This is a tale of publishing success far and beyond what most writers will ever come close to accomplishing, and yet few North Americans know this author’s name.
He was born in Germany, as a child he barely survived WWII. He emigrated to Canada at 10, grew up in Kitimat, went to university, gained an M.A. and became a college instructor in the humanities. He is a husband, father, and educator, who, in the 1980s, traded academia for the creation of a life carved from his own talents as compelling as the stories carved into the iconic poles of the First Nations artists in his adopted home.
His name is Ulrich G. Schaffer. He lives in Gibsons, BC, in a house with an unobstructed sightline out into the Strait of Georgia where, perhaps the water helps waves of inspiration wash over him as regularly as the waves that lick the beach.
After initial success in the 1970s, with eight books published by U.S. publisher Harper & Row (Fitzhenry & Whiteside in Canada), he’s continued to write and to try and get the attention of publishers in North America to no avail. He still receives small royalties from these early, previously published works.
When he turned from North America as a place to market his books, and headed to Germany, his birthplace, he found his niche. Ulrich has written over 150 different books, poetry, novels, large format coffee-table photography books, illustrated texts and calendars.
To date, he has sold more than 5 million copies of his books, (yes, 5 million!), published and sold in Europe. They have been translated into 10 languages. His poetry, some traditional, most what he refers to as spiritual texts, is often accompanied by his stunning nature photography, a few of his reflection images here.
I think of his story as a tale of what happens when you’re a round peg trying to fit into a square hole and in a time of ever-shrinking traditional book publishing real-estate. But that would diminish his accomplishments.
For me, he offers an inspiring glimpse of what’s possible when you believe in your work, stay true to yourself and your dreams, and find a way to be entrepreneurial; to think differently about what’s possible.
It’s a story about how much a faithful audience matters, how loyal readers can take the soul of your books to their own hearts and remain keen to explore what you have to say, book after book, year after year. Perhaps it’s an extreme example of what happens when you find your audience, no matter where that might be in the world.
“Many people tell me they’ve lived with my books for 30 years. They write to me. They tell me stories about what the book has meant to them. They eagerly await the next one,” he says.
He is a man at the beginning of his eighth decade, married for 50 years to Waltraud Gursche. He’s especially intrigued by the complexities, the mysteries, and the possibilities in the connection between human beings. Fascinated by all types of love -deep, real, complex -not the idealized and bastardized version most of us have been raised on via television romantic comedies.
Ulrich first came to my attention in a conversation with Cathy MacLean, a classmate from SFU’s Writer’s Studio (2012). She met Ulrich when she was a student in one of his humanities classes at Douglas College in New Westminster in the 1970’s. It just so happens, they both now live in Gibsons.
In spite of more than a few anecdotes at frustrated attempts to get any publisher’s attention in Canada, he’s still hopeful he might find one again.
This year marks his 53rd trip to Europe in 33 years. On book tours, he typically visits 25 European cities and sells approximately $2000 worth of books a night. Without coming across as boasting, just matter of fact, he says, per book, he makes five times what he would make from a royalty off a book published by a trade publisher, which is how, in Germany, he’s made most of his income. He’s only switched to self-publishing in the past few years. He is currently working on a book about the relationship between Francis of Assisi and Clare.
I want to know why he even wants to bother with Canadian publishing given his success in Europe? Why does it matter to him? Is he still labouring under the stigma that only a book published by another is more valuable? Not really. After all, he has worked with those publishers in Germany. He says it’s this: At 71 years of age, he would like to focus solely on what he’s most passionate about: writing and photography, not publishing his own work.
Ulrich Schaffer’s desk
The view from his deck
This is how I decided to write this blog post. One morning I woke up, perused my Twitterfeed, and read a link that detailed the potential that exists for English writers via self-publishing in Germany. I immediately thought about a friend, Cathy MacLean, and Ulrich, a friend of hers that she’d mention in passing. I sent her an e-mail, got his number, and picked up the phone to enter into a delightful conversation. He’s sent me the PDF of a short novel called Izzabelle and Erich that, after his compelling description, I can’t wait to read.
So what do you think? Has your way of thinking about self-publishing changed in the last couple of years? Or are you staying steadfastly committed to the idea that landing a traditional publisher to push your story out into the world is the highest form of success when it comes to writing? If so, why?