Once & Future

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

May 31, 2011

An Exciting Day for (Young) Book Collectors

The winners of the 2nd National Book Collecting Contest have been announced!  The National Book Collecting Contest awards cash prizes to three Canadian book collectors under the age of 30.  This year the three lucky lads were:

1st – Justin Hanisch,  27
The History of Fish

2nd – Gregory Robert Freeman, 26
The Tudors & Stuarts

3rd – Kieran Charles Ryan Fox, 27
Superlative Works from the Subcontinent

Links to their prize-winning essays to be added as soon as I can!

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In even better news, the 3rd National Book Collecting Contest has already been announced!  This is heartening news as there was a year “break” between the 1st and 2nd contests in which the continued value of the contest was clearly being evaluated.  This immediate announcement, coupled with the news that new sponsoring partners have been added, including ABE Books, CBC Books and the National Post, surely means good things about the long-term prospects of the prize.

May 25, 2011

Blame the Bookstore Month

Another week, another round of articles about the death of the independent bookstore. This round has been precipitated by the announcement that the Flying Dragon Bookshop at Bayview & Eglinton will be closing its doors within a month or two, despite having just won the 2011 Libris Award for ‘Specialty Bookseller of the Year’ from the Canadian Booksellers Association.  The tone of the response has probably been shaped by Flying Dragon’s assertion that they simply don’t want to adapt – “at the end of the day we realized that for us, it was all about the books and the tactile, sensory experience they [books] provide.” says their blog.

Last week I responded to Natalee Caple’s assertion that clinging to the old conception of “book” is elitist (or at least hegemonic). This week I see similar claims being made by Amy Lavender Harris over at Open Book Toronto in her article “Authors of our own Misfortune: the Death and Afterlife of Bookselling in Toronto“.  They both speak of a resistance on the part of booksellers to embrace new technology.  Well, I’d like to address a couple of the misconceptions that seem to underline this stance.

1. Independent bookstores in Canada can not sell ebooks.

I’ve said this before and I will say it again.  We aren’t resisting ebooks (much).  We’re not failing to adapt.  We are simply not able to distribute ebooks.  Publishers will not sell them to us.  Big ebook distribution schemes like Google eBooks don’t have Canadian rights set up yet (and may never).  To sell ebooks bookstores and publishers would need to arrive at an agreement as to how to track, sell, and remit for digital rights and so far, it appears to me as if publishers are not putting bringing independents into the loop as a top priority.  Amazon, Kobo, Apple and Google, with their internal programmers, have come up with a scheme for them, and publishers simply need to sign on the dotted line.  No independent has the resources to develop such a scheme.

2. Believe it or not, not all customers are clamouring for ebooks.

A short anecdote. Last year we had a professor order through us a book for his course, a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson’s short stories. The only available edition was a cheap, cheap Dover, but it was also available free online.  So we ordered far fewer copies of this book than others, thinking students would just read it online or download the ebook.  A foolish decision, it turns out, because the students overwhelmingly wanted the “real thing”.  It wasn’t the nature of the book that deters customers: it’s the price. When the price is low enough (in this case, less than $3 CDN) they want the real book every time. Converting to a cafe/event space with a few “display copies” of books would not be serving the interests of the customer.

3. “Local” is a geographic term. It has little meaning on the internet.

Everything that makes an independent bookstore great is dependent on meat-space.  We curate specific collections tailored to our customers. We provide the service of a conversational, knowledgeable bookseller who knows the stock and can help you find or choose the right book.  We bring cultural events into your local neighbourhood.

An independent which goes whole-hog into ebooks isn’t going to be able to offer these things for very long, especially when one of the chief advantages to ebooks is the fact that you can buy them from home, or, really, anywhere you want.  I question the value of a “store” which is, essentially, an empty space used for occasional events where a bookseller is made available for advice. Perhaps my customers are unusually skittish, but they want to be left alone to browse and hide in the stacks until they require my advice.  If I didn’t offer them books to browse, they’d shop from home. Books have a small mark-up – 20-40%.  Driving customers out of the shop would quickly make the space a waste of time and money.  Once I am online only, then what?  What value am I bringing to my neighbourhood? What makes me different from Amazon?

***

I am beginning to suspect that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.  Independent bookstores are a specific business – we are a physical space containing actual humans who sell physical books.  Ebook sellers are something else – no space, no humans, and no books.  Which is great, but it’s just not the same business.  A farmer who decides to sell condos on his land isn’t “adapting”, he’s getting out of the farming business.  None of the value of a farmer has been retained in the change.

So, okay, ebooks are fab for a lot of things, like staying in your house, saving your money for some non-book-purchase, and saving shelf-space for some non-book storage.  But can we not kid ourselves? There’s nothing to this product or paradigm that benefits someone whose skill, whose vocation, whose livelihood is to know, identify, recommend and sell books.  We still have a use, but it’s to offer all those things ebooks don’t require.   Maybe the future is better off without this middleman; maybe readers don’t need curators or trusted local experts. That could be. But we can’t be blamed for wanting to maintain our vocations.

ETA: Navneet Alang adds another voice calling for the circumvention of the traditional bookstore.  To which I say, the Type/TINARS model is certainly one way to engage in literary culture, but I’d argue that both are supported by a particular set of people. Youngish literary types – writers and publishing folks for the most part or I’ll eat my hat – who enjoy the “scene” and, collectively, can support probably one such store.  I’m not convinced the average reader has much interest in carving a social life out of this (hip, trendy) literary scene per se.  I certainly don’t. I read books for a lot of reasons, but a big one is because parties and social functions scare the bejeezus out of me and I’m much happier curled up with a book in the company of my family.  Again, the skittishness and stoic browsing stance of my regular customers leads me to believe this model would serve, at least, my customers very poorly.

May 20, 2011

Your Long Weekend Homework: Books as Ephemera?

Lobbing a heavy one into the crowd today, in case you lot are the sort who prefer to spend a sunny Victoria Day weekend casting bones and mulling over puzzles instead of, say, sitting on a dock in Muskoka sipping lemonade, as I will be doing.

I moan and groan a lot about ebooks and digitization of literature.  I know, I’m tedious. One of my main bones of contention with the format is the impermanence of it.  Who wants to buy a library you can’t keep?  That you will lose to hardware, software, or format changes? That could vanish with the parent company? That can be edited and censored from afar?  I’ve always asked these questions rhetorically as if the answer is “Duh, nobody!” and anyone who hasn’t yet come to that conclusion is simply ill-informed.  But today it dawned on me – what if nobody cares?  Does permanence matter?

I think of how we treat video games.  We pay $50-$80 for them.  We play them through generally once, but sometimes over and over again if they’re truly beloved. They are unquestionably objects or narratives of cultural value and importance.  Yet it doesn’t bother much of anyone when a new video game system comes out and renders all the games you bought for the old system unplayable.  If the old disks, rule books and boxes are lost, it’s no big deal.  Do you know anyone (anyone sane, anyway) who keeps a library of every video game they’ve ever owned, from King’s Quest and Lode Runner to Dragon Age II?  Institutions have been founded which do, of course, archive these things, so they aren’t really “lost”. It’s just the average user who doesn’t care much for the longer term life of the purchase.

What if it were the same with books?  What would the cultural implications be of a world where, in general, readers don’t have libraries? Where thousands of copies of each title aren’t passed down from generation to generation? Libraries would, of course, archive them. Collectors would too. But what is lost if the book becomes analogous to a video game – something everyone has for a while, but which is lost and forgotten within the lifespan of the playing device?  Would that really be a very big deal?

I have no answer yet. I leave you with this one for the weekend!

May 18, 2011

Style vs Narrative (tangential to Whale Music)

I have long considered myself a Paul Quarrington fan. I started with Home Game, a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an ex-pro baseball player and a band of circus freaks.  Shortly after reading that, I met my now-husband who was also, as it turns out, a fan of Quarrington and who lent me Civilization, a fish-out-of-water tale featuring a movie stunt man and a band of early cinema freaks.  Then King Leary won Canada Reads 2008 (a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an ex-hockey player and his team of hockey freaks) and I read it too.  In the meantime, I bought Spirit Cabinet, Galveston and Whale Music, all for future reading.

Whale Music is considered, I think, to be Quarrington’s best. It won the Governor General’s Award in 1989 and was made into a film a little while later. My husband has long teased me for not having read it so this month I finally did. I was unsurprised to find it a fish-out-of-water tale featuring an addled rock star and a wealth of music-industry freaks.   Whale Music was a great book, but I fear I took too long getting to it.  I had, basically, read it already.

Quarrington’s books share much, maybe too much.  The main character is addled – often by addition (booze, drugs).  He’s haunted by a trauma in his past, and much of the novel is told in flashbacks. The hero’s memory of the trauma is obscured and avoided, eventually to be revealed after a culmination of smaller, present-day stresses.  A motley and colourful cast of weirdos and freaks bring humour and life to the hero’s past and present.  Ultimately, all four Quarrington novels I have read have been the same story: redemption and reconciliation with the past.  The setting changes, the characters get new names, but the rest stays the same.

The thing is, I like Quarrington’s style.  I don’t begrudge him his voice, and I don’t expect him to re-invent himself with each subsequent novel.  My favourite authors are typically people with very strong authorial voices and styles, distinguishable from a paragraph.  I prefer an authorial voice separate from his story, like Robertson Davies or T.H. White – “Let me tell you a tale…”  It works well when the author is a masterful storyteller.  There’s something comforting about hearing a new story in the trusted voice of a favourite.

The trouble comes when the author has a strong voice and a distinct style but doesn’t have a new story or, worse, doesn’t tend to write “narrative” novels in the first place.  Then we get a real feeling of repetition.  This is perhaps why I shy away from non-narrative writers in general.  They can be master stylists until the words run dry, but unless they find a way to re-invent their style and voice in every subsequent novel, another 300 pages of the same flowing verse every three years isn’t an attractive read.  Certainly they could just keep reinventing their voice.  But then, what’s the attraction of “a new novel by…” if it bears no similarity to the previous novel?

I’ve the same reaction to musicians or bands who feel the need to reinvent themselves, by the way – unless the new direction is a genuine organic growth into a new style (like Robert Page’s fantastic newer work with Alison Krauss), the “new” version of an old band often just feels forced and devoid of whatever made them good in the first place.  A rare artist is really musically mobile: most of them should stick to what they know.

Quarrington falls somewhere in between.  He isn’t a strictly stylistic writer, but his style extends into his plots – he writes the same style of narrative, in the same style of voice.  Plot differences keep my attention just enough to give up his books as truly redundant.  But I’m becoming disheartened. He had a wonderful voice and was a great writer of funny stories – why couldn’t he pick up a new story somewhere along the way?

But then, where are any of the great storytellers these days? Neil Gaiman, Michael Chabon and I (don’t I keep great company?) have recently written treatise on the same thing: contemporary fiction is losing the art of great storytelling.  Style just isn’t enough.  Look at Canadian literature’s recent prize-winning offerings.  Young first-novelists with a great handle on style and language burst out the gate and wow us all with their debut novel, short on plot, perhaps, but beautifully written!   Then they disappear into obscurity as subsequent novels are vaguely praised as promising.  Because we’ve already read their story, you see.  Now what remains is a stylishness – but what shall it be applied to?  If these writers have it in them to be great storytellers, that is an element of their writing which isn’t being encouraged. “Narrative” styles don’t have a great literary reputation.  God help you if write a historical novel. A science fiction novel. A mystery, a Western, or something nautical.

I was a little heartened to hear this morning that I am not alone in feeling some great writers are really repetitive.  Of course Roth is a brilliant writer – but so what? Why read a new, same-old book when I could read the best of his older books again?

May 17, 2011

On Elitism and Culture

I’m going to describe a phenomenon which I suspect reflects a deep social divide, like left vs right politics, or religion vs reason. There are those who think that literature, like every other art, is something everyone can produce with a little intelligence and hard work, and there are those who think great art is a talent; an unteachable flame of inspiration that only a lucky few can produce.  It’s a divide recently exhibited by Elif Batuman and Mark McGurl in their exchange over the value of creative writing MFAs: Batuman feels MFA programs are pulping out legions of under-read hacks (to put hyperbolic words in her mouth – she’s much more even handed than I am), while McGurl feels “a more democratic culture is possible” and that the “workmanlike” literature produced by these programs benefits society in more diverse ways than simply, say, producing a great book.

I don’t think you have to think too hard to see how this same rhetoric is also cropping up in discussions of ebooks vs paper books, most recently evoked by Natalee Caple in this essay for the National Post.  “Is this literature, you might ask? No, I do not argue that it is. Instead, it is something more radical. It is free thought; it is democracy.” says she.  Ebooks (like MFA programs) have widened the field, and can give everyone a voice.

Putting aside the fact that ereaders, like MFA programs, aren’t actually especially accessible to genuinely disenfranchised people, I think the argument anyone can (or should) be a writer is misguided. Literacy is a beautiful thing and a true pillar of democracy. It lets everyone have access, in theory anyway, to the same ideas, the same education, the same public sphere. It lets everyone potentially in on the important, society-changing movements.  The ability to decode texts is absolutely, unquestionably valuable to democracy.  And then, for the most part, the right to say whatever you want in the public sphere is also a vital part of democratic life.  Voices should not be silenced and marginalized: therein lies control and potential abuse. People should have the right to write.

But let’s be honest here: ebook publishing and MFA programs are not about freedom of expression.  They are about producing a marketable product.  You don’t enroll in an MFA program because you need to make charges about people in power or because you have a great new approach to irrigation you’d like to make available.  There was nothing about the old publishing structure that was preventing marginalized or radical people from expressing their ideas. Plenty of old-school publishers were happy to put their money where your mouth is, publishing revolutionary tracts and out-of-the-way stories.  To boot, they’d edit, develop and promote your idea, helping it find a bigger audience than you could have on your own. If your ideas are so out in left field that you can’t find a publisher, well, you could always self-publish them. Even without the money for a vanity publication, you could print your pamphlets at Kinkos.

But it’s easier with an ereader, you say! Is it now? I will tell you something from a bookseller’s perspective: we won’t carry self-published work that doesn’t have proper distribution, no matter how it was printed. Similarly, we’re happy to carry cheap little tracts – so long as they come through the usual channels.  I don’t believe for one second that Amazon, Chapters or Apple are much more generous than we are.  They will not sell your book if the content offends them. Even if you’re listed, there’s no guarantee of “spotlight” status. “Ranked” search engine results and hard-to-search-for designations like “adult” status can keep your book out of sight indefinitely.  Its simply having been published using the right software doesn’t give you the right to be sold through their stores.  It’s the same game in the end: whether or not you are read is not about being able to set words on page or screen.

I don’t believe ebooks make voices from the margins any better heard than, say, html documents did back in 1995.  Or the photocopier did in 1959.  The problem was still how to make people read marginal texts.  Will it be easier to get a copy of a marginal ebook than it was to access a marginal webpage? Do MFA programs map a solid path from the classroom to the front table at Chapters? The answer to both questions is of course no.

What they do offer is, perhaps, a better model for getting paid if you are self published.  In both cases, however, the path to money has nothing to do with democracy; if anything, it is undemocratic. An MFA program will teach you to write the way publishers want you to. They’ll help you develop a voice that sounds a lot like the big prize winners from the last ten years.  Self-publishing an ebook, especially if you do it through (Amazon subsidiary) Lulu, will give you the right to be sold on Amazon.com, the Apple ebook store, or Chapters (unless of course they object to what you’ve written.)  Both phenomena might help you get sold (and then presumably read) if and only if you play the game nicely and produce a product they think will sell.  On Caple’s continuum between democracy and capitalism, this lands squarely at the capitalism end of the spectrum. MFA programs are a tool to get published and sold, and ebook platforms are a tool to get big chains to distribute your book to be sold.

Booksellers (small and large) might be the “hegemony”, but we’re better representative of readers’ tastes than McGurl or Caple give us credit for. We’re not part of a big machine standing in the way of fresh new thoughts and voices (well, Amazon might be).  If a crummy book isn’t being read, it is not our fault.  The myth that learning to write program fiction, self-publishing and selling on Amazon is going to bring the limelight to countless marginalized voices is just that: a myth. Readers don’t read at random, and don’t read indiscriminately.  Simply showing up in Amazon’s vast database does not guarantee you any more readers than putting up a website or going out to trade shows or press fairs would. If anything, the increased self published noise out there is going to make it harder than ever to stand out in the crowd.  You need the bookseller: you need a mechanism to sort through the noise.  Booksellers read, Amazon’s search engine does not.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I come down on Batuman’s side with regard to the creation of great literature too. Not everyone has a writer in them. No creative writing class or self-publishing tool is going to turn any literature student into Tolstoy.  The reader has no responsibility, democratic or otherwise, to read mediocre literature. And lastly, democracy does not guarantee anyone the right to make a living doing anything they please.  That there are tools available to help people make a buck by buying into an expensive system dictated top-down by corporations isn’t democratic. It’s a pyramid scheme. Nobody is making more money in this system except the people who were making money already.  The rest of us are being sold snake oil.

Thanks to Kerry Clare (and her more even-handed approach) for getting me thinking about this this morning!

May 9, 2011

Eep.

This was just day one's pile!

Totally blew the budget at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival. Well, fine! Someone rather eloquently pointed out that ’tis better to buy than to hesitate when it comes to supporting emerging, local, or or self-published creators. This is an economic theory that sounds right to my ears. Should I ever create anything some day I’d certainly appreciate a tendency to buy rather than to hesitate, so let’s just say I’m paying it forward and move on.

What did I get?

Baba Yaga and the Wolf by Tin Can Forest (aka Marek Colek and Pat Shewchuk)
The Next Day by Paul Peterson, Jason Gilmore & John Porcellino
Lose #3 by Michael DeForge (Wish I’d grabbed his now-Doug Wright-winning Spotting Deer as well)
Cat Rackham Loses It! by Steve Wolfhard
Moving Pictures by Kathryn and Stuart Immonen
Entropy #1-6 by Aaron Costain
Catland Empire by Keith Jones
Bigfoot by Pascal Girard
Paying For It by Chester Brown
Sweet Tooth Vols. 1 & 2 by Jeff Lemire
Jeff Lemire Sketch Book by… yah.
Galaxion #2 by Tara Tallan
From Toronto to Tuscany by Kean Soo & um… Tory Woollcott? Forget; apologies.
Northwest Passage by Scott Chantler
Pang, The Wandering Shaolin Monk by Ben Costa

Along with the books and comics was an assortment of bookmarks (I am such a sucker for bookmarks), postcards, stickers, keychains and at least one pair of socks.  And I wish I could say I got everything I wanted, but I did not. Time ran out, carrying capacity was reached, and some other logistical difficulties plagued us. I would have bought more prints but for the fact that my house is already full of unframed prints and posters that I can’t work out what to do with. IKEA frames never fit anything! My kingdom for a cheap and easy framing solution.

Needless to say, I had a blast. By the look of Twitter, so did everyone else!  There’s no question that this festival is getting stronger as it goes forward, and I am so proud to have it in my own city!

May 6, 2011

Obligatory Pre-TCAF Post 2011

The Toronto Comic Arts Festival is one of those events that I budget my whole life around for an entire quarter. Which is funny, because if all you know of me is what you learn from this blog, you might not have me pegged as much of a comic geek: I tend to blog about book collecting, book-as-object issues, bookselling and Canadian literature. Comics, a huge subject on their own, I tend to pass over for other things.

The truth is that I am a bit of an outsider when it comes to comics. I’m aesthetically barren and not especially hip, yet not nerdy enough for mainstream comic geekery.  I encounter and consume graphic novels with a kind of layman’s how do they DO that??? awe.  There’s no doubt that I love the finished product, but I have little to no insight into the techniques, styles, influences, communities and trends that come together to produce the work.

However, there are a few things I can say for sure. FACT: TCAF is one of the best, if not THE best, non-mainstream comic shows in North America. FACT: Toronto itself has produced a disproportionate number of incredibly influential comic artists and cartoonists, suggesting there’s something to the community here (or maybe just in the water) that’s creating a comic arts nursery.  FACT: The Beguiling, the instigator and host of TCAF, is just about the best comic book store ever. FACT: The graphic novel is becoming an increasingly legitimized literary form and TCAF is probably the single best place to learn about and buy the best and brightest of the form.

Last year I posted 5 Things That Will Be Totally Amazing About TCAF 2010, and the year before I discussed The Toronto Comic Arts Festival and Why a Book Collector Should Care. This year I admit I have nothing to add to those points. But the importance of TCAF hasn’t lessened any, so consider this a simple reminder: Get out there! The launch party is tonight, and the Toronto Reference Library will be packed to the rafters with vendors, exhibitors and panelists Saturday and Sunday (May 7th & 8th).  The show is free so there’s virtually no reason not to check it out.  It’s even kid-friendly.  Aside from being a colourful spectacle of the graphic and literary cutting-edge, there’s also a whole rooster of kid programming.

It has been a good spring for book festivals so far!

May 3, 2011

My Weekend in Grimsby

Can I just say, Grimsby is a beautiful little town! I’m jealous of anyplace that gets a proper green, flowered spring, and such a spring was certainly on display Saturday when we visited for the the 33rd Annual Wayzgoose.  The atmosphere was warm, cheerful and tastefully tactile.

As a bonus, the Grimsby Public Art Gallery was also displaying The Nature of Words, a travelling exhibit of book-related art.  I saw this show when it debuted in Toronto and wasn’t completely captivated by it.  The artists represented were top-notch book artists in their various fields (binders, printers, paper makers and so on) but the focus of the exhibit was on words rather than the means of transmitting those words.  The result was a lot of out-of-context prints, banners and fragments which failed (in my opinion) to show the best of what these accomplished book makers could do.

However, in Grimsby the artists and presses who participated in The Nature of Words had their booths in the gallery, and finally visitors could see the really stunning work in book form that they produce.  These were among my favourite offerings of the show – Will Rueter’s Aliquando Press had nearly their entire catalogue on hand and I was totally taken by the lovely work Locks’ Press had on offer.  Binder Don Taylor’s booth had some design bindings on hand as well as smaller pamphlets from his Pointyhead Press.  If The Nature of Words had originally contained more of these press’s books and less “art”, I might have enjoyed it more the first time around!

But not everybody – not even book arts followers – are as fixated on books themselves as I am, and the rest of the show featured as many if not more presses and artists who work outside of the codex form.  There was a glut of cards, bookmarks, prints and posters, coasters and other paper-based curios.  This makes for incredible shopping, regardless of your interest! It’s far too easy to spend $2-$10 at every single booth in the show buying some beautifully printed bit of ephemera or another.  Which I did, I think.  How could I not?  My favourite ephemeral offering? Grocery lists from the Mackenzie Heritage Printery & Newspaper Museum:

I wish I could say I restricted my buying to tiny and affordable curios, but I did not. I couldn’t leave without this year’s Wayzgoose Anthology. These books contain one signature (a folded sheet) from each of the exhibitors. The final product is a strange mish-mash of beautifully printed poems and essays, lithographs and woodcuts, fold-out maps, hand-coloured drawings, collages and handbills. I would estimate that 100-130 of these were printed and bound, the majority of which go to the exhibitors. I NEEDED TO HAVE ONE.

Some of my Wayzgoose pages...

More Anthology pages...