Unlike Kirkby, Banff, Alta., author Chic Scott was so confident about the market for his latest book, Deep Powder and Steep Rock: The Life of Mountain Guide Hans Gmoser, that he deliberately kept it to himself rather than sharing it with the publisher, Calgary-based Rocky Mountain Books, which had brought out his previous titles.
"I just didn't want to lose control of this book," says Scott, a veteran mountaineer who wrote a number of successful guidebooks before turning to a biography of Gmoser, the Austrian-born guide who invented helicopter skiing, made a fortune from it, and was killed in a bicycling accident near Lake Louise in 2006.
Scott went solo to escape the relentless cost-cutting required by the now-conventional big-box route to publishing success. He lavished his book with colour plates, printed it on heavy, 70-pound paper, included a DVD of historic Gmoser films in every copy - and put a $50 price tag on it. "Yes, it was a financial project, meant to make money, but more than anything, it was a tribute to Hans," Scott says. "The goal was to create a really good, good book. The secondary goal was not to lose any money."
Following the time-honoured tradition of the self-published author, Scott took out a home-equity loan of $45,000 to pay for the book. But unlike most such authors, he was able to pay it off soon after the book's publication this spring.
He sold an amazing 250 copies at the book's launch, which drew an overcapacity crowd to Banff's Mount Norquay ski lodge. Tapping deep into the worldwide "mountain community" that once idolized Gmoser, Scott has since sold more than half his initial print run of 3,000. "I've got well over $45,000 back and 1,600 books left that represent pure profit to me," he says. "I will make maybe four times as much profit as I would if I were just getting royalties."
Non-fiction titles devoted to special interests, especially those with regional appeal, get short shrift from conventional publishers, according to McNally. "Obviously there are lots of regional publishers, but they tend to be arts-council supported and as a consequence are almost exclusively focused on belles lettres," he says. Toronto publishers, meanwhile, seek titles with national and international appeal, leaving an unsated appetite at the community level. "Appetite doesn't turn into a 100,000 bestseller," McNally says. "But as Mary-Ann has proven, it turns into significant numbers."
Properly targeted, he adds, even the strangest-seeming self-published books can attain steady sales. "We've done really well with books that seem like a tiny wrinkle in time," he says, pointing to such titles as At the Ojibwa by Nancy Lang and David Macfarlane, and Terry Fallis's The Best Laid Plans , winner of the 2008 Stephen Leacock Award for Humour. Promoting local culture, adds McNally, is "why independent bookstores exist. It's what we do for communities."
Serving very different but equally engaged communities of readers, both Kirkby and Scott knew enough about publishing to seek out professional editors. Kirkby worked closely with Winnipeg freelancer Arvel Gray, paying for her services with "very good and plump" Hutterite poultry. "For seven years while we were writing the book, I paid her in chickens," Kirkby says. "That is the truth of it."
Hamilton author James Elliott paid in blood, sweat and cash to achieve the high professional gloss that marks his most recent book, Strange Fatality: The Battle of Stoney Creek, 1813, published on demand by Robin Brass Studio of Montreal. "There is a real local hunger for this," affirms Elliott, citing, like Scott, the happily overcrowded launch party for his book at Dundurn Castle, a local landmark.
Not that it's all been smooth sailing. "There's no bloody money in it," says Elliott. After quitting his job at the Hamilton Spectator to undertake his labour of love, Elliott says he has now entered "flail mode" in his effort to market the book more broadly. "I want to be done with it, but I'm out in the middle of the pond flailing like mad to keep the thing afloat."
Still, it's not vanity that drives Elliott, Kirkby and Scott to keep going. The commitment of each is cultural.
Elliott wants Canadians to know their country would be "a profoundly different place" were it not for a suicidal night attack on an invading American army near Niagara Falls almost 200 years ago. Scott has become the essential voice of a deeply rooted, storied alpine culture that makes little more than a blip on the national radar. Kirkby's approach to her half-hidden community exemplifies an attitude shared by many on-demand authors. "This was not a wham-bam operation," she says. "It was very well thought out, because I knew I carried the weight of an entire culture on my shoulders."
That was a load conventional publishers were once keen to assume. If nothing else, the rise of the amateurs underlines how weak the mainstream companies have become in the big-box world of books.