The author of the award-winning novel, THE PALE SURFACE OF THINGS, Janey Bennett has enjoyed colorful and varied careers, from radio announcer to horse trainer and drama critic. She spent five winters teaching English to Buddhist nuns in Thailand. Her writings on architecture have been published in the United States and Finland, where she held a Fulbright research fellowship.
THE PALE SURFACE OF THINGS is Bennett’s first novel, leading her into the study of classical Greek, Byzantine icon painting, geology, botany, the vernacular architecture and sociology of Greek villages, Minoan culture and art, the science of archaeology, World War II on Crete, and criminal law in Greece . . . A cellist, freelance editor, and author, Bennett divides her time between Bellingham, Washington and Hornby Island, British Columbia.
I recently grilled Janey on her experiences in getting her first novel out there and into the hands of readers. Her answers will enlighten, educate, and inspire you.
Before I answer your excellent questions, I’ll preface them by saying everyone’s journey in this book business is unique and I hope mine may offer some hints for yours, but the biggest difference between my experience and yours may be that my book is not genre fiction. It is not mystery or fantasy or romance or historic. It is mainstream or literary fiction, with the subcategory of multicultural fiction.
In The Pale Surface of Things, I explored the results of throwing a young American, who has almost no sense of his cultural background, into the world of a fiercely cultural and traditional mountain village on the island of Crete. I then stepped back to watch what lessons he would have to learn to grow into someone who was part of this community. So in the broadest sense, it’s a bildungsroman, a novel of redemption, a hero’s journey. What was helpful about my choice of setting was the link to Cretan and Greek readers, and to travelers who love Crete and always wondered what happens beyond the tourist edge of the island.
What it also meant was that I was in direct competition with the biggest names in current fiction, with not much chance to get serious attention. Here’s my story.
1. First off, can you tell us a bit about your agent hunting ordeal?
I naively bought several of the agent-listing guidebooks, and books about how to appeal to an agent (the advice suggested that you had to use a laser printer on expensive paper! I did that, to no apparent effect, except on my pocketbook.), and books about formatting to appeal to agents. I tried to intuit what the listings might really mean. I wrote proposals, printed sample pages, printed sample chapters, copied letters of advocacy from my mentor, and over two years’ time I sent a lot of these submissions. One agent said “I love this story. I can’t sell it.” Another agent said, “If you don’t have representation when you’ve finished your next novel, come to me first.” Other than that, I received “Dear Writer, You are Not What We’re Looking For” responses. I gave up on trying to reach US agents. I started researching and writing Novel # Two. I had no intention of self-publishing. If my heirs were my only readers after I was gone, so be it.
2. How did your Canadian publisher learn of you? How did they approach you?
I’m a researcher. It’s in my bones. My second novel (still in works) involves a troubled adolescent and a disintegrating family. I found a psychologist specializing in rescuing troubled teens. Gordon Neufeld is headquartered in Vancouver, BC. He was just starting out giving workshops to socialworkers and school psychologists on bullying and other problem behaviors. I live in Canada part-time and I went to three of his workshops. At the third one, he asked the audience to identify themselves and state why they were there. When he came to me, I said I was not in the healing professions like the rest of them. I was there as a spy: I was a writer looking for research. They were amused, kind, etc. The young man sitting in front of me turned around and said, “I write too. Can we share lunch?” “Sure,” I said.
His name was Keith Moen and he was a school psychologist who had written a novel about troubled teens. He had formed a publishing company in order to publish it, and he was interested in publishing other books that dealt with issues that moved him, like helping troubled teens. I said I was years away from finishing this one, (I rewrite extensively and I’m slow to finish.) but that I had another book about ethics and personal growth, not teenagers, in a drawer. He asked to see it.
His experiences with his publishing company meant he had ISBN numbers, had knowledge of how to register with the Library of Canada and do the other appropriate rituals, had experience with commissioning printers. No big bankroll. No publicity machine. But his company, Hopeace Press, had someone with enthusiasm and energy to contribute to my lonely project.
I envisioned printing 50 copies. He said no. We start with 4,000, because we want offset printing by a good printer so that it’s a beautiful book. And we want a per-copy cost low enough that you don’t suffer every time one goes to a reviewer or bookseller for free. Without him I would never have taken the book out of the drawer. With him, the book got two more edits, he did the page layout with InDesign, I proofread and then he proofread and then we had the computer read it aloud from the PDF, which uncovered another handful of typos. The product was as perfect as we could make it.
Then Keith was accepted into a graduate program and he and his family moved back to Winnipeg. The book had just been released and I had just returned from Book Expo Canada and a launch at Greek City Toronto. He said, “So the promotion of the book is yours. You can do it, maybe better than I would anyway. Just go for it.” And the arrangement we made was that once the book had earned back his costs, the rights would all revert to me. Which is what has happened.
It turned out to be the perfect arrangement. There are not many angels wandering the book publishing world but Keith Moen was certainly one in my life.
At that point I looked at our 4,000 books, at the motivation to earn back the print costs (a nut of around $10,000), and at my resources. I had some savings for traveling and other indulgences. I decided there was nothing more important to me than this book that I’d poured my best thinking into for seven years, and I’d already traveled. I sank all my “play” savings into promotion efforts, some worthy ones and some very dumb ones, but I learned along the way, earned the print costs, earned back the bookrights, and now the first printing is almost gone, and the book is still alive. It’s in Ingram, Baker & Taylor, and Partners/West in the US, and its distributor in Canada has placed it in Chapters/Indigo, the national chain of bookstores. I’m doing scheduled author appearances in BC Chapters stores this month. I will show up anywhere to promote the book. It’s become my job and my cause.
3. What is your take on the differences between the Canadian and U.S. publishing industries. Would you recommend one over the other and why?
Canadian publishing is (obviously) much much smaller than U.S. publishing. However, the same Old Boy structures are in place, with just fewer Old Boys. If you are Canadian, various supports, awards, promotions, etc., are open to you. There are more in the U.S. but also more people vying for them. Canada worked for me because I was in process of becoming a Landed Immigrant already. I’m not sure it would be any advantage to a U.S. citizen to try it cold. HOWEVER, I will say that our Canadian printer, Friesens Printing, was fabulous. The books are well produced. No complaints. And the cartons they are packed in are designed to have the books rigidly placed with extra pieces of corrugated board filling the gaps. No shipping damage! Booksellers have commented on how beautifully packed they are. Printing your book with them is worth thinking about. Friesens were no more expensive than U.S. printers, and they do a lot of work for U.S. museums and other print clients in the U.S.
4. What was the initial communication with your publisher like? Were several revisions called for? Do you have any helpful advice for how to approach the editorial process with ease and aplomb?
By the time Keith Moen saw the manuscript, I’d been working on it for seven years. The last year and a half, I’d been polishing my language. Because I work as a proofreader, and am trained as an editor (although I prefer not to work as an editor), I believe in the need for editing and proofreading. I paid an editor to do a line-edit even before I met Keith . . . on some level I was still hoping it would fly someday. I had a number of readers with expertise in fields that appeared in the book: archaeologists, art restorers, my Classic Greek teacher, Greek and Cretan-Americans–I was looking for all the accuracy I could pin down. When Keith read it, he had a few notes, which were good ones. He found some inconsistencies in characters’ positions, caused by rewrite jumps. After he finished, I proofread it again, as I described above.
How to approach the editorial process with ease and aplomb? Approach it with humility. It is the key to professional polish on any text. Find the smartest and most experienced editor and/or proofreader you can find, pay them, thank them, make the corrections. If their suggestions really sound wrong, get your hands on a grammar book and confirm their notes. Know that your text is shining. Editing really matters.
5. When you first learned your publisher was closing shop, what did you do first?
I looked for how-to books for independent publishers and self-publishing authors. I looked for support groups. I found IBPA, Independent Book Publishers Association (formerly PMA), and within that group I found the local group in my area, Seattle’s BPNW, Book Publishers Northwest. I went to meetings, I read blogs, I read books, I listened, I asked questions . . . The most useful book I found is Dan Poynter’s book for self-publishing. It explains ISBN numbers, ARCs, review sites, and all the steps. With his information, you have a framework into which you can fit your specifics. For fiction or non-fiction, genre or mainstream, for any book, his to-do list is important. Poynter’s book is aimed at marketing non-fiction, which is a much easier sell, but those of us compelled to write fiction are saddled with the truth of what is. We strive onward.
6. In general, your experience might essentially mirror what many self-published authors face in terms of the business and marketing sides of publication.
Yes. I had some lucky breaks, but all in all I did what the Poynter book said. The amount of energy I poured into promoting the book astonished my friends, but it was never hard to do. I believed in the project enough to write it and I continue to believe in it now. I had massive help in the book production stage, from Mr. Moen, but beyond that, in the promotion phase, I was in the same boat as a self-published author.
7. What tips and recommendations can you give in the areas of taxes, bookkeeping, royalties, warehousing and shipping?
If you are going to direct-sell your book, get a business license. Be prepared to report taxes on books you hand-sell, but try instead to sell them through wholesalers or bookstores on consignment. You don’t want to be counting your sales-tax receipts on top of everything else you have to do. Let others sell. You promote it.
I used Quickbooks software to track review copies, consignment deliveries, income from wholesalers and bookstores, different rates of discount, etc.
I did fiscal accounting record-keeping separately for each country with Quicken.
Royalties wasn’t part of my arrangement with Hopeace. They got all the earnings until their costs were recouped, after which rights and income reverted to me. I still have a large negative flow, but I knew that would be the case.
Warehousing: When the books were printed, some were shipped to an address in Canada. Those books were charged GST tax. The books that were shipped to the U.S. were not taxed. This would be true whichever side of the border the printer had been on.
There is no duty per se on books in either direction across the border. If I were to bring some of the U.S. stock into Canada I would have to declare it at the border and although it would not be dutiable, it would be subject to the same GST tax.
The U.S. supply of books is at a warehouse which charges storage by the palette-load per month, and in addition they will ship single books or hundreds on my order for an additional fee. They ship for me to Ingram and Baker and Taylor. In Canada I have a distributor who handles all the order fulfillment and billing.
If you want to handle your own shipping, membership in IBPA gives you access to a discount shipping account with FedEx. And you will learn the ins and outs of USPS shipping rates.
8. In general, I think you have chosen to go the more traditional route in terms of marketing. What venues and techniques have been most profitable for you? Where are some of the most unusual places you have sold your book?
I have been conservative in my use of the INTERNET: I have two Web sites, one for the book, www.palesurfaceofthings.com, and one for all my work areas, www.janeybennett.com. I’ve done some interviews and blog entries and applied for reviews on blogs. I DO use www.booktour.com to post my upcoming events. I have not tried the more cutting edge Internet techniques. I have no film clips on YouTube and I don’t post on Facebook.
I have had great success in applying for BOOK AWARDS. Pale Surface has received seven of them so far:
Grand Prize Second Place for All Fiction, Next Generation Indie Book Award
Gold Medal Winner, Multicultural Fiction Next Generation Indie Book Award
Gold Medal Winner, Multicultural Fiction USA BookNews BEST BOOK Award
Gold Medal Winner, Multicultural Fiction Indie Excellence Book Award
Gold Medal Winner, Best Use of Environmental Materials, PubWest Book Design Award
Silver Medal Winner, Multicultural Fiction & Non-Fiction, Nautilus Book Awards
Honorable Mention, General Fiction, Beach Book Festival Awards
. . . and it is currently a finalist for the Montaigne Medal, part of the Eric Hoffer Book Awards, to be judged this month.
I have done half a dozen RADIO interviews. They were interesting, but I don’t think they showed up as a blip in our sales.
I’ve given READINGS in bookstores, in churches, in libraries, in private homes, in an orchard! I’ve done BOOKSIGNINGS in bookstores where there wasn’t a space to read.
I’ve led discussions for BOOK GROUPS. Those are fascinating and also useful to sell the book to the group that will read it before the discussion. I have really enjoyed meeting with bookgroups.
I’ve gotten REVIEWS, which are posted on the book’s Web site, from newspapers, newsletters, online journals, blogs, Amazon reviewers, readers’ reviews. Some I requested. Some were a surprise. They’ve been very positive. Check out the comments on our Amazon listing: The Pale Surface of Things.
I’ve paid for space at booksellers’ TRADESHOWS. I’ve given away review copies at those shows. I’m not convinced that the book giveaways were a good idea: many of them come up on eBay or Amazon for sale as “used and new” and since they went out for free, that feels like robbery. But that has been standard practice in the tradeshow business. I think it’s changing now.
I’ve LECTURED to publishers, to writers, to Greeks, to classical scholars. It doesn’t usually lead to lots of sales, but it keeps the interest in the book going.
I’ve WRITTEN REVIEWS of other people’s books: My review of Ursula LeGuin’s novel, Lavinia, is in the current issue of the classicist journal, Amphora.
These are fairly standard moves to make in book promotion. My book is also fairly standard. You’ll have to find the ways to promote your book that fit your book. Contests, internet games, whatever you are comfortable with, try it.
Would I regard my book as a success? We’ve nearly sold out the first run of 4,000 copies. The book has touched a number of readers. The communication between author and reader has happened; that circle has closed. Am I rich? No. Famous? No. Was the book worth writing? Absolutely. Worth promoting? Yes, as well. I wouldn’t have missed this journey for anything.