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Mark Bourrie

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Book Publishing: An Author's Hellish Ordeal

Posted: 08/04/11 01:08 PM ET

Yeah, the interim leader of the NDP was, maybe still is, a separatist. The U.S. has, for the time being, been saved from financial self-destruction. There's a hurricane brewing in the Caribbean and Japanese nuclear reactors are still spewing radiation.

I wish I could care. I can't. My book, The Fog of War: Censorship of Canada's Media in World War II, is out. It's a great read, available everywhere. If the $32.95 price tag seems too high, buy it online for 30 per cent off. That's all I can think about.

Yes, I'm now a book whore and will be for a few months. I don't really know why. The more I write books and promote them, the more likely I am to end up on the dole. Very, very few people in Canada make a living from writing books. I hope to, but the chances are slim to none.

Still, I'll soldier on until my book is replaced on shelves by next spring's line of new titles.

Canadian book publishing is more of a hobby than a profession. Some titles are published in the hundreds, with a copy or two going to each Chapters and Coles. But every writer prays their book will take off, become a must-read, do the print equivalent of going viral.

Like most of the authors I know, I've become a bookstore guerilla. I go into stores, find my books, tell the manager I want to sign them, and expect they'll be given better shelf space once I do mark them up with my name.

And if they don't end up on a table in a high-traffic area or, at least, face-out on the shelf, I come back and pick them up and move them around. Quite often, the books end up in their original spot, but I'm persistent. And, except for the signing part, I do this for books written by my friends.

When you do see a book face-out on the shelves, it's probably displayed that way because publishers and distributors pay for that. It's part of the whole awful business of promotion. There are 100 million book titles known to exist, so how do you get your book in front of customers?

You try to build buzz. You have to drop all pretenses of modesty and tell the world you've written a great book. And that's difficult for me. Reading my own writing is, to me, like eating my own cooking. I wrote parts of this book four years ago, so the story is old news to me.

And often I'm interviewed by people who have actually read the book. So they're up on the story. I haven't read the whole thing in over a year.

One thing you learn is that people do love books, or, at least, they enjoy a good story. They may hear about things differently -- through web sites and social media -- along with the printed word, but public curiosity is as strong as it ever was.

The writer's challenge is to somehow sate that curiosity and still make a living.

Earlier this year, I went through the week from hell. My book was supposed to come out Jan. 26. Three weeks before the publication date, I called my publisher, Key Porter, to talk about a launch party. Instead of getting put through to the marketing and promotion department, the voice on the other end of the phone said, "Um, someone will call you back about this."

Instead, an hour or so later, I got an e-mail saying Key Porter had suspended publication and my book was "on hold."

I'd worked four years on the project. I'd written it as an academic thesis, then had gone back and spent months re-writing it into readable English. I knew I'd never be compensated for my time, but I knew this was a good book. I'd written enough magazine and newspaper pieces over the last 30 years to know a story when I saw one.

The news was even grimmer when I got the top guy at Key Porter on the phone. The book was at the printer, he said, but the project had died there. I offered to pay the cost of printing the book, but that idea was quickly killed.

So I turned to the Internet. I posted a blog about the book's troubles. I asked Facebook friends, many of them published authors, for help. And Anna Porter, among others, came through. Within a week, I had solid offers from four publishers. I took Anna Porter's advice and went with Douglas & McIntyre.
It turned out I was lucky. The books that were printed just ahead of mine were tied up in the bankruptcy. Rebecca Eckler, whose novel was printed and locked in a warehouse, says she has managed to buy her books back from the receivers and get them into bookstores. Many more are still languishing, and books that writers spent years on will likely be sold off for a few cents apiece and go straight to the discount tables in malls. Their authors may never see a dime from them.

So why do it?

Partly because it is so hard. That makes it all the more fulfilling when the book finally comes out. And partly because a book lasts forever. A newspaper piece has a one-day shelf-life, a magazine story is around for a month or two, but a book is on shelves -- or on eBook lists -- forever. You don't get to leave many footprints on this Earth, but a book does keep your thoughts alive for a very long time.