Publish and Perish – Part One
I recently received a flurry of emails from participants in the World Interplay Festival of 2001. These are young playwrights from around the world whom I worked with when I was the Canadian delegate to this festival that runs every two years in Australia. Only now, of course, eleven years later, most of them are at the next stage of their careers. They’re not so young anymore and are becoming established in their various countries.
If there is a universal concern shared by these emerging playwrights and myself, it is the sad and worsening state of publishing that seems to be pretty much the same wherever you go. I shared my situation with them and thought I’d share it here. It’s rather lengthy, so I’ve broken it into two parts, the first having to do mostly with play publishing, the second with poetry.
My situation: 10 years into a two book publishing deal with a reputable Canadian publisher, I received my Royalty Statement last week and learned that I am now at a balance of -$239.53. This is presumably good news, showing positive growth from last year’s figure of -$249.06. It looks to me like I made $9.53 last year.
At this clip, in 23 years or so I will be out of the red and into the black.
One of the books in question is my old chestnut, Some Assembly Required. It was originally published by another publisher. Although the play has received scores of productions, at least one a year in the 18 years since I wrote it, and although it was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, when the initial printing sold out, that publisher decided not to reprint it. I never understood that, other than to think of it as being a typically Canadian decision: that thing is too successful. We want no part of it! If nothing else, at least that decision made the play available for the other publisher with whom I now am in a negative variance.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like anyone is purposely trying to rip me off. Sadly, it’s just how it is. There’s no skullduggery here as far as I know. Anyone involved in the book publishing industry these days must be driven by only the fuzziest of romantic notions of a world that has books in it. Canadian plays published and on the shelf is a laudable dream. It’s no one’s fault. The reality is there’s just no money involved. We simply don’t have the numbers. It’s just how it is.
So when my friend Michael J. Finner approached me almost five years ago with the hair-brained scheme of starting our own publishing company, I thought I could hardly do worse than I was already doing, and so B House Publications was born.
We chose as our entry point into the madness my play Writer’s Block. To make a long story short, we had the play in the lobby on opening night and we sold more copies than I thought possible. A subsequent launch of the book at the Auburn Saloon made the book a virtual best seller in Calgary. Thanks to a generous contract I negotiated with myself, I was in at about a 25% royalty. You can clearly see that even selling one copy of the book would put me miles ahead of where I am with my other publishers. As far as play publishing goes, I did quite well on that book. Don’t get too excited, though. All in all we’re only talking a couple hundred copies.
Suddenly we had a publishing company and now there was work to be done. It was never my intention for B House to be a vanity press. As was the case with T.S. Elliott and Faber and Faber, I thought it would be permissible for me to publish with my own company as long as we were publishing other writers as well, and I was publishing with other presses, which I have done.
In the world of drama, we published a book I am very proud of, Lindsay Burns’ two marvelous scripts, Dough and the Vajayjay Monologues. I have had many conversations with Calgary playwrights (we think of ourselves as a Calgary only publisher) and as far as I know we are now moving forward, roughly at the speed of a glacier, with works by Ethan Cole, Jason Long and Neil Fleming. I hope before too long we come out with books by these fine Calgary playwrights, and others yet to be identified.
In the meanwhile, B House published another play of mine, Queen Lear. Again, we had it in the lobby on opening night. Again, I made more money than I could have hoped for from a “real” publisher. But that’s as far as it’s gone in drama publishing, as this point in time.
I should mention that the name of the company, B House, is a frank if somewhat tongue in cheek admission that we wouldn’t think of ourselves as anyone’s “A” choice. I encourage the writers who come to me to exhaust other possibilities and only come to us as a last resort. “Start with Random House! Start with Frontenac!” We have no resources, no marketing, no one to maintain the website, no one to pick up the phone, no phone on any account, no one who even knows how to create an invoice. More and more, the company is sliding into the deep abyss of “a great creative venture marred by the absence of any organizing principle or anyone who knows how to do or is willing to do what the fuck needs to be done.”
Yet, B House has had something of a resurgence thank to the very rich poetry scene here in Calgary. I will pick up on this theme in my next post . . . coming to you a few days from now.
Thanks for reading!