Publish Then Perish

The sorry state of the digital age author

As I write this, CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi is on Twitter tweeting (crowing?) about the success of Canada Reads 2012. For the first time in the eleven-year history of the Survivor-esque best-book competition, every one of the five books under discussion ended up on The Globe and Mail top ten list of Canadian best-sellers. This is all the more remarkable when you factor in that Canada Reads focused the competition exclusively on non-fiction this year, a genre that, in this country at least, in terms of the glitzier prizes shimmering across our publishing landscape, is often outshone by fiction.

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Terry Fallis, who won the competition in 2011 for his novel The Best Laid Plans, affirmed on his blog that Canada Reads “sells more books in this country than anything else, except the Scotiabank Giller Prize,” so the CBC’s decision to work with non-fiction writers this year was greeted, by those writers and their publishers, with jubilation. At last, the tremendous hoard of PR wealth represented by these two prizes would be shared between writers of fiction and non-fiction alike. And make no mistake, neither the word “tremendous” nor “hoard” amounts to much of an exaggeration. Terry Fallis goes on to describe the effect that winning Canada Reads had on the fortunes of his book and, subsequently, his publishing future. “Sales immediately shot through the roof, as The Best Laid Plans surged to the top of the charts of Amazon, Chapters, Indigo and Kobo. It sat on The Globe and Mail bestseller list for more than six months…I signed with McClelland & Stewart for a third novel, which incidentally, I’ve just finished… invitations to speak and read at libraries, book clubs and literary festivals flooded my inbox and are still coming in.”

The trickling noise you may be hearing in the background even now—kind of like a burbling stream—is the sound of thousands of Canadian writers’ jaws simultaneously going slack and spilling forth drool.

This is perhaps not so pleasant an image to a reader. That is, if you like to imagine authors as men and women of dignity and gravitas, focused only on their art and, as Keats put it, “the truth of the imagination.” Similarly, it’s not so nice if you are an author yourself and have always wanted to think of yourself in that Keatsian way. The ‘above-it-all’ writer has always been an ideal, of course, and something of a ridiculous and unfair one, especially in these recessionary times, the assumption being that any writer worth his salt can (and somehow should) exist in some pure elevated ether, high above the groundlings of commerce. Would that it were so.

Already in this essay I have mentioned Twitter, CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail, and quoted from an author’s blog which references Amazon and Kobo. I will soon have a few things to say about Facebook. The ratio of references made to “traditional media” versus what’s now called “new media” is indicative of something important—something the CBC was figuring out right around the time they instituted a major change to the Canada Reads competition (that being 2011, the year Fallis won). That decision was to get listeners directly involved in the competition itself through social media.

A CBC producer working on the competition that year told me the decision was made for a number of reasons, “all dealing with increasing audience engagement.”

Although Canada Reads is a one-week show on the radio, she explained, “months of research and content goes into the website; yet the number of site visitors didn’t reflect the amount of work that was going into the site. We all agreed that social media could have an important part to play in generating conversation in that sense.”

Before it turned social media to audience engagement purposes, Canada Reads was a fairly popular radio program that involved five panelists—authors, actors, politicians, athletes, public figures—each championing a Canadian novel supposedly close to their hearts. Goodness knows even this format attracted its share of detractors. Some people were troubled by the explicit modeling of the competition on the American television show Survivor—books being “voted off the island,” as it were. It can be difficult for writers, as well as the most passionate book lovers—that is, people who sit around thinking critically about literature all the livelong-day—to listen to radio panelists dismiss a book for having, say, “unlikable characters” or a “slow pace.” It’s not that these qualities don’t make an honest difference to a reader’s experience, it’s just that people who agonize for hours about the placement of a comma cannot stand to hear about such things.

Then again, so what? Canada Reads was guilty of not pleasing all of the people all of the time, but it certainly pleased a lot of them, particularly the writers and publishers lucky enough to have their books anointed by the five panelists.
And CBC was pleasing them, it should be noted, during a time when other ‘traditional’ media outlets were mostly abandoning the conversation about Canadian books (leaving most of the labour to those who were willing to do it for love—bloggers).

Take television, for example. Where once there were nationally broadcast programs eager to feature authors as guests—Dini Petty, Vicki Gabereau, Midday, Hot Type—as of 2005 or so there was…well, a whistling void. 2008 was a bad year in general, of course, but it was a particularly bad year for print media. In desperation, The Globe and Mail revamped itself, and a casualty of that desperation, surprising no one, was its stand-alone Saturday book section. At the same time, the Toronto Star halved its book coverage from four pages to two. Meanwhile, the Postmedia Network, having shored up ownership of most other Canadian newspapers of note, would often run a single review or profile of a given author in everything from the Victoria Times-Columnist to the Ottawa Citizen. That is, one journalist, representing one opinion, would write a single review, which appeared in multiple venues across the country.

The fallout from these various economic forces must now be acknowledged. Certainly it’s not news to anyone that print media has been undergoing a seismic shift over the past decade. Sometimes it feels as if a rampaging giant has gathered up all the remaining scraps of print culture and flung them up into the stratosphere. Those of us with a stake in the outcome have spent the last few years in a holding pattern, gazing upward, mouths open, wondering when the pieces will fall back to earth and where on earth they’ll land. A very funny satirical essay by Ellis Weiner appeared in The New Yorker in October 2009, purporting to be an email to an author from a publishing intern named Gineen. Gineen began by announcing she had been brought in “to replace the publicity department here at Propensity Books.” Ha ha ha! sobbed writers and publishers, desolately forwarding the link to one another, posting it along with a wry remark or two on their Facebook pages. It was so funny because it was true—so true it wasn’t even funny. Publicity departments were not only being slashed, but entire publishing houses were joining independent bookstores in the graves that had been dug out for them courtesy of the superstore retail model, as represented by Chapters and Borders. For writers who believed they had enjoyed solid, affectionate relationships with their publishers, the 2009 fall out was so severe that if you were not Stephanie Meyers, or at the very least touting yourself as the next Stephanie Meyers, you really couldn’t expect to have your calls returned.

The New Yorker’s satirical “email” went on to skewer the new normal in publishing—specifically the offloading of much of the traditional work of publishers onto any remaining authors lucky enough to land a book deal (tellingly, the book under discussion is titled Clancy the Doofus Beagle: A Love Story). More often than not, that work was expected to take place in the exciting (inexpensive), new (baffling) world of the web 2.0.

“Do you blog?” asks Gineen. “It would be great if you could post at least 600 words every day until further notice… Don’t worry if you think you’re not on Facebook,” she continues, “because you actually are. Jason enrolled you when you signed the contract last year.”

Finally, after instructing the hapless author to “spray-feed your URL in niblets open-face to the skein” and “tabskim your readers’ comments” via “Twitter, Chitt-chaTT or Nit-Pickr,” the intern asks the author to make sure, “When you reply to comments, try to post at least one photo per hour of you doing everyday tasks around the house, such as answering comments and posting photos.”

In short, the essay provides a satirical snapshot (or should I say screengrab) of the terror encircling those whose fates were enmeshed in the world of publishing in 2009 and the extent to which that terror was tied up with the rapidly transforming world of digital media.

Because things have been so bad in publishing for so long, it’s hard to talk about the digitally-driven changes happening now without sounding as if you are bemoaning them, or blaming the internet itself for the bad. But it seems to me that the fabric of publishing in North America and the UK has been fraying and threadbare for quite some time, mostly thanks to the above-mentioned superstore model that took over in the early aughts—a corporate strategy that had nothing whatsoever to do with the web. That digital culture would steal in to patch those holes, or replace entire patches in the quilt anew, surely amounts to an inevitability.

Now we circle back to late 2010 when the CBC announced its new twist to the Canada Reads competition. In honour of the contest’s 10th anniversary, Canada Reads decided to compile a long-list of “40 essential Canadian novels of the decade” from which the final five would be taken, and, this was the kicker, those forty books would be “chosen by you,” CBC listeners and devotees of the show.

Except everyone realized more or less immediately that you didn’t have to be a CBC listener or a fan of Canada Reads, or even someone who likes to read very much, to go the CBC website and cast a vote, an anonymous vote. Writers took to the internet and launched campaigns for their books—some playful, jokey and self-deprecating, others abject and desperate and a little hard to watch. Yet the initiative was a PR masterstroke and a stroke of significant good fortune for Canadian publishing—not only had the CBC launched a galvanizing, wildly popular showcase for Canadian fiction, they’d come up with a way to garner attention for, not a mere five books this time, but forty. What’s more, writers could now effect the very outcome of the competition.

So what if they were driven completely out of their gourds in the process?

To understand the immense pressure this new format placed on Canadian writers, one needs to understand the
elusiveness of what we call literary ‘success’ in this culture. First of all, literary success looks nothing like what we would consider success in any other industry. It involves neither significant amounts of money nor widespread recognition. It guarantees no future in particular.

Canadian publishing is so small—our tribe of readers being devout yet demographically humble—that the only real benchmark of success when it comes to being a writer in Canada is the simple act of getting one’s book published. What in any other industry would constitute the first rung on the ladder, is, for most writers, alpha and omega. Anything that comes after that—high-profile reviews, award nominations, a second book deal—is gravy.

The problem is that, for many, the gravy never gets passed to their end of the table. This has always been the case for some writers—often those publishing with smaller houses, who accordingly command smaller PR budgets—but over the past decade, as radio and television shed one book-friendly program after another and newspapers shed page after page of books coverage, the playing field has become smaller and smaller. Until finally, as of late 2010, it had been winnowed down to the two single pinpoints identified above by Terry Fallis: the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Canada Reads.

So with Canada Reads seeking forty “essential books of the decade,” writers were faced with an unprecedented opportunity. Moribund careers could be revived. Flagging sales revitalized. A novel that fell flat six years ago—either because Atwood, Ondaatje and Munro all had books out that year or because one’s publicist turned out to be a secret drinker—could be magically repackaged and re-presented for the public’s delectation. Canada Reads 2011 offered every writer in Canada a second chance—another chance to stake out a corner of the rapidly disappearing PR landscape.

But first they had to get on that top forty list. And for that, they needed the votes. They took to Facebook. They took to Twitter. They took to YouTube. They ransacked their email contacts list. “It’s writer- ducking season again,” sighed journalist Shannon Rupp in an article published in The Tyee entitled: “Why Call it Canada Reads? Should be: Authors Beg.” Yet nobody who understood anything about a writer’s reality in Canada could blame them for it.

Meanwhile, the CBC enjoyed levels of “audience engagement” the likes of which no one had ever seen. Here we should pause for a moment of genuine appreciation at what the CBC has accomplished via this competition. Suddenly, radio listeners—the most combative of old-media footsoldiers—willingly and decisively followed their beloved CBC online. It seems to me the Mothercorp stands head and shoulders above other traditional outlets in terms of how successfully it has integrated with and adapted to the rapid advances in digital culture (example: two days ago I downloaded their music app, today I wonder how I ever lived without it). In early 2011, Canada Reads was taking place as much on the web as it was on the radio—more, really—their website abuzz with commenters, a streaming video broadcast of the debate available on CBC.ca complete with a live-stream audience commentary matching the discussion beat for beat. Not to mention a frantic hoard of writers doing the CBC’s PR work for it in ensuring that every last person in their social network became aware of the competition.

And now it’s 2012 and CBC Radio is coming off its most successful Canada Reads to date. It also happens to have been its most controversial, a result of one of the judges taking the ruthless, reality TV pedigree of the program perhaps a bit too much to heart. Dispensing with the Canadian kid gloves, she forwent a discussion of the non-fiction books themselves in favour of personal attacks on the authors. One writer, having penned a memoir about her revolutionary activities under the Pinochet regime, was called a “bloody terrorist.” The other, another memoirist recalling her teenage arrest and imprisonment in Iran, was accused of simply making her story up. It made for something of a scandal, to be sure. Many listeners were outraged. The Twitterverse was abuzz. Facebook discussion threads were long and heated. “Audience engagement” was no doubt at a premium.

What’s tricky for those ink-stained anachronisms among us to grasp as we attempt to negotiate the passage from newsprint and radio waves to the happy land of zeros and ones, is how social media obliges each of us—from fourteen-year-old Facebookers to top executives at Google—to pretend we’re all just friends at one big online party. The bigger the corporation, the more useful it is to stamp the social media smiley-face on practices like, for example, Facebook’s harvesting of its users’ personal data or Jeff Bezos’ recent attempts to ‘eliminate the middleman’ (that being bookstores and publishing houses) for the supposed benefit of up and coming new authors and penny-pinching readers. Sure, most of us at the party have business cards tucked away in our purses, but no one wants to be caught dead overtly plying their trade. That’s so old media. So we link, we ‘like’, we RT—we hold contests on our sites, inviting ever one to play along. And everybody does play along. Those who don’t are swiftly left behind.

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