Once & Future

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

June 21, 2010

Who Goes to the Small Press Book Fair?

I love the Toronto Small Press Book Fair.  I love how well run it is, I love how the participants are, to a person, super excited to be there; I love the deals offered and I love seeing stuff you will never, ever see in a regular bookstore.   I always have to set myself a very strict budget before going ($100 ON PAIN OF DEATH) or else I will bankrupt myself.  This year I hit it within $5 and I tell you, I was looking for something to buy with that $5.

My haul was impressive.  I bought A Is For Alice by George A. Walker (Porcupine’s Quill), Mother Goose Eggs by Jim Westergard (Porcupine’s Quill), DA * 53 (Porcupine’s Quill), Urban Legends by K. Riedel (Iron Rabbit Bindery), The World More Full of Weeping by Robert J. Wiersema (ChiZine Publications), Sword of My Mouth by Jim Munroe and Shannon Gerard (No Media Kings),  Room issues 32.2 & 31.4 (Room Magazine), Descant issues 145 & 147 (Descant), and Carousel v22 (Carousel).

I was THRILLED that the lit magazines were selling back issues at various 2-for-1-like discounts. This let me load up on a number that I’d never read before to decide if I should invest further.  This is a great way to “sample” from Canada’s very busy literary journal landscape.  Smart, smart publishers.

Nevertheless, I felt like an oddity there: a simple reader looking to buy books to read.  Upon approaching a table, the publisher would immediately launch into their spiel about content submissions, letting me know what kind of fiction/poetry/art they were accepting.  I’d hastily interrupt that no, I was just there to read and spend money.  I felt like I’d stumbled into the wrong party – that this was a trade show where publishers and writers meet up and network.  I suppose it is, too.

But that’s a real shame.  Many of the publishers and vendors who attend the show haven’t got mainstream distribution and are hard or impossible to find in a book store.  Newsstands often only carry the latest issue of a literary journal, so back issues have no visibility.  Readers should be attending this show; we should be attending it in droves.  It beats the living pants off a show like Word on the Street which, frankly, is usually just an orgy of discounted publisher’s overstock books; shiny, gaudy, mass-produced cookbooks, Thomas the Train sets and Spiritual Exercises.   The Small Press Fair has that perfect balance of quality, affordability and discovery.

It made me wonder (not for the first time) what percent of Canadian’s literary journal subscribers are writers looking to be published.  Is this our economic model: 100 aspirant writers buy the magazine and 1 is published?  Struggling wordsmiths pick them up as research or business expenses (bonus: also fun to read) only because they hope some day to appear within the pages?  I’ve always wondered if the hurdle over which to leap for literary journals is simply how to reach the Common Reader.   Duh, says you.  But honestly, I’ve never seen any advertising directed at Just Plain Readers.

Not long ago a poll in the UK claimed that “writer” was the top dream-job amongst those polled.  Is that the mentality that fuels the small presses and literary journals?  Now I find myself wondering.  If we were all happily employed as carpenters and legal clerks and rights managers, would we still have our subscriptions to Canadian literary journals?  Hum!

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