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Our Story: Iceberg Celebrates Ten Years

09-07-2012

On September 7, 2012, Iceberg Publishing hosted a very special Tenth Anniversary Gala reception at the Tannery Event Centre, in Kitchener, Ontario. Joined by approximately 80 of the company’s closest friends, Iceberg’s partners took the opportunity to reflect on the journey that had taken them to the start of their second decade of storytelling.

When Iceberg came together in the summer months of 2002, the future of the small, family-run company was largely unclear. The initial intention was modest: to publish Standing Tall: A Daughter’s Gift, after that book’s author, Jacqui Tam, ended negotiations with an agent.

“I had gotten the call every aspiring author dreams of,” Jacqui explains. “The agent loved my book, and was already pitching it to a major Canadian publisher. My feet didn’t touch the ground for days.”

An internationally-recognized communications professional with extensive editorial experience, Jacqui had wanted to be a writer from her youngest days. Her MA degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario set her on a path of professional writing and a communications career in her native Newfoundland, but her passion for creative writing continued. After the death of her father from Alzheimer’s in 1994, she found she needed to tell a very personal story. It was, however, not her story; it was his.

“My father and I had an incredible relationship. He taught me the power of unconditional love, the importance of respect, and so much more. And Alzheimer’s couldn’t take that away. I had to protect his story –– had to share what he taught me, and let people know that the disease, which destroys so much, couldn’t destroy the love that matters most.”

Jacqui’s manuscript resonated with a wide audience, initially being sold in a photocopied format at presentations she did for Alzheimer’s societies. This was the manuscript she submitted to agents and publishers –– the manuscript that led to the agent’s call.

“The problem came when we started talking terms,” Jacqui says. “There were certain things that didn’t sit well with me about the contract on the table. I kept asking questions, and bit by bit I got answers. Until finally I got the one answer that totally changed the path I was on.”

“The agent told me that, when I signed, he owned my dad’s story. I distinctly remember stopping and thinking… no one owns my dad’s story. I tell my dad’s story, and I try to protect it, but no one owns it. So I did what my father had taught me to do: I followed my gut. I walked away.”

It was a propitious decision; the publisher the agent had been pitching to went into bankruptcy protection within months, a victim of the changing bookselling system in Canada. Had Standing Tall been on its lists, the story might have been lost.

“I was lucky for a lot of reasons,” Jacqui agrees. “Around the same time this happened, I started to receive literature about the new print-on-demand technology that was emerging. Digital short runs were starting to change the way publishing could work. With so many things evolving in the industry, and knowing we had a unique blend of expertise right under our own roof, it just seemed right to publish Standing Tall ourselves.”

Iceberg was thus born, and though none of the partners quite remembers who came up with the name, it was a natural fit from the beginning, reflecting an experience Jacqui and her father shared when she was young.

Still, with only one book, Iceberg could have stopped as quickly as it began. It was the decision of Kenneth Tam, Jacqui’s son, to write for the company that solidified the family’s determination to grow Iceberg into the future. An award-winning university student at the time, Kenneth had submitted his science fiction novels to various Canadian publishers, and received slightly-more-than-passing interest. However, given his status as a partner in Iceberg, those expressions were declined.

“There really was nowhere else I wanted to write,” he says now. “It was just meant to be this way. We all write for the family company, and we grow from there.”

Growth was indeed the trajectory for the next five years; Kenneth wrote extensively in the realm of science fiction, first launching the Equations series, then Defense Command and His Majesty’s New World. His work was rapidly identified in the Canadian science fiction community, leading to a long run of guest appearances at conventions from coast to coast. Running workshops and regularly interacting with readers, he was often a repeat guest, and appeared at Polaris, Canada’s largest fan-run convention, for seven straight years.

During that time, new authors joined the Iceberg team: Wesley Prewer, who also worked extensively as a graphic artist for Iceberg’s science fiction series, John Fioravanti, who won an IPPY bronze medal for his non-fiction reflection on teaching, and Charles Chiang, who contributed to Wes Prewer’s Seas of Sand universe.

But with growth came limits; Jacqui’s work in communications for post-secondary education left her increasingly in demand. She was invited by the Association of Commonwealth Universities to be a member of the steering committee for their communications network, routinely judging international awards, and speaking at conferences nationally and internationally. Kenneth graduated with both a BA and MA in military history, and joined the staff of a Canadian Member of Parliament, serving as a Communications Consultant. These demanding roles began to curtail growth plans.

The stories, however, won out.

“Priorities definitely evolve,” Kenneth explains. “I was carrying Iceberg business cards in one pocket, and business cards with the House of Commons crest in the other. But what didn’t change was the love of the stories. We’d been with these characters for so long, and we knew people were connecting with them. We couldn’t just stop, so we slept less. A lot less, for a while there.”

Iceberg continued, still experiencing growth even as the global recession arrived in 2008. And fortunately, technology evolved with the company, reducing the time pressure.

As part of its ‘2010 Plan’, Iceberg began a relationship with the Ingram Content Group, and their Lightning Source digital printing and distribution service. It was a quantum leap in book production; instead of dealing with individual printers and distribution channels, Iceberg was granted access to a truly print-on-demand press that produces books of unprecedented quality, and which easily distributes those books worldwide.

“A lot of the logistical work was reduced,” Peter Tam, Iceberg Partner and CFO, explains. “The technology was better, and it allowed us to be more efficient with our time.”

The years since the implementation of the 2010 plan have seen Iceberg grow quickly. Its partners all remain committed to their careers –– Jacqui Tam as the Associate Vice-President of Communications, Public Affairs and Marketing at Wilfrid Laurier University, and Kenneth and Peter Tam now together in wealth management at Sun Life Financial –– but the new systems allow them to tell stories more easily, in less time, and with a broader audience.

Ebooks have been the most recent evolution, and as Iceberg moves into its second decade, that new format will play a considerable role. With their launch in January of 2012, Iceberg was given featured placement in Apple’s US iBookstore, introducing a new American audience to a company that had been –– and remains –– very Canada-focused.

“When [The] Rogue Commodore broke into the top 100 sci-fi and fantasy books on the US iBookstore, it was quite a signal for us,” Kenneth says. “The book was six years old at the time, but because it was a new market, we were finding a whole host of new readers. A good reminder that there are always new possibilities.”

Exploring those ebook possibilities will be a major part of the company’s second decade.

“We love print books, and always will,” Jacqui adds. “But ebooks are definitely important going forward. The ability to carry an entire library on a single device, to read wherever and whenever, is amazing. We’re finding ways to marry the formats, and create new storytelling opportunities.”

At the Tenth Anniversary Gala on September 7, the first series on this path was previewed. Continuing the story of His Majesty’s New World, Kenneth Tam’s The Champions will be designed from the outset to blend print and ebooks. Details on the serialized novella structure of the series will be released in October, but the partners are excited about the implications.

“Ebooks are letting us look back to the serialized way they used to tell stories in the old days of print, when costs were low. It’s a new way of breaking down a plot, and it’s very rewarding,” Kenneth explains.

The first Champions novel, Whitecoat, launches October 23rd. In the meantime, Iceberg’s partners continue to consider release schedules for 2013 and 2014.

“We have a few new projects in the works, and quite a few concepts on the drawing board,” Kenneth says. “We’ll see how Champions works out, and use it as a model as we move forward.”

That prudent approach reflects the limits the partners place on their Iceberg time, due to their career commitments. When asked whether a day will come when one or all of them  work exclusively for the company, Kenneth smiles.

“As long as I’m able to do right by my obligations to both places, I like having my cake and eating it too.”

Whatever time they allocate to their family company, one fact remains certain: Iceberg’s dedication to its stories is paramount.

“Nothing matters if the stories aren’t right,” Jacqui concludes. “Publishing is a difficult business, and in the end, it’s not worth the work unless the stories mean something to you. We won’t stop as long as the passion stays with us… and knock on wood, there’s no sign of it quitting on us any time soon.”

For photos of the Iceberg Publishing Tenth Anniversary Gala Reception, click here. Stay tuned to www.icebergpublishing.com for updates about upcoming series, and for the latest news about Iceberg Publishing.