Once & Future

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

November 30, 2012

Canada Reads 2013: The Panelists

The Canada Reads 2013 list is out, and yesterday I had the pleasure of going down to the CBC building in Toronto to meet, greet & grill all five panelists. What I learned made me even more optimistic about this year’s show. Last year I spoke with the 2012 panelists about their reading habits and in hindsight, their answers reflected a lot of what turned me off about last year’s show. Two of those panelists were not really readers at all, and a third spoke disparagingly about “Canadian Literature”. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was Shad, an enthusiastic, heavy reader, who brought the prize home for Carmen Aguirre’s Something Fierce.

This year I spoke to the five panelists about their reading habits and asked them to recommend a not-Canada-Reads book for me. Their answers were diverse, intelligent and revealed a panel of first-rate readers.

Charlotte Gray is a gimme. She is an academic and a writer who has won every award for non-fiction that I know of. Of course she is a heavy, heavy reader. Gray admits she doesn’t sleep a lot, and reads different kinds of books at different times of the day. She spoke highly of Will Ferguson’s 419 and Linda Spalding’s The Purchase as nighttime reads, both of which she read before they won their respective 2012 literary awards. As a heavier, daytime read she recommended Tim Cook’s recent Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King & Canada’s World Wars. I have no doubt that this is a woman who will have read most of the finalists already, and will read them again before the debates. She and Urquhart (self-identified “Alpha Females”) will be, in my opinion, very hard to beat.

Ron MacLean was the last panelist I expected to be so literate. My apologies! MacLean says he “reads professionally”, feeling that reading is one of the responsibilities of a public figure. He spoke both to me and on stage of how he feels reading is a way of having a two way conversation with the society he is sometimes seen to represent. He is genuinely enthusiastic about Bergen’s The Age of Hope, and has some very sophisticated opinions about art, “gender fluidity” and the big themes of the book to bring to the table. His favourite recent reads were literary non-fiction: he sited Nuala O’Faolain’s Almost There and John Ralston Saul’s recent A Fair Country, and admits he’s looking forward to reading Jian Ghomeshi’s own 1982. And Jian wasn’t even standing nearby!

Trent McClellan won’t thank me for listing him after the two heavyweights above, but this is a heavyweight kind of year! Trent has the tools available to him, though: the book he represents is terrific and he personally remembers the sinking of the Ocean Ranger in 1982 which would give him an emotional insight that might influence the other panelists. “So they can read, no big deal,” he quipped onstage; and he can too. He recommended Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays With Morrie but admits he’s a much more enthusiastic reader of biographies, siting especially Jamie McLennan’s hockey biography The Best Seat in the House. Trent also plugged Jian’s 1982, making me a little suspicious that Jian’s newfound status as bestselling author will be the foundation of many flattery campaigns!

Jay Baruchel gets the difficult job of making a book best known for its inclusion on high school syllabi exciting to a new audience, but if his stage time is any indication, he will do just fine. He tactfully addressed Quebec’s contentious politics by referring to the province as the “cradle of Canadian civilization”, a place where “love and tension come from the same place.” As a reader he had both literary nonfiction and literary fiction to rave about, citing Joesph P. Farrell’s Nazi International and Irvine Welsh’s Porno as recent recommended reads. If his tastes seem a little macabre it is because he admits his favourite genre is horror – he is working his way through Brian Lumley’s Necroscope books right now. I almost wish Jay hadn’t been limited to the top five Quebec books to choose from. I would have loved to see what he would have brought to the competition otherwise!

Carol Huynh gets a gold star in my book because she admitted to reading seven of the ten books nominated for the BC/Yukon nod in just one month! But outside of some hard-core Canada Reads dedication Carol admits to being a lover of fantasy novels. She gushed about Tolkien and cited Harry Potter, the Hunger Games and the books of Terry Brooks as other books she has enjoyed, winning my heart instantly! She has also, of course, read all of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books. When my Canada Reads buddy asked me “how jocks fare in this competition” I had to admit they have not traditionally done well, but neither have I met any who had the same enthusiasm for the material that Carol exhibited. At the launch she confessed that she was more nervous about Canada Reads than she was about the Olympics, but if I had to weight in on the subject, I’d say Indian Horse is the crowd favourite among these books.

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Good luck to al the panelists!  I am excited to tuck into these books in the new year, and hopefully we’l have a little read-a-long, blog-a-long, tweet-a-long action to go with it. Stay tuned!

November 29, 2012

*phew*! Canada Reads 2013 Finalists At Long Last

The Canada Reads 2013 finalists have been announced! I am super enthusiastic about this list – it is the strongest, most literary list Canada Reads has settled on since they introduced the “crowd-sourcing” rounds in 2010.

It is also a very conservative, traditional list, which perhaps explains why I am pleased with it. Every book on the list has solid literary credentials, laurels and critical recommendation. There are truly no adventurous or unknown picks here.  I don’t feel there is a dark horse in this race, but here are some considerations that may or may not shape the debate:

– From a longlist weighted 30/20 in favour of women, we have a shortlist back to the usual split of 3 men and 2 women. Panelist Carol Huyhn managed to pick the ONLY book on the BC & Yukon longlist written by a man. Will gender be in issue in the debate?

– None of the books this year are translated works; notably Jay Baruchel’s Quebec pick is Two Solitudes by Hugh MacLennan. This isn’t surprising given the dominance of English works on the longlist, nominated as they were by an English audience. This imbalance has been corrected in the past, however, by the inclusion of a Francophone panelist who could help us learn more about Quebec’s incredible literary heritage. Not so this year. In a debate billed as a “turf war”, will MacLennan’s heritage doom him?

– On the diversity front we have only Richard Wagamese’s Ojibwe self to represent all of not-white Canada. I am a little surprised at the lack of “immigrant stories” on this list, given how prevalent they can be in Canadian Literature. Is this an advantage for Wagamese?

– Speaking of whom, Indian Horse is published by the in-limbo Douglas & McIntyre. If Wagamese’s book wins, will the books be available? I have to hope that the CBC thought this one through, and perhaps some kind of escape hatch is already inked whereby another publisher is ready to take up the reigns if the worst happens and D&M isn’t able to meet the demands of a Canada Reads win. But there is always the chance of another Sentimentalists fiasco.

– We get our literary cred back! After last year’s panel of three TV celebrities, a musician and a judge, this year’s panel boasts the incredible Charlotte Gray. Will this help raise the level of debate this year? I am extremely optimistic!

I’m off now to the launch at the CBC where I hope to meet the authors and the  panelists – I’ll be back later today with my two cents on the latter! Will you be there? See you soon!

November 26, 2012

On Anna Karenina In All Forms

Director Joe Wright has just released his Anna Karenina, a film based on the opera based on Tolstoy’s book. Wait – there wasn’t an opera? Well, there is now. And it’s bloody fantastic. This is big, overwrought Romance done up exactly right for the stage, and does its source material justice.

I do love Tolstoy to a more-than-usual degree but it wasn’t that hero-worship that made this movie for me: for once, it was the film interpretation’s departure from the source material. Tolstoy is, generally speaking, Jane Austen filled with disagreeable men arguing about philosophy. It’s a formula aimed at my heart. I love Jane Austen, I love disagreeable men, and I love arguing about philosophy. Tolstoy’s best heroes are his grumpy little outsiders, more concerned with their moral development than the high drama going on around them: War and Peace‘s Pierre and Anna‘s Levin. The high drama seems to be there as a feint. One might think War and Peace is about Prince Andrei and Natasha Rostov or that Anna Karenina is about  Anna Karenina & Alexei Vronsky – but they aren’t, not really. By the end of the books the romantic leads are long dead and there sit Pierre and Levin contemplating peasants and making babies.

Which is wonderful, but opera is about melodrama and so Wright’s Anna Karenina has sided with the Jane Austen and dispensed with the disagreeable philosophers. Levin still makes an appearance, but his story seems to be a cute side-plot to soften, a little, the doomed tragedy that Anna & Vronsky endure. An opera about hiding away on your country retreat writing a treatise on farming, while agonizing over your inability to properly tend to your cows because of your new baby would be very dull indeed. The film chooses instead to cut right to the hair-tearing and the horse racing. The drug addiction and the suicide.

The film is not all scandals, though. Wright does an excellent job of making Anna out to be, not likable, exactly, but right. All through the book women are made to endure hardships and are made to feel that they, despite being the victims, are responsible still for the continued happiness and stability of the men to whom they are attached. They must forgive philandering, tolerate loveless marriages, wait on moody philosophers and accept public humiliation for the sake of their husbands and children. It’s grossly sexist and unfair from our modern standpoint.

Without hugely altering the source material, Wright shifts our sympathies. Oblonsky’s philandering is portrayed more foolishly and his wife Dolly is more aware of the wrong done to herself. In a scene not to be found in the book, Dolly confides to Anna that she wishes she’d been brave enough to do what Anna did.  Anna herself is put into a tighter cage and even her rages and jealousies become understandable. Her suicide is an inevitable tragedy rather than an act of cruel vengeance. The film’s Karenin seems the most cognisant of the entire tragedy and paints for Anna explicitly what must be done to avoid a horrible outcome, and we understand through it how bad things are for the lovers due to the entirely unavoidable points of gender inequality. The book’s Karenin succumbs instead to some strange spiritualism that operates as a plot device and a reminder that Anna has sinned against a God or a fate.

Personally, I like and sympathize better with a woman trapped by unfair social conventions than one doomed by her unwillingness to conform to her proper place. This is a departure from the philosophical Tolstoy, but a welcome one.

Add to this refocused social commentary a brilliant script by Tom Stoppard and a beautifully choreographed staging with an operatic conceit and you have what I consider to be a fabulous film. The best news of all is, the book is also amazing and is still available. Those who want the disagreeable, philosophical parts as well have the supplementary material. The new movie lets readers like me have it both ways: a deep, philosophical book with the Romantic, tragic parts pulled out, set to music and painted on the screen. Is there anything else to ask?

November 21, 2012

Themed Reading Projects, and Publicity

I suffer from a lot of reader’s guilt. I want to buy all the books, read them all, write about them all, and single-handedly support the writing and publishing careers of every scribbler and bibliophile out there. I can’t, of course, but it is this feeling of needing to do something to support the culture I love that leads me to write and to blog. I’m trying to do my bit.

I am not alone, thank goodness. The bloggosphere is a big wide place filled with readers and writers of every stripe, but we do all seem to share this sense of responsibility: we need to prop up the under-sold and the under-read. One of the major symptoms of reader’s guilt is, I have discovered, the Themed Reading Project. A reader or blogger resolves to limit their reading to works that fall within certain parameters, presumably to avoid wasting time on works which will sell very well, thank you very much, without one little blogger’s help. Like a $50 Christmas donation to the charity of our choice, this helps the reader feel like they have contributed in some small way to the continued viability of their favourite corner of the publishing industry. It is also nice that in staking out an unsung corner of literature, you become a semi-legitimized voice of that corner, with all the support and publicity professionals who have been labouring away in that corner can throw you.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Themed Reading Projects. I stare daily at heaps of books that I mean to get to but never seem to. By setting a challenge for myself, these poor little neglected books no longer have to compete with the majority of what distracts me. David Annandale’s Gethsemane Hall may not be at the top of my reading list, but it is much nearer to the top of my list of Canadian Horror Titles TBR. Or Canadian Small Press Titles. Or Books I Didn’t Pay Money For and Therefore Should Offer Words For.

Some of my favourite bloggers are doing Themed Reading Projects right now. Buried in Print is reading 45 House of Anansi titles in 45 days (which includes a draw for $45 worth of books!). A Young Voice is reading all 40 books from the Canada Reads 10th anniversary longlist. The whole premise of the 49th Shelf is to offer themed lists of Canadian literature for prospective readers. Every time a good blogger picks up a project, all of Canadian publishing breathes a sigh of relief.

This brings me to publicity, because that is ultimately what these projects boil down to. Yes, perhaps you are trying to better yourself and the best possible way to do that is to read a list of severely curated books on a theme, but no, not really. We live in a world of efficiencies and reduced expectations. Certain skills – the ability to write, speak or shake hands and smile, for example – are no longer considered speciality skills best left to writers, orators and publicists. Specialists are eliminated, and the expectation is folded in to the job description of everyone else. It is assumed that everyone can write and make an introduction. If you are a writer, you must now do your own speaking and glad-handing. Book-stumping has become a ful-time job that every writer is expected to engage in.

I admit I used to find the continual bombardment of self-publicizing authors irritating. I get a dozen solicitations from self-published and small-press-published authors per day. I can only imagine the deluge bigger blogger get. This doesn’t take into account the mess that is my Twitter feed, which is a near-constant stream of retweeted reviews, press releases, pleads for clicks and enthusiastically expressed intentions to read things. But now that I have a couple of manuscripts I’m stumping myself in a desperate search for willing beta-readers, I am ready to debase myself in apology. It is so hard to get people to look at your work, even amongst supporters and friends. Hitting on a blogger willing to read, talk about and review your books, even as part of a bigger project, is like striking gold.

So what are we, as bloggers? Part of a publicity machine? Readers for Social Change? Self-interested proto-journalists looking for a corner to stake out and build a career in? Philanthropists? Is our duty (if we can be said to have a duty) to the blog’s readers, to writers, or to ourselves?

Just as I want to donate blood, money and canned goods to the most needy in our society, sometimes I feel I’d like to read and push some of the most unnoticed readers in the literary ecosystem, but then I pause. Let’s say I take six months and review a dozen or so self-published ebook authors. These are certainly the writers with the least attention, but I wonder if giving them the webspace would serve anyone else. I do believe that there are some good self-published offerings out there, possibly in need on an editor or mentor, but good nonetheless. But are they better, more unique, or more satisfying than traditionally published or mainstream works? The hypothetical reader at the end of the day may not be interested in Reading for Social Change, and may just want a good book to hunker down with on a rainy day. Am I going to recommend they read Anna Karenina, The Blondes or Terror Before Dawn: A Child At War? What serves the reader, one of the greatest novels ever written, a good novel in need of attention, or a completely unknown novel which might yield unexpected delights?

I have no Themed Writing Projects planned right now. Perhaps I am avoiding the issue. Perhaps it isn’t my job to be all things to all people. I am about to dive into my first-ever ebook read, so perhaps my opinion will be won based on the quality of this one venture. I’m told that publishing and reading are changing and I hope to keep up, which means keeping an open mind. Joseph Anton, 419 and Telegraph Avenue will wait for me, right?

November 16, 2012

In Which Etsy Gets All My Holiday Money

You can follow the #FridayReads hashtag on Twitter and get a snapshot of what the Twitterati (Litertwatti?) are reading, if you choose. If you do follow, you might have noticed that I have been reading (see right) Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset for the last month or so. A week ago I added Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina to the mix because I’m hoping to see the new movie next week and wanted this one last chance to read the book without Kiera Knightly’s jawline dominating my imagination.

In conclusion, I have 1,700 pages of book to bull through this weekend.

Luckily Etsy has the accessory for everyone, even masochists like me.

November 12, 2012

University Press Week!

It’s University Press Week! This must be a new designation because in the past I have honoured university press books in a haphazard way, apparently at the wrong time of year. My efforts to get some Canadian university press books on the Canada Reads longlist was a sad failure, but those savvy folk at the Association of American University Presses have brought this one down in time for Christmas shopping. I have more than my share of opinions about what you should gift your loved ones with this year, so with no further ado, I give you three amazing university press offerings sitting on shelves right now!

Harvard University Press’s Jane Austen Annotated Editions

Emma is the third in Harvard University Press’s Annotated Jane Austen series, and every bit as beautiful as the previous publications of Pride and Prejudice and Persuasion. The whole oeuvre of Austen in these hardcovers would be magnificent on the shelf of any collector, but be warned that no paperbacks are currently forthcoming. These are lavishly illustrated editions beautifully assembled, and would barely hold together in a less sturdy format. But at $35-$40 each, who could complain anyway? Harvard, by the way, seems to be going whole-hog into these amazing annotated editions. An annotated Frankenstein also appeared on our shelves this fall, and is no less recommended.

Northwestern University Press’s World Classics Series

I think one of the greatest services university presses renders is in keeping lesser-known works of great literature in print in good, well-edited and produced editions. Northwestern University Press has a number of these series, but I have a special spot in my heart for the World Classics. They have editions of the poetry of Pushkin and Pasternak, a lovely new Divine Comedy of Dante and Rilke. Lesser known additions include Anne Seymore Damer, Ivan Shcheglov, Luigi Meneghello and Ilya Ilf. These books are paperbacks, but exceed Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics in quality by a mile. If you like NYRB editions, you’d love these.

Yale University Press’s The Woman Reader

Of course, most of what university presses tend to publish are academic books. This doesn’t, however, mean inaccessible, specialist books. Belinda Jack’s The Woman Reader is what Yale considers a “trade” publication, but this is a step beyond “books for anyone”. It is a historical overview of how women read, and have read, over the ages and cultures complete with endnotes and citations. But the book is anything but dry: Jack’s prose is succinct, funny, and totally readable by the non-specialist. Yale has a great backlist of similarly academic-but-enjoyable books on books, including Andrew Pettegree’s The Book in the RenaissanceMargaret Willes’s Reading Matters and Alberto Manguel’s A Reader on Reading.

November 7, 2012

Hardly the Bottom of the Box: An Interview With JonArno Lawson

I practiced the poems from JonArno Lawson’s new children’s poetry collection for two days before meeting with him to talk about them. Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is an absolute treat to recite, but as I’d discovered that first night reading aloud to my 4-year-old, putting the emphasis on the wrong syllable can result in an unrhythmic stumble and a loss of musicality. A well-rehearsed poem, on the other hand, dances off the tongue and tickles the ears. These were poems that rewarded a careful performance. Consider “Monkeys in the Dump”:

A clump of clumsy monkeys lumbered through the dump.
The clumsiest amongst them tumbled over in the junk-
it jumped and spun and tried to run but crumpled to its rump
then slunk away until it slumped into the muck, and sunk.

I was pleased when I mastered the performative aspect of Lawson’s poems, and surprised to discover that he himself doesn’t enjoy doing readings. It’s a question of temperament rather than a philosophical aversion, but nevertheless unexpected given Lawson’s emphasis on sound.

Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is a collection of nonsense poems for the young (and young at heart) in the tradition of Dennis Lee and Dr. Seuss. Lawson starts his poems from sounds and builds with orality in mind. The results are clever and fun to read, and so it’s no wonder that he has found success as a children’s poet. He has won the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Poetry twice (in 2007 and 2009), and has been short-listed for the Ruth and Sylvia Schwartz Children’s Book Award. He estimates he has published ten books so far, though his first two collections of adult poetry have recently been pulped by their publisher, Exile. It has been as a children’s poet that Lawson has found success, though there is nothing about his work which is facile or simple.

Every parent in the country reads poetry to their children, and yet as adults many of us seem to have lost the taste. What changes? Lawson suggests that as adults, we look down on rhythm and rhyming, which is at the core of what we offer to our children. “Adults can recite Dr. Seuss without thinking,” he points out, but we don’t think to look for the same qualities as adult readers. Could that gap be bridged? Perhaps, we agreed. “We could use the lessons from childhood to inform adult poetry.”

Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box is unquestionably a book with adult appeal. It is beautifully produced by Porcupine’s Quill on their distinctive Zephyr Antique paper and features 32 full-page paper-cut prints by Mexican-Canadian artist Alec Dempster. It was this pairing with Dempster that Lawson says sold the book to Porcupine’s Quill. Though Lawson had published A Voweller’s Bestiary with Porcupine’s Quill in 2008, they weren’t sure what to do with the poems that would become Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box. These poems were originally part of the manuscript that would become Kids Can Press‘s Think Again, but they were culled to give Think Again the narrative structure it has in its finished form. Alone the poems of Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box are cute, but alongside Dempster’s stark, surreal relief-cuts the book takes on a stranger, more macabre quality. “The Inksters like a challenge,” Lawson says of his publisher, and the Lawson-Dempster combo gave them an off-the-beaten-path project.

Indeed, life as a children’s poet seems to mean a lot of collaboration. Lawson’s children’s books have been illustrated by a variety of artists, including Voweller’s Bestiary, which he illustrated himself. Speaking of Dennis Lee & Frank Newfeld’s contentious collaborating relationship, Lawson concedes the classic illustrations for Alligator Pie were “Ugly, but unique,” but that it’s good for a poet to be pushed “outside his comfort zone.” He has generally had only a small amount of control over who illustrated his work and how. Dempster certainly seems to have had free reign with Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, producing more work for the book than anyone thought he would. Lawson only met him a couple of times, including at the book’s launch. The artist and poet produced their contributions independently  – but Lawson had faith in Porcupine’s direction, and seems pleased with the results.

As for the kids, I think they’d be pleased too. Lawson’s three children – aged 11, 8 & 4 as of this writing – provided input and inspiration for the work, and Lawson tells me they still read poetry willingly. My 4-year-old found the poems challenging initially, but after some practice on my part she warmed to them. The intended audience is likely the older child, but adults should pay attention too. The language is smart and flows beautifully. An emphasis on sound and rhyme ought to recommend it as much to the adult reader as to the younger. If you need a final selling point, just have a look at a physical copy. You’ll be loathe to relinquish it to the sticky and inexact care of your children! It’s a beautiful work in every sense, and highly recommended.

This review and interview based on a review copy courtesy of Porcupine’s Quill, and an enjoyable in-person chat with JonArno Lawson.

November 5, 2012

Wattpad and the New Reader

On October 24th 2012, Margaret Atwood released her latest novel, a serialized zombie horror novel co-written with the relatively unknown young British author Naomi Alderman, through the free online reading service Wattpad. As of today, Monday, November 5th 2012, it is being read by approximately 4,300 people. By conventional Canadian bestselling wisdom, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home is a bestseller in just under two weeks. And it’s not even a completed novel.

Is this the future of publishing? Or, at least, a straw on the back of traditional publishing’s camel? Wattpad is a fascinating service, and I can see why traditional publishers are hand-wringing over their future given the existence of this and other similar services.

Let me break Wattpad down for you. Wattpad lets users upload content, usually grouped as a project divided into “parts”. In June it reportedly hosted more than 5 million user-generated stories in 25 languages. These stories (and poems) can then be read on Wattpad’s website or with Wattpad’s app by any number of its 3.5 million registered users. Stories are tagged with genres – most popularly, Romance, Teen, Vampire, Fan Fiction and Fantasy – as well as some miscellaneous write-in tags, then sent off into the ether. Readers “discover” future reads through browsing (much like Kickstarter) rather than with a more fine-grained searching process.

Getting read on Wattpad depends on readers finding your story. Readers can browse by vague criteria like “What’s Hot”, “What’s New” and “Undiscovered Gems”, they could choose to investigate your book if it happens to pop up in your randomized “recommended” window, or they can be directed right to your story with a link – if someone brings that link to their attention. The default browse option is the “Hotness” chart. “Hotness” is determined by a top-secret Wattpad blend of activity measures.  Your story gets a boost for being new. There are points for new chapters being added. You get points for receiving “reads, “votes” and “comments”. The highest scoring books will show up first and most often when readers go to find new books. A long-completed book will tend to flounder. So will a book that doesn’t get enough “activity”, which means reads and votes. New writers are encouraged to get the word out, to stump their book amongst their friends and relatives. The reward for getting those favours is a higher ranking in the search engine, which hypothetically will result in more “real” reads from actual Wattpad users. A system like this rewards the serialized novel. With new updates every few days or weeks the novel has constant activity and thus a high ranking. Not surprisingly, a typical Wattpad reader has a dozen or more stories on the go at once. Each book might only update a couple times a month, so they read more of them at a time. A book or author that doesn’t update might be forgotten as new, active, hot reads are found.

Two things you have to understand: an enormous amount of what is on Wattpad is terrible. I mean, it’s really, very bad. The average age of the Wattpad user is 20 – no small number of the stories are written by the 14-16 year old bracket. But secondly, many Wattpad users don’t seem to care. Things you might consider to be fundamental to a novel like spelling, grammar and, oh, I don’t know, an ending are routinely disregarded on Wattpad.  Some of the hottest, most-viewed titles on the page barely qualify as amateur. Do the readers care? Apparently not. There are millions of users reading millions of stories a dozen at a time and absolutely nothing offered by a traditional publisher matters to them. The editing? Design? Advertising? All irrelevant. The traditional publisher has absolutely no place in the reading lives of these users.

These readers have always existed. The internet age did not create them. Janice Radway’s 1984 ethnography of romance readers, Reading the Romance, reported that something like 88% of her romance readers were reading between 1-9 romance novels per week. That’s 50-450 per year. They were devouring content with very little, let’s be honest, literary value. If we’re generous and assume those novels cost as little as $4.99 each, then those readers would have been spending $250-$2250/year on just romances. Each.

Well, now they can get them for free. These are the readers that services like Wattpad, Smashwords and Fictionpress appeal to, and this is the money that traditional publishers are hemorrhaging. The hand wringing – I get it now. That’s a lot of money. And how much of that money was underwriting the publication of the much-less lucrative literary fiction?

Literary fiction would have a lot of trouble in this format, Ms. Atwood’s efforts notwithstanding. There is simply no time to edit, let alone revise. I won’t even touch on the very-welcome input of third-party editors and fact-checkers. Speed is the name of the game: you need to update your novel at least every couple of weeks, and while you are welcome to go back and make changes to previously-published chapters, it’s unlikely any of your followers will go back and take any note. Dropping a whole, edited novel at once doesn’t capitalize on the algorithm for getting your book to the top of the charts. A successful writer in this medium pulps out quick, easy-to-understand content in short bursts and spends the rest of her time working the forums and social media sites. Reading, research, and consideration are secondary concerns you won’t likely have time for. This type of reader is impatient. Content has to be delivered quickly, and that content has to be understood quickly. If your novel takes three chapters to set up mood and setting, you may be doomed.

Despite Wattpad’s being a free service filled with free content, its highest ranked writers do try to monetise their work. A number of Wattpad writers have snagged agents and traditional publishers for their work, most famously Brittany Geragotelis, author of What the Spell & Life’s a Witch, who got a 3-book, 6-figure deal with Simon & Schuster for her trouble. Many Wattpad writers also self-publish their completed work through Lulu, Amazon or Smashwords, or continue to offer their first books for free while charging for sequels. Already-published authors also make an appearance, contributing partial novels or short works in order to whet an appetite for the completed work, for money, offered elsewhere.  I’d love to know how this works out for the self-published writer.

Atwood has suggested that Wattpad isn’t a replacement for traditional publishing, but a gateway to it. While yes, because the money is still in traditional publishing, I think Wattpad’s writers see that as being the case, but I am less convinced about its readers. What does a published book offer them that a Wattpad story doesn’t? Will these readers make the transition to whole, slow books?

I decided to take the dive and try the service myself, uploading a bottom-drawer manuscript to see how it plays with the reading masses. The experiment has been informative – I am no nearer to knowing if my book is any good, or if anyone likes it, but I am becoming deeply aware of how important author engagement is to getting there. It took very little activity for my book to shoot up into Wattpad’s Top 20 Hottest books, but much of that activity is readers glancing at the first chapter and moving on. The same can be said for Happy Zombie Sunrise Home – the first chapter has been viewed 10,000 times, vs the 2,200 who have looked at Chapter 4. About 1 in 5 readers sticks with in, meaning you need to get that many more people to even go take that glance. This means chatting people up, handing out your card and yes, keeping the book on the charts. It is no different than a traditional novel. How many books sold sit unread on shelves? This is certainly a cheaper way for a reader to dabble. Readers are coming to expect to be able to sample for free – publishers now routinely offer first chapters for reader perusal. Whether the reader is willing to pay to continue is the million dollar question.

So in keeping with the spirit of Wattpad I offer you a sample of my book, The Incredible Bazza’Jo. It’s a Young Adult Fantasy with colonial, environmental and social themes. It also has, if I do say so myself, some really excellent action and adventure elements, as well as an “age appropriate” romantic sub-plot. Click away! And while you’re at it, take a look at Wattpad and let me know what you think – a fad, or a keeper? Will these kids grow into paid, long-form books?