Monday, November 27, 2006

Conversation 1 -- Bev Daurio

1. Ever since Sept. 11, there has been a decline in book sales, particularly sales of literary fiction. And since that time, it's been common in publishing circles to explain Sept. 11 as the main "cause" of this phenomenon. Do you agree? Or have other, equally important factors been driving the decline in sales?

It'd be interesting to know the sources of numbers indicating a decline in book sales (in dollar value or numbers of copies?), and if these are U.S., Canadian, or English numbers. What we're finding is that sales of a very few very popular, mainly from the U.S., books (like Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code and similar popular non-fiction titles) are doing fine, and sales of Mercury titles have been steady or increasing-- two ends, perhaps--the largest and the smallest-- of the puzzle to which you're alluding.

I've not really heard the link with September 11 raised in more than passing as a Canadian issue, though others may feel differently. The feeling is more that we're seeing a reduction in the number of independent bookstores, who are excellent at hand-selling and knowing literary titles. Though the internet is helpful in making literary titles more available, we're witnessing a gap between that wide and predictable availability of titles that used to happen with the independents before an increase in web traffic and sales can make up for that. But I'm optimistic.

2. The publishing industry has always been a marriage of art and commerce. But in recent years, the Cult of the Deal has become more influential, with agents demanding larger advances and marketing people paying especially close attention to sales figures. Is the "art" side of the business being squeezed out?

There is enormous pressure on literary presses to publish less challenging and ostensibly more saleable work. These pressures, whether negative (fewer sales, or bookseller reluctance, BookNet) or positive (Department of Canadian Heritage funding through Book Publishing Industry Development Program based directly and solely on sales without regard to quality or cultural significance) are, well, difficult. Literary houses are not idiotic; they are making literary acquisition choices based on different parameters from the hope for straight sales, and if they weren't, they'd be different kinds of organizations. Never mind the fact that, for the most part, NOBODY knows what will sell, in advance (viz the huge bestseller from Cormorant, a small press, Lives of the Saints by Nino Ricci, which had been, I understand, turned down by most of the majors).

One question you raise implicitly, I think: is it worth publishing difficult, challenging, interesting, edge-pushing work, in terms of thought, form, ideas? I think it is, because it extends and affects the ways people think and understand the world, and I think it will continue to happen, even if it tends to be more concentrated in specialty presses (viz. Dalkey, Green Integer, and City Lights in the States).

The Cult of the Deal is an interesting facet of current, mostly American, publishing practice. Those huge multinational publishers have their own pressures, of course, from paying for Fifth Avenue offices to satisfying shareholders. How this relates to literary publishing can be a two-edged sword-- as they say, anything that gets people talking about books may not be all bad-- but on the other hand can unrealistically raise demands and expectations for Canadian writers, particularly literary writers, when Canadian literary book sales usually range between 150 to 1000 copies-- not Deal Cult fodder.

And really, these problems and issues are not new. A scan of books about Unwin, Faber, and The Hogarth Press, in England, pre-TV in the 1920s and 1930s, quickly demonstrates that, as you suggest, the balance of art and commerce in publishing has always been a tricky one. And the literary title sales numbers weren't all that different then in England from today in Canada, despite the population difference in England's favour. We really are doing pretty well, comparatively.

3. Are there ways the book marketplace could be tilted more in Canadian publishers' favour? For example, should book stores be required by regulation to devote a conspicuous amount of store-front shelf-space to Canadian work? Should Canada Council funding be significantly increased? Or is cultural nationalism of this sort passe?

While the idea of legislating Canadian titles into bookstores-- frankly all we'd be asking for in such a case is equal treatment with foreign works-- could be appealing, the practice of charging co-op for upfront shelf space isn't going to go away, and it would be a very hard sell; practically speaking, it would likely be an awful burden, both administratively and in terms of suggesting to independent booksellers how to run their businesses. I wouldn't blame them for being more than a bit distressed about such a possibility. I don't think this would be something pursuable beyond support for booksellers and moral suasion.

What might make great sense would be to legislate the purchase of Canadian works by public libraries, who are supported by Canadian public funds, and are in a position to be on the vanguard of proselytizing for Canadian literature.

Canada Council funding, if increased to book publishers, would massively help to soften the lived reality of what is basically a burnout business, to reduce staff stress, and create stability and much stronger presentation and promotion for Canadian writers.

Nationalism may be as important as remembering who we are, and how nationalist we are may depend on how badly we do or don't want to know or remember ourselves. Canada already has hugely open cultural borders: just look at our magazine stands, or our film industry. I try to watch the Genie Awards every year to find out what Canadian films were produced, because with very few exceptions they sure didn't appear on my local Cineplex screen, even here in Toronto.

4. Many major publishers now refuse to accept "unsolicited" work; that is, they will not even consider work unless it is agented. Is this a sound policy from point of view of finding the best new literary voices? Isn't there a chance good writing will be squeezed out? Alternatively, for small presses that do accept unsolicited work, is the problem the majors squeezing the small houses at the distribution/retail marketing end?

I can't speak for major publishers or their internal acquisitions policies, but I do think that really good work will eventually find a home, if a writer improves the work, makes sure it's edited, and perseveres-- because in my experience, there is far more unsolicited work all the time coming through the mail, but really strong work is rare.
I'd differentiate, too, between international major publishers, who may or may not continue to have an interest in producing Canadian literary fiction, depending on head offices, or how the winds may blow financially, and Canadian major publishers with roots in and care about Canadian writing. Canadian publishers actually, despite their occasional fights, are pretty collegial. The problems tend to be funding (large or small and literary, we're competing with US overruns that are very very cheap to produce for the Canadian market, and behemoth promotional machines, also American), desperately thin to nonexistent profit margins, and changes in book retailing.

5. And speaking of agents -- are they too powerful? If so, in what ways? Or are they a largely beneficial and necessary element of contemporary publishing?

We don't deal with agents, so it's hard to say. Speaking as a writer, though, it'd sure be helpful and appreciated to have an agent in my corner if I were negotiating with, say, Penguin.

7. Does Canada have too many publishers? Or too few?

Canada has too few publishers, in my opinion, though new and exciting publishers are starting up all the time, which is encouraging.

I think we sometimes get mixed up because of the influx of American and British books in English. It may seem like an awful lot of new books, but few of them are Canadian.

8. In your opinion, how will new technologies such as the e-book or audio books affect the "form" of the book?

Audio books will continue to be used and useful, but e-books-- it's hard to say-- though on-line access to archive, historical and reference materials as well as specialty journals and the like is growing and seems appropriate. My feeling is that there will be more displacement into video-related and game leisure activity-- and perhaps it'll be a couple of generations before we find out how books as they are now will fare and in what forms.

9. Putting aside the hype, does the Internet provide a real opportunity to publishers? If so, how?

There are useful aspects, for sure. Anyone anywhere with access to an on-line computer with a search engine can find The Mercury Press, for example, and have access to our list, author bios, as well as submissions and ordering information. So Mercury's specialties in mysteries, highly literary works in fiction and poetry, jazz books, are easily trackable; or, people looking, for example, for other titles by a Mercury author, can do so very quickly and easily.
However, the web is a changeable, strange, place. In some ways open and democratic, it's also a flashing neon flood of information. The trick becomes how to find those people who are interested in what's going on in literature, or to help them find Mercury, and for us to understand what's useful to offer. A bit like the old days, really...

10. And what role can traditional, venerable institutions such as libraries and English Departments play in reversing the decline in sales of literary fiction?

Libraries could buy widely and deeply in Canadian literature, and universities could teach more Canlit. More readings, and writers in residence at institutions could really help in both spreading the word, exposing students and people to living writers and ways of writing, and supporting writers with time to work.

11. What projects are you working on now that you are excited about?

New fall books for 2006: Mark Miller's A Certain Respect for Tradition (jazz), David Lee's The Battle of the Five Spot: Ornette Coleman and New York (jazz), AVATAR, poetry and visual art by Sharon Harris, Double Helix, fiction by Jay MillAr and Stephen Cain, Cathedral Women, a novel by Carol Malyon, and two new mysteries, Terry Carroll's Body Contact and Mobashar Qureshi's R.A.C.E.... more information at In forthcoming books, working on co-editing The Closets of Time, an anthology of experimental fiction, with Richard Truhlar, is a delight-in-progress.

Beverley Daurio is the author of three books, the most recent of which is Hell & Other Novels (Coach House/Talon), and has published poetry and short fiction widely (the latter including in the U.S., England, and Australia). In 2005 she participated in the William Gass writing residency at The Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida. She has edited more than a hundred books (including many shortlisted for or winning awards, including the Governor General's Award for Poetry, as well as awards for page design), several short fiction anthologies, and two collections of literary interviews. She also works as a book reviewer and literary journalist (Globe and Mail, Books in Canada, and many others), some-time freelance editor, creative-writing teacher and multidisciplinary collaborationist, and is the former editor of Poetry Canada Review and Paragraph Magazine, currently publisher of Word Magazine, and, since 1985, publisher and editor-in-chief of The Mercury Press, Toronto.