Support for Independent Publishers in Canada

(This article was published on the Heritage Canada website on Nov 14th 2016, where it got some attention before being drowned in that tsunami called the “Newsfeed.” I salvaged the article and am publishing it here to give it an extended life)

After a successful career in business, which I gave up to pursue writing, I graduated from the Humber School for Writers in 2002 and realized that, at the age of 47, I had arrived at the CanLit party too late. I was too old to be picked up by an agent or a mainstream publisher and too removed from the established literary community. I ended up self-publishing my first novel that was recommended by my mentor at the Humber School to its in-house literary agency, but which wasn’t picked up by that agency. My next two works, a collection of short stories and a novel, the latter which won an award at Write Canada, were published by a small Ontario trade publishing house that has never enjoyed subsidies from Federal or Provincial arts agencies despite being in business for over 20 years.

In 2011, realizing that I could do better, I decided to set up my own publishing company with my money to publish my work and the work of other deserving writers across Canada who were having difficulty getting through the narrow portals of publishing. In particular, I have focussed on the writers of Northumberland County, Ontario where I live, publishing two anthologies of their work and planning another for next year. I have operated on the trade publishing model, selecting manuscripts, editing them, and providing authors with publishing and global distribution via Ingram, because I haven’t found a Canadian printer/distributor who provides a more cost-efficient service, despite having a low-dollar advantage. I use POD (print on demand) not because it is a vilified technology but because it is cost-efficient and saves trees. I also publish in e-book form (Kindle and e-pub). I pay my authors royalties and promote them via social media and fund their book launches. I wish I could do more for them, but my resources are limited. I have been publishing an average of three books per year as that is my maximum bandwidth as an unfunded independent operator who quickly came to the realization that he still had to make his living with a second job. I have incorporated my publishing company and have submitted tax returns for every year of its operation. I have not taken a cent in salary out of my publishing company for the hours I have toiled in it.

My requests (to whomsoever needs to action them) in this note, are the following:
1) Simplify the grant application process so that new entrants can understand it and play equitably alongside incumbent recipients.
2) Hold Canadian printers and distributors responsible for bringing their costs in line with global standards. Currently grants to publishers are going to subsidize printers and not to help promote authors or defray publishers’ other costs. (It would also be nice to see Canadian distributors being open for business and not act as cartels that shut out new entrants, but I am not sure if this is something anyone can influence other than market forces).
3) Make the grant system a dynamic one based on merit and not one that has become an annuity for incumbent recipients.
4) Create grant categories for “author promotion by the publisher,” if these don’t exist today; and if they do, make them more transparent. Traditional media channels are closed to small publishers and we have to find new channels – social media being our best avenue. But now social media has moved away from “free” to “paywall” when it comes to advertizing, and this needs money.

Subsidy or not, I will continue to write and publish, for I have a deep commitment to my art and to this industry. It would be nice to see our Federal and Provincial bodies recognize the fact that publishing has changed and morphed into many hybrid models compared to the original upon which CanLit was founded. These hybrids need assistance to grow and stand on their own, just like the fledgling CanLit once did. And, aren’t we all parts of an evolving CanLit, incumbents and newcomers alike?

I thank you for listening to me and look forward to seeing a more inclusive system of publishing emerge in Canada during my lifetime.

The link to the article on the Canadian Government website is:
http://www.canadiancontentconsultations.ca/stories/stories/support-for-independent-publishers-in-canada?fb_page_type=story_telling_tool&fb_tool_id=6028

Peregrinations in Gros Morne

Rocks, bogs and ponds are what come to mind when travelling the mountainous roads of this beautiful national treasure, a land that must take on desolation and danger when the winter arrives. I was in Gros Morne, partly as a writer attending a literary festival at Woody Point and partly as a tourist sampling the wares of this UNESCO World Heritage site. I’m not going to describe the geography—the tour brochures and Google do better jobs of that—but I would rather convey the impressions the land conjured for me.

For all of the jaded Newfoundlander’s claim that his Rock rightly belonged to Europe, before those conniving politicians switched it over to North America in 1949 and hitched it to a mainland he could not afford to travel to because of the atrocious cost, I immediately felt the presence of being in Canada while I was over there, more than when I was home in Ontario. The overt signs of federalism stood out: the RCMP providing policing, Parks Canada offering excellent conservation and tourism facilities, and the Trans Canada Highway stringing remote communities together. Even Air Canada flew into Deer Lake, the gateway to Gros Morne (there are no deer in Newfoundland, only caribou, but who cares!) Back in Ontario, federalism hides in a remote city called Ottawa and my view of Canada is obscured by provincial, municipal and…ahem..American flags. I explained that to my despondent Newfie chum, but he couldn’t see my point, even over a pint, or two. Proof of his patriotism came when the literary festival closed with the singing of “Ode to Newfoundland,” while “O Canada” was forgotten.

Fishing brought Europeans to this rocky island, and little communities still box on in the coves that ring the coastline, communities that surprisingly voted to join Canada (perhaps they saw the bigger picture) while the fat-cats in St. Johns opposed the move 2-1. Logging followed in the sailors’ wake to give birth to pulp and paper centres (correct that to “city”) like Corner Brook, Newfoundland’s second largest city—population 19,000. Music is very much a part of life here with guitars, accordions, banjos and fiddles providing accompaniment to strident voices that unabashedly slip in the f-word for effect. Literature is also important—poetry and memoir, in particular. I guess the creative arts provide solace and make sense of those long cold months of isolation when icy roads between towns like Trout Lake and Woody Point shut down. Ghosts and goblins are part of the scene, and every family has a tragic tale of someone lost, at sea, in an accident, or in childbirth. The sense of community is strong and I found it hard to break into the local gossip as I was the outsider from the mainland with a funny accent that didn’t trip easily off local ears. People were polite but not curious. I must have sounded like that ambitious relative who had gone “away” to earn his fortune on the distant mainland and who had now become “different.”

And so I amused myself doing the following: eating moose burgers, an animal that had been imported into Newfoundland in the 19th century and now outnumbered the native caribou—I guess caribou burgers are no longer on the menu; walking over the earth’s mantle in the Tablelands and inspecting its unique arctic alpine vegetation, while across the road a huge boreal forest grew on the earth’s proper crust; walking over a four-metre deep bog and taking a boat ride on Western Brook Pond, a former fjord turned into a fresh water lake due to the sinking of the ocean; drinking Icebergs and Black Horses—that’s Newfoundland beer, by the way; smelling manure and fish in the cove settlements, which reminded me of the rankness of life rather than of decay; listening to an overabundance of performing artists—musicians, singers, poets, playwrights and prose writers— and hoping that the cod fishing would return to similar abundance again.

And what were the images? Courage, Isolation, Loss, Endeavour, Humour, Art – the usual human smorgasbord of emotions captured in one place. Gros Morne is an acquired taste, and one I was getting quite used to by the time I came to the end of my visit, prompting the question: “Will I return?” I’ll let that question hang in the air for now.

A letter to a Syrian Refugee

Dear Syrian New Canadian,
Welcome to Canada! I’m sorry I was not at the airport, along with our photogenic Prime Minister, to welcome you to our cold country where the hearts are warm and the feelings are mushy. Actually I was feeling a bit jealous, for when I came to this country nearly 30 years ago from a similarly war-torn one like yours, with a wife and two small children (one sick and the other post-operative), there was no one to welcome us; we just checked into an apartment and started life, funded only by our savings. Oh yes, the diffident immigration officer did say “Welcome to Canada,” after stamping our passports and accepting us as landed immigrants.

Let me re-assure you that you have made a good choice in coming to Canada. But instead of the warm and fuzzies, let me give you a few do’s and don’ts that you need to be aware of here, facts that the immigration brochures do not reveal, as we are, for the most part, a polite nation.

Do’s
1) Get yourself a job as soon as you can. Any job! Canadian Experience gets you into progressively better jobs faster than all the credentials you can bring from your home country. Besides, the longer you stay unemployed the higher the risk-hire you become. And don’t quit a job before getting the next one. We love to hire currently-employed people because someone else has already done the filtering and taken the risk on you. And when you get a job, work hard at it. Luck is the product of hard work.
2) Unless you wish to reside in Quebec, learn “Canadian English” as soon as you can, replete with “eh”s and “duh”s and other expressions. And when you are stuck for words, throw in stuff like “basically,” “that’s a good question,” “as a matter of fact,” etc – these are acceptable fillers.
3) Do pay your taxes and obey the law. The law here is what makes this country different from where we came from; it’s terribly slow once you get into its clutches, and outcomes are based on compromise not justice. That’s why when two Canadians bump into each other they both say “sorry” and go their way without getting into a punch up or a shoot-out. And don’t try to change this law with imported ones either. We like it methodical and labyrinthine. Just don’t get tangled up with the law and you’ll be fine.
4) Do learn to accommodate your neighbour. That’s how this place works. I don’t know my next door neighbour nor subscribe to his peculiar habits and customs. But I respect his space and he gives me mine and I offer to look after his place when he is away on holidays, and he does the same for me.

Don’ts
1) Don’t try to live on subsidy for longer than you can. We have welfare and medicare and EI and other props. These are very addictive and are only for those genuinely in need.
2) Try to become a net producer rather than a net consumer. We love shopping and buying things we don’t need that only put us in debt, especially after Christmas. This is an Achilles Heel that will ultimately be our undoing. Don’t fall for this trap of living today based on tomorrow’s potential earnings.
3) While you are free to indulge in your customs and rituals that give you your identity, don’t impose them on others. And, like me, you might want to sample, even adopt, some of the customs that make us Canadian: we play Christmas songs from November to December, we go crazy during Hockey season, we unite around a National Anthem that brings a clutch to my throat every time I sing it, we like to criticize our politicians without shooting them, we drink a lot of coffee, flush a lot of toilets and eat doughnuts even if it’s not good for us. Please don’t try to change these customs, because if I don’t hear my Christmas songs on the radio and in public places anymore, I’m going to be pretty pissed off!
4) Make sure your kids get an education, integrate and become Canadian. This “multi-cultural” business is good only to get newcomers through the door. But after a few years here we all have to find some commonality that hangs us all together as Canadians.

This may be a bit much to absorb all at once. Sorry. Besides, you need to bask in the celebrity status with which you have been welcomed into this country; many who came before you have not had this privilege. And you have earned it, after your treacherous voyage from your war-torn homeland. So relax and let it soak in during this Christmas season. But remember, that in these Attention Deficit times, the show will be over very soon, the audience would have moved on to the next big thing and you will be left on the stage, alone, wondering what happened. That’s when I hope you will read and re-read my do’s and don’ts and find them helpful. They are offered from the heart and not from the handbook.

Canada is a land of milk and honey, but only if you bring (or grow) your own cows and bees. Since you have come to this country with nothing more than yourselves and a few belongings, I suggest you cut through the hoopla ASAP (another acronym we use excessively) and get down to seriously growing your personal treasure chest. And with hard work, you will. All the best!

Sincerely,
A Fellow New Canadian

P.S. – It might interest you to know that, by definition, you will remain a New Canadian for the rest of your life – another quirk of this place! Enjoy!

Dating Game for Wannabe Skilled Immigrants

When I read the recent headline in our national newspaper announcing that Canada was opening a website where prospective employers and skilled foreign workers could date each other, one side of me was heartened and the other side petrified.

I was heartened, because when I came to this country a quarter century ago under the category of “skilled worker,” lured by the first world, “Brand Canada” lifestyle that was on tap, there were no such dating sites. All the Canadian High Commission in my native homeland had to work from was an outdated, typed list of required skills, among them, Undertaker and Sales Representative. Well, as I have a slight problem working with dead bodies, I qualified as a sales representative. When I arrived here, I got a bit of a shock: there were sales reps coming out of all nooks and crannies, including the mass produced ones from those dreaded telemarketing sweat shops. Thankfully, I used my “selling skills” to land myself another job, not one on the High Commission’s list, thankfully.

I was petrified at this news headline, because I have seen that first world lifestyle erode over the years, where the skilled workers of my generation have been reduced to a nation of Walmart and Dollar store frequent flyers, where training and retraining for displaced workers have been cut, where the unemployed or underemployed are those now 50•60 year old once•skilled workers and their progeny, the 20•30 year•olds who received a university education and an attitude as a reward from their parents; a whole segment of the middle class relegated to the wings while a new crop of skilled immigrants replace them. The dating game will make it easier to say, “Screw the locals, they cost too much and have higher expectations, let’s bring in the lean, mean and hungry.”

I still believe in the immigrant dream. It’s a rich experience that grows the soul, if not the pocket book. But Canada’s status as an “immigrant country” does not absolve it of its obligations towards preserving that first world lifestyle – its key selling point to newcomers. And that includes growing and maintaining a healthy middle class. And there is no free ride in not having to pay for education and training within the country and merely plucking the best and brightest from overseas who have been educated at the cost of their national governments, capitalizing on a foreign tin•pot dictator or corrupt regime that do not see the value of their human resources.

And the caveat emptor for the wannabe skilled immigrant is, “Are you willing to get only about 20 years of benefit from this system (that is, if you arrive before the age of 30. If you come later, the reaping period is exponentially shorter) before you are put out to pasture or forced to use your entrepreneurial skills to start your own business?” Skills atrophy over time and today’s skilled worker is tomorrow’s re•trainee. If we cut the re•training, there is an even shorter shelf•life for the skilled worker. Re•training should also be comprehensive to recognize the aging worker; we cannot always be on an upward career trajectory: the careerist should be trained for jobs that go up the ladder and others that descend gracefully with age, maintaining dignity and respect for the individual at all times– another hallmark of the first world lifestyle.

Ah, but then all this could be too much to ask, when the temptation is there to slink back to that dating site and lure another skilled sucker to our shores.

Just-in-time Trudeau

I was elated when young Justin took the podium recently and announced his candidacy for Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada. At last, new hope, a new face, and no baggage other than for a marquee name (with perhaps some old baggage). Now, let the young people try to make some sense of this mess that we Yuppies have created with our overflowing greed; as we stagger into our golden years, we can’t figure it out anymore, worried about diminishing pensions and healthcare, and wondering why we extended our lives so long but imperiled those very anchors that allow us to age gracefully.

Justin’s coming is also at a time when politicians in the recent Quebec election were throwing out lines like, “Quebec separating will be a like a divorce, painful at first.” I thought that was a rather flippant and utopian comment, implying that after the pain of separation will come prosperity for all. I find it hard to believe that Canada and Quebec on their own will ever be as strong as the combined entity it is today, warts and all. A divorce does not make the parties stronger although they may be freer to explore individual destinies. Divorced members also lose their friends, quickly, as it forces those parties to take sides and make bets. And capital investment is the biggest coward – it flees disputed territory.

Couples usually wait until times are good before pulling any plugs. And given our National debt being the highest it has ever been in its history, is this the time to go pulling plugs? And how about that “settling of debts” issue that comes with separation? What mutually agreeable contribution to the national debt will Quebec make when at last count the province has approximately 25% of Canada’s population and has enjoyed historical benefits of approximately 35% ? The issue will not be getting Quebec to accept its fair share of the debt, but leaving her healthy enough to honour it.

And language – French in Quebec has had its best bet for survival under Canadian Confederation, where even in distant Nunavut you will find a government employee providing service in French. Who will Quebec cry for support from if not from dear Canada? The USA? No way, amigos – the Spanish have been waiting for their turn down South since the Alamo. France? Non – the French have their house and the troubled House of Europe to clean up first.

We are dealing with a younger, smarter and more discerning voter, one without the baggage of past separatist sorties, people like Justin and his cohort. Economics plays more in decisions than nationalistic fervour, especially for a country like Canada that has skillfully navigated the economic fallout of 2008 and is considered the poster child amidst a bunch of reckless gamblers. “United we stand, divided we fall” is never more important, hence the formation of bigger and bigger trading blocks: NAFTA, EU (however troubled it may be), and Megacities Toronto and Montreal. And to say that you want a divorce just because you can does the most harm to a family and its members. All it takes is for the harried other party to throw up her hands and say, “You want a divorce? Okay, then let’s get one!” And we will all end up poorer.

I am glad the Quebec election ended in a minority government, everyone keeping everyone else honest. Change is good; but separation? That’s serious business.

As for Justin, a true Canadian who speaks English like an Anglo and French like a Qubecois, I hope he has broad shoulders to tackle this and other problems and bring our various solitudes together into a healthy and productive conversation. I know he hasn’t much of a platform yet that stands out from among the right wingers, left wingers, green people, and separatists, but I’m hoping that he has arrived just in time to save his party and our beloved Canada. Hope is a good thing to have…

The Savage within us

I get sent “interesting” videos by friends, fans and strangers, but a couple I received recently turned my stomach.

One was of a raid by soldiers on a village in a country that will remain unnamed; the soldiers—for they were uniformed—arrived in this dusty main street of the village on a busy market day, disembarked from their vehicles and promptly went about shooting every man, woman and child in sight who were going about their peaceful business. The grim footage was covered by a handheld camera that traversed every slumping body until there was no more movement; if a limb moved, it was machine gunned into submission. The lack of sound made the film all the more ominous. For a while I wondered if this was a staged video, but the graphic looks of surprise and horror on the faces of the attacked would have challenged even the most brilliant Hollywood movie studio. The soldiers then nonchalantly got back into their vehicles and drove away. But wait – the camera man was still alive – I was watching his film. He must have been planted there ahead of time to make this record. They (whoever they were) wanted the world to see this! And the video was serving its purpose, making its rounds. It had landed on my laptop.

Then a few days ago I received a video (why do they pick me?) of a young girl in another unnamed, fundamentalist country being stoned to death by a bunch of bloodthirsty men. This clip included sound, and the fury of the mob was blood•curdling. I had to delete this file the moment I figured out what was going on, it was just too savage. But not before I saw this young man in the foreground taking pictures of the incident on his cell phone, very deliberately, finding the right angles for maximum coverage, going about his business in a routine fashion—another reality video in the making.

I tried to put these incidents out of my mind and prided myself that I now lived in a civilized country, with layers of moral conduct so thick that none of this shit oozed out here, that my escape from the Third World once upon a time had been a Great Escape indeed. And then I read about the gang rape of a 16•year old in BC, in my Civilized Canada, which was videotaped, You Tube’d and Facebooked, and my desolation was complete. I desperately tried to rationalize that maniacs worked in mobs in the lesser developed world and only as isolated freaks in our “civilized world”, and so from a numbers standpoint, we were still better off. But then I realized that beyond the act itself, there were millions of voyeurs watching these incidents (over and over again sometimes), continuing to assault and insult the victims, and that they lived in every part of the world, developed and underdeveloped alike. I quickly descended from my moral, civilized•world high•horse and realized that we are indeed in bad times—all of us.

Please – friend, fan, or stranger – if you are reading this – do not send me this stuff again! I get your message. If you intended me to blog my condemnation about these incidents, I am doing it right here, so don’t send me any more of this human detritus which only serves to remind me (and you) that deep down we are still a bunch savages, some of us coated only a smidgeon more with layers of civilized and socialized behaviour than others. William Golding, you were so damned right when you gave us The Lord of the Flies!

A jolt of bad news with your morning java

I think we are becoming a bunch of depressed people, unwittingly. I mean, look at that piece of converted tree pulp we call a newspaper that we reach for each morning before sipping our wake•me•up coffee. And you computer geeks, you who reach for your laptop or Blackberry instead, you are not absolved either —you are just getting your dose of bad news in just another way. Most medicines can be taken in liquid or tablet form, you know.

So, back to where I digressed, I open this newspaper and what do I get? “Young Girl Stoned to Death”? “More body bags returning from Afghanistan” “Hurricane Karl” – oh, yeah, are we up to the letter K already and September’s not over? “Employment numbers worsen” —who cares; I am not looking for permanent employment any more, gave up that foolish pursuit a long time ago. Wait, there’s more: “Economy on the tip of a double dip” – sure, blame it on greed! “Interest rates rising”, “House sales flat”, “Forest fires in BC”, Refugee flotillas bound for Canada”. “HIV infected needles implanted in gas pumps” – just squeeze and die!

I then reach for my coffee. A balancing of my mental state takes place: the low of the news is counteracted with a high from the java. And I need stronger and stronger java these days. No wonder, the bad news is getting stronger and stronger too!

We seem to be addicted to that damned newspaper. We read it over breakfast, in the subway, in parks, at Tim Hortons, in the office, in the cafeteria, and even on the way home if we have not devoured it end to end by then, just to re•assure ourselves (after our morning reading) that the world is still unchanged, that this joint is still a BAD PLACE!

Is bad news a necessity for life to continue? The low to every high? I mean, would anyone buy a newspaper that has headlines like: “Couple happily celebrate 75th wedding anniversary” or “Families celebrate Thanksgiving in record numbers this year”, “Canada is still a great place to live”, “Life expectancy rates rise”, “SID death rates drop”, “Crime virtually eradicated in Canada,”, “Cure for Breast Cancer Found?” Nah, too boring – they say!

They say that thoughts manifest themselves, and a surfeit of bad news can sometimes manifest in recurring bad events. So why bring new disaster by wallowing in yesterday’s disasters every morning?

Hey, you know what? I am throwing out the newspaper and turning on the cartoons on TV with my morning (mild) java for the next little while, at least until those damned gloomy newspapers cheer me up with some good news for a change. And I’ll probably be inadvertently joining the masses of displeased readers who have already cast their vote like me and plunged journalism into its new Dark Age. Blame the Internet, Blogging, Self•Publishing and all that bull? Nah • look at your content, brother.

Deja-vu (After the Flood, the novel vs. 2012, the movie)

I watched the movie 2012 and had a sense of déjà•vu as I left the theatre. Had the movie’s script writers and I met in some dream space and used each other’s plot lines? The destruction of the earth, which takes place in the first fifty pages of my book, is in this movie! Now of course, there are some of the Hollywoodisms in the film—like fantastic special effects and the drama of the cliff•hanger—that I dispensed with for my novel. But the rest is kind of—there! They even have a little•known writer, who had published a book about this calamity, as one of the principle heroes—go figure! The only difference is that my disaster happens in a Canadian locale, whereas 2012 takes place mainly in the USA.

Is it easy to project the what•if’s that can happen to the planet if we carry on regardless? But if these trend•lines are so easy to forecast, why is no one doing anything about it? Will Copenhagen really embody Hopenhagen? Or have all the best seats in the ark been sold already to the worlds billionaires so that they are safe when the flood comes? Is that why there are Forbes’ lists and other rankings of the richest people in the world, so that they can lay claim to being at the front of the line of the box•office for this show to end all shows?

Is it also co•incidental that this type of literature and movies is coming out at this point in time? When I sat down to write my novel, I had no intention of scaremongering. I don’t even know what compelled me to write on this futuristic theme. And I was writing this book back in 2002, when the world was a safer place, other than for a couple of tall towers that had fallen in Manhattan a few months earlier. Perhaps the falling of those towers was the first inkling of a world about to go drastically wrong? Maybe that was the catalyst that started many of us writers writing in different parts of the world, unconnected to any conspiracy to scare the pants off the world but compelled to project a vision of hope should a disaster like this occur?

Despite the long years I waited to see this novel in print, I was pleased by the reception I got when it finally came out last month. Readers flocked to the book’s launch events; readers nodded and understood why I wrote this stuff—now. They would have been out having fun in the park instead had I launched this book in 2002.

And for those who thought that I had planned this novel with the Hollywood script•writers, I have to remind them that the balance 250 pages of my novel deals with what happens after the flood, a situation that the movie does not address. Maybe I should send Hollywood my book. Or maybe, just like all car models that are planned years in advance, they have already scripted the movie versions of 2025, 2035 and 2045, all to be released closer to those dates? Oh, darn…

Experience & Setting

When you live in different places, and later try to write about the experiences you had in them, how much do you paint from the external and how much do you bring from within? Which is the better way? Which conveys a better sense of place?

When I commenced writing my latest novel, Milltown, someone lectured me that I hadn’t lived in a small town in Ontario long enough to write about one. After all, I hadn’t gone to school in one, never worked in one, hadn’t played hockey and gone drinking with the guys on Friday nights, never had sex in the back seats of cars at drive•ins when I was a randy young adolescent – how dare I write about life in a small town? I pleaded “guilty” to all those experiences, guilty for having committed them all somewhere else (except perhaps the hockey – would cricket count?), and “not guilty” for having perpetrated them in a small town in Canada. That said, they were no less thrilling wherever I had experienced them – be it in a big city, on a tropical island or in a desert oasis.

When writing about settings from within, the danger is that you also bring back the experiences which occurred in those places. Therefore the experience and the setting become inter•twined, and inseparable, and the experience is non transferable to a new locale. The writing may be more authentic, but the writer is stuck in his time and place warp.

Therefore, for this novel, my settings are written from the outside in, just as “method” actors do, just like landscape painters turn out masterpieces by sitting in a location and absorbing the scene in all its permutations and in all weathers and at all times of day. I am writing setting by observation, while transposing experiences from within, wherever they occurred, because human experience is universal.
That is why I like writing setting from the outside in, because I can transplant the experience, whether it was drinking with the boys or having sex in the back seats of cars, and place it wherever I want it – either in a big city or in a small town. I just have to change the props, but the experience and the emotions behind them, are still the same.

Setting is important, for without it, characters have no context, history has no colour and the stage has no backdrop. But setting can be separated from experience because the latter is transportable, the former is not. I bet you an orphan boy under threat for his life feels the same fear (i.e. experience) today that Oliver Twist did in his day; the present•day orphan probably has more solutions (i.e. props) at his disposal to alleviate that fear than poor Oliver had, because his setting is different.

To protect or to give it away?

The copyright debate is underway in Canada and writers have mobilized heavyweights like the leaders of the opposition parties (who have all had the time to write books, it appears) to defend us from our wily prime minister, who has still to write one and who likes to sell everything we own to the highest bidder.

On the other hand,we have award•winning writers like Terry Fallis and Corey Doctorow who gave away their books for free on the Internet and later trade published them to great global sales. The Internet is just a promotional channel for these bolder, more enlightened authors who believe that anonymity is a worse sin than lost royalties, and in so publishing their work for free on the Net, earn more royalties than most writers who jealously guard their copyrights.

What does one do? To protect, or to give it away, that is indeed the question? Scanning the various copyright discussion boards, a few points seem to emerge that most stakeholders agree upon: (1) Writers should be fairly compensated for their work, ideally by those receiving value from this work (2) Publishers should be fairly compensated for their risks and for any marketing and distribution effort they employ that bring tangible results (3) Quality control should be maintained on what gets published in the world, for there is too much junk floating out there (4) Readers should pay for value. (5) There is no copyright on ideas or mashups of creative thinking (6) The Internet is a great marketing medium, and writers can become famous in this space but not necessarily wealthy unless they publish in paper form (7) Readers do not like reading books off the Internet on a PC (over time, Kindle and other devices may help approximate or surpass the printed book’s functionality but we are far away from mass adoption of these devices today) (8) Copyright usually outlives the writer’s life and the book’s shelf life – so why does the protection period have to last for so long?

Whatever model we have employed in the past, be it the patronage model (i.e. the writer is adopted by a rich patron), the royalty model, the self•publishing model, the give•it•away•for•free•on•the•Internet model, they all fall short of addressing the points above that we all agree upon. It’s like buying a car these days—it comes loaded with pros and cons disguised as features.

One thing is clear – if we are to produce high quality art, a total focus to the medium is required by the artist, and having to split that focus by earning a living elsewhere is only going to come at the expense of creating good art. Perhaps the argument needs to shift away from copyright to the wellbeing and the creative nurturing of the artist. How will we nurture the artist and give him a place to produce work that stretches our imagination and shapes the culture he comes from? Once we have cracked that code, copyright will be less relevant – for copyright will belong to society, who will in turn honour, respect and take care of its artists. I think of the Buddhist monk with his bowl for alms going door to door, certain that he will receive enough to fill his stomach, so that he in turn can focus on spiritual service to his flock of devotees.