The Story of Portland: the Other Jamaica

Portland is located on Jamaica’s northeast coast. Situated to the north of St Thomas and the east of St Mary in Surrey County, it extends from the highest peaks of the Blue Mountains down to the north coast. It is one of the most luxuriant areas of Jamaica, known for its glorious scenery, fertile soil and fine beaches. The entire coastline is dotted with bays, river valleys, caves, hills and waterfalls.

For a long time Ken Roueche has been enthralled by Portland’s Eden-like beauty. He’s also fascinated by its dynamic history and its people; so much, he felt compelled to devote his literary skills to paying homage to the parish, a place Errol Flynn once described as “more beautiful than any woman”. The end result is his latest book Portland: the Other Jamaica which offers a glimpse into the history of the community and chronicles the lives of many of its “dreamers, schemers and crusaders” who, over the past 400 years, have left their mark on the parish. It also features over 45 images, including the works of local artists and many historic photographs that have never appeared in print before.

Ken who is Canadian is married to a Jamaican. His wife, Hyacinth comes from the Dry Harbour Mountains of St. Ann. They met in Toronto and in 1975 they got married in Jamaica. This marked the beginning of Ken’s ties with the island and ultimately led to him developing a strong attachment to the Portland community.  

“Portland has more mountains, rivers, flora and fauna and rain and perhaps has experienced more natural calamities than any other parish. That environment has shaped its history and has also attracted many dreamers and a few schemers, and still does … The people and the places of Portland have combined to create a parish like no other,” says Ken.  

In his chronicles of the parish, he notes that the unique geography of Portland provided a perfect homeland for the Windward Maroons as they fled the terror of colonial oppression under the leadership of their spiritual and military leader Queen Nanny. Although the government of Jamaica declared her a National Heroine in 1975, Queen Nanny has, to a large extent, been overlooked by historians.    

Ken added: “The 1739 Maroon Treaty was followed by the invasion of British planters with their toxic mix of slavery, violence and sugar. The end of slavery opened up abandoned plantations and mountain villages to modest opportunities for liberated slaves. Within a generation their sons and daughters were enterprising banana farmers responding to the call from Captain Baker to grow banana for the world … The Parish has also been blessed with great leaders including Captain Quao, Ken Jones, Sir Harold Allan and many others. In recent years Portland has also attracted the attention of Hollywood stars, starting with Errol Flynn and followed by queens, princes, princesses, barons, captains of Industry and more movie stars. And today the dreamers and schemers are still coming to Portland.”

It was about nine years ago that Ken started to develop his causal interest in history into a serious hobby. Since then he has researched and penned two historical narratives, including his first book A Fairfield History which recounts the history of his neighbourhood, Fairfield in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

It turns out he has two fascinating stories to tell; the story of Portland and its capital Port Antonio, and the virtual rite of passage that he had to endure to achieve his dream as a writer, publisher and bookseller. It is a tale of a man who is prepared to go to remarkable lengths in order to be true to his subject matter and to get his work out into the market.

A waterfall in Portland (Photo credit:Caribbean Flickr Group)

In the case of Portland: the Other Jamaica he is no less determined to get it into the hands of readers, especially the people of Jamaica and, in particular, the residents of Portland.

Like most writers, the odds were against him from the start. There seemed very little chance that Canadian and other metropolitan publishers and literary agents whose eyes are focussed on the bottom line, would have been willing to invest time and money in a book about the history and people of a parish in Jamaica. It promised to be no easier with the bookstores, even if he was able to get it into print. Self-publishing and self-marketing seemed the most viable option. He decided to take the plunge.

Initially he had tried to partner with other writers to research and write the book but it didn’t pan out. He decided to go it alone with help from the people of Portland. 

The rest is history. I found Ken Roueche’s account of his publishing and marketing experiences so intriguing, I invited him to share it with my readers and he graciously did in the following post.            

FROM FAIRFIELD TO STURGE TOWN AND BEYOND

In 2001 I started researching the history of my neighbourhood, Fairfield, a neighbourhood in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.  I thought I would like to test my skills as a writer and satisfy a curiosity about this beautiful place .  I am not an historian and my writing experience is fairly narrow.  Writing briefing notes for senior bureaucrats and Cabinet Ministers didn’t seem to offer up much scope for writing history. 

However, I discovered that writing precise, compact notes for people overwhelmed with information, or as I call it ‘the tyranny of the two page briefing note’, was actually helpful in trying to develop a compact history tailored to a wide reader base.

My first step was to write a series of nine articles for the community newspaper, the Fairfield Observer.  The editor was encouraging and more than happy to get free copy, with photos included.

Then, in the summer of 2003 my employment status changed, setting me free to do some consulting and to turning my hand to making my history project into a book.

The body of knowledge available on the many luminaries who have lived and worked in Fairfield provided me with the core material for many of the chapters. With the help of my dedicated editor, Tim Taylor, I was able to assemble the material in about 18 months.

While pulling the writing together I was also thinking about publishing.  Some of my advisers were initially keen to see me use a traditional publisher, “…let them take all the risks and pay you royalties”.

However, I determined that this book was not likely to be a big seller  beyond Fairfield.  Publishers were looking for sales in the thousands, not a few hundred.  I was also advised that publishers usually ask authors to help in developing a marketing strategy.  What marketing plan!  I was going to sell my book to the 14,000 people who live in Fairfield! 

I had also determined that I could probably finance the project myself, and maybe not lose too much money.

I also learned that the covers of a book are perhaps the most important pages.  The art work was created by Robert Amos, a well known Victoria artist and resident of Fairfield.  When I approached Robert about the project I told him I couldn’t afford to pay to commission original art work, his response was: “Don’t worry, I’m in, pay me an honorarium if you are successful, and you will be”. 

For the front cover Robert painted Dallas Road at Cook Street looking south to the Straits of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains, a vista that probably appears in some form, and there are many forms, a dozen times a year in the local media.  To me, it says Fairfield.

To get this great tome into print I now needed to find a print shop.  I then discovered Trafford Publishing and the wonderful world of print on demand.  For about $2500, including the cost of inserting 60 pictures (I would have done more but it was too expensive) my book was set up for printing. 

The total project cost to prepare the book for print, collect photos, pay archival royalties, commission a map of the neighbourhood and printing 250 copies was around $6000.

Meanwhile, I did a little research on book marketing.  I spoke to booksellers in Victoria and quickly recognized that this was not a route to profitability, at least not for a small time author/publisher. 

In my work with clients in industry I had come upon a concept called “guerrilla marketing’, shorthand for marketing on the cheap.  After reading “Guerrilla Marketing for Writers”  by Jay Levinson.  I distilled his one hundred rules down to four that served me well in selling my book:

             -never leave home without your book

             -get people to buy your book

             -get people to read your book, and

             -nobody can sell a book like the author

At this point I had also determined that the pricing needed to be simple.  I surveyed the prices of similar books in local book stores.  This led me to the:  “no change, no taxes, $20 gets you a copy of my book” strategy.  I hoped that this would help reduce the barriers to a sale.  I also built in a little extra insurance by paying a bit more for printing on 24  pound, rather than the standard 20 pound paper, giving the product a little more heft.

Several weeks prior to the launch an excerpt, “The Great Government House Fire” was printed in the Sunday edition of the Times-Colonist.  They even paid me for it!

 DAY ONE of “A Fairfield History” was July 15, 2005.  On the advice of Jim Munro, of Munro’s Books,  I delayed my launch until the day of the Moss Street Paint In.  The event draws up to 30,000 people for a four hour happening.  Not being a visual artist I couldn’t get a permit to be an official exhibitor, however like the folks holding garage sales and selling lemonade, I decided to crash the party.  I borrowed my neighbour’s front yard and set up my lawn chair.

 41 books sold at the Paint In and the total by week’s end was 71

 The $20 price was proving to be the right choice, I had made change  only once.

DAY SEVEN was the official launch, in our back yard, with Sir James Douglas (a.k.a. John Adams) speaking to the crowd.  56 books sold, for a total of 132

During week two I had my first media interview on CBC Victoria.  At this point I was also contacted by Cathy Sorensen, who had just opened a book store in the neighbourhood, Sorensen Books 1027 Cook Street.  Cathy saw my book as a vehicle to helping establish her presence in Fairfield.  I advised her that paying bookseller commissions was going to make it very difficult for me to break-even.  Break-even, hell I was just hoping to lose as little money as possible.  With gross revenues on about 330 books I could just about get my money back, with 40% commissions to book stores I would need to sell hundreds more books. 

We were able to work out a business strategy that helped ensure the financial viability of my project and make “A Fairfield History” the top selling book for Sorensen Books in their first year of operation.  The book is available exclusively at Sorensen Books.

DAY FOURTEEN I had a table at the Moss Street Market, a local farmers market in the neighbourhood, where I sold 10 books bringing the total to 222.

 DAY FIFTEEN I appeared on the Susan Woods Show on C-Fax Radio “Remember When” and two days later I appeared on the CH-TV, Noon Hour Program with Murray Langdon. 

Several days earlier I had met Murray at the Beagle Pub in Fairfield, while out trolling for customers.  I approached him with my usual subtlety: “Hey, aren’t you that TV guy?  You need one of my books”.  Remember, never leave home without the book.  His response, “…looks great, we need you on our show”.  I was able to answer a number of phone-in questions and announce a book signing for the coming Friday at Sorensen Books, which yielded 25 books sold.  Robert Amos was also in attendance and signed the cover art. 

DAY TWENTY-ONE Total sales 281 books.

 For the balance of the summer sales averaged about 4 per day.

DAY THIRTY-THREE, August 19th breakeven was reached, 333 books sold.

I have always enjoyed walking and, I now I discovered that walking was a great way to sell my book.  I estimate that most of my sales have been to people who live within a 20 minute walk of my home.  The $20 selling price was really reducing the barriers to on street sales. 

It was also apparent that many people were interested in my book  but not prepared, or able, to make an impulse purchase.  A hand-out was required.  Trafford Publishing had generously given me a kit of book marks, post cards and posters with the book cover image.  These were very helpful, but I burned through those in about 10 days and ordering more was going to cost several hundred dollars.  I determined that the most cost-effective hand-out would be a copy of the customized map of Fairfield that appears in the book, along with a write-up on the back with information on the book and where to buy it.  This seemed to work very well. 

The question, to those I passed on the street was: “Would you like one of my historic maps of Fairfield”.  Some people would declare, “No thanks I live here…”, go figure!

But, a significant number were prepared to take my map, some inquired about the reason for the map, some even asked to see the book and not infrequently a sale was made.  Encounters with a class of nine years olds, a room full of eighty year olds, visitors from Sacramento and San Antonio and a Jamaican cricketer all added to a very special adventure. 

This approach also seemed to be delivering customers to Sorensen Books.  Bookstore sales reached 250 by year end.  Boulevard Magazine also gave the book a recommendation, one of three, in their Christmas issue.  Total sales for 2005 hit 585.

The book was featured in the January issue of Senior Living Magazine, in the first issue of the Moss Rocks Review and was blessed with a Hallmark Society Award.  Sales to date are 819. More than double what I had initially hoped for!

The use of the print on demand services of Trafford Publishing has allowed to me to manage the financial risk and also ensure that I have a never ending supply of books.  There is no danger of being relegated to the discount bin, nor facing the end of supply and having the book sold at a premium price on Abebooks. 

Although the unit cost of print on demand is significantly higher than conventional printing it was the right choice for a novice author selling to an unexplored niche market.  I was able to order as few or as many books as I needed, with four day delivery.  The value of print on demand was  also enhanced by having the Trafford Publishing print shop in Victoria.

I am not certain if my modest success could be repeated.  I may have simply lucked onto a unique combination of circumstances:

             -a book hungry niche market that wanted this book

             -a small geographically defined market that readily suited             guerrilla marketing, and

             -strong support from a neighbourhood artist, a            neighbourhood bookstore and the local media.

The bottom line: it was gratifying to experience the strong response from my neighbours to “A Fairfield History”.  I am guessing that several thousand of them have been pestered by me as I wandered about Fairfield offering up my map.

In recognition of the unique circumstances that allowed for the success of my book I have declared, frequently and loudly, that I will be a one book wonder, well maybe. 

However, with a few dollars in my jeans from this surprising success:

remember the original objective was to lose as little money as possible I went searching for another history project, with others hopefully producing the majority of the content. 

That project, SURGE TOWN FREE VILLAGE, yielded a web site detailing the history of one of Jamaica’s first free villages and a calendar featuring the elders of the village.  However the project fell well short of my expectations, due in part to a lack of grassroots support.  But lessons learned:  I have since gone on to publish THE JAMES BAY SENIORS’ DIRECTORY and THE SOUTHEND ACES: A NANAIMO SOCCER DYNASTY, both again based in British Columbia and have been very successful.  The James Bay project had strong community support, including advertising revenue from neighbourhood merchants.  The Southend Aces project had a author, Bob Plecas, with ‘a fire in his belly’ to tell the story of his remarkable soccer team.

I have just recently launched PORTLAND: THE OTHER JAMAICA.  Further details are available at http://www.portlandtheotherjamaica.com   Hopefully lessons learned from the Fairfield, James Bay,  Southend and Sturge Town projects will lead to another success.

Ken Roueche’s contact details:

Tel: 2509-384-7606

email: kroueche@shaw.ca

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7 responses to “The Story of Portland: the Other Jamaica

  1. I love the Blog and this article about the writer in Portland is really good. I will be checking you for new posts.

    Caribbean Book Blog is fantastic!!

  2. Pingback: New Book: Portland: The Other Jamaica (Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, and Crusaders) « Repeating Islands·

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