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."
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.