Author Tags: Essentials 2010, Publishing
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The unplanned meeting that gave rise to Self-Counsel Press, the pioneer publishing house for self-help law titles in North America, occurred in New Westminster, between the Dairy Queen and the library, at a bookstore called Select Books. That’s where Diana Douglas was working when UBC articling law student Jack James entered with his newly self-published book, Divorce Guide for B.C. (1971). This was the world’s first self-help divorce guide.
Although she was the daughter of Jim Douglas, founder of J.J. Douglas, soon to be Western Canada’s best-known publishing house, Diana Douglas was not doing it Dad’s way. She had just left behind a one-year stint milking cows on 120 acres near Duncan, and ended up selling her Select Books to join James in his new business venture. As partners in business, then in life, Douglas and James had the right book when they wanted to untie the knot.
Douglas secured full ownership of Self-Counsel Press in 1984 and, as a single mother with three children, she built a plethora of how-to titles into an empire of sorts—International Self-Counsel Press Ltd.—often considered the most consistently successful publishing enterprise in the province. Divorce Guide for B.C. represents a hugely important category—books that mainly impart useful information—and it was not only the basis for one of the country’s most durable publishing enterprises, but also the start of a new genre: self-help law books.
There are hundreds of guidebooks, how-to books, or advice books from B.C. They seldom get reviewed, and they are ineligible for grants, but they are vital literature. Betty Pratt-Johnson’s guide to scuba and skin diving in B.C. and Washington, 141 Dives (1976), went through eleven printings until it was updated and expanded to become two companion volumes in 1994, then revised again as 151 Dives (2007). Mary and David Macaree co-wrote 103 Hikes in Southwestern B.C. (1973) a classic regional title that has reputedly sold more than 100,000 copies and been reprinted six times. The Orca Books imprint in Victoria arose after its founder, Bob Tyrrell, an English teacher, self-published Island Pubbing (1984). Book distributor Nancy Wise of Kelowna and Marion Crook did everyone a favour by co-writing How to Self Publish and Make Money (1987).
Having self-published Divorce Guide for B.C., Jack James, a UBC articling student, walked into Select Books in New Westminster, between the Dairy Queen and the library, and met bookseller Diana Douglas in the early 1970s. Theirs was a guidebook romance. Although Douglas is the daughter of Jim Douglas, founder of J.J. Douglas, forerunner of Douglas & McIntyre, western Canada’s best known publishing house, at the time she was leaving behind a one-year stint milking cows on 120 acres near Duncan. She wasn’t doing it Dad’s way. James and Douglas partnered in business, then marriage, then untied the knot. They knew how. She bought Self-Counsel Press in 1984. A single mom of three, Douglas built a plethora of how-to titles into an empire of sorts—International Self-Counsel Press Ltd—often considered the most consistently successful publishing enterprise in the province.
[For books of advice and guidance, see abcbookworld entries for Abramson, Arnold M.; Aiken, Sean; Aitken, Neil; Alei, Ariole; Anderson, Suzanne; Argent, Judith; Ashford, Mary-Wynne; Austen, Stephen; Bakas, Tania; Barlas, Aqlim; Batchelor, Bruce; Bell, Sarah; Belshaw, Cyril; Bendall, Pamela; Bennett, Guy; Bewsey, Susan; Bosworth, Brian; Brazier, Brendan; Brooke, Paula; Bruckner, Virginia; Buente, Gail; Burgess, Ann Carroll; Burich, Helen; Burnett, Bruce Ian; Cameron, Nancy J.; Cardinal, Maurice; Chang, Ginger; Charleson, Mary; Christian, Jean; Cochrane, Don; Cohee, Allison; Connelly, Dolly; Coombs, Ann; Copeland, Andy; Copeland, Kathy; Corbel, Eve; Corrigan, Boyd; Cottam, Kevin J.; Couper, Jim; Cramp, Beverly; Dalian, Eliza Mada; Davis, Akeela; Davis, Barry; Derbitsky, Harold; Diamond, Ruby; Dixon, Norma; Dobson, Charles; Donnelly, Louise Miki; DuMoulin, Barbara; Eaton, Diane; Eker, T. Harv; Ferguson, Julie H.; Ford, Collene L.; Foster-Walker, Mardi; Franklin, Jill (a.k.a. Satya Bharti); Frobb, Mark; Gannon, Lorraine; Garber, Anne; Giannone, Kelly; Gibson, Katherine; Goheen, Duncan; Goodwin, Margaret; Gordon, Donald; Gosse, Bonnie; Gothe, Jurgen; Gottberg, John; Green, Valerie; Greenwood, Michael; Griffiths, David; Gross, Jessica Berger; Gysi, Werner M.; Hall, Daryl; Hall, Scott; Harmon, Tanya; Heinrich, Linda; Helliwell, Tanis; Hempstead, Andrew; Hesse, Jurgen; Hickling, Meg; Hiebert, Bruce; Hister, Art; Holmes, Douglas; Horak, Wence; Hudson, Rick; Ince, John; Jamal, Azim; James, Dawn; James, Jesai; Jane, Kaycee; Janson, JoAnn; Jayhmes, Jasai; Jennings, Lynn; Johnson, Eileen Rickards; Jones, Vincent; Kaellis, Eugene; Keating, Kathleen; Keator, Glenn; Kenyon, Janice; Kimura, Manami; Kootnekoff, Jon-Lee; Kramer, Pat; Kuntz, Ted; Kyra, Suzanne; Lake, Kathrin; Latremouille, Louise; Lautsch, Brenda; Lawrence, Iain; Lee-Son, Jacqueline; Legault, Stephen; Leggo, Carl; Lewis, Jim; Lightfoot, Marge; Lim, Sylvia; Losier, Michael; Lydon, Christine; Malet-Veale, Decima; Mallard, Colin; Mapleton, David H.; Matthews, Carol; Mavrow, Cecilia; McArthur, Dannie; McBeath, Charleen; McCurdy, Diane; McFetridge, Grant; McGaw, Darry; McGuckin, Frances; McPhee, Harry; Meikle, Marg; Melina, Vesanto; Messier, René L.; Miller, Saul; Milton, Lorraine; Mina, Eli; Moshansky, Tim; Moskovitch, Deborah; Moulton, June Fuller; Mucalov, Janice; Munro, Deborah; Naiman, Linda; Nault, Kelly; O’Hara, Bruce; Obee, Bruce; Ogden, Frank; Ogden, Reg; Osing, Ray; Patterson-Sterling, Catherine; Pattison, Kenneth Manning; Paul, Kevin; Peterson, Lois J.; Petrie, Anne; Plant, Albert; Pocock, Christopher L.; Poteryko, Derek; Powell, Elinor D.U.; Rains, Elizabeth; Reeves, Nancy; Reid, Judith; Reigh, Maggie; Richardson, Pamela; Richardson, Ron; Rickwood, Lisa; Robbins, Emma Mae; Rosenbluth, Vera; Ryan, Liz Mitten; Sandborn, Calvin; Santiago, Geraldine; Schendlinger, Mary; Setter, Doug; Seyd, Jane; Shaw, Matthew; Sikundar, Sylvia; Skinner, David; Slade, Robert M.; Sosnowsky, Cathy; Stephens, Richard; Stewart, Gordon; Stewart, John Thomas; Strong, Kenneth V.; Sutherland, Jessie; Syberg-Olsen, Ebbe; Tait, Stephanie; Taylor, Debra; Thompson, Peggy; Thomson, Robert S.; Tillotson, Betty; Tully, Brock; Vesey, Maureen; Vincent, K. Louise; Wagar, Samuel; Walsh, Brian; Walter, Ryan; Welbanks, Douglas P.; Werschler, Terri; Wheatley, Tim; Williams, Nicole; Wilson, Colleen; Wilson, Tony; Woollam, Ray; Yap, James; Yu, Mei; Zimmerman, Lillian.] @2010.
International Self-Counsel Press
IN A FLOOD OF 'FREE MARKET' FRENZY, if all support for publishing in Canada was suddenly withdrawn, one major B.C. publisher could weather the storm easily.
That's because in terms of 'marketing', that prime buzzword of the 1980's Diana Douglas is peerless. Her 17 year old Self-Counsel Press is the Canadian non-fiction equivalent of Reader's Digest, making long stories short for book consumers who want packaging more than profundity.
For anyone wanting low-cost, accurate information on law, business, personal and self-help topics, Self-Counsel titles can be found in bookstores, public and corporate libraries, stationery and office supply dealers, storefront legal services, mega food stores, drug stores and news stands.
"The operating philosophy of Self-Counsel is simple and practical," says Douglas," Anticipate a need for basic, understandable information or methods of saving money, and fill that need by publishing an informative and clearly written 'how to' book priced between $5.95 and $14.95."
Self-Counsel has consistently amassed greater sales than every other B.C. publishing company except Douglas & McIntyre (a company founded by her father, Jim Douglas). But because Self-Counsel's 95 current books, not including form kits, have such titles as Landlording In Canada, Tax Shelters, Fundraising for non-Profit Groups and Design Your Own Logo, press coverage is minimal.
"'Of course we're disappointed at the lack of attention our authors receive from the traditional book reviewers," she says, "One of our goals is to have a Self-Counsel author finally interviewed by Peter Gzowski on CBC Morningside then surely we would be culturally significant.
"But we are encouraged and supported by business publications, lifestyle reviewers, newsletters and consumer and special interest groups."
Since making the first B.C. Divorce Guide in 1971, Self-Counsel has produced 176 titles at a rate of 10-12 new titles per year. Douglas says consistent sellers are an incorporation guide (200,000 sold, 65,000 in B.C.), a book on wills (186,000 sold, 62,000 in B.C.) and divorce guides (160,000, 65,000 in B.C.). Starting a Successful Business in Canada, she, has sold 150,000.
The popularity of such books is' a direct disadvantage when it comes to current funding guidelines for Canada's publishers. In a nutshell, "arty' books or books which have 'cultural value' have traditionally received Canada Council support: Self-Counsel titles like Every Parent's Guide to Understanding Teenagers and Suicide and Marriage and Family Law have not.
"If you are a publisher who chooses to publish a 'self-help' title, but does not clearly identify it as such, you can be eligible for funding assistance," says Douglas, "'To us, this is inconsistent and unfair as we must then compete with these titles in the marketplace without support.
"We strongly feel that a review of Canada Council guidelines and eligibility criteria should be done."
Self-Counsel's staff of 25 entered the personal self-help market in 1985 with titles like Family Ties That Bind, plus they've commenced a series for seniors that includes Jurgen Hesse's Mobile Retirement Handbook and Henry Hunnisett's Retirement Guide for Canadians, now in its 9th printing. With one of every five Canadians expected to be 65 or over by the year 2021, a new Self-Counsel title for September is Wise & Healthy Living: A Commonsense Approach to Aging Well ($9.95) by the medical team of Richard and Brenda Breeden Underwood.
Also well-timed is Ernest Rovet's The Canadian Business Guide to Environmental Law (Self-Counsel $8.95), giving a lawyer's view of how to comply with complex regulations on a province-by-province basis, plus providing advice to businesses, large or small, about responding to environmental lobbyists, media and government officials.
"I'm very excited about the future," says Diana Douglas, "and I'm proud of our publishing and marketing efforts and our staff who make it happen.
"The only difficulty we face is a continuing negative attitude by some of the publishing community and government funding bodies towards our publishing program.”
It's one thing to be placed at the back of the bus. It's quite another not be allowed on the bus at all.
But Diana Douglas remains diplomatic and optimistic, continuing to participate in Canadian and B.C. publishers' associations from her minority and understated position where nothing's wrong if the customer is always right.
[Autumn / BCBW 1988]
Diana Douglas wins Jim Douglas Publisher of the Year Award
Press Release (2012)
from Assn. of Book Publishers of BC
Diana Douglas, co-founder of Self-Counsel Press, is “driven by the desire to empower people” and this her company has achieved in spades. As a pioneer in the world of do-it-yourself legal guides, Self-Counsel Press has given millions of readers the power to write a will, start and run a business, buy a franchise, prepare a separation agreement, and write screenplays or romance novels. In the spirit of demystifying legal and business concepts, the books are all written in clear, accessible language.
Founded in 1971, Self-Counsel Press’ first title was the BC Divorce Guide, a book that is now in its 28th edition. Divorce guidebooks have since been produced for all provinces and territories making it overall Self-Counsel’s bestselling title.
Under the direction of President and CEO Diana Douglas and Publisher Richard Day, the company now produces 10-12 titles a year and revises and updates another 30 or so. This spring Self-Counsel will make available their entire backlist in digital format and in future will be releasing digital and print copies simultaneously for new titles and revisions.
In 2011, Diana Douglas received the Association of Canadian Publishers’ President’s Award along with 11 other pioneering Canadian women in publishing. It was a well deserved honour as Diana has contributed countless hours on the boards of both the ACP and the Association of Book Publishers of BC. Her business acumen and wicked sense of humour have contributed much to our industry and the collegiality among its members.
Last year Self-Counsel Press celebrated its 40th anniversary; next year Diana will have directed the company for 30 years as sole owner. Diana has spent her life in books as a bookseller, a book rep, a publicist and a publisher. She will accept the Jim Douglas Publisher of the Year Award at the Association of Book Publishers of BC Awards Dinner on April 19th, 2012 from her father Jim Douglas, founder of J. J. Douglas, now Douglas & McIntyre.
The Jim Douglas Publisher of the Year Award is presented as deserved to an active BC book publishing company that has, in recent times, earned the respect and applause of the community of publishers for a specific publishing project, an extraordinary contribution to the BC publishing community, and/or its extended commitment to excellence in publishing. Jim Douglas was founder of J. J. Douglas Publishers which became Douglas & McIntyre.
The story of Self-Counsel Press
Self-Counsel Press was the first in the world to produce a divorce guide or any do-it-yourself legal guide. Here co-founder and president Diana Douglas recalls the origins of her company.
Back in 1971, if you had wanted a simple uncontested divorce, it would have cost you $800 in legal fees. Even though lay people had the right to represent themselves, you still needed the services of a lawyer because the legal profession guarded the process as well as the necessary legal forms.
That year I met a young articling law student named Jack James who had been approached by a lady friend who couldn’t afford the $800 for a divorce, so he coached her and provided the actual forms. The name of any law firm being conspicuously absent, this divorce caught the attention of court reporters.
By the time her court date arrived, the room was packed with local media. The judge, who perhaps would not have been so gracious without them, played to this large audience and helped her through the process. The cost of this divorce was $29 and it was widely reported throughout B.C. We were besieged with mail from people begging for the “information.”
That was the start of Self-Counsel Press. From the beginning the goal of the press was to empower people, at an affordable price. This is still the goal today.
I had started out working in Albert Britnell’s bookstore in Toronto. It’s long gone now but it was very prestigious! Not only did I cause a customer to scream at me within the first week working there—how was I to know you don’t ever, ever touch Glenn Gould’s hands?—I also accidentally set off the fire alarm. The ensuing madhouse of lumbering fireman with big dripping hoses snaking throughout the multi-level store, tripping up the Rosedale matrons, nearly gave dear Mr. Britnell, Sr. a heart attack.
We moved to Vancouver where I worked for Duthies’ Books. I remember fondly Bill and Mackie Duthie. And of course I remember bookseller Binky Marks who ran the downstairs paperback section and who realized his dream by dying in the arms of a hooker at a book show, or so the story goes.
I never worked in a publishing house but I learned what I knew by osmosis, just listening to my dad, Jim Douglas and his stories, as he was starting up J.J. Douglas Ltd.. It was a free education. Years later, after he had retired from Douglas & McIntyre, I was able to pay for his consulting advice but at the family rate. As we good Scots know, that is at least 25% higher than the going rate.
Everything I really needed to know about running a publishing company I learned while running a dairy farm. Long hours, poor pay, shoveling you-know-what. As well as finding out that cows are not the docile and sweet animals that you think they are.
Jack and I became business partners and life partners, but neither partnership would last.
Our BC Divorce Guides were being cranked out as fast as possible on an old AB Dick Press, which kept breaking down. We sold that AB Dick Press, without telling the bank that unfortunately held a collateral mortgage on it, and used the proceeds to pay for a decent-sized print run from an Ontario printer. The bank readily forgave us as we were able to pay off the loan very quickly after that.
I sold my bookstore in New Westminster, and Jack and I devoted ourselves full-time to Self-Counsel Press. This was the same bookstore next to the New Westminster Public Library and the Dairy Queen where I would meet UBC librarian Basil Stuart-Stubbs for burgers.
At Self-Counsel Press we were hearing from many of our divorce customers; they were thrilled to have successfully represented themselves and saved lots of money in the process, but now they wanted us to help them ‘help themselves’ to incorporate companies, probate estates, write wills, handle small claims actions, real estate issues, landlord tenant problems. Most important of all, they wanted to know how to fight that traffic ticket!
We were dealing with a legal community that jealously guarded their lucrative territory. Jack struggled to find lawyers with the experience and progressive attitude to write the guides. Mainly our authors were young, fresh out of law school and willing to challenge the establishment. Now they, too, are the establishment, as QC’s and judges.
While Jack was out signing up the authors, I was busy handling the production, sales, and distribution. And then it hit us: we had to get to Ontario fast to duplicate this core list of legal titles before another publisher followed in our footsteps. We quickly packed up and moved to Toronto for three months that winter, signing up authors and finding a sales rep.
Returning to Vancouver, we moved our operation into the downstairs floor of a house on the Upper Levels in North Vancouver, living in the upstairs portion. Eventually we had eleven people working in that house, and the one next door, before we moved in 1983 to an office/warehouse down near the Second Narrows Bridge where we remain to this day.
Back in the basement of that house we were expanding our legal titles into Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and the Atlantic provinces. Increasingly our buying public was asking us to publish easy-to-read information to help them in their business ventures. We realized that the business titles of the day were American-based, written for MBA graduates and mostly published in hard cover.
The fact that 80% of all small business owners had only a high school degree convinced us to start producing step-by-step paperback titles for the small business person on subjects such as accounting, sales, marketing and business plans. Just trying to do my business on the phone with two little kids underfoot was a challenge.
My solution was to have a big bowl of Smarties on my desk and when the phone rang I would grab a fistful and throw them madly around the room for the kids to scramble after them. Not too sanitary but it did buy me a few minutes of quiet to conduct some business.
Jack, as a gift for me, had a small portable light table built so that I could continue to paste up our books in bed at night. Not romantic but effective. How many folks today can remember how we had to paste-up the book’s pages from the typeset material on thick lined paper? A double spread was called “cats and dogs,” I think. All the typos or corrections had to be glued in, line by line, really straight.
In 1983, my life-partnership with Jack was at an end. We got our divorce under the Companies Act and it cost a lot more than $29. I bought him out of Self-Counsel Press.
In 1987, I hired a consultant, referred to me by my father, to prepare a marketing plan to further our expansion into the U.S. When the plan was presented to me I asked this consultant to become my partner in the U.S. operation and to put her plan into motion. So began a wonderful business partnership. Self-Counsel Press expanded and flourished under her management, but more importantly I had found a great friend in Pat Touchie, who married Rodger Touchie, now her business partner in the very successful Heritage Group.
Self-Counsel Press has enjoyed a history of attracting really good people, many of whom worked with us for decades before retiring. They took pride in the quality of the titles they produced—justifiably so, as we have never been sued in 40 years. Self-Counsel, through their efforts, became a brand you could trust. I got into publishing serendipitously... hey, I could have stayed in dairy farming…and I realize now how incredibly lucky I have been to spend a huge chunk of my life in the publishing community.
Acceptance speech by Diana Douglas on April 19, 2012 at the Arbutus Club, Vancouver, receiving the Jim Douglas Award on behalf of Self-Counsel Press.
Self-Counsel dditor runs for mayor
Kirk LaPointe, formerly managing editor of The Vancouver Sun, became the NPA candidate for mayor in the Vancouver civic election of 2014, while employed as Editor-in-Chief of Self-Counsel Press, a venerable book publishing imprint since 1971. BC BookWorld invited him to share his thoughts on publishing, politics, technology and the future.
When I last looked up from my screen, pretty well everyone had an opportunity to be a journalist of some sort. This is largely for our good. Technology has given us the equivalent of a printing press or a broadcast outlet, and even if we are still at the nascent stage of digital journalism, the possibilities render us breathless.
In an era of abundance, though, the pressure is on to differentiate when there is so much near-duplication. Standards matter more to journalists and publishers when so many can chronicle the same events and gather the same information. Gathering and presenting facts always have been important, but the provision of meaning is emerging as a much more valuable function for journalism. Lots of dots out there, so journalism needs to connect them. Context matters more and more in this sea of data.
If good journalism is about serving a community’s knowledge needs, then its success depends on identifying jobs to be done. Which is why a publisher like Self-Counsel Press strikes me as more valuable in this climate. At its most ambitious, SCP is practicing the new journalism: helping someone do something, finding a pragmatic solution, usually saving time but always saving money in the process. With so much see-it-for-yourself content on the Web, is it any wonder we have many more do-it-yourself people emerging? Still, they need help.
Self-Counsel has been alive for almost half a century. Like all publishers, it appeals to the large segment of society that likes to read. Unlike some, though, it is not about escapism, fantasy and fiction; it is about taking control of a challenge, about flexing a cerebral muscle group and knuckling down to get the task completed, and about finding a new success inside yourself in the process.
Thus, if journalism is about identifying jobs to do, Self-Counsel is about doing those jobs you identify. We publish mainly financial and legal titles, but this autumn you find us expanding into the environment, immigration and information policy. The possibilities for this self-helping, solution-seeking field can also, like the technological advances upon us, render us breathless.
Our books are quaint antidotes to the distracting, bottomless well of the Internet. I hear regularly from skeptics of our company that the information we publish is widely available on the Web. Which is true, if you want to spend dozens and maybe hundreds of hours searching, sifting and satisfying yourself with little or no guarantee what you’ve read is authentic, verified or applicable. SCP is about focus and application, not surfing and clicking.
In the end, a great journalist once told me, we will be supported for editing. We will be the information assistants who comb through the haystack and find the needle. A passion to learn and do isn’t always a passion to research and evaluate, so we submit to experts with credentials.
That is what Self-Counsel authors do. They have spent time to save you time. They stand behind what they have found as professionals. They confer credibility and they build a covenant with the reader, just as a good newspaper or broadcaster would.
Our value proposition, then, is the creation of new forms of literacy and facility in economics, justice, conservation and citizenry that flow from our titles on everything from filing for divorce to filing a freedom-of-information request. The public sphere is awfully big, now that we have the Internet, but we have plenty of room for quality as we gallop ahead with quantity. We want to fill that space.
Lately, of course, my own focus has doubled. Within weeks of arriving at Self-Counsel, someone took me for lunch and asked if I’d be interested in running for mayor of Vancouver. I half-expected someone to come out from behind a wall and point to the hidden camera; that still might happen, I suppose, but it would be a little late now to call it off. The election is November 15.
I am the candidate for the Non-Partisan Association. It’s an interesting name for a political entity, but it suits me. I’ve never been a member of a political organization, and I’ve parked my biases to the best of my ability in my three-plus decades of journalism.
The organization I now run (temporarily, if I lose) in politics is strikingly like the organization I help run (temporarily, if I win) in publishing: serving the community, trying to solve problems, staying practical and grounded. I love that space.
For anyone looking for how I can apply my career to my ambition, here are some clues:
-- I have fought for transparency in government, so I want to deliver on that.
-- I have found the greatest success in collaboration and consultation, so I want to ensure that.
-- I know the value of the arts in our identity and economy, so I want to reinforce that.
-- I know the life-changing importance of sending schoolchildren home for the summer with a bag of books, so I want to commit to that.
Those books for the summer as a child for me usually came from the library, and without them I would not have acquired the language of writing, nor the confidence of storytelling, nor the path to management and now public life. Way back then, cities cared much more about their libraries, and I hope I can do something in an age of Kindle to rekindle our connection to the old-style library (the new-style library being Starbucks/WiFi).
I have spent a little time around the field of literacy and gained grand respect for those who bring the skill of reading to life in a life. A reader as a child might become an SCP reader, and doer, as an adult.
I have spent my career asking questions. Now I can find answers. I have pointed to problems. Now I can find solutions. Public service, whether in journalism or publishing or public life, is about that.