JENSEN, Vickie

Author Tags: Anthropology, Art, First Nations, Fishing, Maritime, Women

Vickie Jensen is a writer, photographer and editor who worked with and written about Aboriginal culture and people for more than 30 years. With her husband Jay Powell she has produced 30-40 schoolbooks in a variety of Aboriginal languages and co-written Quileute: An Introduction to the Indians of LaPush (1976). Their substantial archive of field notes and 55,000 images will be preserved by UBC's Museum of Anthropology in 2009.

Jensen also chronicled the carving and raising of a totem pole designed by Nisga'a carver Norman Tait for the Native Education Centre in Where The People Gather: Carving A Totem Pole (1992). The title was derived from the name of the totem, Wil Sayt Bakwhlgat, meaning ‘the place where the people gather.’ Her collaboration with a Nisga'a totem pole carving crew was repackaged and republished in paperback as Totem Pole Carving: Bringing a Log to Life (2004). It also resulted in a children's book Carving a Totem Pole (1994). Jensen later wrote and published The Totem Poles of Stanley Park (2004). Jensen and Powell designed and wrote the CD Rom project Nagwa'am for U'Mista Cultural Society (2001). Jensen later wrote and published The Totem Poles of Stanley Park (2004).

As the editor of Westcoast Mariner magazine, Jensen travelled on coastal tugs, charter yachts, dredges, ferries and water taxis for nearly four years, interviewing skippers, crews and owners about maritime work. She is the author of Saltwater Women at Work (1995) and a student guide Working These Waters (1996). She is also the co-author of several niche books including Build Your Own Underwater Robot and Other Wet Projects (1997) and Build Your Own Programmable Lego Submersible (1998), both of which she self-published.

B.C. has long been at the forefront of underwater robotics! Who knew?! Vickie Jensen and Harry Bohm’s Underwater Robotics: Science, Design & Fabrication ($99.95) is a follow-up to their Build Your Own Underwater Robot and Other Wet Projects, which they self-published in 1997. Jensen says she has sold over 17,000 copies of that book and it's now heading into its 11th printing. The team added a third co-author, Dr. Steven W. Moore, for its Fabrication project. Ten years in the making, that book is 770 pages long and has over 500 illustrations and photographs (illustrations by Nola Johnston). The textbook is published by the Marine Advanced Technology Education (MATE) Center in Monterey. Westcoast Words handles distribution of both robotics titles.

With T.A. McLaren, she recalled the coastal history of his family’s Allied Shipbuilders Ltd. with Ships of Steel: A British Columbia Shipbuilder's Story (2000).

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Ships of Steel, A British Columbia Shipbuilder's Story


Jensen, Jensen & Jay Powell. Quilete for Kids, Books 1-6 (La Push, Washington: Quilete Tribe, 1975-1978.

Jensen, Vickie & Jay Powell. Quileute: An Introduction to the Indians of La Push (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976).

Jensen, Vickie & Carol McLaren. Hunqum’i’num’ for Kids, Books 1-2 (Vancouver: Musqueam Band, 1976).

Jensen, Vickie & Jay Powell, Edith Gawa and Mary Johnson. Gitxsanimx for Kids, Books 1-7 (Kispiox: Kispiox Band, 1977-1980).

Jensen, Vickie & Jay Powell & Celina Harry. Let’s Study Shuswap, Books 1-2 (Alkali Lake: 5 Shuswap Bands, 1977-1980).

Jensen, Vickie & Jay Powell & Phyllis Chelsea. Learning Shuswap, Books 1-2 (Alkali Lake: 5 Shuswap Bands, 1980).

Jensen, Vickie & Jay Powell with Solomon Marsden (editor). Learning Gitksan, Books 1-4, Western Dialect (Kitwancool: Kitwancool, Kitseguelka and Kitwanga Bands, 1980).

Jensen, Vickie & Jay Powell & Agnes Cranmer & Margaret Cook. Learning Kwak’wala Series, Books 1-12 & Teachers Manual (Alert Bay: U’mista Cultural Society, 1980-1982).

Vickie Jensen & Jay Powell. Gitksan Teachers Manual (Kitwancool: Kitwancool, Kitsegukla and Kitwanga Indian Bands, 1981).

Jensen, Vickie & Jay Powell & Joy Wild. Shuswap Teachers Manual (Alkali Lake: 5 Shuswap Bands, 1983).

Jensen, Vickie. Where the People Gather (D&M, 1992).

Jensen, Vickie. Carving a Totem Pole (D&M, 1994).

Jensen, Vickie. Saltwater Women at Work (D&M, 1995).

Jensen, Vickie. Working These Waters: Maritime Jobs and Careers in B.C. (Vancouver School Board, 1996).

Jensen, Vickie & Harold Bohm. Build Your Own Underwater Robot and Other Wet Projects (Vancouver: Westcoast Words, 1997). 978-0-9681610-0-5.

Jensen, Vickie & Harold Bohm. Build Your Own Programmable Lego Submersible (Vancouver: Westcoast Words, 1998).

Jensen, Vickie. Totem Pole Carving: Bringing a Log to Life (D&M, 1999; University of Washington Press, 2004).

Jensen, Vickie & T.A. McLaren. Ships of Steel: A British Columbia Shipbuilder's Story (Harbour, 2000).

Jensen, Vickie. The Totem Poles of Stanley Park (Vancouver: Westcoast Words and Subway Books, 2004).

Jensen, Vickie & Harold Bohm & Dr. Steven W. Moore. Underwater Robotics: Science, Design & Fabrication (MATE $99.95) 978-0-9841737-0-9

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2005] "Anthropology" "Art" "Maritime" "Stanley Park" "First Nations" "Women"

Build Your Own Underwater Robot And Other Wet Projects (Westcoast Words $20)

While editing West Coast Mariner, Vickie Jensen collaborated with Harry Bohm, manager of SFU's Underwater Research Lab, on articles about underwater research vehicles. "Harry and I discovered we both grew up watching Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges!" says Jensen. Soon after, their two sons began to build miniature submarines together, whereupon Jensen and Bohm hatched the idea for Build Your Own Underwater Robot And Other Wet Projects (Westcoast Words $20). They printed 1,100 copies, allocating 100 copies for promotion. It's ideal for science fair projects. "Harry wanted to write the 'science for smarties' book he had needed as a kid," says Jensen, but she used her background as an author of educational materials to ensure the final product was accessible to all.
0-9681610-0-6 (731-5565)

[BCBCW 1997]

SELF PUBLISHING—A Cautionary Tale of Success
Article (2005)

By Vickie Jensen

Photographer and editor Vickie Jensen has learned valuable lessons as both a published and self-published author. Her self-publishing history goes back three decades to the days of typewriters and glue pots when she and her anthropologist husband, Jay Powell, were writing language and culture schoolbooks for Aboriginal bands in B.C. and Washington State. “Self-publishing was the logical choice for these books,” she says, “because we wanted the copyright to reside with the bands, the texts were only for local use and we wanted them in the schools as soon as possible.” Although they produced some 40 schoolbooks in various languages, these were not considered “proper” published works for Powell’s career as an academic at UBC. “Our work with native elders was personally rewarding and highly satisfying,” says Jensen, “and we knew those books were successful. They were some of the first attempts at Aboriginal language preservation. They looked like “real” schoolbooks and they featured local native teachers, elders and students.”

Jensen has since published with Douglas & McIntyre, University of Washington Press and Harbour Publishing on subjects ranging from totem pole carving to maritime women. As a “real” author, all her books earned back their advances and one went from hardcover to paperback, but Jensen has nonetheless formed her own company, Westcoast Words, to self-publish books, including one on underwater robots that has generated $10,000 worth of earnings every year for the past five years and sold nearly 7,000 copies.

Last year she self-published The Totem Poles of Stanley Park and sold 4,000 copies in the first five months. Here Vicki Jensen offers some practical advise on the pros and cons of self-publishing, a burgeoning field that BC BookWorld publisher Alan Twigg refers to as “independent publishing”.


Self-publishing is an old and honourable tradition, boasting luminaries such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Beatrix Potter, but despite the recent stellar sales records of David Chilton’s The Wealthy Barber, Jean Pare’s Company’s Coming cookbooks and James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, there’s still a stigma that dogs self-publishing. As well, some specialty books can’t find a publishing house because they appeal to a very specific market or they’re potentially controversial. Ann Thompson’s new self-published book on the history of abortion in British Columbia, for example, was rejected by several publishers. The prejudices against self-publishing are gradually eroding.


Successful self-publishing depends on knowing what you want from the process and what you hope to accomplish. To this end, most writers seem to fall into one of two camps—those who hope to make money versus those primarily concerned with sharing their written experience.

For this latter group, self-publishing can be the perfect venue for getting personal memoirs, family cookbooks, travel diaries or small editions of poetry into print. When my husband’s father died, for example, we decided to print a small memorial booklet of the poetry he’d written over the course of his life. Admittedly, the verse was the sentimental, rhyming variety, but we supplemented it with photos and had an artist do some recognizable drawings for the text. When the book was printed, we gave it away to his father’s colleagues and friends. Jay and his mother even drove to the various small rural towns where his dad had done business, dropping off free copies at the local libraries. In the end, that book was a success—Jay’s mom felt we’d honoured her husband and many elderly friends were touched to receive a copy.

Most writers who consider self-publishing fall into the second fame-and-fortune group. They’re hoping to reap a financial reward for their efforts. If this is your sole goal, be forewarned it can easily backfire and end up costing you money. It’s been said that writing is a calling; publishing is a business. So if you think your only responsibility is to write a decent manuscript, think again. The key to successful self-publishing is to do your homework ahead of time—that means figuring out what you hope to accomplish, discovering the options available and finding out what the entire process entails. Read books, take a workshop, talk to people in the business! In their book How to Self-Publish and Make Money, Marion Crook and Nancy Wise write, “Set your goals very early so that you will waste neither time, money nor effort on your publishing project.”

It’s particularly important to know what you’re getting for your money. You can, as I did, shoulder the entire responsibility of laying out the book, getting printer quotes, handling storage, arranging shipping, etc. However, if you go with one of the numerous business that will facilitate self-publishing these days, they generally offer several levels of service, depending on how much assistance (for editing, proof-reading, cover design, marketing, promotion, etc.) you require, the quality of the final product and the number of copies you want to order. As facilitator Jo Blackmore of Granville Island Publishing reminds writers, “Publishing your own book is expensive, but you get what you pay for.”


If you choose to publish your own work, there are several choices with widely different results. In almost all cases the author is in charge—deciding cover art, layout options, number of copies, etc. With the exception of vanity presses, the author retains copyright and sets the book price.

Do-It-Yourself: My expertise is limited to the go-it-alone approach. That’s worked well for me, mostly because I had lots of previous experience with editing stories, laying out pages, taking professional photographs, getting quotes from printers, etc. If you haven’t, I’d strongly suggest the wisdom of doing some comparative shopping for a company that will help you through the process. If you’re doing it all yourself, it’s also critically important that you understand and respect the book industry standards if you hope to sell your books.

Self-publishing companies: These companies offer a wide variety of services and range from desktop publishers that take your manuscript to the printer-ready stage to self publishers (sometimes referred to as “book packagers”) that may also offer promotion and marketing services. These people will help you get your manuscript through the editorial/proof-reading process, give you options for page and cover layout, and then print your book on a traditional printing press. For quantities of fewer than 500 books, digital printing may be less expensive. Some professional book printers offer in-house production services, as well. See what the various options are, then make some calls. Ask for references. Patty Osborne of Vancouver Desktop Publishing strongly encourages writers to shop around--“check out the prices and promises.”

Print-on-demand (POD): These firms offer various “packages” for print-ready manuscripts—they handle some degree of administrative/legal tasks, offer some promotion and publicity and fulfill on-demand orders. Most charge extra for layout, editorial services, cover design and art work, if they offer those services at all. The advantage of a POD firm is that you don’t have to “buy in” for a specific print run since they print books as the demand occurs and you can always make page revisions. However, it’s important to note that there is a discernable difference in the quality for digitally printed books. The covers are printed on a colour laser printer rather than a printing press—and that’s a difference that booksellers spot immediately. Print-on-demand books have yet to gain wide acceptance in the literary world.

Vanity Press: These companies deliver a number of books featuring your name, all for a set price. Vanity presses have a very negative reputation since there is generally no editorial service—hence, very little quality control. It’s important to know that these companies usually keep copyright on a book. Most booksellers and libraries will not accept vanity press books.


Whether you’re publishing independently or hoping to sell your manuscript to a trade publisher, you need to be market savvy if you hope to sell books. This means getting clear about your audience—exactly who is going to buy your book, why will they buy it (over others like it) and what do they expect to pay. Talk to booksellers and librarians (when they’re not swamped) and find out what their clients are looking for in a good book in your intended field. What’s a reasonable price for such a book? Are there similar books that would serve as competition? Why do they choose one book over another?

For an instant education in book smarts, try this exercise: go into the kind of bookstore (or library) that deals with the type of book you hope to publish. Look through the offerings and make two piles of books—those you really like and those that don’t appeal. Then take a closer look at the books that drew you to them and take notes as you analyze what attracted you. Was it the text? The layout? The illustrations? The typeface? Covers are a crucial sales factor so pay special attention to what works and what doesn’t. Compare pricing. Write down who published the books you like—that’s your wish list if you’re hoping to go the traditional publishing route. Now do the same thing for your rejection pile. What didn’t work? I suspect that you’ll probably learn more from this second pile, than from the first! All this information will help when it comes time to evaluate and design your own book.


“If a book has errors, it’s a dead giveaway that it’s self-published,” says Jo Blackmore. “Authors have to realize that they simply can’t do their own editing or proof-reading. We hire these folks to give writers advice that’s in their best interest, even if it’s not what they want to hear--it’s part of the growth process. If an author is not willing to take it, either they should publish the book themselves or do the vanity press route.” Tough words, but true.


Figuring out your budget is probably one of the most difficult but important tasks. You may have already invested hundreds of hours in writing the book, but you’ll need to shell out money for editing, proof-reading, book design, page layout, cover design, great illustrations or maps, permissions and legalities, printing and shipping, free review copies and postage, publicity, marketing, book storage, office expenses, etc. So read up on the financial end of the business before you commit any money. I strongly recommend the aforementioned How to Self-Publish and Make Money. Even if you don’t make a detailed business plan, at least you won’t be blind-sided by unexpected costs.

Getting an International Standard Book Number (ISBN), barcode and CIP listing for your book seems like a major hurdle for most new authors—but that’s a relatively easy matter of contacting the National Library and filling out forms. The tougher decision is how many books to print. To answer that question, you need to assess your market before your make a print run decision. It’s always tempting to order more books to lower your per-book cost, but if you are new to the self-publishing game, you’d be wise to start small. Generally, the advice is not to print more than you can sell in a year’s time. I began with a thousand copies of Build Your Own Underwater Robot and happily reprinted annually. That didn’t tie up all my funds or my storage space and allowed me to correct a few errors each time. Now that I know what to expect from sales, I print double or triple that number and re-order less often. The trade off is reduced per/book price, but greater storage hassles.

Pricing your book right is also an important decision. First establish your costs, then divide total cost by the number of books being printed—the result is your per/book cost price. Then multiply that number by a factor of 2.5 (some companies use a factor of 4 or 5) for a suggested retail price. Just remember the price has to be realistic and in line with others of the genre. It also needs to accommodate the standard trade discounts for bookstores, libraries or distributors, so learn those percentages. When I was ready to price THE TOTEM POLES OF STANLEY PARK, I opted to set the price low enough ($9.95) to attract volume sales from the 3.3 million tourists that visit the totem poles each year. I also was aware that my competition was a bigger book at $16.95. To make a profit, I had to go with a significant print run, so I took an educated gamble, borrowed a chunk of money, set aside a large portion of a basement storeroom and printed 10,000! I know now it was a good decision, although I had second thoughts the night our basement flooded…but that’s another story.


It seems to me that there are two kinds of payback for publishing a book. One is the invaluable boost to one’s professional reputation and self image that comes from being a published author. The second payback is the profit from successful sales. Although “a good story well told” is important, of course, the reality of this second payback is all about promotion and marketing. This is when the self-published author needs to kick into high gear.

“When your book is published, you’re only half done with the work,” Jo Blackmore advises her authors. “Save some energy and save some money for PR.” Nancy Wise agrees. “Writers underestimate how much work is involved beyond the writing and publishing end of the business. They complain that it’s going to cost them money to mail out free review copies and to hire a publicist, but that’s what they have to do if they want to move their book.” All authors need to develop an understanding of how to promote and market and sell books. Fortunately, there are books to help you learn the standard book trade discounts, return policy options and invoicing procedures. Whether you hire a distributor or choose to do the work yourself, your goal is to come across as a professional. Other books can teach you how to get radio or TV promo interviews, send out press releases or schedule reading tours. This is crucial info and activity for year one of your book’s release, but you’ll also need to develop a long-term marketing plan if your objective is on-going sales.

As Nancy Wise says, “Self publishing is not for the faint of heart or light of wallet…but it sure is an interesting business.” In my experience, self-publishing is a huge learning opportunity that ultimately teaches you to be a better writer, to assess your audience and promote your work more effectively and to understand the work of those in the trade—from editors and layout artists to publishers and booksellers. “However you look at it,” say Alan Twigg, “self-publishing represents, on a statistical level, a gradual democratization of publishing. Look back one lifetime and there were only about five gatekeepers, all in Toronto, who decided what books were published in Canada. Self-publishing doesn’t work for fiction. You might as well not do it. But it’s increasingly viable if you know what the heck you’re doing.” Alaskan mystery writer Sue Henry concurs. “Don’t encourage anyone writing mysteries to self publish. In fiction, it’s generally understood that people who can’t get published, self-publish.”

Also See:

HOW TO SELF PUBLISH AND MAKE MONEY: Writing, Publishing and Selling Your Book in Canada, by Marion Crook & Nancy Wise. Sandhill Publishing/Crook Publishing 1997, ISBN 0-920923-10-0


Check out self-publishing workshops at any writing conference—or request one!

For a Salmon on a Doorknob

Crows and seagulls are squabbling in the road. From her computer Vickie Jensen can just see the surf crashing on the shore, but the fog has totally obscured James Island at the mouth of the Quileute River.

She and her husband Jay Powell are once again in LaPush, a small native village on the northwest coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, helping the Quileute [pronounced Kwil-LAY-yute] revive their language and culture.

While Powell is off at the tribal school, cajoling a class of teenagers into trying words like kitaxt’ik’als (Go home) or Hista tasi (Gimme five!), Jensen recalls her first visit 36 years ago. In those days, 50 Quileute could speak their indigenous language; 600 could not. Very quickly the number of Quileute speakers on the reservation dwindled to a handful.

“Jay and I didn’t know it at the time,” she says, “but that was the beginning of our life together.”
After Fred ‘Woody’ Woodruff, one of the last remaining Quileute speakers, had the patience to teach his language to Powell, the young anthropologist began his lifelong career as one of the most essential linguists in the Pacific Northwest.

Since then Vickie Jensen has shot more than 50,000 photographs and the couple has helped produce more than 40 language and culture books for the Quileutes, the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Halkomelem, the Eastern and Western Gitksan, the Shushwap, and the Nuu-chah-nulth.

“A language is like a species of bird,” Powell has said, “that has evolved across thousands of generations. How hard would we work to save such a bird from becoming extinct?”

Jay Powell first came to LaPush in 1968 to research his Ph.D dissertation as a University of Hawaii graduate student. When Jensen joined him in 1972, she was already teaching students who didn’t fit into mainstream schools.

“We debated whether the languages of the coast were doomed and how to rekindle pride and cultural interest,” she says. “We eventually decided to produce a couple of schoolbooks that the elders could use in teaching at the school.

“We felt it was particularly important that these materials look respectable, like ‘real’ schoolbooks rather than a handful of dog-eared mimeos. I insisted that they be illustrated with photographs of local kids and of village life on the rez.”

Flash photography was not permitted in potlatches or feast ceremonies, so Jensen learned to work with very slow shutter speeds. “I also developed the negs and printed the images myself,” she says, “Because we were always on a meager budget, we were limited to b&w images and illustrations as part of our photo-ready copy.”

Long before computers were an option, theirs was a thriving desktop operation. They tape-recorded the elders and used a typewriter with a special IBM Selectric ball in order to produce the necessary diacritic markings. They used Letraset to transfer titles, hired an illustrator, developed and printed photographs, planned the layout, stuck everything in place with tape or wax, and then found a printer who could print and bind within allowable budgets.

Powell and Jensen invariably lived on the rez, often with a family, and returned year after year. Publications were usually celebrated with a community feast. “This body of work sort of sneaked up on us,” Jensen says. “We’ve been so busy writing and publishing ‘in the margins’ that we’ve never been a significant part of the mainstream publishing picture.

“But we have no regrets. Recently someone left a salmon hanging on our doorknob. It’s the kind of anonymous thank you that really means something here.”

The books they produced are copyrighted for the native band. This approach proved problematic for Powell’s teaching career at UBC.

“The anthropology department might have thought our work was interesting and even important,” says Jensen, “but the books certainly didn’t count for promotion or tenure since they hadn’t been produced by a juried press. Academics were uncomfortable with language and culture books that seemed too much like pragmatic self-publishing, which in those days was categorized with vanity press works that nobody but the author would publish.

“But the process of “real” publishing took two to three years to accept a manuscript, have it reviewed, seek subventions, edit and re-edit, proofread and print.

“So, instead we did it ourselves, sometimes producing a book in six weeks. The native communities wanted their language lessons, dictionaries, cultural readers and kids’ picture books now!”

While Powell continued to teach at university and write “respectable” academic papers, Jensen accepted an invitation from Alan Haig-Brown to try editing Westcoast Mariner Magazine. It turned into a four-year stint. She has also written books on native art and maritime life, eventually setting up her own company, Westcoast Words, for her narrow-niche books on underwater robots and a guide to local totem poles.

After they produced their first Quileute school books in 1975, the phone in Vancouver started ringing. “In 1980-81, when we lived in Alert Bay, we wrote 13 books, helped with opening U’mista Cultural Centre, taught a photography class, and had a second baby.”

Their commitment to the work didn’t change, but technology did, as did their methodology. “In the beginning, we thought good-looking, respectable school books would be enough. Then we realized that while the elders might be fluent in the language, none had any experience in classroom dynamics. So we added teacher’s manuals to our repertoire.

“When that didn’t prove as effective as we’d hoped, we set up a three-year Kwak’wala Teacher Training Project, where teachers would not only learn about NASL (Native as a Second Language) techniques but could share ideas, produce group materials, and get post secondary credit, first through North Island Community College and later SFU.

“Eventually we did our first immersion CD-ROM for young kids. Back in 1980 there were only old men ‘at the log,’ singing the ancient Kwak’wala songs at potlatches. Today, there’s a whole generation of powerful young singers (and dancers) making their own CDs.”

Forty years. Forty books. 50,000 photos. Plus thousands of hours on reservations and in classrooms.

It adds up to two of the most valuable authors of British Columbia.

Jay Powell’s forty years of anthropological work in the Pacific Northwest and Vickie Jensen’s 50,000 First Nations photos will be donated to UBC Museum of Anthropology in 2009.

by Alan Twigg

[BCBW 2008] "Languages" "First Nations"