peeks come at the expense of other books that may have grabbed the reader’s attention through non-promotional means. I usually compile a list of books that I have stumbled upon through reviews, word-of-mouth, or fellow-author recommendations, but this list always slips into second place when I have to take detours to check out the latest developments in modern literature, such as Karl Ove Knausgaard writing about his premature ejaculation or E.L James’s kinky punishments in the bedroom (because everyone is talking about them and I don’t want to be left out). And when the underlying motive for this marketing hoopla is a royalty that has been prepaid via a runaway book auction, my detour will have even less to do with literary merit.

I’m hoping that the author whose work was auctioned and who is now left to sign with the winning publisher, would use their judgement, take the long term view, and let the auction be used only as a yardstick to determine the “potential value” of their book. I’m hoping that they will settle on the publisher whom they feel will be the best fit for their career (after all, there will be more books in the pipeline from this author, we hope) rather than going with the highest bidder on just this single auctioned work. For the highest bid also comes with the highest expectation, and an author who does not earn his advance could get dropped for their next book by an “over-generous” publisher.

And as for readers, I hope that they (like me, who has now decided to take my own advice) will stick to their own reading lists, compiled through due diligence rather than hype, and that they will not take those time-wasting detours just because an at-risk publisher has thrown the rest of his money after his moment of weakness at an auction and is touting the compelling but distracting message: “Read this. I put too much money behind this damned book and I need your help to bail me out!”

The Anthology Editor – a rising player

As writers struggle for a spot in the literary limelight, as traditional magazines and publishing houses discard box loads of submissions, and as supply outstrips demand at increasingly higher rates, there is a niche player ascending like a Phoenix, one who may offer relief, especially to new writers in search of a publishing credit: the anthology editor.

Anthologies have existed for a long time but they hitherto focussed on the “best of the best” work that had already been published elsewhere. The new kind of anthology that I am referring to is made up of the work of writers who (a) do not have sufficient material for a stand•alone body of work (b) have written about a narrow subject area that can only be noticed if highlighted in a collection with a similar theme (c) belong in a region or collective whose output is being showcased or (d) a combination of all of the above.

Indie publishers find this a convenient way to build a stable of writers who may go on to produce stand•alone work in future – catching them young, so to speak. The anthology’s niche theme also allows for the book to be finely targeted to interested audiences, and competition from bigger houses rarely comes into play. Also, if many of the authors in the collection are first•timers, they are likely to buy dozens of personal copies to sell or gift to their families and friends and “build their platform.”

This makes the editor of such an anthology a new power player in the publishing chain. Given the many authors who are involved in a collection of this nature, the publisher typically sets broad guidelines and offloads content selection and author negotiations on this editor who is often not from among the publishing staff but a person of influence (he may even be one of the contributing authors) within the anthology’s trading area.

Sounds good? But here are some pitfalls to be aware of, especially if you are a contributing newbie author. Check out how many authors will contribute to this anthology. “The more the merrier,” the publisher will say, for more books will be sold (or bought by the growing number of contributors) but “the more, the lesser” also comes into play, especially for the individual author. Try getting noticed in an anthology of 100 authors! And what level of writing prowess do these 100 others possess – will they drag you down or lift you up with the quality of their contributions? And how will you split royalties between 100 others? Would two cents a book satisfy you? Oh yes, on the subject of royalties, beware of the publisher who only pays the royalty to the editor who then keeps it all for himself, for after all, did this editor not have to curate the content, deal with a bunch of egotistical authors, meet deadlines etc….etc? And the authors get – well, they get the glory of having been published!

As in any commercial transaction, “Buyer, beware” applies. If you are purely contributing to get a publishing credit, then ignoring the above might be okay. However, if you are moving up the chain and are protecting your brand as well as building it, then checking out the anthology’s credentials before making a contribution would be prudent.

So Amazon and Kobo want to be Publishers, eh?

The recent announcement by these players to advance up the book industry value chain from retailing to publishing comes as no surprise. In an industry which has many handoffs in its delivery process, and many players, each player muzzles for maximum turf over time. The ones upstream (i.e. the creators) try to advance down the chain like oil companies muzzling into retail gas stations. Those at the tail, retailers like Amazon and Kobo, try to move into the middle currently occupied by publishers, and those in the middle try to go both ways like departments stores that create loyalty programs at one end and private label merchandise at the other.

Success will depend on what value is provided. In the case of Amazon and Kobo, their original value proposition lay in their ability to provide the largest selection of books, globally, without the shopper having to leave the comfort of his home. In becoming a publisher, one has to be selective (also known by that dreaded term “editorial integrity”) and promote only “the selected.” This is a different stance from the presently held “come one, come all” position of these online retailers. So what would Amazon and Kobo do in their new roles as publishers? Provide two•tier distribution: a premium level for authors who self publish through them and a more basic level for all books coming from other publishers? Start a separate branded line for their own publishing streams of books? Cherry•pick the best•selling authors and offer lucrative one•shot deals? Or hire an army of interns to wade through miles of slush piles should every unpublished author want to self•publish through them? This new move is surely going to raise questions about the altered value propositions that these two players now bring to the reader, and to the author.

The danger when two or more bed mates jostle for elbow room on the same bed, especially if one has a lot of muscle, is that the muscular one gains at the expense of the others. The ones with less and less room, risk falling off the bed altogether and may leave to sleep elsewhere with other bedfellows. And there is no fun in sleeping in a bed with one big elephant – be that a major publisher, a retailer•turned publisher or a distributor turned one•stop•shop. In this incestuous game, many bed mates, each having equal space, is good – it’s also called competition, in case I was stirring orgiastic imagery in you!

The wild card for everyone is the technology that is making these moves possible. And technology, while enabling bigger and newer entrants to muzzle in for space, can also scuttle the best made plans plans. In this case, the new technology also allows the story•teller, (aka – the author) to reach his audience directly, for it is no big deal to publish a book these days, be it in trade book format or e•book format, if one is reasonably adept at word processing and has access to some conversion software. And it’s no bigger deal to distribute it directly from one’s website with no intermediary hand•offs. All the author needs is a facilitator who can help his audience find, sample and endorse him. The reader needs the facilitator too, to point him to good reading material. This facilitator role is the one going to be prized both by readers and writers in the future – not a big bully who keeps the lion’s share and offers poor quality in exchange, but a big brother who makes it happen for the writer and the reader.

I am keen to see whether Amazon and Kobo will truly transform into Big Brothers or lose both authors and readers because they ended up being Big Bullies.

Changing Publishing Models

I’ve begun to see the “small publisher” (SP) value proposition diminish. In cutting back on editing and marketing support, in losing ground to technology that makes it possible to go direct from author to reader today (i.e. e•books), in having no better alternative to online distribution offered by the likes of Amazon, and in still sticking to an outdated compensation model that pays an author only 10% in royalties despite its diminishing contribution, the small publishing house has to go the way of the dodo. Sure, some arts subsidies may hold SP aloft for awhile, but shrinking government support for the arts makes that lifeline no better than hanging onto a deflating life vest in a giant flood.

On the reverse side, I see another SP gaining traction: Self Publishing is getting its second wind. Yes, savvy self•published authors are now having their work vetted and edited, and even designing fancy covers for their work; they have come a long way from the early days when self•publishing was slammed by adherents to the traditional model for the movement’s obvious lack of “quality.” Self•published authors are settling in for the long term and doing it “for love of the art” and are getting comfortable with the notion that they may only end up selling a few copies of their books even if they work hard at it in this ever widening tsunami of written material out there today. And they hold out in hope that they may yet get “discovered” one day. How long will this idealism last?

I’ve also seen the author•as•publisher model emerge. Given the technology that is available today, and the narrow doors into the brand name publisher portals that makes entry difficult but for a chosen few, these writers (the savvy ones) are starting their own publishing companies, anchored by their own books and supported by others who have struggled to get published in the traditional way. Outsource everything but editorial selection, is their mantra.

When water is plentiful, it will find ways to flow through any crack, and written material is plentiful these days; it will find a way to get out, even if limited to 140 byte driblets. However, it is not supply, but demand that is hard to generate. The successful publisher is the one who can create demand and make the proud claim—either on the back of its own brand or on that of its authors—“Read this book, for it is good!” and have readers comply. I am not sure that any of the three models mentioned above can achieve this level of reader obeisance unless they cultivate niches that they have experience in.

Therefore, could these small publisher, self•published author, and principal•author•anchored publishing company models be setting themselves up for a smart aggregator to muscle in, offer them an exit strategy, snap them up at a bargain, cut out non•selling titles in their back lists, and retain only ones whose authors have built a reader platform for themselves through personal sweat equity? This aggregator•type reminds me of those leveraged buyout vultures in books like Barbarians at the Gate who dismembered companies to extract only the valuable and re•sellable parts, dumping everything else without any compunction towards the industry they were raiding. What value will aggregators add to authors, and what will they destroy?

In this fluid situation, what does the author, who does not have access to the big brand publishing house with its embedded marketing machine, do?

Waiting for the e-book bomb to drop

When I go out to read as a guest to writer’s groups these days, no one is really interested in hearing me read my work. Instead, everyone is interested at hearing of my adventures as a writer struggling to break into the big time. They want to know about my travails in the old self•publishing days, of the myriad rejection slips, of the near misses with publishers, of speed dating with agents, of trade publishing experiences, distribution woes, online marketing, where I get my ideas, how many ideas are left, social networking, blogging, radio and TV interviews, shameless self•promotion and…and… the liberating messiah they all hope it will be: the e•book.

Will the e•book finally become the mp3 of publishing, enabling writer•to•reader transactions off the former’s website, cutting out middlemen (publishers, publicists, distributors, retailers etc)? Could we build sufficient loyalty in our online readership platforms, feed them downloads of books and short stories in any e•book format, for a donation, and thereby recruit benefactors with financial contributions far in excess of what a provincial or federal arts council can provide us in subsidy, now that royalties from publishers are dwindling faster than ever? Will we finally be one•on•one with the readers whom we wrote these stories for in the first place? Politicians face their audiences when making public speeches, performing musicians do the same at concerts, stage actors too when they step out of the wings. But writers are like movie actors: they go through a multitude of arbitrary filters, before their work is exposed to their final arbiters. Would e•books solve that problem? When would the inflection point come when e•books outnumber traditional books? When am I going to launch an e•book?

These are the questions I get asked. And frankly, I wish I knew!

What I do know is that, with the pursuit of blockbuster•only titles by the traditional industry, that segment is going to shed even more writers, not assume new ones. The fringe is therefore open to the masses of writers coming on board, many with the notion of “I think I have a book in me,” and the e•book will be their entry point. How will one be noticed in this sea of wannabe ink? Would it mimic POD self•publishing that came out a decade ago? Would e•books be no different from the turbulent seas writers have traditionally cruised in over the centuries, in their makeshift rafts with tattered flags hoisted, in the hope of getting picked up by a glittering cruise ship—SS Publisher—full of thousands of readers?

Something tells me that we have played this record before.

Returning to the Grind

After taking two years off to focus on my writing, I recently returned to the business world that earns me more money in a day than in a whole year as an author.

Was this caving in? Selling out? Giving up? It was all of the above, and the achievement of wisdom that the business of writing and the art of writing are two different pursuits. My business logic tells me that one avoids entering markets as a seller when supply exceeds demand, and this is the case in the fiction market. And yet, we eternal hopefuls enter it in hordes every year because we all want to tell our story. The only hope of garnering attention in this supply•heavy market is through the power of endorsement. So should a writer wine and dine every agent and publisher, as well as Oprah, as part of his next phase to being commercially successful, apart from writing his break•out novel? Probably—for those so inclined.

For me, it has been a wake•up call to return to my art of writing and focusing on developing that aspect of this gift (or curse) that is foisted upon some of us. There are no limitations to developing the art: it has a linear growth trajectory and contracts or extends based on how much time and effort you put into it. And yet the business of writing today is faced with so many variables, many outside the control of the writer: e•books, Google, publishers going bankrupt, the blockbuster phenomenon, self•publishing, occasional social networking jackpots—where do you place your bet?

A wise teacher once told me to worry about the things that only I could control and leave the rest to God (or the Devil). And so it is with the writing. I will return to the craft and find reward and enrichment for my soul in that endeavour. As for the selling of books, you can’t miss what you never had, so the idyllic life of the writer living in exotic lands and jettisoning the occasional manuscript upon a hungry agent, who then turns it around into mega bucks and movie deals—that will have to remain a dream – for now!