Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

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.

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13 thoughts on “The Great Canadian Novel … or Not …

  1. Hi Karen Briggs, I enjoyed this blog but it created mixed feelings, Lots of “yes-yes” and few ‘oh dear no dear”.
    I have written a great Canadian novel, well it’s set in Canada, Does that make it Canadian even though I’m Irish. Is it therefore a great Irish novel? The Prairie Companions got from 600,000 to 11,000 in the Amazon Kindle sales rank so a fair few liked it even thought it did not get past the gatekeepers. All my novels were deemed to be , too, non-mainstream and multi-genre by agents who other wise loved them. All are eBooks only now. I am very aware of the scorn heaped on those who chose to publish outside the mainstream. I was once told on a writers forum, “Your opinion has no worth because you self published. This from a child who had written nothing but loud arrogant self importance.
    I used to publish, edit (and write most of the copy for) a magazine here in Ireland so I’ve been through the journalistic mill. I, too, knew I had a novel in me. I’ve finished ten so far and more are bubbling. I can understand the anxt but I think one just has to do it. Take a chance and risk the disproval of the established order. I did it right after my first disaster. I now have an editor etc. I’m now proud of my work and can hold my head up and say: “Yes I self published and I’m not ashamed.
    Regards davidrory.

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    • Hi David — thanks for visiting … and reading … and commenting! This blog is a new venture for me … I resisted for a long time because I didn’t want to just add more rubbish to an already impressive pile of it on the web. 😉 Perhaps that’s what concerns me most about self-publishing as well. As I say, I have seen some EXCELLENT self-published efforts. A friend of mine is currently doing very well, for example, with a self-published biography of Barbaro, the horse who won the Kentucky Derby and the extraordinary effort to save him after he broke down in the Preakness. The book is well-researched, well-written, and well-illustrated, and in addition he has made a huge effort to market it, criss-crossing North America visiting racetracks and anywhere that’s a hotbed of horses.

      The trouble is (and I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new) is that there’s also a lot of poorly written, un-edited crap issuing forth, and it drags down the potential of the whole enterprise.

      I attended a writer’s workshop a few months ago in Toronto, presented by the Author’s Registry. The workshop turned out to have a large fiction component, and what I found interesting, in the roundtable discussions in which I participated, is how foreign the whole concept of editing was to the fiction writers involved in the discourse. They seemed affronted by the very suggestion that someone else should critique their spelling, grammar, and sentence structure (let alone plot and characterization!) before they sent their manuscripts off to publishing houses (or self-publishing houses). It really seemed difficult for them to wrap their heads around how essential this is! Now, perhaps with 20+ years of journalism — and a fair spell on the other side of the editor’s desk as well — under my belt, my skin is thicker than most, but no writer should think his/her words so precious that they cannot be improved upon by an independent eye (and pen). I sat in that workshop and thought, THIS is why self-publishing has a bad name, people!

      It’s changing, and I believe that is a good thing, and I by no means intend to disparage efforts like your novels. But I’m likely to continue to pursue traditional publishing houses for my future efforts, in large part because marketing my books sounds like a job best accomplished by them rather than me! At the very least I’d like a little help in that department, not having the resources (or the inclination, frankly) to criss-cross the continent flogging my scribblings on my own. It is nearly impossible to get a self-published book any consideration in bookstores on this side of the pond, and I’m not yet sophisticated enough in e-sales to depend on that route. Working on it, though.

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  2. Oh Karen, I feel your frustration and your pain. Although I’ve been writing for (literally) decades, it has all been non-fiction and none in book form (should I be embarrassed?). Although I would love the cachet of calling myself an author (as opposed to ‘just’ a writer) I really don’t have the great Canadian novel lurking within me. And, even if I do, I don’t really feel the need to find it.

    Self publishing is becoming much more respectable now. I do, however, agree with you about the need for folks like editors to check for grammatical errors, spelling errors, etc. Without those bastions of good taste, the world of the written word would deteriorate into utter chaos. Reputable publisher (traditional, self or e-pub) do impose such standards on writers / authors for everyone’s benefit 🙂

    Good luck with the search for a viable outlet for those project ideas grappling for your attention!

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    • So glad I’m not the only one whose creativity is mysteriously NOT manifesting itself as CanLit, Ceci. I devour lots of it, but it doesn’t seem to have sparked any plotlines that absolutely clamour to be put to paper. Maybe too many articles about flyspray and fencing over the years have squished my artistic side into the mud.

      The alleged cachet of having a book out is one of the things that strikes me funny … no shame at all in not having partaken, especially now!

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  3. Congratulations on the blog Karen! I wouldn’t worry about adding “drivel” to the interwebz – I’ve enjoyed your posts.

    The only caution – blogging takes away from writing. I’m “only” a blogger, and NOT a writer. I can see the difficulty from a writer’s point of view – the need to feed the beast that the blog can become.

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    • Thanks, Janis! Feeding the beast is exactly the reason I resisted starting a blog for so long. Well, that, plus I kind of felt that I didn’t need a blog to provide examples of my writing; my work is all over the web if one cares to Google. But everyone keeps telling me that writers, in particular, MUST blog. I can buy into that to the degree that I would like to pick up some ghost-blogging assignments … and I guess I also hope that a bit of raw honesty about the life of a freelancer might (ha!) induce one or two people on the hiring end to offer better rates and/or contracts to those of us toiling in the salt mines. But then as you can probably tell from my blog entries so far, I’m a cockeyed optimist … 😉

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  4. Charlene Strickland on said:

    Karen: Comments already, in the same day! I saw the first part of your post on FB, during a break in my class this PM. I just completed “E-Book Publishing with In Design” at the Univ of NM Continuing Education. My goal is to republish horse nonfiction books as ebooks, and now I have the knowhow. I have rights to 2 out-of-print books, and am producing new titles that publishers can’t afford to print on paper with tons of color pix. With enough color ereaders on the market, and horse people using those readers, I think ebooks have promise. I’ll start a blog to promote them.
    –Charlene

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    • That sounds like an excellent course and a worthy project, Charlene! I’d like to do an InDesign course … I was pretty good with PageMaker once upon a time, but InDesign is a whole ‘nuther level. I’m interested in the pricepoint thing … how much do you have to charge for an eBook to compensate you for your work to set it up, and how much are people really willing to pay for them?

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  5. Nancy Ambrosiano on said:

    The e-book thing is an interesting area that I think we’ll all have to explore. . . we’re looking to transfer some of our USPC stuff to e-format, just starting to sort that all out, and it’s a nice option. Just saw something about magazines getting a boost from e-reader format as well. Maybe the magazine market will pick up and run again, in digital form? And start paying freelancers princely sums for their pearls of wisdom. Sorry, dreaming for a moment.

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    • Such a rich fantasy world you live in, Nancy. 😉 It must be warm and pleasant there!

      I’m aware of a few magazines who are steering in the digital direction. Stable Management, for one — they’ve pretty much made their print subscription price prohibitive, so the e-mag will probably be their dominant (and eventually only) format in future. But so far most of the mags who’ve launched digital editions have only used them to further shaft writers. Horse Publications Group, for example (Horse Sport, Horse-Canada, Canadian Thoroughbred et al.) last year launched digital editions and sent out contracts to all its contributors requiring them to agree to allow their content to appear digitally and in ANY other format HPG could dream up now or in the future, for zero compensation. Oh, and sign away moral rights too. That’s when I pulled the plug on them …

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    • Charlene Strickland on said:

      Karen and Nancy: On authors’ profiting from ebooks, the Authors Guild has been debating fair practices. With minimal inventory costs—but higher IT costs—some publishers have been asking what seems too high a percentage. If (the big if) an author can work a better deal for ebook production, or even self-publish, the profits are bigger.
      I’m composing letters to 2 of my publishers about their ebook policy, along with consulting my agent for her viewpoint. I have 3 print books with Storey, who has placed a few horse ibooks in the iTunes store. I’ve downloaded samples, but you can’t see much in just the first few pages (mostly front matter). In the store, do a search on dressage to see 101 Dressage Exercises ($14.99), plus a few oddities like Coming to a Dressage Court Near You—White Trash Dressage ($6.99).
      So far learning In Design hasn’t been too difficult. I used PageMaker for 3 years until I discovered FrameMaker. ID is the improved app over those 2 “20th century” apps (although FM still trumps ID in some functions!) With experience in these, I was ready to tackle ID.
      I’ll know more after I load a partial ibook of The Warmblood Guidebook onto my iPad. That’s my current project, to get that one back in print and to meet the challenge of efficient photo placement. I spent the last 2 days cleaning up 30 text files of content. Fortunately I’d written that book using PC-Write instead of Microsoft Word, so the files just needed to have end-of-line returns removed. Last year I scanned slides and negatives into tiffs and then jpgs. Now I’ll have to resize the jpgs to fit properly.
      The class was just what I needed to get going, and to feel confident about the workflow. (Nancy: The teacher was Anita Quintana from Santa Fe, very knowledgeable.) Now I have resources for testing epub books on the Kindle and Nook. I’ve seen lots of horse people with iPads, so that’s my initial market.
      –Charlene

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  6. Just popping in to say thanks for all the (written) memories, of the best stuff in the “nag rags” from all three of you! Karen, Charlene, Nancy. So glad you’re connecting with each other.

    I stopped subscribing (and contributing my images) when they started settling for “good enough” imagery…

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