Self-Publishing

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Self-Publishing

Why do we write?

Before we talk about publishing, in any form, we must pose the question: why do we write? As a former academic, my writing was intimately tied to academia. At first, I wrote to pass my exams; then I wrote to pass my courses by handing in essays and potential papers; then, when I was a full-time academic, I wrote for the “publish or perish” world of academia, churning out articles (90) and reviews (70) on topics that were tied to my research projects. My writing, in other words, had a purpose and a direction. I knew why I was writing and I was conscious of the areas and places in which my publications would be acceptable and accepted.

At the same time as I wrote for the academic world, I indulged in creative writing. I have always written poetry. I have always been aware of my vocation as a poet. However, I was also aware that it was very difficult to earn a living as a poet. We’ll talk more about that later. The academy, research, and teaching gave me enough free time to indulge my dream of being a creative writer. It also permitted me to put food on the table and to keep my family warm and comfortable during our cold, Canadian winters.

So, the first question you must ask yourself is: why am I writing? What do I hope to achieve as a writer? Who do I want to read my works? Why do I want to be published? How do I want to be published? Your answer to these questions, and others like them, will determine your relationship to the publishing process.

Traditional Publishing

It isn’t easy to become published in the traditional fashion. In the first place, there are fewer major presses out there, and those that do exist are very large and powerful indeed. They want only the very best work. Not only that, they want the best work that will make them the most money. Good writing isn’t always guaranteed to sell well and thus to make the most money, remember that. In the second place, there are some excellent smaller presses, but they tend to be niche presses tied to a specialized corner of the market. Academia is a niche market. My own area of academia, Spanish Seventeenth Century Literature, is a very small niche market indeed. In order to get published in the traditional manner, a great deal of research into the niche area and the presses that publish therein is needed.

Most major presses will not look at up and coming writers unless they are represented by an agent. Few agents will take on an up and coming writer. This is a chicken and egg conundrum: how do we get the experience to be represented when we need the representation to help get the experience? All writers must solve this problem in their own fashion. There is no easy answer. Novels that have the potential to be turned into films: these will attract an agent and a big press, because that’s where the money is. How many of us are capable of writing them? Short story collections used to be a reasonably safe bet, but it appears that fewer presses and literary magazines are publishing them. Poetry generates little or no money, hence it also belongs to a highly specialized niche market with very small circulation figures. Once these realities are understood, then we can consider the alternatives.

Self-Publishing

 Self-publishing is no longer associated with the so-called Vanity Press, a term used to denigrate it. Not so long ago writers who paid for their writing to be published were considered by many to be ‘poor’ writers, ‘vanity’ writers. This is no longer true and The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) now accepts self-published works as genuine works of literary merit, always provided that they are well-written. The advent of the computer revolution made all forms of writing, printing, and publishing so much easier. The ensuing advances in desk-top publishing allowed anyone to be a published writer and a writer’s life was suddenly that much simpler.

I published two poetry books with traditional presses in 1978 (Last Year in Paradise) and 1986 (Broken Ghosts). In 1990, following the death of my parents, I felt a deep desire to write and to be published once more. I had poems published in small literary reviews and magazines and I had a track record of wins and honorable mentions in writing competitions, but nobody wanted to publish another book of my poetry. I papered my walls with rejections … and I got nowhere. Therefore, in 1990, I started to self-publish.

My first six books were simple: I typed out the poems, ordered them the way I wanted, and took them to the local print shop where, for a small sum of money, the books were printed and saddle-stitched. This was a cheap means of production, so cheap, that I didn’t need to sell the copies so I just gave them away to my friends. Between 1990 and 1996 I published six of these little paperback chapbooks: Idlewood, In the Art Gallery, Daffodils, Secret Gardens, Iberian Interludes, and On Being Welsh. The runs were small, ranging between 100 and 200 copies, and very cheap per copy, often less than a toonie / twony (two dollar coins, after ‘loonies’ one dollar pieces with a loon on the coin).

All the initial work for these books was done by me: writing, selection, typing, and editing. The printers did the rest: copying and binding. In the case of these first self-published books, the covers contained typed titles and the author’s name and nothing more. In 2000, I was very fortunate. I met a genuine editor who agreed to work with me to publish my poetry via a small university print-shop. I wrote the poems and typed the text. My editor, a wonderful lady, then edited the text and prepared it for printing. My beloved (aka my wife) designed the covers for these books. Between 2000 and 2012 we (self-) published six of them: Sun and Moon, Though Lovers Be Lost, Fundy Lines, At the Edge of Obsidian, Obsidian 22, and Monkey Temple. These were genuine paperback books, with an ISBN. They were all limited editions and again I gave them away to my friends.

2008 saw Nashwaak Editions, the book division of the Nashwaak Review, publish Land of Rocks and Saints, a book of poetry that I wrote while in Avila (Spain). Again I funded this printing myself and again I gave it away to my friends and colleagues. I was devastated on several occasions to find signed copies of these books in second hand bookstores, that which I had given away for free had been sold for money. The receivers of free gifts had gained more cash than the books’ writer.

I continued writing and now had several manuscripts that I thought well worth publishing. Armed with a genuine list of publications and prizes and with excellent letters of recommendation from established writers, I again tried the traditional approach. Alas, I got the traditional results. Two small trade presses who agreed to publish my work both went out of business before they could do so. Agents, if they bothered to reply (and most of them didn’t), turned me down. I got to final judging with a famous niche press, but their marketing department said the book wouldn’t sell and they refused to market it … I didn’t know where to turn.

I had for some time been getting e-mails from houses that, for a large sum of money, would publish my new works for me. However, I was by now retired, and didn’t have those ‘large sums of money’. Publishing costs varied from $1500 US to $3500 US to £3000 (sterling). Well, I wasn’t that desperate, especially when I was suddenly subjected to regular e-mails, constant phone calls, and targeted advertising. I got tired of sales reps ringing me up and asking “are you read to go to press now?” There had to be easier and cheaper ways to get published.

2016 saw a major change in my self-publishing. A new friend, now a very close friend, suggested I try CreateSpace on Amazon. He came over one afternoon to give me a demonstration and we had a manuscript up and running that same day. It cost me nothing. I still haven’t sold a copy of that particular book. But it is up and available on Amazon. I buy copies at a relatively cheap rate and, you guessed it, I still give them to my friends. I now have nine titles on Amazon, two new titles* and seven rewrites and expansions. These include Monkey Temple, Bistro*, Though Lovers Be Lost, Sun and Moon, Obsidian’s Edge, Empress of Ireland, All About Angels, Iberian Interludes, and Avila* (my first book of poetry in Spanish).

Marketing is still a problem partly because I just don’t have (nor do I want to have) what it takes to be a salesman. I still give copies of my books to my friends. I guess I’ll never make any money worth speaking about from my creative writing. But that has never worried me: I have never written for money, only for love. I write because I love writing. I publish so I can give copies of my books to those friends who ask for them. I am a poet, whether I want to be or not. I am also condemned to my fate: I am an academic, a writer of poetry and books, and a book self-publisher. I guess I’ll never be a businessman.

Is it all worth the effort? Yes, I think it is. Can (other) people make money from self-publishing? Yes, they can, especially if they are willing to advertise, market, and sell their books at every opportunity. This is something that I just cannot bring myself to do although I know several writers who have been very successful with this aspect of the trade.

Quality Control

Are self-published books capable of being genuine works of art? Indeed they can. Bistro, although being self-published, has just been confirmed as one of three finalists in the New Brunswick Book of the Year Competition (2016-2017). Several of the stories in Bistro were either published separately in literary magazines or were part of larger manuscripts that received recognition in one way or another for the quality of their writing. Parts of several of my other books on Amazon have been published or awarded prizes or honorable mentions in competitions and this gives my creative work a track record of respectability.

I am an academic, trained to assess written work and to maintain quality control on my own written work as well as that of other people. Not everyone is born to be an editor, let alone a self-editor. How do we get to the level of self-editing necessary to be confident in our own quality control? Enter your work in competitions. Submit your work to literary magazines. Take writing workshops online and in person. Consult with other writers and join a good writing group or form one yourself. Be careful of submitting your work to the opinions of your best friends and your family: they will only tell you how good you are. Remember that your granny may be your favorite person, but she is not necessarily your best critic. Seek always the objectivity that allows you to stand back and criticize your own writing from a distance. Seek the opinions of others who are objective and will do the same.

Summary

  1. Think about why you are writing and what you want to achieve with your writing.
  2. Consider the different ways in which you can publish or self-publish and decide which is better for you.
  3. Research your market / niche market as carefully as you can and target the area in which you wish to work.
  4. Writing is a long-term commitment: you must make that commitment and stick with it.
  5. Remember that there is no substitute for high quality writing.
  6. Remember the words of Dewi Sant, St. David, the Patron Saint of Wales: “Keep the faith.”
  7. Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. If you stop writing, you will never achieve your goals or finish that book.

Why I Write

 

Time-Spirits

Why I Write

In the online creative writing course that I took last year, we were invited to read two articles on why I write, one written by George Orwell and the other by Joan Didion.  Both articles set me thinking: why do I write? My response to these articles, borrowed from my course notes and suitably doctored for my blog, follows.

George Orwell … where do I begin?

Homage to Catalonia is, in my opinion, one of the great personal memoirs written about the Spanish Civil War. Orwell fought on the side of the Republic, the legally-elected government, but fell foul of the Russian-backed Communists as they tried to unify the left under a banner of total Communism. The other side in the Spanish Civil War was, of course, the solidified right of the Spanish Falange and the Fascist Party. Orwell was targeted by the Communists and, wounded at the front, escaped across the French border with falsified papers. As he himself says in Why I Write, the political realization of the nature of totalitarianism led him to his stance as a writer. Animal Farm borrowed heavily from his Spanish experience, as did 1984.

Orwell sets out four reasons for writing. (1) Sheer egoism; (2) aesthetic enthusiasm; (3) historical impulse; and (4) political purpose. I personally identify most strongly with #2. Above all, in my case, I write my poetry in praise of nature and in sorrow for how I see us failing the natural world around us. However, I must admit that I also write out of sheer egoism (#1) and yes, I enjoy thumbing my nose at all those who have in one way or another slighted me and upon whom I want literary revenge, even if it be posthumous. Several of my older friends also write this way, though many of the younger ones seem to be more interested in writing for money than in art for art’s sake. I guess retirement and a small but relatively reliable pension added to the gradual onset of a blighting old age make me realize that there is not much time left in which to amass a fortune. This in turn also makes my professed credo of art for art and not for money more acceptable.

Having come to the conclusion that I never have, and never will, make any money through my writing, although publish or perish has walked side by side with me throughout my academic career, I now embrace the fact that I do not write for money. In fact, I usually give my independently published books away to my friends. Nor do I want the sort of fame that causes the paparazzi, with their microphones and videos, and camerasto flock to my doorstep, like starving sparrows or winter’s chickadees, in search of the breadcrumbs that fail to sufficiently nourish. To be appreciated, in my own small corner, like a well-loved local cheese or a craft beer, welcomed on a warm summer night for its fragrance and body … that is enough for me, although I must admit, that for one of my metaphors or images to be sniffed at, as if it were a glass of rare liqueur or a suitably aged port or a welcome Castillo de Monserans, also has its attractions.

This doesn’t mean that I am satisfied with who I am and how I write … I am not. I hope I never will be. I do want to be the very best that I can be. That’s why I keep writing and why I keep taking courses and workshops on writing. It’s also why I read and re-read, and why I keep reaching out to you and my other friends, and why I am so over-joyed when you, in your turn, reach out to me with the occasional word of praise for one of my stories or one of my poems.

However, warm as is the friendship of the beginning, failed and faltering writers’ support groups to which I belong,  most, if not all, writing is done in isolation: me and my memories, me and my invention, me and my keyboard, me and my blank page, me and my pen, me and a-penny-for-my thoughts as I refill that pen with Royal Blue ink in the hopes that something regal will actually fall from the nib and grace one of my pages, even though I am really wondering yet again whether, like the budding author in Camus’s La Peste,  I should start that first paragraph all over, yet again, just once more.

Alas, me and the cat and the keyboard do not share a healthy working relationship, especially when she walks across the keys, sticks her kitty-littered rear end in my face, scratches her itchy chin against the computer’s sharp edge, and purrs wildly for kibble while adding oft-repeated letters and deleting so many of the wonderful words that I have so carefully accumulated. Last month, incidentally, she also unfriended a dozen of my Facebook friends. Unfortunately, I do not know which ones and none of them have got back to me. Oh dear.

One of the students in my current course asked me when I started to write. The answer is that I do not know. I have always written. I guess I have written from a deep inner urge to understand myself and the world in which I live. Going to a series of boarding schools was also a key part in the relationship between me and my writing. I was six or seven when I first went to boarding school and every Sunday I was plonked down on a wooden bench and ordered to write a Sunday letter home to my parents. Oh the wails and the take-me-aways that issued from my pen only to be deleted by the school censors. As a result, from early on, I shaped letters for the censoring audience. I also wrote other letters and they became a part of my writing style and my need for self-expression.

Mikhail Bakhtin, in his theory of Chronotopos, speaks of ‘man’s dialog with his time and place’ and that is exactly what I do. I hold a dialog with the things happening around me in the particular place I find myself.  Why do I write? To better understand my time, my place, and my own interactions with the world around me. Writing then is a means to an end and that end, for me, is self-understanding, self-betterment, and the better understanding of the world in which we all live.

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Titles

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Titles

I am currently thinking and re-thinking the titles to my books.

Clearly, the title is of the utmost importance. The title should draw the reader in while offering some information on the content. Alas, my earlier titles rarely did this.

Monkey Temple, for example, really doesn’t say much about what the book contains. Nor does its subtitle: A narrative fable for modern times. Those who have read poems from the book or who have heard me read excerpts from it, know what it is about. However, deep down the title really says little about the life and times of Monkey, the protagonist who works and suffers in the corporate Monkey Temple.

In similar fashion, Though Lovers Be Lost is a wonderful title, taken from Dylan Thomas, and illustrating his theory that “though lovers be lost, love shall not, and death shall have no dominion.” If readers have these lines on the tip of their tongues, as most people from Wales do, then they will have a fair idea about the contents of the book. However, without that intimate knowledge of one of the great Welsh poets … many readers will be lost and the title will lack meaning, check my post on Intertextuality.

Bistro is a collection of flash fiction. I am not sure that the title suggests that instead of a standard and expected table of contents the book has a menu that refers to the 34 pieces of flash fiction are contained within its pages. The pieces are so varied, rather like a meal of sashimi or sushi, that it is difficult to describe the contents (or menu) in such a short thing as the title. Does the one word, Bistro, draw the reader in? The cover picture might and the combination of title and picture and cover may go further. However, I have my reservations.

Empress of Ireland, on the other hand, is a book of poems about a specific event: the sinking of the Empress of Ireland  in the St. Lawrence River in May, 1914. Here, title and event are closely linked and hopefully the title is rather more indicative of the contents. Even here, as in the cases of the books mentioned previously, a brief description of the book is necessary.

Sun and Moon is a great title, provided you have lived in Oaxaca, Mexico, and know that Sun and Moon are the official symbols of the state of Oaxaca. Without that knowledge, the sub-title, Poems from Oaxaca, Mexico, is essential. The cover photograph with the state symbol of Sun and Moon is intriguing, but it is still necessary to read the description to find out what the book is about. Are title and sub-title enough in themselves? I’m still not sure.

Obsidian’s Edge is a tricky title. I thought everybody knew that obsidian is the shiny black glassy stone produced in volcanic areas. Further, I thought most people knew that the edge of obsidian is used in weapons and knives that cut. By extension, obsidian knives were used by the Aztecs and others in their human sacrifices … so much knowledge that is clear to the writer but unclear to the reader who may not realize that we all live at Obsidian’s Edge with the sacrifice of our own lives hanging by a thin thread on a daily basis. Oh dear, I have been to workshops and readings recently where people knew nothing about obsidian and its properties … my title gives so little information.

Land of Rocks and Saints has yet to be revised and rewritten. Few English readers will associate it with the old Spanish saying, Ávila: tierra de cantos y santos / Avila, Land of Rocks and Saints. The tragedy of living a life in more than one language is that the cultural knowledge so easily understood in one does not necessarily transfer readily into a second or third language. Some of my readers write me to say that they Google all these terms and learn a tremendous amount from the books. Alas, I have to improve my titles. I need to sharpen them and use them to draw my future readers in.

Ávila: cantos y santos y ciudad de la santa, the Spanish translation of Land of Rocks and Saints that I put up on Amazon / Kindle, is a better title. Avila is both the province and the capital city of the province. The rocks and saints are clearly linked to the name and the city itself is the city of the saint, St. Teresa of Avila, of course. Hopefully, this title, in Spanish, will attract some Spanish readers. I can only hope.

The book on which I am currently working was originally called Iberian Interludes and had no sub-title. In my revision, I am selecting poems about Spain from various earlier collections and placing them together in one large compendium. I have selected poems from two collections Iberian Interludes and In the Art Gallery (oh dear, I never mentioned that it was the Prado and that all the paintings could be found there). To these I have added a selection of individual poems either published in reviews and literary magazines or taken from other collections.

I am still working on a title for this collection, hence today’s post. I have rejected Iberian Interludes as too vague (how many of my potential readers know that Spain is Iberia) and I am now looking at a bold assertion: Spain. If I do this, I will need a sub-title. The evolution of the subtitle looks like this: Bull’s Blood and Bottled Sunshine, ¡Olé!  >  Bull’s Blood and Bottled SunBottled Sun and Bull’s Blood. I wonder if Spain: Bottled Sun and Bull’s Blood will be catchy enough. Will it draw readers in and attract them?

Post Script: By the way, I thought long and carefully, and went with Iberian Interludes anyway. The cover picture shows a modern stone sculpture of a traditional bull. Lovely!

Forgetfulness

 

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Forgetfulness

a lone dog tied out in the rain
a lost German Shepherd barking at stars and moon
grass growing through plastic flowers on a grave
a name eroded by the sand paper wind
a solitary sea bird carving its name on a cloud
a sea gull slicing the sky with its wing
unwashed dishes sunbathing in the sink
a knife and a fork side by side not speaking
the bike with a flat tire growing dust by the door
the kite’s face locked in the prison of the tree
a teddy bear sitting by a forgotten glass of wine

Forgetfulness is also me and my blog. I have been writing elsewhere all week, preparing two manuscripts for a competition. It’s been a long slog: gathering the material, organizing it, structuring it, revising it, polishing it, cutting unwanted material, searching for valid replacements.

Tuesday I had the honor and the pleasure of working with a local high school in their  creative writing program. I am no longer a part of the Writers in Schools Program (WiSP), so this was a freebie. I came, I sat, I talked. And then I drove home again. I answered questions from the students on my life as a writer. It was very interesting for me as some of the questions were sharp and pertinent. How do you deal with writer’s block?   Do you write by hand or on the computer? Where do you get your inspiration? Hopefully my responses were of some interest to the students who gathered to listen. The one question I expected to field was never asked: “How much do you earn as a writer? The answer of course is very little, if anything. I write for pleasure, not for money, and I have never been published by a major press.

According to TWUC, the Writers’ Union of Canada, the average earnings of a writer in Canada are $12,500. Subtract the millionaire big earners (e.g. Margaret Atwood, David Adams Richards, et al) and most writers earn considerably less. Poets are traditionally at the bottom of the pay scale and I am principally a poet. The transition from print to digital also has everyone running in different directions. Personally, I like writing. I don’t like the marketing, advertising, selling of myself and of my books.  In fact, I now self-publish and give my books away. There’s very little money in it, but I enjoy myself and my friends seem to appreciate the gifts I give them.

Unless you are a ‘top draw writer’, working with a large, established company, you are unlikely to earn much money from your creative writing. In fact, many writers make their money from workshops, fellowships, grants, residencies, retreats, and things like that. I took a different direction. I chose to be an academic / teacher / researcher (full time) and a writer on a part-time basis. The academy kept food on the table for my family. The writing was always in addition to the mainline job. Retired now, I can dedicate myself to writing full-time, and that is just what I am doing.

Writing: so many meanings, so many ways to write. I blog, I maintain a journal, I write e-mails, I post to Facebook, I write poems, short stories, and I have written three unpublished (and probably unpublishable) novels. Also on two separate occasions, I have run a weekly sport’s column (athletics and rugby) in local newspapers. I have written academic books, translations, book reviews, peer-reviewed articles, and I have maintained, with the assistance of my beloved, an online bibliography and an online searchable data base. I have also helped edit some fourteen academic journals during my time as an academic. In my editing career I have been an editor, a co-editor, an associate editor, an assistant editor, an editorial assistant, and a book review editor, as well as sitting on the editorial and / or advisory boards of a handful of magazines. I have managed to do this in three languages (English, French, and Spanish). So, what exactly do I say when people ask me “What do you write?”

I am also a fan of the following statement, though I cannot remember where I first heard it. “We are not writers, we are re-writers.” This is certainly true of my editorial roles in academic magazines, for I have done a tremendous amount of rewriting and revisions for the people who have submitted their work to the magazines I was helping. So, there it is, in a nutshell … except for one thing, I have been involved in so many writing experiences, that I have forgotten many of them. Forgetfulness: the theme of today.

 

Bistro

Bistro Cover

Bistro

Thank you, Allan Hudson, for your kind words about my book of short stories entitled Bistro. Allan has also set out a brief introduction to five other novelists, several of them close friends and admired acquaintances.

Bistro was one of three finalists in the New Brunswick Book Awards (2016-17). I think it was the only self-published book to make the finals. So, all of you struggling self-publishers, it can be done and we can get recognized, as we know from the results of one of this year’s major French book awards, awarded to another self-published author, much to the chagrin of all the French publishers who had already turned his book down. The message to everyone is simple: “Don’t get off the bus. Keep believing. Finish the journey.” And remember, you’ll never finish the journey if you get off the bus / train / boat / plane / tram / trolley / whatever … before you reach your final destination.

The cover photo, incidentally, is one of my cartoons that has appeared on these pages before. It shows a bird-man, beak open in astonishment, watching three ships approach his belly-button, as he sits there, naval-gazing, or should that be navel-gazing? “I saw three ships come sailing by …”

You can link to Allan’s Blog, the South Branch Scribbler, by clicking on the link. Bistro, incidentally, is available for purchase on Amazon and Kindle.

Wednesday Workshop: Balancing the Books

 

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Wednesday Workshop
25 April 2018
Balancing the Books

Two days ago, I wrote the following lines to one of the writing groups of which I am a member.
“Today, 23 April 2018, is World Book Day. We not only celebrate the world of books, but also the death date of three great authors. Miguel de Cervantes, William Shakespeare, and the Inca Garcilasso de la Vega. Three great writers, two continents, two languages, three if you include the Quechua from which the Inca Garcilasso translated his Comentarios Reales. The Inca Garcilasso didn’t actually translate the Comentarios Reales, for the originals were part of an oral tradition in a culture that lacked handwriting. Hence they were never written down. His mother was an Incan Princess and his father a conquistador. His mother kept the Incan culture and memories alive and it was from the oral traditions of his family (one side of it) that the Comentarios Reales were born. It was recognized in its day as one of the greatest books to come from one of the first outstanding writers with indigenous roots. Hence his place on the pedestal alongside the other two greats. All three died on 23 April 1613, the same date, but not the same day. Two different calendars were present in Europe: the old Julian and the more modern Gregorian … same date, but thirteen days apart.”
I knew long ago that I did not have the strength and stamina to make a living as a professional writer. I knew too that I could not put my beloved and my family through the strain of maybe, or maybe not, surviving financially on a creative writer’s income. I wanted to be an artistic writer, a poet above all, art for art’s sake, not just a commercial writer, writing adverts for a living, or pandering to the lusts of the baying evening newspaper crowd.
In order to support and care for my family I had to make money and balance the books. Rather than writing full time, therefore, I chose a career in academia. My career as an academic led to 90 research articles, mainly in my specialized field of Golden Age Spanish Literature, 70 book reviews, the publication, in book form, of part of my doctoral thesis, and an online bibliography, prepared initially thanks to the loving care of my beloved, and now turned, thanks to the Harriet Irving Library at the University of New Brunswick, into a searchable data base.

In addition to my normal course load, I also committed to twenty-five years of unpaid, voluntary overload teaching. I did this in order to maintain a small, understaffed program in a tiny Maritime university. I also had a long-term coaching career (Rugby) at club, provincial, regional, and national levels, and a commitment, at various times, to various editorial positions in 14 local, regional, national and international journals. My creative writing career has understandably suffered because of this commitment to research, teaching, editing, and coaching. In spite of that, while researching and teaching full-time, I was still able, with the help of family and friends, to publish 10 poetry books, 11 poetry chapbooks, 12 short stories and 130 plus poems in 20 Canadian (and other) journals. There was very little money in any this, other than my salary as a tenured professor, and I know only too well that to have been a full time, creative writer and to have maintained a house and a family without recourse to a second career would have been impossible.
Now that I have retired from university teaching, I can finally engage full time in creative writing. In my part-time creative writing career, maintained while I worked in academia, I kept a journal and made sure I spent at least one hour a day writing creatively, even if I had to get up early to do so. This resulted in a couple of poetry books with small presses and later a series of self-published poetry books that doubled with various festivals and other writing sequences. My poetry books never sold well, and there is very little money in poetry anyway, so when I started self-publishing, I determined to give my books away to friends and well-wishers who were interested in what I was writing. In retirement, I discovered CreateSpace and I now have thirteen books up on Amazon and Kindle. However, I am a writer and an academic, not a salesman and a marketing manager. As a result, I haven’t marketed myself and no, I haven’t sold many books. Self-promotion does not appear to be my strong point.
Last year, as Canada reached it’s 150th birthday, a birthday that ignores the fact that the country has existed for much longer than 150 years and that our indigenous people have lived here for 10,000 years or more, without any spectacular celebrations, questions were asked to selected writers about our Canadian Culture. What do we love most about Canadian Culture, was one such question. I gave the following brief answer: “Canadian Culture allows a person like myself, born in Wales, and speaking English, French and Spanish, to live and write in Canada about Wales, England, France, Mexico, Spain, and my adopted homeland. However, the literary and cultural industry boasts of our international character while almost totally ignoring me and writers like me. Those who guard the gates of the literary world ignore the self-published (often referring to us as adherents to what they term the ‘vanity press’) and they constantly belittle and put down those who have not progressed in the ways that they, as literary gate-keepers, find acceptable.”
Do I care? Of course I care. That is why I am writing this and why I will continue to write. Will anyone read this and take any notice? I doubt it. Will anyone take any action as a result of this tiny pebble cast into a Great Canadian Lake? I really, really doubt it. I can see the shoulder shrugging now as the eye-brows raise themselves slightly and the reject piles beckon. Will literary Canada keep staring at its own belly button and congratulating itself on its wonderful cultural opportunities for self-expression in writing? I guess it will. Will things change for artists on the periphery, for struggling artists, for artists like myself who with great difficulty have fought throughout their lives to continue with their creative writing while balancing the family books? I doubt it very, very much indeed.
But I am here, as others are here. Together, we have a voice. I would like it to become a  very powerful voice. This voice has long been side-lined by the literary establishment and the institutions. But we are many. And I too have a dream: it is that one day, we independent publishers, we self-publishers, will raise up our voices, and one day we will be heard.

Bistro

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Bistro is a finalist, one of three, in the New Brunswick Book Award (2016) for Fiction. The photo is an older one, taken by the local newspaper in my basement in 2014, and reproduced in the paper today. Funnily enough, I am wearing the same clothes today as I was when the photo was taken three years ago. Luckily, Clare has washed them for me, on several occasions, in the interval between then and now. Thank you, Clare, for all the little things you do to keep me alive and happy. Without you, I don’t know what I’d do. This book, like all my creative work, is dedicated to you.

Bistro is available online.

Writing Groups: Thursday Thoughts

 

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Writing Groups
Thursday Thoughts
11 May 2017

We write in solitude.

We cannot group-write with a second person suggesting the second word and a third person, the third word. This leads only to the Third Word War or the Third Word Whore, as some would express it.

To write is to be alone. It is to sit alone before a blank page and watch it slowly fill with the black ants that we form into thoughts. With pen or pencil we trace the Morse Code SOS of our Mayday signals. We gather them into groups, press them between cardboard covers, and we send them out to sea in little bottles. Then we sit back and wait, hoping to contact intelligent and compatible life that will approve our efforts and perhaps offer to publish our writing.

We must not confuse the act of writing with the act of sharing.

In many cases, to share is to seek approval. But this is not always true. We sometimes share in the hopes that a listener will suggest improvements to our writing. I think of this as ‘sharing from weakness’. We are unsure of our sharing self and we seek confirmation and reinforcement. We also seek the reassurance that the second person or the third actually has a better vision than the writer and can improve that writer’s offering. How confident are we in our own writing when we constantly look for approval?

Sometimes, our sharing is in an act of defiance. We organize our black ant army. We form it into battalions. We launch them at the enemy and “Take that you bastards,!” we think as we read out our thoughts. Occasionally, our sharing is an act of self-praise. We know it’s good and we want others to realize just how good this piece is and how good we are. Auto-homenaje (Spanish): an act done in praise of oneself.

The act of sharing can be private and confidential. This is when we gather with a group of friends to share our thoughts and creations. This is most useful, in my opinion, at the beginning of a writer’s career. Writers have to become independent. They have to learn to shake off the shackles of doubts, second and third opinions, and the rewriting that comes from the mind of an outside reader. Writers have to learn to stand alone and to write alone. This is where the public reading comes in.

To read in public, as in an open reading given before an audience of unknown faces, is a different proposition. We are relatively confident when we share with our friends. We are not so confident when we read in public. We must be confident in ourselves and our words if we are to stand before strangers and expose ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, to those who may not love us and some who may actually hate us, looking for any defect, any chink in our written armor.

Beyond writing, yet enclosed within it, is the writer’s desire to be recognized and published. If we are writers, we want our works to be known and read. We want to be published. Even when we know we are not ready to be published or worthy to be seen in print, we like to imagine ourselves preparing that great tome or slender volume of verses that one day will project us into the realms of glory when it finally sees the light of day.

Yet we cannot publish alone. Or can we? Desk-top publishing on our own computer is easy to do. Format the work, print it out, take it to the photocopy machine, copy it multiple times, staple the resulting pages together and we have … a book. But are we satisfied with those morsels of paper that we hand out to our friends? Some people are, many are not.

Let us look at an alternate route: we hand the book over to a press that edits the writing, does all the copying work for us, chooses a cover, binds the book, gives us twenty free copies, and hands us an enormous bill … some are happy with that; again, others are not.

Let us examine another route: we find an online company that will do all (or most) of that for free. All we have to do is market our work … again, some are happy with that; others are not.

Mal de todos, consuelo de tontos. This is a delightful Spanish phrase. It means that when everyone is travelling in the same ship of sorrows, only fools are consoled by the fact that we all share the same fate. Perhaps that’s why writers gather together in groups and perch, like autumn swallows preparing to migrate, on chairs in a drawing room at somebody’s house or gather together in a disreputable, but cheap, coffee house to read, discuss, share, and endlessly talk about the works that never get published.

“You just got rejected? What a pity. I just did too. Let’s compare rejection letters. Paper your walls with them, my friend.”

The carrot that we all seek is the pot of gold at the rainbow’s end that contains the winning lottery ticket: a letter from a publisher offering to publish the book we have written. An Old Welsh Recipe for rabbit pie begins with these wise words: “First catch your rabbit.” The same wisdom must be applied to writers: “First, write your book.”

When the book is written, to the satisfaction of the writer, then, only then, let the networking begin. Then we can reach out to the community. Then we can read in public. Then we can seek out that elusive publisher and follow our own thirty-nine steps to success.

Bu, in the meantime, remember, never forget, we write in solitude.

Self-Publishing

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Self-Publishing
Wednesday Workshop
29 March 2017

Why do we write?

Before we talk about publishing, in any form, we must pose the question: why do we write? As a former academic, my writing was intimately tied to academia. At first, I wrote to pass my exams; then I wrote to pass my courses by handing in essays and potential papers; then, when I was a full-time academic, I wrote for the “publish or perish” world of academia, churning out articles (90) and reviews (70) on topics that were tied to my research projects. My writing, in other words, had a purpose and a direction. I knew why I was writing and I was conscious of the areas and places in which my publications would be acceptable and accepted.

At the same time as I wrote for the academic world, I indulged in creative writing. I have always written poetry. I have always been aware of my vocation as a poet. However, I was also aware that it was very difficult to earn a living as a poet. We’ll talk more about that later. The academy, research, and teaching gave me enough free time to indulge my dream of being a creative writer. It also permitted me to put food on the table and to keep my family warm and comfortable during our cold, Canadian winters.

So, the first question you must ask yourself is: why am I writing? What do I hope to achieve as a writer? Who do I want to read my works? Why do I want to be published? How do I want to be published? Your answer to these questions, and others like them, will determine your relationship to the publishing process.

Traditional Publishing

It isn’t easy to become published in the traditional fashion. In the first place, there are fewer major presses out there, and those that do exist are very large and powerful indeed. They want only the very best work. Not only that, they want the best work that will make them the most money. Good writing isn’t always guaranteed to sell well and thus to make the most money, remember that. In the second place, there are some excellent smaller presses, but they tend to be niche presses tied to a specialized corner of the market. Academia is a niche market. My own area of academia, Spanish Seventeenth Century Literature, is a very small niche market indeed. In order to get published in the traditional manner, a great deal of research into the niche area and the presses that publish therein is needed.

Most major presses will not look at up and coming writers unless they are represented by an agent. Few agents will take on an up and coming writer. This is a chicken and egg conundrum: how do we get the experience to be represented when we need the representation to help get the experience? All writers must solve this problem in their own fashion. There is no easy answer. Novels that have the potential to be turned into films: these will attract an agent and a big press, because that’s where the money is. How many of us are capable of writing them? Short story collections used to be a reasonably safe bet, but it appears that fewer presses and literary magazines are publishing them. Poetry generates little or no money, hence it also belongs to a highly specialized niche market with very small circulation figures. Once these realities are understood, then we can consider the alternatives.

Self-Publishing

 Self-publishing is no longer associated with the so-called Vanity Press, a term used to denigrate it. Not so long ago writers who paid for their writing to be published were considered by many to be ‘poor’ writers, ‘vanity’ writers. This is no longer true and The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) now accepts self-published works as genuine works of literary merit, always provided that they are well-written. The advent of the computer revolution made all forms of writing, printing, and publishing so much easier. The ensuing advances in desk-top publishing allowed anyone to be a published writer and a writer’s life was suddenly that much simpler.

I published two poetry books with traditional presses in 1978 (Last Year in Paradise) and 1986 (Broken Ghosts). In 1990, following the death of my parents, I felt a deep desire to write and to be published once more. I had poems published in small literary reviews and magazines and I had a track record of wins and honorable mentions in writing competitions, but nobody wanted to publish another book of my poetry. I papered my walls with rejections … and I got nowhere. Therefore, in 1990, I started to self-publish.

My first six books were simple: I typed out the poems, ordered them the way I wanted, and took them to the local print shop where, for a small sum of money, the books were printed and saddle-stitched. This was a cheap means of production, so cheap, that I didn’t need to sell the copies so I just gave them away to my friends. Between 1990 and 1996 I published six of these little paperback chapbooks: Idlewood, In the Art Gallery, Daffodils, Secret Gardens, Iberian Interludes, and On Being Welsh. The runs were small, ranging between 100 and 200 copies, and very cheap, often less than a twonie (two dollars aka ‘loonies’ from the loon on the coin) per copy.

All the initial work for these books was done by me: writing, selection, typing, and editing. The printers did the rest: copying and binding. In the case of these first self-published books, the covers contained typed titles and the author’s name and nothing more. In 2000, I was very fortunate. I met a genuine editor who agreed to work with me to publish my poetry via a small university print-shop. I wrote the poems and typed the text. My editor, a wonderful lady, then edited the text and prepared it for printing. My beloved (aka my wife) designed the covers for these books. Between 2000 and 2012 we (self-) published six of them: Sun and Moon, Though Lovers Be Lost, Fundy Lines, At the Edge of Obsidian, Obsidian 22, and Monkey Temple. These were genuine paperback books, with an ISBN. They were all limited editions and again I gave them away to my friends.

2008 saw Nashwaak Editions, the book division of the Nashwaak Review, publish Land of Rocks and Saints, a book of poetry that I wrote while in Avila (Spain). Again I funded this printing myself and again I gave it away to my friends and colleagues. I was devastated on several occasions to find signed copies of these books in second hand bookstores, that which I had given away for free had been sold for money. The receivers of free gifts had gained more cash than the books’ writer.

I continued writing and now had several manuscripts that I thought well worth publishing. Armed with a genuine list of publications and prizes and with excellent letters of recommendation from established writers, I again tried the traditional approach. Alas, I got the traditional results. Two small trade presses who agreed to publish my work both went out of business before they could do so. Agents, if they bothered to reply (and most of them didn’t), turned me down. I got to final judging with a famous niche press, but their marketing department said the book wouldn’t sell and they refused to market it … I didn’t know where to turn.

I had for some time been getting e-mails from houses that, for a large sum of money, would publish my new works for me. However, I was by now retired, and didn’t have those ‘large sums of money’. Publishing costs varied from $1500 US to $3500 US to £3000 (sterling). Well, I wasn’t that desperate, especially when I was suddenly subjected to regular e-mails, constant phone calls, and targeted advertising. I got tired of sales reps ringing me up and asking “are you read to go to press now?” There had to be easier and cheaper ways to get published.

2016 saw a major change in my self-publishing. A new friend, now a very close friend, suggested I try CreateSpace on Amazon. He came over one afternoon to give me a demonstration and we had a manuscript up and running that same day. It cost me nothing. I still haven’t sold a copy of that particular book. But it is up and available on Amazon. I buy copies at a relatively cheap rate and, you guessed it, I still give them to my friends. I now have nine titles on Amazon, two new titles* and seven rewrites and expansions. These include Monkey Temple, Bistro*, Though Lovers Be Lost, Sun and Moon, Obsidian’s Edge, Empress of Ireland, All About Angels, Iberian Interludes, and Avila* (my first book of poetry in Spanish).

Marketing is still a problem partly because I just don’t have (nor do I want) what it takes to be a salesman. I still give copies of my books to my friends. I guess I’ll never make any money worth speaking about from my creative writing. But that has never worried me: I have never written for money, only for love. I write because I love writing. I publish so I can give copies of my books to those friends who ask for them. I am a poet, whether I want to be or not. I am also condemned to my fate: I am a book writer and a book self-publisher and I’ll never be a businessman.

Is it all worth the effort? Yes, I think it is. Can (other) people make money from self-publishing? Yes, they can, especially if they are willing to advertise, market, and sell their books at every opportunity. This is something that I just cannot bring myself to do.

Quality Control

Are self-published books capable of being genuine works of art? Indeed they can. Bistro, although being self-published, has just been confirmed as one of three finalists in the NB Book of the Year competition (2016). Several of the stories in Bistro were either published separately in literary magazines or were part of larger manuscripts that received recognition in one way or another for the quality of their writing. Parts of several of my other books on Amazon have been published or awarded prizes or honorable mentions in competitions. My creative work has a track record of respectability.

I am an academic, trained to assess written work and to maintain quality control on my own written work as well as that of other people. Not everyone is born to be an editor, let alone a self-editor. How do we get to the level of self-editing necessary to be confident in our own quality control? Enter your work in competitions. Submit your work to literary magazines. Take writing workshops online and in person. Consult with other writers and join a good writing group or form one yourself. Be careful of submitting your work to the opinions of your best friends and your family: they will only tell you how good you are. Remember that your granny may be your favorite person, but she is not your best critic. Seek always the objectivity that allows you to stand back and criticize your own writing from a distance. Seek the opinions of others who are objective and will do the same.

Summary

  1. Think about why you are writing and what you want to achieve with your writing.
  2. Consider the different ways in which you can publish or self-publish and decide which is better for you.
  3. Research your market / niche market as carefully as you can and target the area in which you wish to work.
  4. Writing is a long-term commitment: you must make that commitment and stick with it.
  5. Remember that there is no substitute for high quality writing.
  6. Remember the words of Dewi Sant, St. David, the Patron Saint of Wales: “Keep the faith.”
  7. Don’t give up. Keep moving forward. If you stop writing, you will never achieve your goals or finish that book.