The Great Canadian Novel … or Not …
People are always much more impressed when you can say you’re an author, rather than just a writer.
Writers (so public perception would have it) are self-deluded basement trolls who scribble incomprehensible stuff about self-actualization through crystals, or talking cats, that never sees the light of day unless it’s self-published and handed out as Festive Season gifts to unsuspecting relatives.
But authors have written books. Real books with the names of real publishing houses, and ISBN numbers opposite the title pages.
Admittedly, as self-publishing gains legitimacy (in the eyes of the general public if not in bookstores and libraries), this line is blurring. You can now be the author of a real book with a real ISBN without ever having hired an agent or an editor; all you have to do is hire the printer (and get your friend from high school to do the illustrations in return for promising to never reveal that thing she did back in ’87 …). Unfortunately, since even Stephen King and Stephen Hawking need good editors, that means there is a lot of unreadable, grammatically excruciating rubbish issuing forth from these self-publishing companies. But there are also some exceptionally good self-published books … and if the authors are good at self-promotion, they sometimes even get read by someone other than Great Aunt Bernice.
Still, the perception lingers that having your book published by a real publishing house is superior to getting it self-published — if only because it got read and accepted by someone, after which it was edited and fact-checked, and the company invested some small amount in making that happen. In essence, they gambled that your content would sell well enough to at least pay them back on their investment.
The day I was first contacted by a book editor with a proposal to write a book, was one of the most thrilling of my career. It was also one of those ‘little did I know’ moments, of course …. I was sooooo flattered just to be asked to turn my columns on equine nutrition into a real book with a real cover, that I signed my name to a contract that, really, should never have been signed. It was what you call a ‘work for hire’ contract, and it meant that, after the token royalty payment I received for entering into the agreement, I’d never see another cent from the sales.
Just my luck. It sold well and went into a second edition. It’s being used by several Canadian and American colleges as a text for their undergrad equine nutrition courses. Sigh. What have we learned, class?
I’m now a veteran of six published non-fiction books, and quite a bit wiser. I still don’t have an agent, having brokered the deals for all six on my own (a circumstance some of my colleagues have reacted to with palpable disbelief. ‘Tis true, I swear.) The second adult book, I made no money whatsoever on, despite having negotiated what, on the surface, looked like a much smarter contract. (Factoid: JK Rowling may get book advances of seven or eight figures, but the reality is most authors barely get four-figure offers for putting together 60,000 – 100,000 words. Publishing ain’t like it’s portrayed in the movies, honey. Sorry to bubble-burst.)
I can’t complain about my four kid’s books, for Scholastic Canada, though. I lucked into an offer from a kind Scholastic editor, with whom I had a very tenuous acquaintance, after I had pitched a more complex idea and she turned it down. Would I be interested instead, she asked, in doing a simple book on breeds of horses for kids? And did I know any good equine photographers?
I was and I did, and Shawn Hamilton and I ended up doing a series of four of these books before we ran out of breeds we could access to photograph, without using up all of Shawn’s air-miles for the next decade. The price-point on the little paperbacks was right, the target market was horse-mad little girls (no shortage of those), and Scholastic is one of those rare companies which actually still markets its books like crazy, in multiple countries, instead of expecting the authors to do all the legwork.
Shawn and I made a tidy little sum from those books … and even now, little royalty cheques still arrive a couple of times a year. They’re usually under $100, by this point, sales having tapered down to a trickle, but again, I’m not complaining.
Alas, even that log-flume ride had to come to an end. Last I spoke to my editor at Scholastic, the market for kids’ non-fiction had pretty much dried up. She tells me kids just go to this Interwebz thing now to look up facts, instead of buying books.
Curse you, Interwebz! May the fetid breath of a thousand camels fog up your windshield!
So I’m at a bit of a cross-roads. I would really like to get another book project going. The whole process of writing something 80 times as long as a magazine article is daunting, yes, but it’s less so once you’ve done it a few times. And as I’ve pointed out, it adds so much cachet to one’s credibility. Still, I am not sure in which direction I should go.
I have friends who keep telling me the real money is in fiction. The afore-mentioned Ms. Rowling would certainly serve as proof and example, though we’ve all heard the stories about Harry Potter having been rejected umpteen million times by supposedly wise publishing houses before it finally saw the light of day and became an unstoppable marketing machine.
My squeeze recommends churning out murder mysteries. Trouble is, it’s really not my genre — I don’t even read them. And my father (don’t choke) once suggested to me that the real money was in porn …. excuse me, women’s erotica. (So much more genteel and tasteful.)
It probably is, but I dunno if I could channel my inner vixen to that degree without giving myself a fatal case of the giggles. And I live in horror of unwittingly winning the “Bad Sex in Fiction” award …
All writers are supposed to have a Great Canadian (or American, or Insert Your Country of Origin Here) Novel lurking somewhere in the deepest recesses of their hippocampus. I just really have never been able to locate mine.
I’ve churned out some bad short stories, yes, and some even worse (and, ahem, anonymous) fan-fiction (and no, I’m not telling you which fandom(s)!), and a lot of angsty poetry in my lifetime. Some of the poetry actually bordered on okay, but if you want to pick the one branch of writing that earns you even less than writing for magazines and newspapers … well, three guesses.
If there’s a novel in my sub-psyche, it probably has not yet surfaced because I don’t have an ending for it. And I can’t imagine all that many things more demoralizing than churning out 300 pages of plot and character and exposition and then not being able, for the life of you, to wrap it up.
(My sympathies to my writer friends who may be wrestling with just this dilemma as they near the end of NaNoWriMo month. You are braver than I, and I salute you.)
Even if you visualize your Great Work of Fiction as a series of seven (or eight, or however many bloody Harry Potter books there are), you’ve still got to sell a publisher on that first one, so it better be firm and tight and bouncy … (Oh, dear, there’s that subliminal porn sneaking in. Eeekk!)
It’s possible that after almost 30 years of being a journalist, that I’m just hard-wired for the non-fiction angle. And I do have two sort of half-formed concepts for non-fiction books kicking around my skull. I think I just need a kick in the tush to flesh them out enough to start peddling them to publishers.
Feel free to deliver same if you’ve read this far and are so inclined.