Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A recipe to produce great authors – and readers

This is the title of a piece that appeared over the holidays in Toronto’s Globe and Mail newspaper. You can read it here: a-recipe-to-produce-great-authors-and-readers.

And now for a little background.

My third novel, Shooting Straight in the Dark, was published by McClelland & Stewart when Doug Gibson was running it. I can’t say I know the man well, but I have spoken one-on-one with him several times and found him to be a soft-spoken, decent, thought-filled (as distinct from “thoughtful”) man, and as one who always goes on first impressions, I liked him. He no longer is at the helm of M&S, having been moved aside, but I found what he wrote in his Globe piece to be interesting considering that he did at one time run one of the majors here in Canada.

He’s dead on about there being little in place to help young and talented authors get a solid start on their careers. His observations about reading programs, school librarian funding, successful publishers and excellent bookstores are all very true, as well.

Long gone are the days of wealthy patrons supporting struggling artists (Beethoven and Tschaikovsky had them). They’ve been somewhat replaced by foundations. Canada has a lovely one in place, The Canada Council, but an applicant has to jump through some very significant hoops to get reasonable funding that will allow them the time and space to create their art (and I definitely include writing as “art”). But as Gibson points out in his quote from a CC spokesman that they have their eye on “discoverability” when they’re doling out the cash.

Sidebar: That’s sort of sad, and reminds me of the vast number of very talented singers I know who struggle in anonymity because they aren’t particularly good-looking. (It’s also one reason I adore the sensational Sharon Jones.) Ever notice how many “hot, writing talents” happen to be young(ish) and photogenic? In our culture it’s rather difficult to promote grandma as the new author everyone simply  has to read.

What I find really interesting in this article, though, is what Doug Gibson does not bring up: the rapid erosion of publishers’ advances against royalties. This financial device (incentive?) was developed specifically to allow authors the financial wherewithal to complete their manuscripts, focusing exclusively on doing that because they have enough money to support themselves during the process. That support lifeline is shredding to the point where it has become nearly superfluous.

The buzz around the publishing industry is that advances of $10,000 “are the new $50,000”. One publishing rep told me this almost proudly, as if her employer was being more financially responsible by cutting back on egregious funding of authors. When I pointed out that the idea was that publishers were backing up their decision to publish an author’s work by ponying up some money in advance to allow the author to work undisturbed by mundane things like having to house, feed and clothe themselves and their families, I got a blank look. I then pointed out that the money was a loan. It wasn’t a gift. The publisher was gambling that the author’s work would make the advance back – so was the author.

The question is: how can an author – most of whom, especially at the beginning, have little money – write a novel on $10,000. That takes most of us about six months to accomplish, meaning you would have to support yourself for half a year on that amount, let alone a family? The real tragedy for us crime writers is that even a $10,000 advance from a large publisher is pretty much the stuff of dreams now.

The real problem here is the reasoning behind advances has become lost in the shuffle. But then again, modern culture is all about NOW. History almost seems an afterthought.

So getting back to the Gibson piece, the promotion and health of “written culture” is wholly in the hands of every stakeholder (governments, the public, business interests and artists) that all need to work together to find solutions. To do this, though, the primary focus should be on the creators of the art, because without them, there is none.

In the rush to the bottom, it seems to be something that’s gotten completely lost in the shuffle, and even Gibson hasn’t recognized this.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

Rick, I agree, and I don't know how those who are trying to support themselves exclusively by writing are doing it. One has to be a best-selling writer.