Why I Happily Publish Traditionally, Independently, and Locally

September 17, 2014 Chad Pelley

A good publisher doesn’t just take your manuscript, get your book into bookstores, and leech off your booksales. If that were the case, they’d be useless in the face of self-publishing. A proper publishing house is interconnected with Canadian media, book awards, and the bookselling industry.

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I first read Chad Pelley’s “Why I Happily Publish Traditionally, Independently, and Locally” on a day in late September when the weather was changing and my baby was in a sleep regression and, despite taking just three weeks’ maternity leave and working almost constantly, my bank account was overdrawn again and I still had a stack of bills to pay. I turned to my husband in utter despair and said that maybe it was time to give up freelancing and get a “real job.” For all that my work editing and publicizing CanLit was doing to feed my soul, it sure wasn’t feeding my bank account — at least not as well and as steadily as a corporate communications gig would. Then I read Chad’s blog, and I suddenly remembered why I loved my work so much — and why it was important, so very important, even if it didn’t come with a big paycheque. (And hey, at least it comes with free books — beautifully written, well-edited, gorgeously designed books that take me away from the stresses of a crying baby and an overdrawn bank account.) Chad’s homage to traditional, independent, local presses is a reminder to us all that our work is important — and appreciated.  

-- Emily Dockrill Jones, Publicity Co-ordinator, Wolsak & Wynn

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As an author, I’m always surprised how the average reader seems to think a novelist simply finishes writing a book, presses print, and magically, the book appears on stands. The entire chain of events, the hard work a publishing house punches in to choose which books to publish, and the effort to edit and better them, design them and distribute them across the country (quite an expensive bill!), and promote their authors by throwing them a launch, getting them on talkshows and in festivals, submitting them to awards – all of this labour is transparent to the average reader. It’s a shame. It must be why so many people mistake self-publishing as publishing. It isn’t publishing, it’s printing.

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Without a publisher, all a writer has is a manuscript – 300 computer pages on a desk or kitchen table with no hope of finding an audience. A writer knows they’re nothing without a good publisher to back them. I spend an average of two years on a book. Two years. When it comes time to hand it over to a company that is going to deliver it to the world, I want to trust the book matters almost as much to them. I want to know they want to work with me on it, make it better, make it pretty, make it exciting for the world, and because both of our financial vitalities are depending on book sales – it’s nice to know there’s a full-time team devoted to selling the book. In Breakwater Books, I’ve found a batch of stand-up folks who do all that and then some.

In a nutshell, a publisher is a company that takes a risk on a writer every time they agree to publish a manuscript. And when I finished my first novel in 2008, and sent it around to a few publishing houses, the general consensus was, “But you’re an unpublished nobody,” with some insinuation the book has potential that they don’t have time to help me uncover. Fair enough. But Rebecca Rose, President at Breakwater Books, read the book, saw some kind of spark, and gave me my first publishing contract. Without her, I simply never would have become an author, and her belief in my work has never wavered. She is the patron saint of my writing career, which quite simply means my publisher has been truly invaluable. Without her, I might have given up, and never gone on to experience the profound sense of accomplishment in winning a literary award, receiving kind emails from perfect strangers, signing a movie deal, or sharing a stage, many times now, with writers way out of my league whom I admire for their craft.

Yes, there are a lot of frustrations with traditional publishing. I can finish a novel in 2013 that won’t hit the shelves until 2016. Like any author, I only make 10% of what my books sells for, which is only 2 dollars a book for a 20-dollar novel. Most Canadian publishers won’t take a shot on a new writer, or even an established one, if their book lacks buzzwords they “know they can sell” (in CanLit, that means your book is set during a war, or reflects on a dying culture). It’s a frustrating industry, and I can see why people think self-publishing is a way around those frustrations. But self-publishing is not a way around these frustrations, because getting a printed book in your hands is not what publishing entails. That’s just step one, and an expensive step your publisher pays for. Printing and shipping books to hundreds of bookstores; that’s just not in my budget.

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A good publisher doesn’t just take your manuscript, get your book into bookstores, and leech off your booksales. If that were the case, they’d be useless in the face of self-publishing. A proper publishing house is interconnected with Canadian media, book awards, and the bookselling industry. Self-published books, however, tend not to be discussed by Canadian media or available in bookstores, because it’s hard enough to cover and stock all the published novels coming out every year. And that means zero media coverage for your self-published book, and no bookstores selling it for you. How, exactly, will you find readers against those odds?

Marketing is one of the many basic, crucial things a publisher will do for you. A book can be brilliant, stunning, but if no one hears about it, if no one knows it exists, how are they supposed to buy it? If you traditionally publish, your publisher sends out review copies to every major Canadian magazine, newspaper, and blog, and these publicists have a good rapport with media personalities. It’s a streamlined process: publishers tell media about their books months before they come out, and reviews are assigned before books even hit the stands. If you are ambitious enough to try and contact media about your book yourself, you’ll find out you’re too late in reaching them, and that they don’t talk about self-published books in their magazine or newspaper anyway. Not ever. Canadian media are too busy trying to keep up with the excess of traditionally published books every year. Same goes with awards. The publicity department at a publishing house – a whole department devoted to you! – know about every award in the country, and submits your work, whereas self-published books are not eligible for the vast majority of awards, and certainly none of the big ones. So right off the bat, you’re standing at a podium… but the mic is off and no one’s listening.

If that weren’t bad enough, bookstores do not carry self-published books (except maybe your local bookstore will accommodate you, maybe). Whereas, when you publish with a publisher, they make an effort to ensure your book is available throughout the country. Most Canadian publicists are impressively, genuinely passionate about their jobs and books: you want them in your corner. At Breakwater Books, there’s a two-person publicity powerhouse in Giller-nominee Elisabeth de Mariaffi and another publisher-writer (very prominent as well in the local theatre scene), Megan Coles. They’re both writers, they get it, they know how much a book means to their author, so they put the effort in to promote the books they publish. Publishing with Breakwater means working with two amazing people who are amazing writers, who are amazing at their jobs. Not a bad thing.

What I am saying is step one is getting your book into the world, and self-publishing will do that. But that’s all it will do for you. Step two: selling the book. You don’t want to be all alone in that. Especially when no traditional media or award will help, and bookstores blacklist you.

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And that’s just marketing. Let’s step back a little. With a traditional publisher, you will get a long and drawn out editing process, in which an editor meticulously scans your book for blemishes, weak spots, and features to exploit. It’s like sending your novel to a beauty salon – a publisher pays a skilled editor to get your novel prettied up before the world takes a look at it. Every writer has flaws and tics a good editor will fix. And the managing editor at Breakwater? Also an award-wining, terrific writer ( James Langer). Once he’s done deciding if Breakwater ought to publish a book, he’ll give you some broad aspects of the book to tighten up, before hooking you up with another editor – often of your choosing – to really work with closely.

Once that’s done – free of charge to you! – a professional graphic designer not only designs you a classy cover, but lays out the interior of your book (a complicated process that involves expensive software and know how). Yes, you could design your own book cover, but people like me do not read books with bad covers. Sad but true.

Don’t bank on the exceptions, like the self-published book Still Alice, that became a runaway bestseller. Those are exceptions, like how once in a blue moon a human is born with a tail. Thinking your self-published book will be the next exception to the rule is like thinking your next child will have a tail. Unless you’re someone like Stephen King or Alice Munro, whose name sells a book, self-publishing will leave you in the dark, unheard and alone. Hell, most traditionally published authors will find themselves in that position: so many books come out every year, you really need the best team behind you that you can muster.

Another other question of how to publish your book when it’s done is where to publish it. Which dredges up the age old “Small Press versus Big Press” debate. It’s an old and boring discussion, and I’ve never thought those terms – “Small versus Big Publisher” – are the right way of looking at it. We’ve all heard the pros and cons hundreds of times: how an independent press publishes fewer books, so maybe they can pour more heart and soul in to each, but the big publishers have more money for bigger advances and marketing pull, etc, etc.

I prefer to think about that debate, not as “Small versus Big,” but as “Canadian versus International.” What “Small, Independent Press” really means is “A Canadian company that focuses almost exclusively on Canadian authors,” whereas the big guns like Random House, Penguin, and HarperCollins are not Canadian-owned companies, and their biggest books of the year, the ones they really push, tend to be from international authors, because, and maybe even understandably, they’re looking to make money, first and foremost. Like Walmart or McDonald’s, they’re part of an international chain, structured to maximize profits. So they’re as interested in a cash grab like Bieber’s biography as they are in discovering the next big Canadian short story writer. Our independent presses however are more like specialized boutique shops with their own tastes. Often, like Pedlar Press, they aim to publish quality or innovative works too risky – in terms of sales potential – for the big houses, or mediums like poetry (see Brick Books) that larger houses relatively ignore because of their limited sales potential.

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Long story short: independent presses do more to foster and promote Canadian writing by Canadian authors, in all genres, at all stages in their career. When it comes to the Small Press Versus Big Press debate, it’s time we get our mind out of the gutter: bigger isn’t better. It’s just bigger, so big, that less of their operation is about bringing Canadian authors to Canadian readers.

A big press like Random House serves a legitimately vital role to Canadian authors, don’t get me wrong. Their bigger advances and worldwide networks, and their pull with media and festivals and award judges do much to bring many Canadian authors to a point where they might make something of a living off their craft. And for that the big houses are a great thing; that’s their contribution to the CanLit ecosystem.

So, all this is to say that it’s important to the CanLit ecosystem that a blog like the Literary Press Group’s All Lit Up is filling the niche of celebrating independent publishing. If our independent publishers are the ones focussing almost exclusively on Canadian writers, then there needs to be a place like All Lit Up that’s focusing exclusively on promoting these vital Canadian publishers. Upon first seeing All Lit Up, it was clear that this blog is a true celebration of Canadian publishing culture. In serving that role, All Lit Up is a wonderful, unmatched resource for Canadian readers who tend to like or need suggestions on what to read next. Shopping here can also let readers feel good about what they’re reading – because taking book suggestions from this website means they’re supporting the Canadian publishing industry very directly, by buying Canadian-authored books from Canadian publishing companies. National media shamefully shun Canadian publishers over the international houses for the most part, so it’s great to have a resource like the LPG and now All Lit Up. I was hoping something like this would emerge when I reluctantly walked away from Salty Ink after a five-year slog of promoting CanLit’s independently published books.

The takeaway here is that, numerically speaking, Random House, Penguin, and HarperCollins publish no more dazzling books of fresh fiction and poetry by Canadians than do our country’s finest independent presses. Here’s a quick list of fifteen fabulous Canadian, independent houses, whose spring and fall catalogues of new books should always be browsed by Canadians looking to find their next read:

Anansi | Arsenal Pulp | Biblioasis | Breakwater Books | Brindle & Glass | Coach House Books | Cormorant | ECW | Freehand | Gaspereau | Goose Lane | Invisible Publishing | NeWest | Pedlar Press | Vehicule Press 

And for poetry: Brick Books and Nightwood Editions

Each of these houses – some more than others – focus on the literary pizzazz of a new generation of CanLit.

This article isn’t taking sides in the “Small versus Big” debate, it’s a discussion on the importance of supporting and reading books brought to us by Canadian companies that focus on Canadian authors. As one last reason why, I’ll point out that a by-product of being a “small” press, with a small staff who release fewer books into the world, is that these Independent houses can become branded in a way a bigger house cannot. If you follow a publisher like Freehand or Invisible Books, you’ll notice they have a taste for a certain kind of fiction. And if your taste aligns with theirs, you can trust that anything they publish will be to your tastes. Therefore, an independent press has more of a reliability factor than a bigger house, once you find your favourites. On the flip side, because they’re so big, and publish everyone from Justin Bieber to Michael Ondaatje, international houses cannot achieve brand, or reliability. And I see brand – I see being a reader’s favourite publisher – as the apex of literary merit that a publisher can achieve.

As an avid reader, familiar with the CanLit landscape, what I’ve come to value in a publisher is how reliably good their releases are. Biblioasis has been publishing our finest books of short fiction for years. I trust that Anansi A as much as I trust any logo on the planet. But I see a HarperCollins logo on a spine, and I dunno what to expect, since they publish a bit of everything. Because of their size, Random-Penguin-HarperCollins cannot have the identity that our finest independent Canadian presses can achieve. By selectively publishing so few books every year, we can associate a certain type of CanLit with an indie publisher’s company’s logo.

I should make one thing clear: There is no such thing as a “Small Press,” the same way there is no such thing as a “glass of red wine.” These things differ immensely: there is Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot Noir, and there is Australian versus French Shiraz. I’d be the first to say many independent Canadian publishers are not half as good as others, and that many don’t even deserve the grants they get. A publisher is only as good as the editing-marketing punch they pack. A lot of publishers give “small Canadian Press” a bad name by publishing bad books and doing nothing right to promote and distribute them.

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So three cheers for the LPG’s efforts to get us all reading, discussing, and sharing thoughts on the best of Canadian-authored books from Canadian-owned publishing companies.

Perhaps we should start calling “small” publishers “fine” publishers, for the double entendre: fine as in small, fine as in very good. I know I absolutely adore working with my publisher here in St. John’s. And my loving them so much has also given me another thing to advocate for: the positive sides of publishing locally, with a house whose taste in literature overlaps with your style.

It’s no secret that St. John’s, Newfoundland is the country’s literary goldmine for writers. For such a small city, it’s churned up so many heavyweight Canadian names in the last decade or so: Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, Michael Winter, Jessica Grant, Russell Wangersky, Joan Clarke, Kenneth J. Harvey, and Joel Thomas Hynes, just to name a few. And I can guarantee you the new wave of writers coming up in their wake are just as good. Shouldn’t that kind of talent have its own, high-quality publishing house tapping into the literary energy here? Someone who can launch these new names to fame and fortune, and someone who can keep the momentum going for our established authors?

Obviously, yes.  And I know from personal experience that the new iteration of Breakwater Books has the staff and ambition to be such a house.

There are clear perks to publishing locally for an author. I’ve published my two novels with Breakwater Books, and in short, all of the face-to-face and in-person meetings simply feel right. We celebrate signing a book contract with a cheers or a handshake, not an email. The people who plan my book launch are at my book launch, at the podium or at the table cutting the cake. Meanwhile, I’ve been to book launches in this city for authors published by a non-local press ... and their books hadn’t even arrived for the launch. Feels a little impersonal, begs the question of, Would you publish here if there was a proven powerhouse publisher? To belabour that point, I’ve seen books by local authors win a great local award, but then their book isn’t in the local Coles and Chapters for that author to benefit from sales. Meanwhile, my novel is constantly being replenished as copies are sold. Shouldn’t the one province your book is always available in be the place you call home?

I signed my first movie deal over supper at a restaurant three minutes from my house, with my publisher, because we live in the same neighbourhood. It also feels right to support her business, because doing so means supporting local book culture: a publisher is only as good as the quality of their lists, and a town of so many talented authors really could put a hard-working publisher on the literary map. If more local writers would publish with the presses in this province – like Breakwater, Creative, and Pedlar Press – those houses would immediately become as successful as all those indie presses in Toronto are. As it stands, Breakwater is a fabulous, hard-working, successful publishing house, but if even 20% of all the nationally renowned writers in this city published with this local press, we could make Breakwater the new Anansi; the Anansi of the Atlantic. By doing so, we’d have a serious hub of publishing here, which would really strengthen and foster local literary culture here. A publisher known for publishing names like Lisa Moore, Michael Crummey, and Russell Wangersky would shine a massive light on the other authors on that publisher’s list, which would be the wave of amazing new writers emerging in this province, like Eva Crocker and Randy Drover. And I can guarantee the world that publishing with Breakwater is a complaint-free process.

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When I published my last novel with Breakwater, I found myself whisked away on a fall tour that included stops at most of the major national literary festivals – I was at a supper table with Alistair MacLeod in Toronto, and on a panel with Eleanor Catton in Vancouver. My publisher signed me a movie deal, and almost, a few times now, an international deal with a few countries. They’re doing everything right, and I can see, with 20/20 vision, that a steady supply of great books from popular authors would send them into publishing powerhouse territory.

Not to mention it’s always good to support a local business. A healthy regional economy stems from a diversified business base, and it’s a no-brainer to say we could have a solid literary industry established in Newfoundland. Who doesn’t want to get behind their city’s entrepreneurs who are seizing opportunities like, “There are so many good writers here! Time to jump on it!” If there’s a great publisher in your city, why not support that company and work with them? The larger advances and media sway will follow suit, and you’ll have played a role in that.

It sure is nice to be a five-minute walk from the company set to launch your next book into the world. And even nicer to call these people good friends you see around town all the time, be it a book event or the produce section at a market.

 

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Chad Pelley is an award-winning author, songwriter, and photographer from St. John’s, Newfoundland. His debut novel, Away from Everywhere, won NLAC's CBC Emerging Artist of the Year Award, and was shortlisted for both the ReLit Award and the Canadian Authors Association Emerging Artist of the Year Award. It has been adopted by university courses, and is currently being adapted for film. His second novel, Every Little Thing, was published by Breakwater Books in 2013. Chad is the founder of Salty Ink, President of the Writers Alliance of Newfoundland & Labrador, and writes for a variety of publications, including Quill & Quire, National Post, and Atlantic Books Today, in addition to running an arts & culture newspaper, The Overcast, which celebrates the artists and entrepreneurs of Newfoundland.

 


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