The Road to a Book, Part Three
Meet Beth Kaplan, a member of the CNCF Board and Conference/Programming committee . A graduate of UBC’s MFA program, Beth teaches memoir and personal essay writing at Ryerson University and the University of Toronto, where in 2012 she was awarded an Excellence in Teaching award. Recently Beth shared with us a three-part series of essays focused on the writing and publishing of her new memoir, which was released September 9, 2020. We’re certain our members will empathize with her trials and learn from her experiences.
Patience is not my strong suit, but in this business, after you send out queries or book proposals to agents and publishers, you have no choice but to be patient during an infuriating and debilitating waiting game. Except if you decide to self-publish, which in April 2020, after more than a year of submitting, I finally decided to do. I’d had enough and decided to go with another hybrid publisher. (The first I’d worked with is no longer accepting new work.) Self-publishing can be easily done these days, but again I wanted a partner, someone to help make decisions and shepherd me through the process.
After making enquiries among writer friends, I chose a local firm run by a well-known editor. I sent him a query, and he replied instantly, within two hours, with great enthusiasm. I was floored. He skimmed the manuscript and emailed that it was well-written and in great shape; he was anxious to publish it. He named a price that sounded reasonable, considering that the editing and copyediting were more or less done, and told me times were tough because of Covid, but he’d get on my book right away. He sent a contract, which I forwarded to a friend who vets author contracts.
Despite the imminent hit to my bank account, I felt relief and hope for the first time in ages.
And then he vanished for weeks.
A word here about money. I tell my students that all you need to know about the remuneration for writing is a symbol: a dollar sign in a circle, with a red diagonal line slashed through the middle. For decades, I’ve called myself a writer, I tell the CRA I’m a writer, but the money I live on does not come from writing. Much comes from renting rooms in my old house in downtown Toronto, where I’ve lived since 1986; after my kids left home I gradually renovated the basement into a one-bedroom suite and the top floor into a bedsitting room. I don’t enjoy being a landlady, but it’s a necessity if I want to stay here. In a nice little condo, I’d produce a great deal more writing, but I would not have the big garden and kitchen that bring me so much joy. So — a trade-off, not to the advantage of my work but of my sanity.
Another portion of my income comes from teaching creative writing in Continuing Studies at two universities and from editing and coaching writers privately, work which during Covid has continued uninterrupted over Zoom, and from interest from an inheritance. I have no work pension, just, now that I’m over 65, small government pensions. I’ve never received an advance for a book, even for my first book published by an American university press. My last two books from a hybrid publisher have made back the money I put into producing them; the textbook, which I sell to my students, has made a small profit. But royalties for the three books produced since 1982 now average around two hundred dollars a year. Writing has brought in little money. In fact, it has cost a great deal.
So generally, it makes no financial sense to be a writer. You point to J. K. Rowling, a single mother who used a small grant to pay for childcare so she could sit in a café, invent a world of wizards, and become the world’s richest writer. She has my admiration for her courage and focus, though I can imagine her friends at the time saying, Are you out of your mind? Get a job!
Fame does happen, as does simply finding a solid readership. There is money to be made, though very few make it. We write because we are storytellers with stories we cannot help but tell. But sure, there’s always the hope that the doors will swing open and our books will find their way into the hands of many readers.
In the meantime, don’t quit your day job.
At the end of April 2020, just before deciding to self-publish, I’d sent one last submission to a small but feisty Ontario publisher and forgotten all about it. A month later, as I waited to hear from the hybrid guy, I received an email from the legacy publisher: I quite enjoyed the manuscript. Would you have time to talk?
You’re kidding, I thought. I finally decide to self-publish, and the first publisher who has expressed interest EVER gets in touch? He was warm and considerate when we talked; he liked the book and wanted to publish it. I couldn’t believe it.
“But…” he said, and I thought, “Here it comes.”
“Covid has hit hard,” he said. “My spring list has been pushed to the fall, and who knows about the fall. I don’t know if I can afford to add something to the list. Can I get back to you next week?”
This was Friday morning. I asked him to please let me know by Monday. Imagine — a real publisher with a marketing team! Though the fact that his entire company, when I checked the website, consisted of him, a young assistant, and an even younger designer, was a bit disconcerting.
The same day, naturally, the hybrid guy got back in touch. Sorry, he’d been very busy, he wrote with urgency, but now was raring to go, let’s get this contract signed right away.
God, I said out loud to the sky, is this strictly necessary? One last bit of torture?
On Tuesday, after I’d spent four days wondering and waiting and avoiding Mr. Hybrid, the other publisher got in touch. I’m afraid we have to pass. We don’t have room on our shrinking publishing schedule. I’m sorry to have raised false hopes but I do really like the book and wish you all the best with it.
Once the contract was signed, the rest happened extremely fast — several days of back and forth on design, photo choices, a last copy edit. And that was it; it went to the printer, and a few weeks later, six years after I began writing, the stacks of boxes arrived at my door. Loose Woman: my odyssey from lost to found is beautiful and almost perfect, except for a missing comma on page 19 that will be added in the next edition.
The book was launched September 9 2020 with a Zoom reading at 1 and at 4 an in-person event, distanced, in my garden.
I was out a few days later when a voice behind me said, “Beth, I love your book!” It was the niece of a friend who’d bought ten books to give as gifts. A neighbour just wrote, “Loved it right to the last page. Congratulations, your best yet!”
Now I have to find a way of letting readers know this book exists. Now the hard part begins.