Published May 2012
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Jan Wong’s second chapter
After fallout from a controversial newspaper article cost her a job (and, quite possibly, a book deal), the former Globe and Mail reporter turns to self-publishing
From the May 2012 issue of Quill & Quire
A little more than five years ago, Jan Wong, a prominent Globe and Mail journalist based in Toronto, travelled to her hometown of Montreal to cover the shooting at Dawson College, an incident that left one student dead. In a now infamous article, Wong implied a link between the violence and racial intolerence in the province. The comment enraged Quebec readers, and media and politicians were quick to pile on.
The initial aftermath for Wong has been well documented: a mountain of hate mail, anonymous death threats, and a very public scolding from her employer. But the long-range effects are less widely known. In the weeks and months following the Globe’s denunciation, Wong found herself falling into a deep clinical depression, one that further strained – and ultimately severed – her 20-year relationship with the newspaper. The experience appears to have cost her a book publisher as well.
Wong’s new memoir, Out of the Blue, chronicles both her depression (which left her unable to write for two years) and her acrimonious legal battle with the Globe, which she claims refused to pay sick leave or acknowledge her illness. Memoirs of depression from public figures are nothing new, but this one has two distinguishing attributes: it’s an account of workplace depression, something we don’t see much of because of employers’ tendency to be sensitive (read: litigious) about how they’re depicted; and it’s self-published.
That’s right, the author of four previous books (including the bestsellers Red China Blues and Beijing Confidential) is now going it alone. Out of the Blue was supposed to be Wong’s fifth title with Doubleday Canada, but she says it was abruptly dropped days before the book was due at the printer. According to Wong, she was offered no clear explanation for the sudden change of heart, but she’s convinced the decision can be traced back to the Globe. (Doubleday Canada declined to comment for this story.)
Out of the Blue had its genesis about four years ago, when Wong and her agent, John Pearce of Westwood Creative Artists, met with Doubleday Canada’s then publisher, Maya Mavjee, to discuss, among other things, Wong’s experience at the Globe. Wong says she told Mavjee about her depression, and explained that she’d like to write a personal account of her path to recovery.
According to Wong, Mavjee commissioned the book on the spot. “I said, ‘You know it’s going to be about The Globe and Mail,’” she recalls. “I was very clear on this because I knew it could be a problem, and I wanted to make sure they understood. And Maya said – I remember her words very clearly – she said, ‘We’re bigger than the Globe.’” With that, a contract was drawn up, and Wong went to work on the book, on and off, for the next three years.
Cut to: last fall. After dispensing with several unsatisfying early drafts, Wong arrived at a final version both she and her editor were happy with, then submitted it for the obligatory lawyering. According to Wong, the process took much longer than for her previous books, which might have been her first clue all was not well. In the end, however, nothing significant was removed, and the book looked set to go.
Then, in December, Wong says she was summoned to another meeting at Doubleday Canada’s Toronto offices. According to Wong, publisher Kristin Cochrane (who replaced Mavjee in 2009) told her there were fresh concerns about the book.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you send me an email outlining all of your specific concerns and then we can meet again in a week,’” explains Wong. A few days later, she was emailed the manuscript, with every mention of the Globe highlighted. “I started to laugh it was so weird,” she says. “But by then I was finally getting what they were really saying.”
Ultimately, Wong and Doubleday Canada agreed to part ways, with Wong receiving her full advance – which she describes as “not a trivial amount” – and rights to sell the edited manuscript elsewhere. Initially, the publisher insisted she sign a confidentiality agreement, but having been gagged throughout her legal proceedings with the Globe, Wong adamantly refused. In fact, she was already envisioning a new epilogue for the book, in which her former publisher would undergo the same criticism as the Globe.
“I told them, ‘You know what, you should just pay me – make this short – because the longer it takes, the longer the epilogue will be,’” she says. “And I wasn’t kidding.” In the end, Doubleday Canada dropped the confidentiality clause. (Wong did write that epilogue, but kept it to a brief four pages.)
After that, Wong and Pearce pitched the book to other major firms, and though several expressed interest, they all passed. Finally, she realized she’d have to publish the book herself.
Wong says she has enjoyed learning the publishing process. She commissioned book designer Paul Hodgson (who created the iconic dust jacket for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) to handle the cover and interior layout. She lined up Webcom to do the initial 5,000-copy print run, and hired a tech-savvy friend of her son’s to create ebook files, which will be sold via most major digital retailers. She also tapped freelance publicist Bruce Walsh to handle publicity, with coverage already scheduled for CBC, TVO, Chatelaine, and Maclean’s.
As Q&Q went to press, wholesaler North 49 announced it would carry the book in advance of its May 5 release. Though Wong was still in negotiations with major bricks-and-mortar booksellers about carrying the title, she told Q&Q that Indigo had already given her an unofficial thumbs up. The book is also available for direct order through her website, Janwong.ca.
“I’m just so glad this is finally being published,” she says. “I was devastated when [the book was dropped], because I didn’t want any more struggles. But a friend of mine said, ‘Look, the world is completely different now: you can self-publish.’ And I had to do this. This book had to come out.”