Writing and reading are solitary pursuits and yet, somehow, the written word creates a special bond between a writer and reader. I have written eight books and enjoy the part of the process that takes me to launches, speeches, clubs, and festivals – even, more recently, over Zoom. It allows me to conspire with readers to smash our solitary fourth walls. Many readers also breach that wall by sending me an email. I welcome them. Allow me to share a few, without breaking the implied privacy, to suggest how special that connection can be.
I wrote a biography of Canadian prime minister R. B. Bennett who led Canada through the Great Depression’s darkest days. One reader wrote that he was surprised that so many of Bennett’s policy initiatives would today be considered left-wing. I deserved praise, he said, for legitimizing Canada’s progressive political orientation, especially given the right-wing drift of the current Conservative Party. Another reader, though, called me a “mindless fascist.” He wrote in rather blunt terms that in praising Bennett’s creation of the Bank of Canada, I was a “stupid right-wing toady” who was ignoring that the institution was unconstitutional. I was a plaything of a “capitalist cabal” that rules Canada and is destroying the working class. I should be ashamed, he wrote, for promoting the extreme right-wing viewpoint.
Blood and Daring is a book about Canada’s involvement in the American Civil War. I received a number of moving emails explaining how readers had been motivated to look up ancestors who had gone south to serve in the war. I received photographs of old family gravesites they had visited and told of family members with whom they had reconnected. Another correspondent, though, said I should be ashamed of myself for glorifying war.
My most recent book, The Devil’s Trick, is about Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Probably because so many of the issues discussed in the book are relatively recent, I received a great number of emails. Many were gratifying. Some spoke of the book rekindling old memories of having fled the United States as draft evaders, having been welcomed by Canadians, and becoming Canadian themselves. One draft evader told me of having a disturbing conversation with his father-in-law who later became a prominent member of the Reagan cabinet and who simply could not understand the morality in refusing to fight in an immoral war.
The most moving email was from a woman whose parents had fled the war’s chaotic aftermath as Vietnamese refugees. Like many Canadian soldiers who enlisted with the American military to fight in Vietnam, many refugees were traumatized by their experiences. Many shared little with their children. My correspondent said that the book stirred memories in her mother and for the first time the old stories were shared. A deeper mother-daughter bond was forged. I confess that the email brought me tears.
So, write away dear readers. The emails are welcome distractions as I’m at my desk tapping away on my next entry for the Canadian Encyclopedia or Op. Ed., or even my next book. Even if you write just to call me names or tell me of mistakes I’ve made, the emails are a welcome reminder that I’m not alone. You’re out there.
(Thanks for reading this. Send a response along, if you wish, and perhaps consider checking out one of my books and then sending me an email about it. Let the fourth wall tumble down.)
My first book was published a number of years ago and I am now working on what will be my eighth. I’ve seen a lot of changes in the publishing industry over that time but the most essential element remains the same as it’s been since Gutenberg invented the printing press. An author sits alone with the seed of an idea and a reader sits alone enjoying the fruit of that idea. It’s only the middle bit between those solitary acts that has changed. Here’s what I have learned.
If you want to write, then go ahead. It’s like Yoda said, “No try, do. Do or don’t do. No try.” There are many ways to get started and the easiest is to set up a free WordPress webpage and begin blogging. Write about what you know. Develop a theme. Forget how many people click to read it, that’s not what it’s about.
You are writing not as a sprinter on race day but a marathoner in training. Build writing muscles and skills by using them. Read authors you admire. Then read those you don’t. Treat them as teachers. Then write more. Someone who is not writing is not a writer. They are someone who either has written or someone with a dream but no plan.
(Iconix Brand Group Inc)
Printing and Self-Publishing
Printing is often all many people want. For example, if you want to write a history of your family that no one but your family will probably read then find yourself a printer. They will help design, and then print and bind as many copies as you wish of whatever you give them. Be sure you have at least five people proof-read your work or even hire a professional editor to save yourself the embarrassment of errors that will live longer than you.
Self-publishing is becoming increasingly prevalent. It’s tough as you must essentially become your own publishing company. It demands a lot of work which means hours away from your writing. However, if willing and able to take the risk and do the work, the reward could be your book appearing on Amazon and other online sites and generating sales.
Publishing houses understand that they are making art and making money but if they don’t do both then they can’t do either. Accept that. Many small houses will accept unsolicited manuscripts – over the transom, as the saying goes. Larger houses, and there are fewer of them as they have been shuttering or swallowing each other, will only accept manuscripts from agents. Agents and houses will not be interested in a whole book, just a proposal.
If you want to write a book, then don’t write a book. That is, develop your idea for a book into a proposal for a book. It is a two-page sales pitch. Be succinct in explaining why anyone would want to read your book and why a publisher will make money by publishing it. A novel’s proposal is more straight forward but a non-fiction proposal’s subtitles could be: Elevator Pitch, Argument, Market, Author, Table of Contents. If you are a first-time author you will probably also need a sample chapter. Have a couple of people read and edit your proposal. Be sure it is not someone who loves you or will not be harshly critical for you want unburnished opinions now, not later. Then find yourself an agent.
Get an Agent
Scan the web and you will find lots of agents. Or, go to a bookstore, if you can still find one, and look at the acknowledgement pages of books like yours and see which agents are being thanked. You only want to approach an agent who specializes in your kind of book. An agent is the liaison between you and the publisher. If your proposal is any good, an agent may take you on as a client. A contract will be signed in which the agent will get around 15% of everything you make.
She will then be like your best friend, supporting you or kicking your backside depending on which you need most at the moment. She will help to hone your proposal and make it better than you thought it could be. She will then approach publishers attempting to have them take it on. She will negotiate an advance on royalties and contract with them. Meanwhile, you concentrate on your writing.
The Publishing Contract
Famous people sell a lot of books and so they get huge advances that can sometimes be in the millions of dollars. First-time authors, however, can expect between $5,000 and $20,000. You should not get too excited, though, because the money is there to pay for expenses incurred while writing the book and it is later deducted from royalties earned from sales. Most authors will earn from 8% to 12% of the book’s sale price. The contract will establish when the finished draft manuscript must be submitted. Now you must actually write the thing.
There is always time. I am up and writing each day at 5:00 am. The sane world is still asleep so there are no emails or calls, just me, tea, and the muse. Even if the muse doesn’t show up some mornings, I am there doing what feels like a punch-the-clock effort but at least I’m there. I run and take long walks without music and it is there the real writing takes place. When in my office, I am usually just typing what I have already written in my head. The best secret as to how to get words on a page is to get your ass in a chair.
Kurt Vonnegut once told students that anyone can write. To be a writer, though, is to write something then rewrite it, and then rewrite it, and then re-write it again. Then, when it is absolutely perfect, re-write it three more times. You should do this before submitting the manuscript. When you do, you will be assigned an editor. This is your other best friend or perhaps like your best high school teacher. He will take your manuscript and mark it up noting where the structure should be improved or grammar fixed. You will go back and forth a number of times until finally, you are on the phone or in an office going through the entire manuscript one sentence at a time. It will then be sent to a proofreader who will, hopefully, find all the little mistakes left for you to fix.
It’s a glorious feeling. A box will arrive at your front door and inside are the dozen or so books that your publisher sends you for free. There it is. After two or three years of solitary work and then months of editing it is finally a tangible thing. The verb has become a noun as your writing is a book.
Your publisher will assign a publicist. She will do all she can to sell you and the book. You may be interviewed on radio or TV, do speeches, or appear at literary festivals. You must be ready to explain your book in twenty seconds, or ten minutes, or an hour. You must never be ashamed by shameless promotion. You are no longer in the business of writing. You are now in sales. This will involve your engagement in social media for you must take on a lot of the marketing work yourself.
You will need to grow the hide of a rhinoceros because there will be those who will not like your book. You may get trashed in a review. You may have no one show up for an event. Your book may be ignored altogether. All you can do is your best and keep smiling.
Dividing Your Brain and Time
Usually, several months or even a year may go by between your having submitted the final draft manuscript and the publication date. While editing that one, you will be writing your next one, beginning with the idea and proposal. You will then be in the odd position of talking about your first book while all your brain really wants to focus on is your next one because your first one, to you, is already two or more years old. It’s an interesting dance.
About five to ten years ago, it was predicted that book sales would plummet. They did not. There are actually more people buying and reading books today than ever before. Even the sales of physical books have become relatively stable year to year. Even if physical and e-book sales are combined, the sales of nearly all books are relatively low. There are only a few HarryPotter like hits each year. They allow publishing houses to publish all the others. One can have a Canadian best seller at 6,000 – 8,000 copies. That is why nearly all writers have other jobs. Most teach or are journalists but there are a lot of writing waiters.
Like in the music business, there are a lot of people doing it but only a few making a good living. That said, if all you are interested in is the money then forget it. You probably won’t make much and you will probably not be much good because you are in it for entirely the wrong reason.
Writers understand and live for the warmth of a well-written sentence and cogently constructed argument. Margaret Atwood once observed that you know you are a writer when you are writing in July about a winter scene and then after an hour lost in creative thought you look out the window and wonder what happened to all the snow. Good luck. I’m pulling for you.
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I don’t know about you, but I always just skim a book’s acknowledgments. They are usually akin to a bad Oscar speech: a list of names of people I don’t know. My latest book, Sir John’s Echo: The Voice for a Stronger Canada, was released last weekend. It’s my seventh book and this time I tried something a little different for my acknowledgments. I thanked some folks, of course, but also tried to consider what really inspired me to write. Let me know what you think.
Acknowledgments: Sir John’s Echo
Dividing and defining our Village is a river that, as Lakefield resident Margaret Laurence once observed, runs both ways. It does, you know. It really does. It is on long, slow runs along the river that I wrote this book. Oh, certainly I typed it in my office but the genuine work, the tumbling and juggling of ideas, the real stuff of writing, came accompanied by the falling of footsteps and washing of water.
And so, odd as it may seem, I would like to acknowledge and thank the river for its uncaring but profound inspiration. It reminded me that somewhere beneath its gently flowing surface, at the heart of its magic, hides the metaphor for our country. The truth and what truly matters lay not in the surface sparkles, gleaming as diamonds in the sun, but with the rocks and roots and weeds below that roil all above, offering resistance and form.
The river urged me to take a broader view, to consider more expansive ideas, deeper concepts, and to think not of passing fads and fancies that capture clicks and headlines but what really matters. Power. The power to shape, inspire, speed up or slow down, to move while lifting or, sometimes, pulling below.
That’s what this book is all about. Power. It’s the power of perpetual motion, of rugged beauty and gentle grace lying comfortably with the awful potential to direct or destroy. That is the river’s power. That is Canada’s power. That is the power we owe ourselves to contemplate; relentless power that moves even when we don’t notice, while we sleep, flexed and expressed and occasionally challenged, and while appearing to be heading in one direction in a natural, linear fashion, sometimes, flows both ways. I thank the river for encouraging my contemplation so that I might invite yours.
And what of Margaret Laurence? I thank her for being among those who taught me a love of words and a respect for the power of ideas powerfully expressed. There were others: Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, John Lennon, Kurt Vonnegut, John Ralston Saul, John Prine, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Shelby Foote, Gwynne Dyer, Paul Simon, and John W. Boyko, Sr. I thank them all.
This book began with a conversation between Patrick Boyer, Steve Paikin, and me – three men insatiably entranced by books, politics, ideas, and Canada. Patrick invited me to contribute a book to Dundurn’s Point of View series as part of the commemoration of Canada’s 150th birthday. Make it controversial, Patrick urged, stir readers’ passions and propose notions to spark debate. Thank you, Patrick, for inviting and trusting me to write and for your valuable suggestions on an early draft. I hope I have not let you down.
Thank you to the Dundurn team who embraced me so thoughtfully and supported me so professionally. I am grateful for the vision of president and publisher Kirk Howard, and for the editorial skills of Dominic Farrell, Cheryl Hawley, and Michael Carroll. I thank the talented Lawrence Martin for his constructive suggestions and fine forward.
This is my seventh book and I have lost count of the number of editorials, articles, and blog posts I have written. My dear wife Sue has read and edited every word. She brings to all I do an unparalleled editorial precision and skill and sense of when something is going on a little too long or needs to be fleshed out. She knows what it is about my work that works, and doesn’t. Her kindness, care, tenderness, wit, and love, makes all I do better, possible, and worthwhile.
I am grateful to Craig Pyette and Ann Collins of Penguin Random House Knopf who lent me to Dundurn for this project and to my literary agent Daphne Hart who encouraged me.
Being a father is one thing but being a grandfather is something else altogether. Grandchildren teach you to love all over again. Without trying, my two sweet granddaughters remind me of all that truly matters, including the country in which they will be making their lives. Canada was not inevitable and is not immutable. All that is great about it, from its stunning physical beauty to the strength and marvel of its complexity, must be not just celebrated but protected. You won’t protect what you don’t love and can’t protect what you don’t understand. Without understanding, we can sing about standing on guard but not really do the deed. It is the future of my grandchildren, and yours, even if you don’t yet know them, that renders the striving to understand, in order to protect what is worth protecting, worth the effort. I thank my grandchildren for inspiring my contemplation of the home they deserve.
Thank you for reading my thank yous. Please share them with others if you wish. I am now on the road promoting Sir John’s Echo, doing TV, radio, and print interviews, as well as speeches. It is the business part of the book business. I’m also hard at work on my 8th book. Writing is fun.