Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

April 15, 2014

Five Great Heroes for Small Girls

Navigating media with a young girl can be a disheartening experience. If you think representation matters, like I do, you’re constantly on the lookout for smart, confident, diverse girls represented in interesting ways. They can be hard to find, but not impossible. Six years in, I have built a small but sturdy library.

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi Longstocking, the hero of Astrid Lindgren’s eponymous books, was my #1 most favourite female hero for kids before I actually had kids. There were very few characters I, personally, identified with more when I was eight. Pippi lives alone with a horse and a monkey. She has incredible super-strength, which is neat, but not nearly as enticing as her independence. She has a father somewhere, distantly, who is a buccaneer captain. Pippi isn’t bothered by her father’s absence since he is alive and merely busy having adventures, so Pippi’s feral independence isn’t darkened in any way by loss or grief. She just straight up gets to do anything she likes, and does.

Mosca Mye

Mosca Mye is the hero of Frances Hardinge’s incredible books, Fly By Night and Twilight Robbery. Another lone, independent 12-year-old, Mosca does have a darker past, and it adds a definite edge to her character. Razor-sharp, Mosca escapes her dull relatives after sort-of-accidentally-on-purpose burning her uncle’s barn to the ground and freeing the loquacious conman, Eponymous Clent, who comes to be her partner in crime. She also has a goose named Saracen, who is the fiercest creature in all the world. Mosca’s not old enough to have lost a childlike innocence, despite her street smarts, and she survives all sorts of dangerous encounters on wit alone. Bonus points for major themes of literacy!

Zahrah the Windseeker

I’m partial to bold, independent heroes, but my elder daughter is a different creature. Adventures are scary to her, even when they come out well in the end, and so she instantly attached herself to Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the 2008 Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa). Zahrah’s a shy, contemplative 13-year-old who is absolutely reluctant to go charging off into danger. She needs to think, internalize and understand – and occasionally be given a final firm shove. But she has strength of character and wisdom beyond her years, not to mention SHE CAN FLY, which is obviously amazing.


It would be easy to make this a list of characters from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films, but let’s stick to one. Kiki is probably the strongest of Miyazaki’s characters. The film is about her and her growth as a character, and very little else. But it’s enough. Kiki’s independent, but less sure than some of the more assertive characters. She’s a witch, but she doesn’t know what her special skill is yet, and she quickly learns she isn’t as rich or fancy as other girls in the big city she has chosen to live in. Her fears and struggles are terrible relatable, though Kiki never sacrifices her fundamental goodness. Though she’s almost a young woman, the film’s lack of a “bad guy” makes it wonderful for kids of any age.

Zita the Space Girl

Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl (along with the sequels Legends of Zita the Spacegirl and The Return of Zita the Spacegirl) has pretty much everything you can ask for in space opera, pared down to the innocent scale of a young girl. Zita has arrived on a strange planet via a portal triggered by her best friend. He’s abducted: she dives through to rescue him. Instantly she’s thrown into huge, galaxy-spanning plots, con artistry, large scale rescue missions, desert crossings, overthrowing governments, salvaging robots, riding giant mice, standing up for economic refugees – have I missed anything? Probably – Zita almost has too much going on, but this never bothered my kids. Zita’s powers are pluck and the moral high ground – and it works.


I’ve had a thing or two to say about good representations for young girls before, and my essay “The Princess Problem” is now available as part of Jim C. Hines’ Invisible: Personal Essays on Representation in SF/F. Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to Con or Bust, a fund administered through the Carl Brandon Society that helps get people of color/non-white people to attend SFF conventions. Take a look! Excellent work within.

April 10, 2014

Clavis Aurea April 10th

The 3rd installment of my short fiction reviews are up at Apex Magazine! As ever, you should read them!

April 4, 2014

How To Get My Money – Periodical Edition

I read a lot of periodicals. I have subscriptions to fifteen magazines or journals, and buy individual issues of countless others. I try to at least look at each one, even if I don’t always read them cover to cover. I feel as if I might have some grounds for talking a bit about why people might read your publication, and why people might not.

Here is a step by step guide to how I will approach your publication, as a reader; what will convince me to read and what will drive me away.

A shiny new ‘zine appears! 

Yay! I click through to the website. Oooh, looks interesting.

Can I buy an issue to read on my ereader?

If I can, I will buy it right away. I might hesitate if the only retailer is Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble or some other giant. If it’s direct, Weightless Books or Gumroad, I won’t even stop to think. I will BUY. I will read! Horray!

Can I subscribe to an e-edition?

If the ‘zine has a good track record or speaks directly to my soul, I will subscribe without too much thought. After all, I spend $20 on a book, why would I balk at spending the same amount of money to get 4-12 issues emailed directly to me? I love esubscriptions. This is why I have six of them.

Can I buy a paper copy?

Okay, so not everyone is putting together digital ‘zines. That’s cool. I like paper better anyway. I will buy physical copies if the total cost of the issue plus shipping is under $20. I will likely subscribe if it is something I really love. I love mail. This is why I have nine physical subscriptions.

Does it have an awesome mobile site?

Once I cannot buy an issue or subscription for comfortable reading, things get tricky. I used to read on my phone, but this resulted in a rapid decline of my eyesight, headaches, and general discomfort. I can read in short bursts, but I will not curl up with an issue on my phone.

If I have to read something on my phone, it had better be optimized for mobile reading. The text size has to be big enough, or adjustable. The menus must be simple. There can’t be ads or flash graphics reloading things every thirty seconds. Preferably, the text should take up the entire screen, so I don’t have to zoom (and end up with scrolling issues).

Some ‘zines have got perfectly serviceable mobile reading experiences (Apex Magazine and Ideomancer do good jobs). I tend to open these ‘zines in web browsers and leave them there for weeks. Maybe I will get to them, maybe I won’t.

Do I have to read it on an old-school website?

I probably won’t read. It’s too hard. It’s uncomfortable. I will only bother if a specific story has been recommended to me so many times that I can’t look away.

I mean, I get it. It’s free. You’re all working for free. But it is because it is free that I’m not as likely to read if you make it hard for me. I paid for my other magazines. I’m invested. Given the choice between reading something that hurts my eyes online, and reading something I paid for on my Kobo, I will do the latter every time. And I do have to choose – 15 subscriptions, after all. I can’t read everything.

A quick note on Kickstarters:

I acquired a large number of my subscriptions through Kickstarter. If you are running a Kickstarter for your periodical, it is an early subscription campaign. If you are running a Kickstarter for a periodical and your core tier is not “SUBSCRIPTION”, then you are doing it wrong. Any Kickstarter campaign, whatever it is for, should sell, fundamentally, the thing you are making. Probably for cheap, like an early bird special. It is dead easy for a supporter to see that $15-$20 tier and say, yah, I’ll throw you a twenty. And I get a subscription, which would cost me $22 if I waited! Good deal! This is where most of your supporters will lie. Your subscribers too. You will have contact with these supporters for the rest of the year. They are your core constituants.

Tiers full of postcards, prints, signed books, Tuckerizations, critiques… these are cool, but this isn’t what you are selling. This is the extra stuff, the honey that sweetens the pot of Zine Tea. If I have to pay ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS to get the equivalent of a subscription, you have missed the point. I want to love your product. It looks like a cool product. Please sell your product.

A quick note on free ‘zines who do everything right:

You produce a great product, you make ezine subscriptions available and you do it all for free. You are AMAZING. But I still want to give you my money, and you are making it hard by giving it all away. I know, I could just click the PayPal button. I probably won’t. I will procrastinate. I will think, “I should throw some money in the tip jar some day.” I won’t get around to it.

It takes very little “extra” to get me to pay in. Release the paid material a week ahead of the free edition, as Beneath Ceaseless Skies does. Maybe include an extra story in the e-edition. Send me a t-shirt, I don’t know. But do something to fish for that money. You might think you don’t want it, but you do. Give it all to your featured author if you feel bad pocketing it. Buy your slushies Starbucks gift cards. But do take the offered money and put it to work. If you don’t, somebody else will, and that person might not be as awesome as you.

So, how about you? What makes you read a ‘zine? Leave a comment even just to say hi!



March 28, 2014

On the Economics of Creative Industries

Yesterday, Ontario’s major news outlets reported that the provincial government was finally starting to crack down on illegal unpaid internships, starting with a blitz, apparently, of the magazine industry. The reactions from the left shocked me. Progressive people who should have known better bemoaned the death of these “great opportunities” and wondered where new graduates were supposed to get “valuable work experience” now.

I undulated between frothing anger and silent shock all afternoon. From… jobs, maybe? The paying kind? How did we manage to swallow, hook line and sinker, the idea that the first step into the workforce should be unpaid?

We probably swallow it because we of the creative-dependent industries work deep in the belly of starving artist territory. Not only are we told day in and day out that we cannot make a living at our art, but we’re chastised for having entered Humanities programs in the first place, then shamed if we consider “soul-destroying” paid work over pursuing our art. Writers are told not to quit their day jobs, cartoonists give their product away for decades before managing a single successful Kickstarter campaign, and we pay thousands upon thousands of dollars for skill-developing workshops.

Of course we expect people to work for free. An internship, after all, is about education, and we have agreed as a society to pay tens of thousands of dollars a head for those, endlessly, forever. Rational, kind people continue to argue this morning that as long as you’re learning something at your unpaid “internship”, they should be legal.

So why stop there? What separates a “job” from a “learning opportunity” anyway? Especially in the creative fields, where we’re offered jobs for “exposure” and “experience” every day? Or academia, where you publish relentlessly for no compensation whatsoever except a vague CV-padding? You learn something at every good job – why pay anybody for anything?

To further muddy the pool, almost everyone who is associated in any way with the publishing industry works for free once in a while. I read slush for free. The only people who get paid at a place like Taddle Creek are the writers. Rose Fox recently argued that editors need to start asking for a piece of the pie. They correctly point out that “money isn’t thick on the ground” in the industry, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

If the only people who can break into an industry are the people affluent enough to work for free for years at a time, you’re going to get an industry entirely staffed by white, middle+ class, single young people. Diversity and representation you can throw right out the window, because most people don’t have rich parents, savings, supportive, well-employed partners, or 28-hours available to them in a day. You also help contribute to false economics when you fail to factor in all the labour that goes in to your product. Every literary product I have backed on Kickstarter recently has completely glossed over the editorial costs of their book. $5000 will get you ten stories, cover art, printing and shipping costs, and that’s it. The editors, layout designers, promoters and marketers? You’re volunteers. You’re unpaid interns.

We work for free because we want these products to be made, to be available. Given the choice between volunteering to edit something for free and seeing the project die in development, we choose the labour of love every time.

But listen, broadly applied, this is a false dichotomy. The publishing industry is worth billions. If the editors, authors, designers and publicists aren’t being paid, who is? When St. Joseph Media eliminates 20-30 unpaid internships and blames the government, they are being incredibly disingenuous. The Gagliano family who run St. Joseph Communications do very well indeed. CEO Tony Gagliano has donated millions of dollars to cultural projects throughout the GTA – and good for him – he can find $750,000 to pay 30 interns minimum wage.

The money is out there, but we’re never going to see it if we don’t start putting our labour back into the equation. After all, the more of us that are being paid, the more we can pay back.  Hey writers – you know you can claim magazine subscriptions as a business expense, right? Do that. Pay in. Demand it pay out.

March 27, 2014

Clavis Aurea #2

My short story reviews are up this week at Apex Magazine – Check ‘em out!

March 20, 2014

The state of my bookselling, 2014

I am still a bookseller. It is March 20th, 2014.

Everybody is surprised, me included. Every day customers wander through the door and look at me, startled, saying, “You’re still here!” My boss opens the till from time to time and demands to know who we have robbed, because cash appears to be accumulating. Our bills are paid. Our suppliers are satisfied. I have a normal, stable, middle-class job, and will hopefully soon be buying a house in downtown Toronto.

I am still a bookseller. Unlike, unfortunately, many of my colleagues. Toronto’s bookstore fatalities this year include the World’s Biggest Bookstore, the Annex branch of Book City, and the Cookbook Store (who will be having a farewell potluck this Sunday March 23rd starting at 11:30am). The culprits are Amazon and Toronto rents, the latter enemy being, likely, the bigger problem.

Courtesy of Biblioasis, who understand about having books on shelves.

Yet, I am still a bookseller. We are lucky to pay stable, and low, rent here. We carry unusual things and have a fiercely dedicated (and, frankly, solvent) customer base. We probably aren’t going anywhere, though some days I worry about the publishing industry’s ability to fill my store with books. As the midlist converts to e-formats and specialty books move to print-on-demand, it can be difficult to stock our bread-and-butter – the complete works of Immanuel Kant, for instance, or Will Kymlika. One of the few true benefits of a meat-space store is that we are right here, right now. If a customer comes in and asks for Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, they mean now. Not, “Sure, we’ll take your order and that will be print-on-demand, non-returnable once it finally shows up in 3-4 weeks.”

This is the single weirdest shift I have noticed in the last 5 years. Books are getting harder for us to get. The same technology which is supposed to be making everything available to us all the time is gumming up the works. Books are getting much easier to get in one way: digitally, through Amazon. The process from writer to publisher (often the same person) to reader has become streamlined through the one fat Amazonian tube.

Optimizing your publishing process to slip down that river makes sense. You’re likely to make the bulk of your sales that way, especially if you are a smaller publisher without the means or the publicity to get your books onto bookshelves internationally. The time and effort required to then get your book into other distribution chains often isn’t worth it. A token effort – maybe checking the “extended distribution” box on Smashwords or Createspace, which in practice means making the book available as a POD title through Ingram – puts the book out there in a technical sense, but it will not be fast or cheap for the purchaser. And let me tell you, if it comes with the “non-returnable” caveat, we won’t buy it at all.

The only way we compete with Amazon is by having books on the shelves, not books in potentia in a database. On the flip side, the only way your reader is going to discover your books is by seeing that book. Maybe they’re seeing it mentioned on Twitter, or maybe they see it crop up on their friends’ Goodreads feeds – or maybe they see it on a bookshelf in a store. Amazon is a fantastically bad tool for book discoverability. George Packer did a wonderful job of breaking down Amazon’s arcane and for-profit search algorithms in his piece, Cheap Words. The long and the short of it is, readers can discover your book if you pay for it, or if you have some fantastic grassroots momentum going on. Otherwise, godspeed. You’re on your own.

Or, it might be worth the extra effort to make the book easily and readily available to actual bookstores, few though we may be. Booksellers are on your side – Amazon is not. We are book lovers, actual readers. We sell books not because we are looking to make a buck – though don’t get me wrong, my mortgage will be paid by that buck – but because we have made a genuine effort to understand your criteria, and we want you to enjoy the book we have suggested. We like what we do, and we are good at what we do. I guarantee that a single indy bookseller can hand-sell more copies of a book they loved than a reader can Tweeting that recommendation to their 250 followers. Both methods have their place, but if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say three-quarters or more of our customers come in without a specific book in mind. Like customers in a restaurant, all they know is they want something to read, and they’d like to see what we have, imagine the taste of each likely candidate, and to pick what they feel like at that moment. Maybe they have a craving for a specific read, but mostly, they don’t. They trust the bookseller, listen to what we know about the book’s content and accolades  and they go away with something unexpected.

That’s what I do, because I am still a bookseller. For a little longer, anyway. So long as we can keep getting good, well-made books at a reasonable price in a timely manner. This is the 21st century – that should be easy, right?

March 13, 2014

In which I change place, talk about place

With ChiZine.com refocussing to feature their own publications, the folks at Apex Magazine have been good enough to host my short story review column, Clavis Aurea. The first installment is out today – check it out! Every second Thursday from now on.

February 20, 2014

Clavis Aurea – February 20, 2014

My short story reviews are up at ChiZine.com! Check ‘em out.

February 13, 2014

Representing Daddy

Because my children are very small, they do not, at this stage, look for themselves in books. Their brains don’t work like that yet – they take themselves for granted, since they are the centre of the universe, and they look instead for the people they see around them. Oonagh, who is two, likes to find Maggie, who is five. They point out when characters look like Mommy. And they get very special delight out of finding Daddy.

Not that it happens very often. Daddy doesn’t turn up in books very often, and when he does, he’s not the guy you want to root for. Among the characters my kids have identified as “daddy”:

Jafar, from Aladdin

Scar, from The Lion King

Mommy wishes, kid.

My children are generally perplexed by the daddies they see in books, who, at best, they identify as being their Uncle Gordon. They tend to be pudgy, pale, balding fellows who look like this:

I am a big believer that representation in media matters, especially to children. Kids learn from books. That’s why we read to them so willingly. I am constantly on the lookout not just for books that represent the kids in diverse ways, but the families as well. Kids can learn to be ashamed of or embarrassed by their family situation at a shockingly young age, and I’m keen to head that off at the pass. Your daddy isn’t a bad guy, girls, no matter what Disney likes to say.

I have recommended Jill Thompson’s Magic Trixie here before, but it has recently re-emerged as a favourite in this house. Maggie recommended it for Keep Toronto Reading two years ago.

I have a lot of reasons for loving Magic Trixie, as a geeky parent. It’s a graphic novel, a form intrinsic to my childrens’ nerd heritage. It features cool, quirky children depicted in age-appropriate ways, unlike the similar-but-actually-completely-reprehensible Monster High brand. It’s funny, readable and beautiful. It shows a variety of (admittedly heteronormative) families of many colours and, best of all, the daddy looks like Daddy.

Though, real Daddy does not, sadly, ride a bitchin’ broom.

Fighting the tide of crummy media representation is a huge chore, made harder if you have specific characters you are looking for in your stories. Kids don’t need to see their family everywhere, but when they see families depicted in only one way over and over – they get the message. We’ve tried to balance things in our house.

Pop over to Jim C. Hines’s blog and read his ongoing series of guest-posts about representation. There are some heartbreaking stories, but also some fantastic recommendations. However you or your family identify, there is great fiction to identify with. The trick is just finding it.

See? Not at all evil. Maybe a little evil. In a fun way.

February 6, 2014

Want to be a Bookseller for a Day?

There is some excellent discussion over at E. Catherine Tobler’s blog about reading women, something we should all be doing more. There is nothing new under the sun: this issue comes up all the time (as it should), and in particular I remember the furor that followed this article in the Guardian three years ago. We all swore up and down to read more women, and some excellent people swore to read only women to make up for it.

Do we? Well. A cursory look at my most recent reads on Goodreads reveals I’m sitting at about 50%, which is good, but I still feel disconnected. I force myself to read a lot of women when I am reading “good for me” books. Capital-L Literature. I need to read George Eliot just as badly as I need to read Thomas Hardy. But when people ask me who I love best? Those writers I will reach for each and every time I can? All men. Eco, Dumas, Stephenson, Chabon, Murakami. My favourite books are all written by men. Tolstoy, Peake, Herbert, Heller. I am a terrible cheerleader for women’s writing.

But this wasn’t always the case. When I was deep into reading fantasy and mythic fiction in the late 90s and early ’00s, every single book I loved was by a woman.

Every. Single. One.

What happened? How did I fail to keep up? Now, ten, fifteen years later, I don’t know who else came up to join the women whose writing I once loved. A lot of the women I used to read have retired, vanished, or died. The new generation seems to be writing YA. I am tired of reading about teenagers.

So I put this to the crowd. I have made a list below of the books I loved as a young woman. Can you recommend anything to me that I might love now? I hardly remember the books, aside from that I loved them – and it is possible that my tastes have matured and changed. That might explain why, for example, I feel such a strong attraction to alt historical novels, and yet I hated Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon. Maybe I have moved on? Or maybe not. Try me.

The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
The Wood Wife by Terri Windling
Tam Lin by Pamela Dean
The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson
The Innamorati by Midori Snyder
The Stars Dispose by Michaela Roessner
The Moon and the Sun by Vonda McIntyre
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
The Shadow of Albion by Andre Norton & Rosemary Edghill

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