Oh, the good old days. It used to be that publishers would be willing to take on a book, edit it, publicize it, wrap it in a nice-looking cover and push it on booksellers. But in today’s hyper-competitive publishing landscape, with a soft economy and an illiterate public, roles are changing.
“What we hear again and again is that publishers would love to publish books,” says literary agent Amanda Vautour, “but they just can’t afford to.”
Authors, finding publishers unwilling to take on the work of turning their worthless manuscripts into books, are increasingly hiring freelance publishers to do the work for them. “I advise all my authors that their project has to be as close to a finished book as possible before a publisher will take a risk on it,” says Vautour. “Nowadays, that means it has to be edited, designed, printed, hyped and pimped, and preferably on the shelves of major bookstore chains before we approach a publisher.”
“Ideally, the author should arrange coop at Chapters/Indigo. Most publishers are much more willing to at least consider a ‘Heather’s Pick’ than, you know, just some novel stuck back in Fiction and Literature someplace.”
Typical of the new trend is Vancouver author Janet Hackenscribble, whose blockbuster hit Not Bloody Likely was written by a ghostwriter, rewritten by a stream of freelance editors, and publicized by an aggressive campaign of murder and mayhem before finding prominent paid placement for an undisclosed fee at chain bookstores across the country. Just before Christmas last year, following shortlist nominations for the Giller, Writers Trust and Governor General’s awards, Random House picked up Not Bloody Likely. The deal was a lucrative one by today’s standards, with at least half a percent of the discounted sale price going to the author.
I was looking forward to reading Jeet Heer’s Walrus piece, “The Life Raft,” regarding Canada Reads and the general mess that is CanLit’s lottery economy. In fact, I intended to read it on my flight down to Dartmouth, where now I languish, but did not. Instead of buying a copy of The Walrus, I re-read The Bushwhacked Piano, which I think would always be a sound decision. But now, the magazine has put the thing online and put me into my misery.
I am immoderately disappointed. Jeet Heer is a smart guy and a sharp writer, but not this time.
Let us not dwell too long on the word “middlebrow,” which he uses more times than I care to count; suffice to say that I feel this word is too often substituted for argument. It is easy to sneer at something once you have slapped that label on it, but the fact is that the number of things that cannot be called “middlebrow” is vanishingly small. The word is therefore meaningless, and henceforth I intend to discourage its use by carrying an electric cattle prod at all times and administering a corrective jolt to the sorry ass of any person who I catch using it. You have been warned.
More disappointing is Heer’s surprising claim that what is most deplorable about Canada Reads is its exclusion of short stories and poetry – and especially, he soon makes clear, of short stories.
But rather than rant about Standard CanLit Complaint #4 (Short Stories Get No Respect)* let me simply propose this thought experiment: if, next year, Canada Reads picks Wilderness Tips, Friend of My Youth, Play the Monster Blind, Blackouts and What Boys Like, will all be forgiven? Will Canada Reads suddenly cease to be “middlebrow?” Will the boom-or-bust “Canada Reads effect” and its pernicious effects cease to exist?
Let’s not insult each other’s intelligence by discussing that any further.
Heer neatly labels the big problem with Canada Reads as our “lottery economy”: the few books that get a Canada Reads nod sell like hotcakes. It is a career maker. And it makes careers by entirely arbitrary means. Without dwelling on this year’s vote-in process, we can simply say that the mere fact of a Canada Reads nod doesn’t guarantee that any given Canadian reader will like the book, or even that the book is good, but it does mean it will sell.
We see the same thing with the GGs, of course, and the Writers’ Trust awards, and most of all with the Giller Prize. The Sentimentalists is seeing a mixed reception from readers, he said diplomatically; this is partially because it is not everyone’s cup of overwrought tea, and partially because it is a structurally flawed, ill-conceived piece of shit. It is, however, the big book in Canadian literary fiction. This is because it won the prize that gives the most money. The prize where people are on TV. The prize that’s televised by the Globe & Mail’s sister network and, not coincidentally, pimped more extensively by the Globe than any other.
Yes, gentle reader, we really are that shallow. The problem here is not Canada Reads; it is Canada itself. For a supposedly literate nation, we’re simply not very good at talking about books. We prefer hype to engagement. And that’s a fault that including short stories and poetry will hardly correct.
* which complaint, gentle reader, I reserve for future dissection