Steven Beattie of That Shakesperian Rag and Fragile Mind Literary Services:
CBT: Steven Beattie, at your site That Shakespeherian Rag, you mentioned your experience selling foreign rights for Canadian publishers. Can you tell us a little about doing this, and any particular frustrations or positive experiences you had?
SB: Well, one of the frustrations of selling foreign rights – and this is going back eight years now; I sold foreign rights between 1999 and 2000 for Stoddart Publishing – one of the frustrations I ran into, which I alluded to on my blog, was a kind of chauvinism in the foreign markets, an antipathy toward books set in Canada, books that focused on Canada. This was particularly true in the United States; when you’re trying to market a novel set in Toronto or Montreal, you’re going to have a much harder time than if you’re trying to sell the same novel set in Boston or Chicago, because they have this very chauvinistic attitude that they don’t want to read anything that’s set outside the country. This is a very broad generalization, but I found it was an uphill battle to place Canadian fiction in the American market.
I’m not entirely sure what the reason for that is. I think to a certain degree Canadian writers need to stop having a parochial mentality, or having an inward-looking mentality. Which is not to say they should set their fiction in distant lands in order to get it sold. But I think we need to be thinking on a broader canvas in terms of the themes we write about, and start thinking about different ways to approach our subjects, as opposed to writing the same book over and over again. We’re a very young literary culture. You know, if you’re trying to sell a book to an older, European culture – such as the French or the Spanish, which have centuries of culture behind them – to a certain extent they’re going to – and this is going to sound terrible – but to a certain extent they’re going to look at things with a more sophisticated eye than perhaps we might. I think we need to think a little bit more in terms of expanding our outlook as to what a novel can be.
CBT: Philip Marchand has commented on the tendency of Canadian literature to be backward-looking, and you’ve voiced agreement with him. Can you tell us why you agree with Marchand’s point of view?
SB: I think there is this idea in our culture that there is a typical kind of Canadian novel. And this novel is set in the past, on a farm; it usually has to do with familial strife, and it’s told in very lyrical, beautifully constructed prose, but to me a lot of it seems very lifeless and bloodless.
I think there’s this idea afoot in the culture, both on the part of publishers and on the part of writers who see what kinds of books get published and what kinds of books win awards, that if you want to do well as a Canadian writer, you have to write that kind of book. And I’m not sure that’s the best way to go about creating a vibrant literary culture.
I think Marchand’s point about the culture being backward-looking has to do with both the idea of this sort of fiction being the default setting for Canadian writers, and the idea that in order to have a successful book in 2008, you have to look at what did well in 2007 or 2006, and do more of that. I think that’s self-defeating. I think it would be more interesting if writers would look around them in the present, and try to take the measure of what’s going on in the world today, and begin commenting on that and using that as their subject matter.
If you look back in literary history, most of the books that endure were written about the time the writer was living in. Because the corollary of always looking back and saying I’m going to write another novel set on the Prairies during World War Two is the unspoken assumption that there’s nothing interesting happening in Canada in 2008, and that is clearly absurd. If we want to reach a broader audience – an audience that has concerns about how the world is in 2008, and I think the novel is uniquely placed to comment on that – what we need to do is to start looking at more urban fiction, at younger fiction. We need fiction that doesn’t necessarily fit into the tried-and-true Canadian template of “this is how you tell a story.” We need fiction that broadens its horizons both stylistically and in terms of its subject matter.
We have to accept that the traditional Canadian novel can be anything the author cares to write about, and it doesn’t have to be set in the 1930s or 40s. We don’t have to deny the fact that the internet exists, that television exists, that pop culture exists, and that these things are very important forces in our lives today. In order for the novel to remain relevant, these are things that writers have to deal with.
CBT: Should Canadian publishers in particular be taking more advantage than they currently are of the potential e-publishing offers? Should they be embracing the Internet more aggressively?
SB: The short answer is yes. But the more nuanced answer is I don’t think they know how at this point. There have been a lot of attempts to engage with the internet on the part of publishers. I think they realize this is a technology that is here to stay, and if you’re going to remain relevant you’re going to have to find some way to utilize it. But I don’t think publishers have found the optimal way to do that yet. I think it’s still an open question. You’re starting to see publishers do some innovative things of the internet, like HarperCollins has a Facebook reading group, Anansi has tried to use Facebook to engage readers online.
To this point, no one has developed an effective e-reader. And I’m not sure I see that technology taking off anywhere except the academy, for the simple reason that nobody wants to read a novel on a screen. But I can see the potential for direct sales on the internet and for print-on-demand technology. Certain publishers are starting to play with that kind of thing. So yeah, I think it’s important for publishers to reckon with this new technology and integrate it into their business models. But I don’t think they’ve done it yet.
There may be potential for publishers and authors to exploit podcasting as a means of reaching a broader audience. A number of poets – Zach Wells is an example – have recorded their poetry and offered it online, and there are popular author interview series like The Bat Segundo show online as well. The concern here is that authors don’t want to give away their material for free, but people like Cory Doctorow have been experimenting with exactly that kind of mechanism and, perhaps counterintuitively, they’ve found that it actually helps boost sales of their physical books. So there’s probably room to exploit this technology as both a marketing tool and as a means of creative expression.
Bio: Steven W. Beattie, an editor and writer, began his career in publishing in 1999, selling subsidiary rights for Stoddart Publishing, which at the time was