Sometimes it seems like traditional publishers are a bunch of wussies. Take, for example, the story of Canadian journalist Jan Wong.
Canadian journalist Jan Wong never expected to be self-publishing her latest book. Her first book Red China Blues was named one of Time magazine’s top 10 books of 1996. She went on to write three more successful nonfiction books for Doubleday Canada while reporting and writing columns for Canada’s prominent Globe and Mail newspaper.
So how did she find herself googling self-publishing to find out where to start out on her own last year?
The story begins within a 2006 story that Wong wrote for the Globe, covering a gunman’s shooting rampage at a college in Montreal. She noted that the gunman and two other infamous killers from similar incidents in Quebec all had something in common aside from their homicidal rage. None of them were “pure laine, the argot for a ‘pure’ francophone,” she wrote. Suggesting that the killers were all marginalized in a society that values pure French ancestry unleashed a ferocious storm of condemnation, particularly in Quebec, but reaching all the way to the Canadian Parliament.
Wong says she could have weathered it all if the Globe had stood by her, but it didn’t, she says. “My editor in chief refused to defend my family in Montreal and me against racist attacks, even when I asked for help,” she says. “The newspaper also declined to call the police when I received a death threat at the office. That’s when I fell into a clinical depression.”
The newspaper refused to believe Wong was ill and ordered her back to work. “That implicit questioning of my integrity prolonged and deepened my illness,” she says. In the following years, she fought legal battles with the paper and its health insurance company, winning settlements, and most importantly to Wong, the right to talk and write about her experience.
She pitched the idea for a book about work-related depression to Doubleday. It would include sections on the origins of depression, attitudes about it, how it has been treated throughout history, and how commonplace it is, but the narrative thread would be her own first-time experience with severe clinical depression and recovery. She warned Doubleday that she would be writing specifically about her experience at the Globe. Wong says that Maya Mavjee, Doubleday’s publisher at the time, assured her that it was an important topic and that Doubleday wanted the book.
Wong worked closely with an editor on successive drafts. The book was vetted by lawyers, and she had received word that it was headed for a final edit, when she got a call from Doubleday saying there was a problem. When they met, Doubleday, where Kristin Cochrane had taken over for Mavjee, told her they didn’t want to publish the book the way it was. Wong asked to look over the manuscript. All the parts about The Globe and Mail were highlighted. Meeting again, Wong told Doubleday that she could not rewrite her book about workplace depression without the workplace.
According to Wong, Doubleday denied that there was any legal pressure from the Globe. But in the end, Wong says, she and Doubleday “parted ways.” Tracey Turriff, senior vice-president, director of marketing and corporate communications for Random House of Canada, would only say: “We had a difference of opinion about the direction of the manuscript. We wish Ms. Wong all the best.”
Wong left with the rights, the manuscript and her advance. She took it back to her agent, imagining that it would be easy to sell to another publisher. “It was finished, it was lawyered, it was ready to go, who wouldn’t want it? Well, nobody wanted it,” she said. “I had two publishers who wanted it and who were overruled by the business side. “
“They are worried about the [Globe’s] clout, about bestseller lists, about reviews of their books,” but Wong says those were unfounded worries. “The Globe and Mail is a good newspaper. It has integrity. They would never skew their reviews out of some petty dispute with some individual.” Even in a time of shrinking review space, she doesn’t believe the Globe would punish a publisher by cutting review of its books.
Nevertheless, the situation left Wong’s book homeless, and she decided to self-publish. She saw online companies’ promises to edit and design self-published books for a few thousand dollars, but she wanted her book to be as good as if Doubleday had published it.
She got advice from one of the editors who had expressed interest in her book on how to self-publish and recommendations for the best people to help her. On that advice, she hired Paul Hodgson, who designed covers for books such as The English Patient and Life of Pi. Canadian printer WebCom printed an initial print run of 5,000 for Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption, and Yes, Happiness.
Wong hired a tech-savvy friend of her son’s to build a website where she could sell the book. A friend agreed to help her with sales. Initially, both Indigo and wholesaler North 49 Books said they don’t carry self-published books, but after seeing the book agreed to take it. Then Dundurn Press agreed to distribute and to take on sales and marketing.Demand for the book was strong enough that Wong ordered a second print run before the official pub date of May 5.
“I feel like I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to self-publish. I think a few years ago it would not have been possible,” she says. Despite the long road, Wong says “It’s been fun. I’ve learned a lot. I feel like a pioneer.”