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Photos by Kenneth Ingram/Apt613.

The risks and rewards of independent self-publishing

By Kenneth Ingram on October 26, 2017

If you are looking for advice about publishing your own book, two self-published authors and a local bookstore manager opened up to share their respective experiences live on stage last Saturday at the Ottawa International Writers Festival.

Patricia Filteau (author of Vantage Point in 2016) and Mark Curfoot-Mollington (author of Albert and Ettore last year too) each recently published new books—taking turns on stage to read a few passages for the audience before Michael Varty, manager of Perfect Books, joined them in the discussion. Sean Wilson, artistic director of the festival who also assisted as moderator, says that videos from this year’s 20th fall season will be available on its YouTube channel at a later date. In the meantime, here are a few highlights.

WRITING A BOOK IS A LABOUR OF LOVE… AND IT’S NOT CHEAP.

Curfoot-Mollington was the first to admit that self-publishing, as he also did with his second book titled Alice MacKenzie, required a personal investment of about four thousand dollars.

“I didn’t think it would be that expensive,” he says, explaining that the money went to hiring an editor—and a publisher who helped with a variety of tasks including the book’s structure (cover, inner layout), printing, and some promotional assistance.

Filteau noted that time is another factor, explaining how her recent novel, Traces, took about two-and-a-half years and nine drafts to complete.

“The statistic in the industry is that 10 percent of your energy is writing the book, and 90 percent [goes to] marketing it,” she added, offering a sober realism that caused a jarring silence in the room. Some audience members became visibly uncomfortable after hearing those numbers through the microphone. A few people shifted in their seats, breaking the chilling quiet by violently clearing their throats. Filteau said that the effort that goes into selling books is a reality check and among the things that most surprised her on the journey to becoming a published author. Both authors acknowledged that very few people are able to make a living purely based on their own creative work and often need either a full-time or part-time job to supplement their living.

“I need to sell 750 copies [of my book] to break even,” says Filteau.

“I didn’t make enough to pay for my own sandwich (at a previous book signing),” Curfoot-Mollington added, noting that he earns only about $1 per book sold by retailers.

“[But] I did a swap [one of my books for the price of a cut] with my hairdresser the other day, so that was okay,” he says, adding a positive spin that leads to one of many eruptions of laughter from the audience.

“Patience and a sense of humour are your two best friends in life,” says Filteau.

NOT A ONE-PERSON JOB.

“It takes a huge community to publish a book,” Filteau explains while acknowledging the help she has received from editors but also “beta readers” (often trusted friends, colleagues, and subject matter experts who read your preliminary drafts).

“These people have been enormously helpful to me,” she emphasizes, advising others to pay close attention to the front and back pages of a book to see who is listed in an author’s acknowledgments.

PEOPLE STILL JUDGE BOOKS BY THEIR COVERS.

We all know better than to judge a book purely by its cover but the panelists, including Michael Varty, were harmonious about the importance of getting the cover design right.

Varty suggests taking time to review book covers out there to see what works but cautions that the visual preferences of customers often vary. As a few examples, he suggests checking out the stunning work of Chip Kidd, a highly successful book designer, for inspiration. There are a variety of other resources on the Internet such as newspapers and websites that show the best and those that have been rejected by publishers in the past. Wilson suggests Quill & Quire Magazine.

STIGMA REMAINS. DEAL WITH IT.

When discussing the advancement of book publishing and specifically, self-publishing, Curfoot-Mollington drew a comparison to the evolution of online grocery shopping and dating:

“Society has moved on but [some] people have not,” he says, citing the phrase “Vanity Press” and a stigma that still faces those who choose to self-publish.

“Some would say ‘well, [the book] really can’t be any good if you published it yourself,’” says Curfoot-Mollington.

“The difference continues to blur on almost a weekly basis,” says Filteau, noting that there are many reasons why mainstream and boutique publishers do not accept books. She says there is a wide range of independently published books out there, some of which are fabulous—and others that are not.

“I don’t wanna wait for a publisher to make up his or her mind,” says Curfoot-Mollington, expressing his impatience with major publishing houses as the reason he chose to go his own way.

Wilson reminded the audience of a few success stories including Terry Fallis, a Canadian self-published author who attempted to market his book to more than 50 publishers before Best Laid Plans became a success. Another example is Crusoe the Celebrity Dachshund, an Ottawa success story and New York Times best-selling book (2015).

SELF-PROMOTE. E-PROMOTE. BELIEVE IN YOURSELF AND BE PATIENT.

“Try to hold back on that distraction [of promoting your own work] until after the book is done,” cautions Filteau. Noting that social media platforms help, she is adamant that the power of word-of-mouth and personal connections remains a hallmark of maximizing the number of people who read your work. She also keeps a pile of books in her truck for when they come in handy for impromptu sales.

“Selling truck loads of books is a long process,” adds Varty.

“You’re in it for the long haul. It takes time.”

He adds that self-published authors may also benefit from approaching local bookstores (no pressure sales, please) with a few copies in-hand along with a one-page sheet that contains a synopsis of their novel, a short bio on the author and the retail price.

“Everyone has at least one story to tell,” says Filteau as words of encouragement to others.

“Some have many stories to tell. Start with a story,” she says.

“I published my first book when I was 69-years-old,” says Curfoot-Mollington, who spends his time between Ottawa, Italy, and Cambodia.

“[And] I wrote fiction for the government decades before that,” he adds, waiting a moment for the audience to quiet down from fits of laughter before his next bout of unabashed humour.

“I’m older than I look,” he concludes with a bright white, mischievous smile.


The Ottawa International Writers Festival hosts about 130 writers each year who are selected from more than 800 submissions. For more details including schedule and upcoming events, visit www.writersfestival.org