Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Elusive Canadian Book

Our guest blogger this weekend is Canadian writer RJ Harlick, who writes the acclaimed Meg Harris mystery series set in the wilds of Quebec. When she's not looking for Canadian books, RJ loves nothing better than to roam the forests surrounding her own wilderness cabin or paddle the endless lakes and rivers. Her fourth book, Arctic Blue Death, was a finalist in the 2010 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Novel. In the newly released A Green Place for Dying “Meg Harris…gets an education in evil in Harlick’s absorbing fifth mystery.” (Publishers Weekly)

I should forewarn you that I am on a bit of a rant today. Perhaps it has to do with getting up on the wrong side of the bed this morning. Or maybe it relates to the endless hours I have been spending lately in bookstores doing what all authors do when a new book comes out, signing books. Or more likely it has come from the hour or more I spent yesterday trying to buy an e-book, as in Canadian e-book.

When I set out to write my first mystery, I decided I wanted to write about my country, its people, its issues, its geography. This despite being told by countless ‘authorities’ that I would never be able to get a ‘Big’ publisher interested in it nor a ‘Big’ agent. And this has indeed proven to be the case. But that is fine by me. I wasn’t looking at it as a major source of income. I was really only interested in my series reaching its Canadian readership, which it has to a degree…

At the same time I also decided I wanted to read Canadian books, books with settings, people and issues I was familiar with and could relate to. Initially this was fairly easy. Most Canadian independent bookstores and Canada’s one and only chain bookstore, Chapters/Indigo, would either have Canadian or local book sections or would identify Canadian books on their shelves. But this is no longer the case.

With most independents having succumbed either to the competition brought on by the chain bookstore or to the slowing economy, I must rely on Chapters to satisfy my Canadian book reading needs. They however no longer identify Canadian books nor do their staff seemed to be familiar with Canadian titles or authors. They do, however, know about the latest hot best seller from south of the border. Moreover most Canadian titles are buried deep in the back shelves, where few people dare wander. Invariably when I go into a Chapters without a book title or author in mind, I come out empty and feeling very frustrated at not being able to satisfy my need.

And having spent the last couple of weekends surrounded by tables filled with books, you know those tables that greet you upon entering a store, I feel even more disenchanted. Try to find a Canadian book other than a Giller or GG winner amongst the piles and you will come up empty. It’s almost as if the management is afraid to admit that Canadian books actually exist.

One of the reasons I do Chapters signings is to get my books into the stores in greater quantities than they normally order in the hope that any books that remain after the signing will be put on those tables that buyers flock to, instead of being buried title out on the mystery shelves. But I am discovering that this rarely happens. Often the remaining books are shipped back to the distributor as returns, this despite having successfully sold a good quantity of books during the signing. So clearly people are buying. Moreover once the book is sold out, it won’t be re-ordered. And trying to get the backlist in is a whole other horror story. I had one lady last week, buy all five of my books, because she was worried she wouldn’t be able to find them again. I have no doubt that I’m not the only Canadian author who faces this frustrating situation.

Now that I am reading e-books I find myself facing the same hurdles. The titles that are pushed to the fore either through targeted e-mails or at login are the hot sellers from south of the border. Whenever I try to hone in on a specific subject, such as mystery and suspense, I have to wade through page after page of titles to find the elusive Canadian title. But usually I give up in frustration, so end up not buying any books. I try to arm myself with a book title or author before I log in, but that in itself is difficult.

Apart from a couple of nationally based newspapers, few Canadian papers or magazines review books anymore, least of all Canadian ones. Trying to find reviews or even lists of Canadian mysteries can be a chore for few mystery reviewers include Canadian titles and those that do tend to have their reviews published intermittently. There are some blogs and websites that are trying to fill the gap, such as Mystery Mavens Canada, Deadly Diversions, Open Book Toronto/Ontario, the 49th shelf and Crime Writers of Canada. And both the Globe and Mail’s online book section and the National Post’s The Afterword blog will also highlight Canadian titles and authors.

But regardless, if I want to buy a Canadian book, I can’t do it on the spur of the moment. I have to spend time beforehand arming myself with a specific title or author, time I don’t always have. I just can’t go in and browse. And if I find this frustrating I worry about how many other readers there are out there wanting to buy Canadian books who find themselves facing the same frustrations and end up either buying nothing or the latest hot seller from south of the border.

Sorry for the rant, but I feel much better. And if you are feeling particularly kind today, why not take the time to search out a Canadian title and buy it.


Barbara Fradkin said...

And one great place to find out about those great Canadian mystery titles is through Crime Writers of Canada. Go to and sign up for their quarterly e-newsletter of new releases, Cool Canadian Crime.

Jayne said...

You are so right, Robin. I've talked to many neophyte mystery writers lately who don't at all realize Canada has a vibrant cross-country community of crime authors. Their role models are all American (and some British).

I can list a dozen off the top of my head, but to buy them I have, as you say, to know the title or author before going into a store or logging onto a website.

How can we fight the American avalanche?

Peggy Blair said...

I was disappointed to see that Margaret Cannon's column yesterday focussed on foreign authors (only one Canadian among the five she profiled). The Globe and Mail rarely does features on mystery writers and it's probably the biggest information source for most Canadian readers (although the National Post is picking up the slack when it comes to books).

Jan Long said...

Robin, if you think you're frustrated, imagine how I feel! It's nearly impossible from here to find Canadian mysteries from Canadian publishers. I have my list of series I already read, but how can I find new authors? It's one of the reasons I go to Bloody Words.

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Monique Sherrett said...

You're spot on! That was part of our impetus for creating and we are still working to get more Canadian books and ebooks listed. Great rant. Hopefully 49th Shelf makes it easier to discover Canadian-authored titles.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Robin, I love the Canadian writers I've read and seek out their books. Seems like our problems are international as far as stores getting behind a very few best-selling authors.

Mike said...

I love RJ Harlick's work. She is one of Canada's finest writers. Her mystery books are brilliant. We need more Canadian writers in the genre of mystery.