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Thinking of Self-Publishing?

By Tim Knight

The problem starts when I write this damned book. It's called Everything you always wanted to know about how to be a TV journalist in the 21st century but didn't know who to ask or Storytelling And The Anima Factor.

It's a brilliant, insightful, witty and, no doubt, seminal 250 pages about the shortcomings of TV journalism (like how it's newspaper and testosterone-driven and nobody remembers any of the information anyway) which causes the Globe and Mail's TV columnist, John Haslett Cuff, to confess "I find the premise . . . rather intriguing. Gee, maybe that's why I stopped watching TV news some years ago."

Other critics call it "important," "terrific," "amazing," "a textbook for a revolution in television" and "the best book on TV journalism I have read."

The talented and charming Vicki Gabereau interviews me about the book for 36 minutes on her CBC radio show.

So, where's the problem, you might well ask. Most writers would kill for reviews and exposure like that. You could go further. You could say writing a book is what people like me do. Among other objectives devoutly to be desired, it stops us from taking real jobs from folk who want real jobs. Writing a book might even keep people like me off the streets and out of strange beds.

And anyway, you might say, after writing the book and getting these great reviews, I'll be invited to swap bon mots with erudite and charming publishers who ply me with carelessly large cheques and get on Letterman and Gzowski a week Thursday if a week Thursday's OK with me. Following which, I'll instantly become rich and famous, insulted in Frank and much admired by beautiful people at the sort of party I'm never invited to now.

That's what you might say. But that only happens to writers with publishers who give them money before they write a word and pay for the printing and publishing and all sorts of other goodies after it's written. That's the dream scenario. That's a scene from another movie.

I start this damned book in the naive belief that I can actually help improve the sorry state of TV journalism in Canada. That my ideas can contribute something to my beloved and battered profession. To be honest, it also seems like a good way to pay the rent and buy the occasional beer and sushi.

All I have to do is take time off from training broadcast journalists and people who want to communicate better than they do now to bash away at my Powerbook until, having nothing more of interest to say, I stop. And mail the manuscript off to eager publishers.

The publishers, of course, will fight viciously until the highest bidder wins the rights to the book and shovels obscene amounts of money at me. Copies will appear, all bright and shiny, on bookstore shelves. Perfect strangers will line up to buy them and beg for my autograph.

That's not the way it happens. The first publisher sends back a suitably polite rejection letter. Another publisher sends back another suitably polite rejection letter. And another. And another. And so it goes. Until there are no publishers left. Suitably polite or otherwise.

How, you may well ask, do I handle such brutal rejection? The answer is I say to hell with it and do the post-modern thing.

I desktop-publish.

I become my own publisher. The first thing I do with the powers vested in me as President and sole employee of Broadcast Press is borrow $20,000 at six-percent interest (which makes it $21,200) to pay living, writing and publishing expenses. Just like the big boys.

Around $8,000 of the $20,000 goes straight to the printer. Another $4,000 pays for design, layout, editing and mailings. Then, there's $3,000 to flog the book at journalists' conventions in Vancouver and Spain, where I buy booze for everyone who looks as though they can read. And, $1,000 or so comes under the "various" heading.

All of which uses up $16,000 from the $20,000 loan. Leaving me $4,000 for rent, beer and sushi. But, at least I've written and published the damned book. Fame and wealth come next.

Which brings me to the problem of marketing the damned book.

I don't mean to boast, but I've been a TV journalist in more than a dozen countries for some 35 years. I've worked for ABC-TV, NBC-TV, PBS and CBC. I've won Emmy and Sigma Delta Chi awards for my journalism. For 10 years, I was head of TV journalism training at CBC. I've trained thousands of working broadcast journalists in Canada, the U.S., Europe, Scandinavia, the Caribbean and Africa.

In fact, I was the first journalism trainer invited to train South African Broadcasting Corporation journalists after international sanctions were lifted and before that country's first-ever democratic elections.

So, in all modesty, I reckon I'm fairly well qualified to write a book about the problems and future of TV journalism. And, I have reason to expect that Canada's journalism schools will be interested in it. Particularly since Canadian journalism teachers are always whinging that they can't find any Canadian journalism manuals for their students.

In mid-Summer, before I offer the book to bookstores, I write letters to every journalism professor/instructor/teacher who is a member of the Canadian Journalism Educators Association. I write to them by name. Some 90 of them. I describe the book and quote reviews.

I figures that since none of the teachers has read the book yet, they can't claim it's no good. So, I expect all of them to, at least, show a little interest. However, if only half of the 90 actually buy it, read it and like it--and make it required reading for their students--at an average of 20 students per class, that's 900 books at $30 a copy. Which is $27,000. Which will make me very happy and help pay for rent, beer and sushi.

Of the 90 journalism teachers, however, only seven even bother to reply to my letters. The seven order one or two copies each. Presumably their students will share.

It's enough to make you lose faith in journalism schools.

(Oddly the BCIT journalism school--which isn't a member of the association so didn't get a letter--orders 40 copes for the Winter term. May instructor George Orr prosper in unendurable pleasure infinitely prolonged.)

Right now, I own 500 bright, shiny copies out of a 1,000-book print run. They crouch unsold in cardboard boxes overflowing from my broom closet and the warehouse of distributor Christie & Christie in Cookstown, Ont., wherever that is.

Not too shabby, you might say. Selling half the print run in eight months at $30 copy may not be Bertonesque but, at least, it brings in a few bucks. Problem is, I've only actually sold 200 of the 500 gone. Three hundred were given away free to:

  • Reviewers who might possibly write favourable reviews;
  • People who might know reviewers who might possibly write favourable reviews;
  • Friends and acquaintances who expect free copies of the book even though they would never dream of giving me free shoes or groceries or legal advice or whatever it is they produce.
    (It strikes me that writing is the only job in the world where you give away free samples of what you do to people who have much more money than you.)

I sit down and try to work it all out. It takes me 15 months of hard and lonely work to write and flog the book. Each book costs me roughtly $10 to produce. So the 200 sales at $30 each earn me $4,000 for 15 months work. Which works out to $266 a month.

The minimum wage in Ontario is $1,096 a month--four times more than I earn.

The problems multiply. Visa starts making more than usually nasty noises about something called my "outstanding account." Rent has to be paid, beer and sushi have to be bought.

Reluctantly, I stop flogging the damned book, put dreams of making The New York Times bestseller list behind me, and announce to the world that once again I'm available to train broadcast journalists and folks who would like to communicate better than they do now.

The world is busy with its own problems and doesn't notice.

This is when Patti The Bookkeeper calls with the mother-of-all problems. She announces it's just two days away from the end of my financial year and Pay-The-Government-What-You-Owe-Or-Go-To-Jail-For-A-Hundred-Years-Day. "By the way," she adds, "you owe the taxman $10,000."

"Impossible," I say proudly. "You've screwed up again. I haven't earned any money for a year, so I can't owe $10,000. The tax people owe me. Big time."

Patti The Bookkeeper patiently explains the system as she does every year around this time. (You can skip the next paragraph if you wish, it's a bit technical).

She says I pay taxes on what I earn the year before the year just ended. So, I'm supposed to pay taxes on money I earn before I start to write book. Which means that last year (the year I write the book and earn almost nothing) turns out to be the year I owe $10,000 on income from the year before that. And, I won't get any tax credit until next year. Which hasn't started yet. Or something like that. She offers to go into detail. I decline.

Patti The Bookkeeper says she can't understand why I don't understand bookkeeping and taxes. I tell her if I understand all this stuff I won't need to pay her massive amounts of money so she can play golf three times a week and drive a new convertible every year. She says something rude and hangs up.

The $10,000 tax I can't pay, plus the $21,200 loan and interest I can't pay adds up to $31,200 I can't pay.

I decide to take control of my life. I go to the corner store and buy 10 6/49 lottery tickets and something called a "window peat starter kit" so I can grow my own vegetables and live off my 24th-floor balcony until I get back to something resembling solvency.

The lottery tickets turn out to be the usual sad investment and the starter kit dissolves in the rain.

I decide to reform. To become a responsible citizen. To handle this tax thing like an adult and do some creative accounting for the future.

What if I tell the taxman that a Turks and Caicos scuba-diving trip I take to cure a serious case of writer's block and get beyond Chapter Three is a professional expense? Which government accountant can dispute the fact (widely known among writers) that only diving with sharks and sipping cold beer in the hot sun with oiled and lissome lovelies can overcome the dreaded writer's block?

I find the white plastic Loblaws shopping bags in the closet where I keep tax stuff. I look for Turks and Caicos receipts. Nothing there. In an excess of honesty, I've thrown them out.

Maybe if I just scribble down what I can remember, the government will take my word for it. Snowballs and their chances in hell come to mind. I wonder whether the government will let me work off my taxes over 10 years of community services or just send me straight to jail.

At night, I dream about large, hairy men covered in tattoos abusing me in ways you wouldn't want to know. The large, hairy men covered in tattoos are government tax accountants. I hear it's even worse in prison.

I'm writing this story about the problems this damned book has caused me for four reasons.

The first reason is to warn you against self-publishing. Only publishers know how to publish. That's why they're called publishers.

Unless you've got a private income, you're a super salesperson and a genius at promotion, self-publishing is even more likely to bring you poverty and despair than working for the CBC.

So, if you ever get the urge to take a year off to self-publish that book about Serbian war heroes or how you lost your innocence there on the sand dunes in that languid Summer of '69, resist, gentle reader. Shoot crack cocaine into your eyeballs instead. It's safer.

The second reason is to suggest that if you absolutely must self-publish, save money to pay your taxes for the time you take off.

The government is in a foul mood. It needs $440 billion or so to pay off humungous debts it runs up without asking us. Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that it's getting more than somewhat pissed off with folks like us who hang out doing artsy-fartsy things, like writing books and not contributing our fair share to the glories of savage capitalism.

Remember: like death, the taxman always cometh. And, like death, when he cometh, he taketh.

The third reason is to warn you not to borrow money so can pay the rent and buy beer and sushi while writing and self-publishing.

But, if you must borrow, you might consider this cunning plan I'm working on. It's how the big boys do these things and it's got as good a chance of success as any other self-publishing plan I've ever heard of.

Tomorrow, put on your best suit and announce to your friendly local banker that you're prepared to accept a billion-dollar loan to publish your next book. And, of course, you have no equity or collateral. (Patti The Bookkeeper explained equity and collateral, but I'm a touch fuzzy on the details). If recent Canadian big business history is any guide, your banker will go orgasmic, lick your shoes and grovel until you graciously accept his money.

Yes, I know, after a couple of years he'll notice you haven't paid any interest. But that's all part of the plan. That's when you go bankrupt. So you don't have to pay the money back. That's when you write a best-selling book titled How To Get Your Friendly, Local Bank To Finance Your Book.

Just one thing--don't self-publish the book.

The fourth reason for writing this story is to earn the miserable $125 Sources is paying for this article.

God knows, it's not much. But $125 from $31,200 (loan + interest + tax) brings the debt for the damned book all the way down to $31,075. Which means only 1,036 more copies to sell before I break even.

But I don't have 1,036 copies left. I only have 500. Which means I'll have to do another print run. And the problem will start all over again.

What the hell, $125 from Sources is a start. Then, of course, there's the tax on $125 . . .
Funny how you can start to hate something you're really rather proud of.

Tim Knight is a freelance communications consultant and broadcast journalism trainer who lives in Toronto. Everything you always want to know . . . (enough already--Ed.) was published in March, 1995. Unsigned copes cost $30. Signed copies $25. Phone (416) 968-2947. Fax: (416) 922-1459.


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