Opportunities beyond borders

ART ON THE EDGE, By Duncan Weller
The Bologna Children’s Book Fair in Italy is an annual gathering of children’s book publishers from around the world.
Their primary goal is to sell rights for their best books to foreign publishers in order to have the books translated and printed in other countries. Some publishers, especially Canadian publishers, are not interested in buying rights to foreign books.
Whether buying or selling, publishers split the proceeds. The author and illustrator also get royalties out of the deal, although usually less than from books sold in their own country.
My last publisher sold the rights to my first picture book, Spacesnake, to Korea with no contract and no discussion. I got a cheque for $1,000, apparently a buyout fee, and 10 copies in Korean.
To this day, despite going through a lawyer, I still have no idea how many copies were printed, how many sold, and what was involved in the deal.
This was one of many infractions that made it easy to get the rights back for my three previously published books.
The last time I came to Bologna I approached publishers as an illustrator.
This was four years ago when two weeks were added to my trip due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland. No planes were flying due to the ash in the air.
I didn’t get any work out of that trip. For me it was a real learning experience. And it was great to see how bookstores in Italy are more popular than Starbucks in Canada.
Last week I attended the Bologna Book Fair, but this time as a publisher, with a mission to sell the rights to my books to other countries.
There were hundreds of publishers to choose from. Booths were filled with agents, publishers and their assistants, who spoke with prospective publishers, authors, and illustrators, usually in English.
The illustrators were easy to spot. They carried large black portfolios. I had a heavy little leather bag filled with my books.
With the current state of the publishing industry in Canada being in eternal crisis, with distribution being a major hassle in such a big country as ours, and now that Chapters/Indigo is officially a department store, it helps writers and illustrators to look beyond our borders. In my case the results could be fantastic, and could serve as an example of why it’s important to publish your own work rather than rely on a Canadian publisher.
Because I own the rights to my books, I can do what I want with the stories and the characters. I don’t have to sell universal rights to a Canadian publisher if I chose one day to work with one.
In Bologna I met with Beatrix Martin-Vidal, an author who doesn’t sell the universal rights of her stories to publishers.
“Many publishers are lazy, or they want too much control of your work,” she says. “They buy the universal rights but don’t sell the rights to other countries. I can make more money selling the rights myself.”
And she is quite successful at doing so.
I had six books to pitch to publishers, three of which I printed last year, draining my bank account of carefully saved $30,000. I’m a martyr for a cause, one reason I don’t own a car.
But Thunder Bay has been really good to me and I recovered the printing cost of my first self-published book, The Love Ant, within a year. And it was a real confidence boost. Thanks Thunder Bay!
In Bologna, the Germans screwed up their faces in disgust when flipping through my books, except for Spacesnake, the most modern looking of the bunch, apparently.
The French were cool, but one French publisher is interested in two of my books, Night Wall and The Boy from the Sun.
I met with a Quebec publisher and they were so enthusiastic that all of my books could be translated into French for distribution in Quebec fairly soon.
But the best reactions came from China, Taiwan, Japan, and Korea.
In fact the agents and publishers gave me a profound look of surprise. Not only was I the author and illustrator, but the publisher as well. They would repeat questions like, “This is your book?” or “You did the design yourself?” or “You published this?” or “You did the pictures too?” And they all wanted me to send pdfs of every book, enthusiastically handing me their business cards. I was a little taken aback by their interest.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that anything really promising could come from this, and I have to be careful not to get conned, but it’s certainly a great first step.
And hell, if I can do it, there are lots of talented writers and artists in Thunder Bay who can do it too.

(An artist and writer, Duncan Weller is a Governor General's Award-winner who lives in Thunder Bay. You may email him at duncanweller@hotmail.com.)