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

A letter to a politician on the eve of the Ontario election

Dear Premier Candidate,

You are asking me for my vote. I am a jaded voter, one who once took pride in my regular visits to the ballot box during federal, provincial and municipal elections. One who used to push friends and family to exercise their right and vote, one who gave his employees time-off to go to the polling booth. I understood the importance of the democratic vote because I previously lived in countries where it was denied for a number of bogus reasons. But now I am jaded. Why? Let me tell you why…

But first, promise me that you will not act like Mike the golfer, who in his first term fixed a lot of things and cut out fat, but in his second term indulged in so much excess and wastage that we have spent a generation paying back, and may never pay back. Another second-term (or was it third?) flop was Dalton who promised not to raise taxes during his first election campaign and promptly introduced a medical tax the moment he came into office, to pay for Mike’s excesses, he claimed; he later misused his position with a billion dollar gas plant scandal – another bill that we (or you) may never be able to re-pay. And then there was the one-term guy, Bob, from our third political party, who tried to be all things to everybody and ended up being a nobody; he only managed to have a day in the month named after him for public employees to goof off and not get paid – a piece of dynamite for a sector that has often had its productivity questioned.

You say you have a plan; all politicians have plans—which they keep guarded lest the other guy copies them—to be revealed only in Twitter-sized bytes on the eve of the election, with the whole enchilada being dropped on us after they come to power. But at that point, the enchilada seems to smell and taste different from the savory samples we were offered before E-day. Show me your plan before the election. And then, will you also promise never to go back on your plan after you reveal it? Better yet, put your promise up on Facebook (from where it will never be deleted, despite Facebook’s promises to the contrary) so that it becomes your testament to standing out from among the sorry bunch of predecessors I mentioned earlier, or your millstone if you choose to act like them.

If you can do all this – you have my vote, unreservedly.

Oh, I forgot to tell you why I was jaded. Instead I went into a circular stump speech. You see, I am beginning to sound like a politician already. But then you already know why I am jaded, so we don’t need to go there. Instead you have a glorious opportunity to turn history around and restore respect to political office, and bring us once-loyal voters back into the fold.

Sincerely,

 

A 50-something ex-voter who lives by his wits to make a living these days, who has given up the prospect of employment or retirement and does not expect or request any government subsidy but still pays his taxes to support this (once) great province and nation.

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.