Once & Future

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

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.