The biggest surprise Saskatchewan author Mary-Ann Kirkby got over the seven years it took her to produce I Am Hutterite , an intimate portrait of a little-known, secretive Prairie culture, was that no publisher wanted it.
"No one has ever told our story," says Kirkby, who grew up in the Fairholme Hutterite Colony in southern Manitoba, and later became a television reporter in Prince Albert, Sask. "The Hutterites have been so private. And here I am an insider who speaks the language and knows the culture very well. I just thought it was a no-brainer."
In fact it was - but not the one she had imagined. Like so many aspirants before her, Kirkby says she was "devastated" by the unilateral response to her book from Canadian publishers. "I approached all the majors in Toronto," she says. "I have all the rejection letters."
But she also had sufficient faith to continue, and ultimately published the book herself under an imprint she called Polka Dot Press.
Today, Kirkby's trove of rejections should cause considerable embarrassment among the literati south of Bloor Street. Using a $35,000 line of credit to print the first 5,000 copies of I Am Hutterite two years ago, she has since sold more than 50,000. In its first year, hers was the fourth-bestselling title in the Saskatoon store of bookseller McNally Robinson, and won the prize for non-fiction at the Saskatchewan Book Awards. Today, major retailers are ordering copies by the pallet-load; Kirkby is negotiating the sale of worldwide rights for a new edition with a U.S. publisher.
Although such success is rare in the world of what used to be called vanity publishing, Kirkby's story is no freak event. As conventional publishers retrench in the face of recession and electronic competition, more authors than ever before are taking charge of their literary destinies.
For the first time ever, says U.S. industry monitor Bowker, the number of self-published, a.k.a. "on-demand" books printed in the United States last year exceeded the number of conventional titles. The company reported a "staggering 132-per-cent increase over last year's final total of 123,276 titles," which in turn was 462 per cent above the total of self-published titles produced in 2006.
The flood of self-published books is being fed in large part by the electronic technology that many had assumed would actually replace books. Web services such as Lulu.com and iUniverse can transform manuscripts into any number of bound books in a matter of hours, at nominal cost. Chains such as Indigo are offering guides to would-be authors and reserving shelf space for self-published titles. At the same time as the Canadian book trade cancelled its annual Book Expo due to declining interest, organizers in New York announced the first Self-Publishing Book Expo to help the hordes of new authors seeking low-cost shortcuts into print.
Few commend the literary value of much of the new outpouring. "We have easily published the largest collection of bad poetry in the history of mankind," Robert Young, Canadian-born chief executive of Lulu Enterprises, recently confessed to The New York Times . But others see real value in the trend - and not only in terms of potential sales.
Self-published nonfiction with regional appeal fills the same void - cultural and financial - inhabited by the last of Canada's independent bookstores, according to Paul McNally of McNally Robinson, whose head office is in Winnipeg, where the small chain also has two outlets. "There's a lot of self-published stuff that's below the radar and belongs there," he says. "But a short print run with a focused distribution can be financially very viable. It's a big part of our business, actually."
McNally was an early believer in I Am Hutterite . "I know an agent or two in Toronto and I pushed very hard to get a publishing deal for Mary-Ann," he says. "I had no success."
But when Kirkby decided to self-publish, McNally urged her to increase the initial print run from 3,000 to 5,000, and hosted a launch party for her in the company's main Winnipeg store. "I think there's a real void there," he says. "People see Hutterites, they hear about Hutterites, but they don't really know much about Hutterites. It turns out the Hutterite community itself was just very eager for the book. So it's done tremendously well."
So has Kirkby. "Two weeks ago, I was doing a tour for Wal-Mart, for crying out loud," she says. And rather than depending on royalties, which normally hover between about 10 and 15 per cent of a book's cover price, she collects the lion's share of the $29.95 cover price of each book she sells. "I've sold over 50,000 books," she says. "If you do the math, it's pretty nice. I like my new car a lot."