Author/doctor spreading his wings

Sarah Smellie
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Coming to terms with an empty nest through a self-published book

Author Dr. William Pryse-Phillips. — Submitted photo

It’s not often that an author follows up their 1,000-page neuroscience text with a 1,000-word book about a young gannet in Cape St. Mary’s.

But William Pryse-Phillips needed to spread his wings.

“Free Flight” is his children’s book about a growing gannet confronting a big change: he must learn to fly. Fearful at first, the gannet eventually soars into the clouds.

The book represents a lot of change, and not just for the bird. Behind the gannet’s story is Pryse-Phillips’ own struggle of letting his kids grow up, and it’s a new direction for its author, a celebrated neuroscientist whose last publication was “Companion to Clinical Neurology.”

It’s also emblematic of a change in the publishing industry.

Pryse-Phillips arrived in St. John’s in 1972, after he was hired by Memorial University as the freshly opened medical school’s first neurologist. He’s written medical texts that are now standard reading for both practising neurologists and undergraduate students, and he was university orator from 1977 to 2006.

He’s also a father.

“I have three children, all of whom have now left home to go live and work in Toronto or Vancouver,” he says. “I have this sort of deep divide inside myself: should I encourage them to go, which is good for their careers, or should I try to keep them with me, which is enhancing for me to have them present. The answer is that they have to go, and that I think worked itself into the story, though I didn’t know it at the time.”

That aspect of the story, he says, appeals to both grandparents who have let their adult kids go, and to parents who are preparing for an empty nest.

He’s always considered himself a writer, and he’s always wanted to write more than speeches and scientific books. So two years ago, he took himself on a retreat.

“I was feeling constrained by the academic atmosphere,” he says. “There was something inside me saying, ‘Do something original.’ So I went to the south of France and I stayed in a lonely, tiny chateau with nothing whatsoever to do. I said, ‘I’m here to write, so write something.’”

He wrote a history of his family for his kids, he wrote 10 chapters of a book for older children and he wrote “Free Flight.”

“Newfoundland has entranced me ever since I first came here,” he says. “And I always thought that Cape St. Mary’s was so beautiful. I wondered at the scenery, I wondered at the birds and I wondered and exalted in the atmosphere, and some sort of story crept out of me.”

He managed to secure C. Anne MacLeod, illustrator for Tom Dawe’s “Moocher In The Lun: A Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Alphabet,” to do the pictures, and he found himself an agent.

But finding a publisher wasn’t as easy.

“I submitted it to an agent who liked it and wanted to get it published,” he says. “They approached two or three publishers and was turned down. Then I approached a number of other publishers myself. I was told that there is no market for children’s books these days.”

So he decided to self-publish his book through Friesen Press, a subsidiary of Friesens Corp.

For a fee that can range from hundreds to thousands of dollars, Friesen Press will publish a book and provide editing, layout and design, as well as tutorials on setting up social media and print marketing campaigns.

Running those campaigns, and getting bookstores to carry the book, is up to the author.

“It’s a lot of work, a lot of risk. If it goes well, then it’s profitable, and if it goes badly, then I’ll be in debt,” he says. “But it makes it my own book rather than the publisher’s book. All of my medical books, for example — one was MUN press, but the other three were Oxford University Press, Little Brown —  they took the book and they did what they wanted with it. On the whole, I was pretty happy, but this time, I’ve been totally personally involved up to the last minute.

“And if this book works, if it goes well, then maybe I can get a well-known publisher to take the next one. So this is like dipping my toe in the water.”

No longer last resort

The decision to self-publish is a popular one: Bowker, the official IBSN agency for the United States, reports that between 2006 and 2011, the number of self-published books in the States, both print and electronic, grew by 287 per cent, and that self-published books made up 43 per cent of the print books published in 2011. Perhaps not coincidentally, 2011 was also the first year since 2007 that print production increased in the States.

“Self-publishing is now supported by a sophisticated and highly accessible support structure,” Beat Barblan, director of identifier services for Bowker, says in a 2012 news release which announces the findings. “It’s provided everyone who has a story to tell with a method for sharing it and levelled the playing field to an unprecedented degree.”

Donna Francis, editor and marketing manager at Creative Book Publishing, says she sees a lot of self-published titles on the shelves, and that she understands the appeal.

She says Creative receives more than 100 manuscripts for children’s books a year, and that it typically publishes only four or five of those.

“We get more submissions for children’s books than we do for anything else,” she says.

She also says that authors with books relating to current events might find the self-publishing route more reasonable.

“We’ve got our contracts signed almost right up until the fall of 2014,” she says. “If someone came to me right now and had just finished a book that was related to an ongoing current event, I couldn’t offer them a publishing contract for it. So, it would probably make more sense for that author to self-publish.”

Pryse-Phillip’s hope that having a successful self-published book would help him land a regular publishing deal for another book is legitimate, says Francis.

“It is something that would be considered,” she says.

But Francis cautions that self-publishing can be a huge burden for authors.

“There are some extra challenges for self-published books, and most of those relate to being plugged into the distribution networks,” she says. “Some bookstores and libraries are reluctant to take self-published books simply because it would be setting up a whole new business relationship with just one person for one title, whereas they could deal with distributors that offer a range of hundreds of titles that can go on one order and one invoice.”

Self-published writers are also in charge of their own marketing and sales.

“You’re pretty much setting yourself up as a business,” she says. “You have to go out and deal with the bookstores and distributors on your own, and the marketing is a huge ongoing event. There’s a great deal of online marketing that people can take advantage of, but if you’re doing online marketing and all these people are contacting you to buy your book, you have to pay to ship it out to them and you have to fill the orders and stuff the envelopes and bring them to the mail. You get to keep a lot of the profit, but a lot of your profit gets eaten up by the ongoing marketing.”

The marketing can include pitching to book blogs and reviewers, maintaining active social media channels, attending book fairs, printing postcards and bookmarks, and using platforms like Goodreads.

And, of course, there’s the issue of reputation: self-publishing, once referred to as “vanity publishing,” tends to turn up a few noses.

“There’s a bit of a concern sometimes for bookstores, especially the larger bookstores, that a self-published book might not have the same level of editing and design,” says Francis.

“That’s not to say that every self-published book doesn’t meet those standards, it’s just that it has become so easy to self-publish your own book that, unfortunately, there are an awful lot of people who are putting works out there that are perhaps not up to the standard of what the industry would accept. That gives self-publishing a bad name.”

Pryse-Philips thinks that problem is becoming obsolete. Penguin Group recently took self-publishing company Author Solutions under its wing, and self-published books have been winning major awards: last year’s winner of CBC’s Canada Reads competition, Terry Fallis’ “The Best Laid Plans,” was self-published through iUniverse.  

“I do believe that self-publishing today is both acceptable and accepted,” says Pryse-Phillips. “Good books are self-published by authors and have been turned down by established publishers. The Governor General’s Literary Award for children’s literature doesn’t consider self-published books, but I think in future years they will change the rules. There are many other literary prizes for children’s books which already do accept self-published books.”

“The question,” he adds, “is what the merit of the book is, not how it came to be a book.”

And ultimately, he says, the public will decide what flies.

“And I think that’s cool.”

Organizations: Friesen Press, Friesens, MUN press Oxford University Press IBSN agency Creative Book Publishing Penguin Group CBC Best Laid Plans

Geographic location: Toronto, Vancouver, France Newfoundland United States

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Recent comments

  • Peter Dunne
    February 28, 2013 - 10:51

    This slender volume is packed with delightful dialogue and statements between & about "Junior" & his wanting to stay in the nest despite his parents encouraging him to fly. Every time I re-read "Free Flight" I find another gem. Delightfully written with strong philosophical background & charming illustrations. I highly recommend not only for 6 to 12 year olds but also their parents and grandparents-Everyone!

  • Catherine Dempsey
    February 27, 2013 - 09:30

    I read Free Flight and thoroughly enjoyed it. To my mind a good children's book does not talk down to children, but also appeals to adults or parents who read with their children. Books should not be "preachy". Free Flight works on all of those levels. The story is interesting, the birds eye view of familiar human sayings is amusing, and the message is open to interpretation for the readers. Also, the illustrations are lovely. The discussion about publishing and self publishing is also very timely as the book industry faces enormous changes and challenges with technology and online purchasing. Good article! Good book!

  • Bobbi French
    February 27, 2013 - 08:48

    Bravo to Dr. Pryse-Phillips! He was a professor and mentor of mine and a very memorable and beloved one at that. He is a man of many talents, so I'm not at all surprised to see him venturing into creative writing. I wish him every success and I hope the book is a smash hit.