Friday, January 20, 2023

Last Canadian, Last Copies

This past week marked the annual observance of the drastic 1990 cuts to VIA Rail Canada's network. The most notable cut was the removal of the Canadian from the CP route after 35 years. Also this week, I made the last shipment of my four books on VIA. The first, published in 2011, coincidentally marked VIA's first 35 years.

Hope all is well with you. Jason asked me to reach out to you. 
We would like to order more copies of the Trackside with VIA books.  
We are completely sold out  - Lystra

Even though I knew this day would come, it stopped me scrolling when I opened up Lystra's email from Rapido Trains. I've never wanted to end up with a basement full of copies of my books. The apocryphal story of surplus copies of Bytown Railway Society's Trackside Guides being bulldozed, some years ago, into landfill was heartbreaking. So all along, I've decided to keep my inventory of printed copies low. Previously, a sell-out was never really final, because I could always order more. Now, to have Rapido Trains getting the penultimate copies after 12 years of printing, it just seemed right. Bookends - delivering copies to Jason in June, 2011:

If you do publish your consists, I will certainly be ordering a copy. 
I think it would be a great reference both for railway history and for modelling.
 I would hope others see the value. - Jakob, September 2010

Jakob and I exchanged many, many emails. Perhaps more than Hillary Clinton and WikiLeaks! Emails about a variety of rail-related topics, from Kingston to consists. But always consists. His interest in seeing early-VIA consists was the main impetus for setting me on this publishing path. When I was mulling publishing in 2010 I didn't think Jakob had any idea that I'd scrape together 2,700 of them for my first book.

When people come to me and want to tell their story, 
I help them publish it as a book - Bryan

Until he said that, I knew Bryan worked at Allan Graphics as a graphic designer, but I didn't know he could help me create a book! For awhile, I was one of their best customers, because self-published autobiographies, family histories or poetry anthologies might only have single- or double-digit press runs. They referred to me as the guy with the train books. Perhaps the only thrill bigger than seeing a Proof Copy in my email inbox from Bryan was getting cases of books. Bryan even delivered them on his way home! Now that's customer service! Dave and his team at Allan Graphics published the books so professionally - I always looked through each copy before I mailed it and enjoyed doing so. 

Bryan thought it was odd when I mentioned to him I wanted a strict upper page count, thereby shipping weight, for my book. He said most people just have a story to tell, and it takes as many pages as it takes. I knew that based on Canada Post rates for Oversize Lettermail, that a 500 gram shipping weight was flat rate, and one gram over that meant we were in Parcel rate, with its inherent distance-based differences and fuel surcharges. As it was, I absorbed costs along the way. The rate for that Oversize Lettermail almost doubled. Padded mailers went up slightly, though still one of the best deals at Dollarama! I raised prices once, in 2014.

For each book I published, I started a blog. Usually, the next book idea and blog were begun as soon as the current book was printed. It was a handy way to document my progress, and perhaps to drum up some pent-up demand. After publication, I added reviews and connections made to each blog.  For my VIA books, I used the generic handle "NEWVIARAILBOOK" because I didn't know how many I'd end up with.

Making deliveries to Jordan and Terry in 2011.

The First 35 Years was a grandiose-sounding title. It's no wonder that hobby shops across the country were contacting me to send copies. My first book was published in June, 2011 and was birthed during a Canada Post labour dispute. I tried to be up-front about the book being mostly valuable consists, a little history. It was all useful information. But it was never a coffee-table book. Jakob and Jason were valued contributors. Perhaps the consist-heavy format worked against me and sales of my later books. Cross-Canada - 24 copies to Halifax, 20 to Vancouver, 12 each to Ottawa, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Merrickville, 20 to Mississauga. Those hobby shop orders would be halved for my next book.

"79 pages of useless car numbers in a book of 116 pages" 
- Customer who shall remain nameless.

Cross-Canada Compendium, published in October of 2012, was conceived because I was getting emails looking for more content from across the VIA network. But I could only publish what I had. So I needed more. Contacting contributors like Gary Hadfield, Robin Lowrie, Tom Box, Brian Schuff, Bruce Chapman and Jakob helped me do that. Brian sent me so many photos that we'd have weekly phone calls to talk about them. He has an encyclopedic memory that includes the photographer, date and location. Come to think of it, many of my contributors were the yin to my yang. Considering that part of the reason for publishing was a personal pursuit of preserving data and photos in some easy-to-find format, it helped to have input that was already well-balanced. The night that I woke up to 24 emails from Bruce Chapman was especially noteworthy.

When the Compendium swelled its riverbanks, it was time to create a concurrent companion volume. As a ally of alliteration, though trying not to make an assonance of myself, I chose another grandiose-sounding, and long title. The Cross-Canada Compendium Conist Companion. This smaller volume contained all the consists that had pushed the Compendium over the dreaded 500-gram mark. The Compendium would finally answer the question - did people really care about consists? Were they consist-crazy??

Bryan kindly makes a delivery of my second book (above). Colour sections in my two later VIA books made my cost 33% more, but how could I tell the stories of the riotous F40 wraps, the early-VIA rainbow years, and other kaleidoscopic kolours in black & white?

The VIA field lay fallow for about four years. I got the itch to do publish some research, trip accounts, and updates on what VIA had been up to in the years following my last book. To fill out Research and Recollections, contributors Tim Hayman, Don McQueen, Mark Perry and Mark Sampson came aboard. It was 2017. Bryan brings boxes of books on April 22, nearly the same date that CP's The Canadian debuted in 1955!
I delivered many copies of all these books, usually by mail from my dining room table. But my favourite deliveries were at Kingston's VIA station, to crews or passengers: Tim (below), Matt, Mark, Chris, Terry, Jordan, Dave, Andrew and Jason.
I'm no economics professor, but Bryan had always told me, go for bigger print runs! I was more cautious, and by the time I got to smaller print runs to maintain some inventory, the costs went up. Selling copies to dealers with a 40% discount left room for profit for them, and as much or less profit for me. I was making $1-2 per copy. The number of hobby shops had dwindled in the past decade. So had the market for printed books. But I was convinced and committed to getting it 'out there' that I continued filling customer requests. 

Did I get rich doing this? Or was it all about existentialism and filling the ether with VIA? At one point, a back-of-the-envelope calculation led me to believe I'd paid for a year of progeny post-secondary tuition. Sounds like a lot! Considering, however, that all that post-secondary education cost us well north of $100K, I wouldn't call that getting rich. But I was rich in satisfaction and pride - both publishing and parental pride. And it had been a good ride, on both accounts.

Cookbooks and novels sell, and I'm sure the Tibetan cookbook shelf even exceeds the VIA one. E-books, who knows? The limited success of non-fungible tokens and crypto-currency shows me that we're still living in a literal, hold-in-my-hand world. At least until the holographic, device-driven world finally displaces Gutenberg's glory.

The VIA book shelf remained a short one when 2022 rolled around. Kevin Holland had published his Morning Sun Books and VIA Historical Association books, and that extended the shelf. Otherwise, we still had Nelligan, Greenlaw, Shron and Gagnon. And during a Rapido Live, it was Shron who said, "Gagnon has published a few things", when hyping the upcoming VHA book, and I was watching. Fellow VIA book creator Chris Greenlaw and his dad Tom, chez Gagnon:

I'd printed books. They were never intended to shake the world. They were an effort to collate information and produce useful books for VIAphiles and for the reference of the author himself, encapsulating a corporate entity perenially at threat, under-funded, without a clear government mandate and begat by two dying passenger services in the 1970's. They were not just things, however. They were things, yes, but they were also books.

The books represent a truly rich collection of information published on the railway and I consider owning copies, a fortunate privilege. - Chris Mears

Publishing books makes you two things. An expert, and a target. An expert because people apparently think you must know everything about a topic when you put it on paper. Obviously not the case, when you believe like I do that 'the more you know, the more you realize you don't know'. I'm happy to wear the trappings of an expert, but they often feel like the emperor's new clothes. A target because people want to keep you humble, and to prove you aren't an expert, even in some small, seemingly trivial way. There are fun-loving VIAphiles, and then there are pedantic, poker-faced keyboard kurmudgeons who are the devils in the details. 

If you have an interest, or experiences that you've always thought would make a good book, or even a blog, wait no longer! Don't let anything you read in this post discourage you. I've had phone calls and emails about people considering their own book, and I've encouraged them. I know of one who has taken my advice, and some great photography of Kingston's Third Crossing bridge, all the way to the shipping dock. Success!

Fellow bloggers, magazines and newsletters kindly printed reviews (top photo from a review by Steve Boyko). I was invited to give pre-pandemic presentations in Ottawa, Toronto, Morrisburg and pandemic Zoom presentations to Winnipeg, Toronto and worldwide audiences, (because one never knows who's watching). It is said publishing is 10% writing, 90% promotion. I didn't spend a cent on advertising, though the promotion part was absolutely my least favourite part of the book creation process. Final totals of copies sold: 606, 352, 281 and 208, totalling 1,447.

The number of copies I now have on hand would not exceed the average LRC train length. Only Research & Recollections is completely sold out, thanks to Lystra and Jason's order! There will be no more printed. I want to thank Jakob, Jason, Bryan, Dave Allan and all of you who have been on this journey with me. It all seems like the Canadian on that cold winter's day in January, 1990 - a silvery, serpentine stream of escaping steam leaving behind years of wonderful memories.

Running extra...

When I someday write my memoirs, this post can serve as the chapter entitled, "I Could Write a Book!".

Fredrik Backman's book A Man Called Ove became Tom Hanks' latest vehicle, a film named 'A Man Called Otto.' You'll never guess how we got to the theatre - by auto to Otto. We thought we ought to. It was National Popcorn Day. Thanks, Cineplex Odeon Gardiners Cinemas, for the free small popcorn to help us celebrate!

No-one should ever agree to take a trip with Tom Hanks. His spacecraft had major problems, his ships are taken by pirates, and if he gets out of the airport at all, one of his planes crashes on a desert island, while the other lands in the Hudson River. Definitely something to Sully ones filmography!

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