“Her passion for giving voice to non-mainstream writers has inspired her to swim against the tide in these harsh economic times,” says Desi News (Issue 31; December 2014) of Cheryl Antao-Xavier, publisher of In Our Words, Inc. (IOWI) in Mississauga, Ontario.
I met Cheryl a few years ago at a writer’s event when she introduced herself during a break as I was helping myself to my third samosa. We’ve since collaborated on several projects. The most recent is a literary anthology on what it means to live in Canada and be a Canadian. The call for submissions has just recently been made, so if you’re interested in submitting, check out Cheryl’s website here: http://inourwords.ca/the-literary-connection-volume-ii.html
Born of Goan parents, Cheryl grew up in Bahrain and then Karachi, where books were a rare treat. Cheryl shares the story of her aunt who taught knitting to women in a banking family from whom she borrowed books—Enid Blyton, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Nancy Drew and comics—for her book-thirsty nieces, who “would devour the books in no time!” says Antao-Xavier.
Quality books were a luxury, even at the university she attended. Cheryl recalls how the Karachi University library had a “chained book” on display. John Stuart Mill’s book was required reading for students of economics but there was only one copy in the KU library. It sat on a wooden stand with a chain running through its spine under a librarian’s guard and you had to book time with the book and wait long hours for a few minutes to make hasty notes.
When Cheryl immigrated to Canada in 1988, she found “book heaven” in the second-hand bookstores and libraries. Reading and owning books became an obsession that has endured to this day.
Cheryl worked for several publishing houses before creating her own publishing house In Our Words Inc. (IOWI). IOWI publishes a good variety of works, including literary fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry and children’s stories from both emerging and established writers.
About the work IOWI publishes, Cheryl told Desi News, “I delight in new and fresh voices; language with imagery; twists on the conventional; historical backgrounds with the angst of displaced or marginalized people. For writers with emotional ties to a heritage radically different from the Canadian experience, writing is a cathartic process. There are writers who have lived through cataclysmic events, whose stories are fascinating chips in the mosaic of Canadian literature.”
I recently whisked Cheryl off in Benny, my sentient ship, and settled her to a million dollar view in the aft deck as we circled the planet. I asked her about how she is managing with the industry doing virtual summersaults (as opposed to somersaults–well, it IS summer, eh?) these days. Here’s what went back and forth:
Nina: I was so intrigued by your story, I just have to start by asking you this: what’s your favourite book of all time and why?
Cheryl: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Read it umpteen times, saw both movie versions, have the Colin Firth series in my video collection. I looooove period fiction drama. Dickens, the Brontes, Hardy, to the more recent Forsythe Saga, Downton Abbey, etc. etc. My Dad had the full collection of Perry Mason and Zane Grey books. So of course I read them all. I love murder-mysteries from Agatha Christie to the present day forensic science stuff.
Nina: You have excellent taste! … What is your assessment of what is happening with print books vs ebooks vs audio books and such? Do you see one format winning over the other and how will that affect your own publishing model?
Cheryl: Print books should be around for as long as our generation who love holding a paper book survive. But ebooks are increasingly popular and have undeniable environmental merits. Publishing companies like mine have to do what you aptly call ‘virtual somersaults’ to stay current and cut costs to stay viable. Rather than publishing formats, what worries me more is poor quality books being published and the potential for declining readership in general. The tragedy of do-it-yourself print-on-demand software, freely available, is that anybody with passable tech skills can become a ‘published author.’ Books with flashy covers but no creative merit vie for reader attention and diminishing discretionary incomes. Also, media entertainment continues to steal leisure time.
Nina: Can you share some candid thoughts on the advantages and disadvantages for writers starting out in choosing the traditional publishing model vs alternative models such as indie or self-publishing.
Cheryl: The lines between traditional and indie/self-pub have blurred even more with the proliferation of print-on-demand options. Production costs have consequently plummeted. So the financial investment in an author/book has less of a risk. I would say, do your research. Make your manuscript super-strong, that means get it professionally edited, and then try the traditional route. Read publishers’ responses to your queries very carefully. It’s an opportunity to learn. If there are no takers, then research indie publishers and call, discuss contracts and options and make an informed decision. Make doubly sure that the traditional pre-production steps of editing, proofreading and professional design are not bypassed. Sometimes good content is smothered by verbosity and needs a good professional edit. Basic POD ‘template’ designs SCREAM amateur-DIY when they are set with no real imagination in big blocks of text, riddled with typos.
Nina: Do you see any specific roles for indie and/or self-publishing in helping to define artistic expression in Canada?
Cheryl: Definitely. The traditional big publishing houses can accept just so many manuscripts. So obviously they’ll go for the ones that are a sure bet. That’s where the diamonds in the rough can be missed out. Indie publishers who have the resources to work with authors to polish the content to its best possible advantage are ideally placed to bring new or even established voices to the mainstream.
Nina: What in your opinion is the major impact (both negative and positive) of the growing self-publishing model adopted by many writers over both traditional and indie publishing?
Cheryl: Occasionally I read and recommend self-published books for membership in a major professional writer’s organization. I also attend book launches and local literary events looking at books, particularly by self-published authors. The good thing is that these authors went that extra step to raise their voices in the literate world. They feel the satisfaction of being ‘published authors.’ The down side is that once something is in print, and particularly if it has not been professionally edited and designed, that book can end up being an embarrassment and a waste of time and money. Typos jump out at the reader and lower the credibility of the work and its creator. Ultimately, it comes down to what the writer wants to achieve by publishing.
Nina: What major change do you foresee in the book industry and the readership that will affect us? How and why will that affect IOWI?
Cheryl: Everybody loves a good story, and finds it worth their while to read well-articulated text. So the successful writers will be the ones who manage to engage their readers no matter what the genre. The challenge is also for a good book to stand out from the proliferation of new titles vying for attention in virtual and brick-and-mortar stores. I see social media, forums like Goodreads, and book tours/festivals being key arbiters in what bookworms find and opt to read. IOWI will continue to offer an indie publishing option that stresses putting out a good book. Something that both author and publisher can be proud of.
Nina: Tell us about your current projects and why they excite you.
Cheryl: IOWI is working on two anthologies currently, with a couple more in the planning stage. A Mississauga youth group is publishing their third anthology through IOWI. It is so exciting to see the writing and photography talent this group has attracted. We are so proud to be their publisher. IOWI has its own anthology The Literary Connection Volume II, with a theme of ‘My Canada’ due to be published by November this year. The call for submissions is already out and closes end-July. I am also working on pulling together a collection of plays by Canadian playwrights. It’s going to be awesome. My aim is to have writers meet with a professional writing coach, yourself Nina, to workshop their submissions into amazing work. I want these anthologies to be a credible contribution to CanLit.
Then another pet project is The Red Bench Project, which seeks to promote reading and literacy at the family and community levels. We must encourage the habit of reading for enjoyment. Bringing authors and public together is part of this project.
Nina: What three pieces of advice do you have for a new writer wishing to get published?
Cheryl: Write every day. Then spend some time editing and rewriting past work. Learn to write well through courses, mentorship or self-study.
Read voraciously and discerningly. Keep clippings or books of your favourite writers handy. Before writing, read a selection from these writers. It influences your own voice and jumpstarts your creativity.
Be guided by your need to publish your super-amazing manuscript. Not by your need to see your name on a book. If the content is not up to par, that novelty morphs into the proverbial albatross that haunts a fledgling writing career. If you are a serious writer: DON’T PUBLISH TILL YOU ARE READY!
Nina: Great advice, Cheryl! Thanks so much for joining me here and I do promise to get you back on the ground… Don’t the Great Lakes look beautiful from 36,000 km?
Cheryl: Thank YOU for the ride, Nina. Be well.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.