Tuesday, October 13, 2009

IRCs: what are they, how do they work, and why has almost no-one at Canada Post ever heard of them?

I live in Canada. I’m American, but my Canadian husband has a job in Canada, and it’s a good place to live, with cities that aren’t over-crowded yet and subsidised health care and neighbours who think my solar oven is actually pretty cool. We experience all four seasons here, and my kids are growing up in a tolerant society that recognizes the importance of good health care and a good education. I like living in Canada, and I consider myself fortunate to have the opportunity to raise my children here.

There are times, though, especially in an industry that does as much cross-border business as publishing, when it’s a tad inconvenient. Submitting manuscripts, along with the standard Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, is pretty tricky when you can’t buy stamps for the SASE because the postal service down there (understandably) won’t mail any envelope with Canadian stamps on it, and none of the Canada Post Counters up here carry United States Postal Service stamps. (Which I find less understandable. I mean, come on, people: according to the the US Embassy website at http://ottawa.usembassy.gov/content/textonly.asp?section=can_usa&document=trade, the US and Canada do over $1.5 billion of cross-border trade per day. That is more than any other two countries anywhere in the world. Can our postal outlets at least see the benefit in carrying each other’s international stamps? I’m not talking about the whole collection; just the stamps necessary to send things to each other. And charts of the other country’s postal charges – a letter costs this much, a package up to this weight costs this much, a package up to that weight costs this much, etc – wouldn’t go amiss, either.) What’s a busy writer to do?

Enter International Reply Coupons. You buy them at your local Canada Post Office, affix the appropriate number to your Self-Addressed return envelope, the recipient of your manuscript takes the IRCs to their local Post Office in the US and exchanges them for the appropriate number of stamps required to return your manuscript to you, and voila. Simple, right?

Five days, five visits to four different Post Offices, and eight phone calls later, I finally managed to actually send my manuscripts. Getting my hands on some IRCs wasn’t as simple as it seemed it should be.

In the hope that I might help some of the others in my boat, I thought I’d share what I learned about this seemingly straightforward but deceptively convoluted process of submitting south of the border. So, for all you Canadian writers out there who, like me, are just beginning your adventure in this crazy world we call book publishing, here’s the skinny:

· IRCs are usually only carried by the major postal outlets – the Canada Post counter at the back of the Seven-Eleven or the local Shopper’s Drug Mart probably won’t have them, and the clerks working behind those counters probably won’t know what you are talking about if you ask for them. Your best bet is to go to Canada Post’s official website at www.canadapost.ca, click on either “Personal” or “Business”, click on the tab that says “Find a Post Office”, and type in your postal code to get a list of Post Offices and Post Office Counters near you. This list won’t tell you which ones carry IRCs, but it will list the phone number of each outlet, so you can call them and ask. Always call ahead to check; the few Post Offices that carry them often don’t carry many, and it’s a real bummer to arrive, SASE in hand, only to discover that they sold out last week and won’t have any more until the Tuesday after next. And don’t let anyone tell you there is no such thing, as one bold woman tried to tell me. I replied with an exasperated, “Yes, there IS!” I must have jogged her memory, because the next thing she said was, “Oh, well, there is. There are IRCs, and they cost $3.50. We sell them here.” Truly, that is exactly what she said. I’m still laughing about that one – hey, if we can’t find the humour in these moments, then there isn’t much hope for us, is there? (A clerk at my husband’s local PO told my long-suffering hubby the same thing, but he really didn’t know what they were; clearly, his training had covered only the very basics of what he needed to know.)

· When you finally find a Post Office that sells IRCs, buy them in bulk. I got ten. They cost $3.50 (Canadian) each, so buying more than you need in the moment isn’t a huge investment, and can save a lot of time.

· The cost of return postage on a reply postcard (all prices to follow are in US currency) = $.75 = one IRC (Yes, it feels like a rip-off, but at least they’re getting your manuscript! Focus on the good part of this!)

· The cost of return postage on a letter (normal envelope) = $.75 = one IRC

· For a large envelope (the manila ones that are large enough to hold unfolded sheets of letter-sized paper), you can use one IRC up to about 8 oz, or 227 grams. For anything over that, consult the USPS’ chart for shipping to Canada at http://pe.usps.com/text/Imm/ce_003.htm#ep2041503. Scroll down until you get to the chart marked “First-Class Mail International”, and you’ll find it there. You’ll need to work out the correct number of IRCs to include depending on the current exchange rate, as well, so make sure to take that into consideration.

· The USPS measures in ounces; if you go to your local Post Office counter to weigh your package, the scale will give you the weight in grams. Isn’t that handy? To convert from grams to ounces:

multiply the number of kilograms by 2.2 (this gives you a fraction of a lb),

then multiply that by 16 (because there are 16 oz in a lb).

For example: 50g = 0.05kg,

x 2.2 = .11 lbs,

x 16 oz = 1.76oz.

Ridiculous, I know; one day our leaders will figure it out and one of them will synchronize with the other, but until then, all we can do is get better at math and hope for the best. (1.5 billion dollars a day!)

And finally:

· Staples aren’t just a no-no for editors; according to one particularly cheery lady behind the Canada Post counter at my local pharmacy, the new sorting machines at some Canada Post offices don’t like them, either. They could jam the machine, and result in your envelope and manuscript landing on the floor in shreds before being shuffled unceremoniously into the bin. Paperclips, unfortunately, are as likely to suffer the same fate. Now, when I heard this, (five days, four visits to as many Post Offices, and six phone calls into my quest for the ever-elusive IRC), my patience for postal employees in general was stretched pretty thin. It was at about this time that I decided that despite having a minor allergy to eggs and dairy, I was going to need a donut before I got home. Or a big, warm, sticky cinnamon bun. But, I digress. I was polite to this woman, this bearer of good tidings, as I explained that if my manuscript arrived sans paperclip, (Or so I have been told – anyone out there know anything different? If so, then please, leave a comment about it and set me straight on this.), it was equally likely to end up scattered on the floor, and subsequently in the bin. I used the paperclip; next time, if I begin to suspect that my manuscripts never arrived in safe hands, I may not. You readers are free to think about the options and do what you feel is best.

There you have it, folks. It may be messy, it may get ugly, it may require you to make countless phone calls to unsuspecting Canada Post employees and use math skills that you’ve forgotten you ever had, but it’s what we’ve got. And, in the end, it’s not so bad once you get the hang of it. Good luck with your submissions, and keep writing.

Thanks for stopping by,


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