Where There's A Will

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Tips on becoming a successful publisher

With the release this week of The Big Hop, it looks like Boulder Publications has another winner on its hands.

The book, by Gavin Will (right), explores in words and pictures the significant role this province has played in aviation history. Here's how the publisher's blurb describes it:

"Newfoundland and Labrador played a pivotal role in the history of aviation from 1919 until the end of the Cold War. From Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart, to the first passenger planes and the Second World War, The Big Hop tells the stories of those who risked their lives to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. Richly illustrated. Large format. Large Print."

I've already heard that the book is lavishly illustrated with some wonderful old photographs, but I'll reserve further comment until eyeballing it for myself. Actually, I'm still reading Ray Guy: The Smallwood Years, which is a must-read for anyone interested in Newfoundland history, and what happens when we switch off our brains and entrust everything to a messiah.

Ray Guy's book is also published by Boulder, a company I've been watching with interest since it was launched in 2002 by Gavin Will, a former journalist. (The Big Hop is Will's debut as an author with his own company.) In an email exchange conducted some time ago, Will explained his transition from journalism to book publishing.

"I started this company in 2002, after my journalism career had eroded away," Will explained. "The growth of the Internet made me redundant to my most important customers, because news wires no longer required a reporter on-site to file stories. In addition, the oil industry had unexpectedly matured' - i.e., no major new projects were in the offing after Terra Nova and Whiterose, which left me with little to write about."

Will said he had always had an interest in the book publishing industry. "When a friend received an original 1895 edition of Prowse's History of Newfoundland I investigated the viability of re-publishing it. I had no experience whatsoever, and was blithely unaware of the shoals that would have to be navigated in the months and years ahead. I vividly remember writing bank drafts for $8,000 at a time to pay the printer for the Prowse book - my hands actually shook as I did it the first time."

Will's instincts were good, however, and the gamble paid off. Prowse's History of Newfoundland went through several editions and reprints, including hardcover, seal leather binding and paperback, and there are now about 8,000 copies in circulation.

Will entered the publishing business with more enthusiasm than experience, so the learning curve was steep, at times, and there were many lessons learned. He summarized these quite entertainingly, in bullet form, and they work so well in that format that I will quote them here, verbatim:

* Not all books sell like Prowse - you can, in fact, lose money in publishing. This seems obvious to most people - it wasn't to me.

* At Costco, size matters. Big, heavy books generally sell better than small ones, no matter what the content may be.

* Dead authors are much easier to deal with than live ones. Deceased authors never complain about miserly royalties, or about their publisher's marketing efforts.

* Elliott Leyton is a chick magnet - book signings with Elliott are like The Beatles writ small. He possesses effortless charisma and charm, combined with great knowledge and intelligence.

* Ray Guy is much more gregarious than he lets on. He also shies away from false modesty; his reaction after reading the initial manuscript to Ray Guy: The Smallwood Years was to say that he had not realized how good a writer he was in his early years as a journalist.

* If you want to sell books - a lot of books - sign on authors who are willing to engage in hand-to-hand selling. Robin McGrath is a publisher's dream in this regard - she sold 60-plus copies of Nursery Rhymes of Newfoundland and Labrador in a space of two hours in 2006, two years after the book had been published.

* Publishing good books takes a lot more time and effort than I ever thought it would; one year to eighteen months seems to be the norm from acceptance of a manuscript to opening the newly printed pages of a book.

* Good editors and proofreaders should automatically receive an Order of Canada. They are severely under-rated and largely unrecognized.

To find out more about The Big Hop, and other titles of Boulder Publications, check out their web site.

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