It’s self-publishing on a grand scale. It took Tom Wilder 10 years and a C$1.2 million investment to publish The Conservation, Restoration, and Repair of Stringed Instruments and Their Bows. The three-volume, 1,600-page bible on the subject sells for $1,395, but so far sales are going well, says Wilder.

That’s good news for the Montreal violin maker and shop owner, who took out a second mortgage on his house in order to produce the books, and the cause he is fund-raising for, the International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative. The heartwood of the Brazilian pernambuco tree has been used for 250 years to make the finest bows for stringed instruments, but now the tree is a threatened species and IPCI is working to save the trees. Wilder did a print run of 1,500 copies of the books using the printer Friesens, and after a partial cost recovery on the sale of the first 500 copies, 50% of all receipts from sales will go to IPCI, increasing to 100% once production costs have all been recovered.

Wilder says about a third of the books, published last spring, have been sold. He thinks he’ll get his house back, but “it was a big risk,” he says. “I’m now more than 50 years old and I’ve been financially independent since I was 17 and I had to ask my mother to help me out with the printing.... If all the books sell in a timely manner, I should raise about $400,000 for the IPCI and get all my investment back, but it’s only money. It was the act of producing it, that’s the reason I did it.”

Wilder says he self-published because it was a fund-raising project. “If we had to go through a regular publisher, we were going to lose at least half the money if not more, and secondly, I kind of doubt we would have found a publisher” because it is such a specialized topic, he says. “I know my peers, in terms of the violin world,... and that’s why I figured I could do a better job marketing this than any publisher.... It’s a small specialized world.” Pre-publication subscriptions provided some assured sales.

Wilder did find a copublisher in Archetype Publications in the U.K. “They are the world’s foremost publishers of books in English for conservation, for restorers, or conservators in the museum milieu. They were the perfect partners,” says Wilder. “What that did for us is give us access to the institutional market, because if you are doing straight self-publishing, they are going to look askance at that, so this helped legitimize it.”
While Archetype is marketing the book to the institutional market, it was Wilder and his publishing team of more than 20 writers, translators, editors, and designers who created the books. The book had its beginnings at a conference of the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers about 10 years ago. The members had given minilectures to each other instead of inviting guest lecturers, and an organizer produced a booklet of the lectures. When someone suggested selling the booklet as a fund-raiser for IPCI, older members resisted, not wanting to publish trade secrets. “This trade is like that. It was very, very secretive until quite recently,” says Wilder.

“But the younger members, myself included, were very much against this way of thinking, and so I decided to take it upon myself to approach other members, whose ideas I liked, and do it on my own, outside the auspices of the federation.” As the idea developed, he put out a call for papers internationally, created a peer review process, and about two years later ended up with about 150 articles that formed the backbone of the books. But after that, there was still a long road ahead. Wilder hired director of publishing and executive editor Aurele Parisian, formerly an editor at McGill-Queen’s University Press to manage the massive project.

The finished product has been gratifying for Wilder, and the books have been well received in the music, conservation, and design worlds. The Conservation won Canada’s Alcuin Award for the best design of a reference work and best in show, and took first prize in the Coupe International Design + Image competition this year.