We often talk about traditional publishing and self-publishing (or indie publishing) as though they were essential opposites. At other times we’ll describe the latter as being little more than the backup plan for those who can’t achieve the former. But in reality, the line separating what we call traditional publishing from the DIY approach increasingly adopted by authors is much more fluid and permeable than we think. This is particularly the case when we move away from the big publishing multinationals and take a closer look at Canada’s small press community.
The Montreal publishing scene
Montreal’s English-language publishing sector is quite small compared to the rest of Canada, largely due to the predominance of the French language in Quebec. However, it remains a vibrant community of editors and publishers driven by their love of the written word and their desire to support local talent and diversity.
Compared to Toronto where the small-press community is overshadowed by the presence of large publishing multinationals like Random House and Harper-Collins, and there’s a strong sense of vertical hierarchy between the two publishing factions, the Montreal publishing scene enjoys a much less hierarchical and more horizontal structure that levels the playing field and allows for more open exchanges between local publishers and the literary community. This is one of the perks of being in a francophone province where the anglophone publishing giants have no interest in setting foot.
What’s more, Montreal benefits from the presence of organizations like the AELAQ and the Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF), which both in their own ways provide gathering spaces for publishers and authors, events and platforms for connecting the different aspects of the book world.
What publishers are looking for
To no surprise, most of the presentation was dedicated to describing what each panelist looks for in an author and manuscript. Essentially, how to get published in Montreal’s publishing sector. As I listened to each panelist list the various qualities and characteristics that catch their attention when reviewing an author’s proposal or manuscript, I was struck at how familiar this list was to me. In the past two years, I have accompanied dozens of indie authors through their self-publishing projects. And the list of qualities presented by the publishers at this panel were exactly the kinds of qualities that those indie authors had developed by self-publishing their books.
The keyword is community
Of all the subjects that came up during the panel, the one that came up the most was that of community and the importance of getting involved. Each panelist made it clear that an author who demonstrates involvement in their literary community is one that tends to catch a publisher’s attention. This is partly because an author who is engaged in creating and/or participating in spaces for the expression of the written word are typically more proactive and deliberate in their craft. They are also open to collaborative work, which (good) publishing is all about. Publishers are looking to create a long-term relationship and partnership with their authors. It’s only natural that authors who have demonstrated a desire to be involved tend to stick out and catch the eye. In the words of Ashley Obscura, “the most real part of publishing is the getting together and sharing a space.”
On the more practical side, community is also key to a book’s commercial success. An author who hosts or attends literary events and is interested in other people’s work is an author who already has a network of readers and allies that is crucial to bolstering a book’s success after its launch.
The way these publishers spoke about community was particularly striking to me because it also happens to be, in my mind, a crucial ingredient for (good) self-publishing. Without a community of professionals to support the creation of the book, it’s nearly impossible to publish a book that meets professional publishing standards. Without community of readers, the self-published author inevitably flounders when comes time to sell and distribute their book. However small, a self-published author needs a community base, however small that community base may be. A self-published author is typically more aware of this need and has learned ways to build a network around themselves.
Failure is just another way to learn
Another interesting point during the panel, raised by Dimitri Nasrallah of Esplanade Books, was the importance of seeing failure as a way forward, not back. As a publicist, Nasrallah experienced the importance of seeing past the failure to what it brings you: an important lesson, and better knowledge to better move forward. For every door opened, eleven other doors stay shut. Authors seeking to publish need to learn to face failure and not let themselves be crushed by it. When submitting to publishers, you will get rejected. It’s important not to lose hope, because it may take ten, twenty, fifty rejections before the right opportunity presents itself.
The same reality faces the self-publishing author. Some authors turn to self-publishing because they don’t want to face the weight of rejection by a publisher (or they already have). But what many then discover is that self-publishing involves its own intense process of trial and error. A self-published author must learn the entire publishing process for themselves. Even when helped by professionals, the author oversees everything from start to finish. There’s no way to know everything there is to know about publishing a book when you’re doing it for the first time. Your first book will teach you the publishing process. Your second book will be the opportunity to publish more efficiently. Onwards from the third, you will have found a method of publishing that fits your personality and craft. But getting there involves trying many things, and learning from one’s early failed attempts.
Working with a literary agent?
One audience member asked about whether it’s important to have a literary agent, how to get one and when is the right time to seek one out. To this, Nasrallah responded that an agent exists for a single purpose in Canada: to play the Toronto publishing game. Agents will look at one thing and one thing alone when deciding whether to take on your book: its sellability. Agents make their money from the commission (typically 15%) on your book royalties, and their goal is to court the large multinational publishers. Most authors, however, can get quite far without a publishing agent, since most smaller publishers not only do not require that you go through an agent – they might actually turn you away if you do have one.
An agent can be valuable when it comes to navigating a contract with a publisher. Agents are well-versed in the legal terminology and the stakes on the table when drafting a contract. However, if an author does some research to become familiar with contract terminology, the value of an agent drops significantly.
A few best practices
Here’s a list of several more practices to adopt when soliciting publishers with your manuscript:
Do your research: publishers typically have a particular approach, genre or type of book they’re looking to publish. Before sending out your manuscript to a publisher, make sure to familiarize yourself with their guiding vision, and make sure you’re able to articulate to the publisher how you think your book fits within that vision. Include your thoughts on this in your submission letter. A publisher will appreciate that you’ve taken the time to reflect on how your writing might fit within their catalogue.
Step outside of the writing: it all comes back to community. Go out, attend events, organize an event if you’re up to it! You never know who you will meet, what connections and future projects may come from those you connect with. A publisher may not publish your first submission, but maybe the second or third will catch their eye. And by then, you’ll have an established relationship with the publisher.
Read submission guidelines: this one may seem to be a no-brainer, but it’s surprising how few authors take the time to read a publisher’s submission guidelines before sending off their manuscript. Submission guidelines will give you a sense of the publisher’s vision, and help you reflect on whether that particular publisher is the right one for your manuscript.
Be humble: make sure to be humble and respectful in your engagements with publishers. In the small-press community, most editors and publishers are working full-time jobs, juggling multiple literary projects at once, and their editing position is something they do with the time they have left. Take this into consideration when connecting with a publisher, and be patient.
Walking away from the panel discussion at this year’s Pop-Up Book Fair, I was surprised to find that many of the qualities that are attractive to publishers are the very qualities that authors will foster by self-publishing one of their books. Community-building and trial and error are as much parts of self-publishing as they are a part of traditional publishing. And the line separating these two factions of the publishing world is far more fluid than we tend to think. I can only imagine it becoming more fluid with time, as more and more authors turn to self-publishing as a way of developing the skills and qualities that will help them achieve their goals, whether those goals are to build a successful career as an indie author, or to get accepted by a publisher.
- The Association of English-Language Publishers of Quebec (AELAQ) regroups the major Quebec-based English-language publishers. The AELAQ regularly organizes presentations and events, the largest being their annual Pop-Up Book Fair, which takes place in the Atrium of the McConnell Building, at Concordia University. Click here to sign up for their newsletter.
- The Quebec Writers’ Federation is a valuable resource for English-language authors in Quebec. They’re a hub for authors and publishers, often participating in the organization of literary events in Montreal. Click here to view their calendar of literary events.
- The English-Language Arts Network (ÉLAN) is another Montreal-based organization devoted to bringing together artists of all disciplines within the province’s anglophone community. Click here to see their Community Calendar.