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.

Kiki

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 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!

 

 

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, 2013

That Little Something Extra

Yours humbly.

It was a random act. Last spring I contributed to an Indigeogo campaign to help Irish cartoonist Dale O’Flaherty get to TCAF. I had no idea who Dale was, nor was I familiar with his work, but his Tumblr was cute and it was cheap to pitch in. Shouldn’t everyone have the chance to hit the awesomeness that is TCAF? So I kicked in a bit.

Cartoonists? I love them. What is it about the ability to draw thrifty, expressive little people that makes a creator so darn likable? Not only did Dale draw for me the sketch on the left (a portrait I now use as my Twitter avatar), but this week he mailed me both of his mini-comics and, once again, there was that personal touch:

I have long held that this is part of what makes collecting comics or graphic novels so fun. Most writers will sign your book. If you’re lucky, they will “personalize” the signature with a vapid little “Hope you enjoy the book, Charlotte!”. It is often uninspiring, whereas there is something really special about a personalized drawing.

A lot of it is that most of us can’t draw ourselves, and so those little sketches are a bit of magic. It’s something to treasure that nobody else could have done, and nobody else can have.  Can words hold the same magic? Short of writing a limerick in the flap of every book you sign, can a writer offer the same fan service?

I want to say yes, because I do believe that writing is as much a skill as drawing, dancing, coding or welding. A good writer has a power the average person does not have. So is there a way to personalize and to share that skill? To reduce writing to tiny parcels that can be created on the fly for any anxious fan?

Tweets? Bitty poems? Or are those little notes that I heartlessly labelled “vapid” above valued and treasured by the fan? What can a writer give only you that will make you treasure their work always?

December 6, 2012

Holiday Round-Up Pt. I

I like to find cool literary gifts for people. I don’t mean books, since I have been long since barred from buying members of my family “any more damn books”; but the next best thing, items which tastefully display a person’s literary leanings. Gifts for the reader: that’s what I like to find.

I’m a little bit obsessed with neckties this year. I am close – VERY CLOSE – to re-imagining my own wardrobe in order to ensure that I can wear a tie every day. Given that my current uniform consists exclusively of jeans and t-shirts this would be a very expensive overhaul, but I think you will agree with me that the ties make this a very attractive prospect regardless.

Latin Lover 1: Spondeo. (Vow) from Cyberoptix Tie Studio

The Lindau Gospels Tie from the Morgan Library & Museum

Harry Potter House Ties from ThinkGeek

Canterbury Tales Tie from the British Library

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 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?

October 1, 2012

An Anniversary of Sorts

The shortlist for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize was announced this morning, which in a bookstore means a rapid once-over of the store and the orders to see what we have and what we need get into stock. We managed 1/5 this year; not our worst year. In doing my research, I happened to notice that it has now been 10 years since I started working in the bookstore. The shortlist of 2002 was the first I ever worked on.

We’ve never been the kind of bookstore to attract bestseller-like traffic, but we do pride ourselves in keeping a long backlist. So while we didn’t sell many copies of that year’s winner – Austin Clarke’s The Polished Hoe – we do still have it in stock. Looking back to that 2002 shortlist, I’m pleased to see we actually still have 4/5 of THOSE books. Maybe this is a testament to the lasting value of those books, or maybe we’re just slow on the uptake. But if ever you’ve doubted the strength of the books that make a Giller shortlist, look back:

Austin Clarke, The Polished Hoe
Bill Gaston, Mount Appetite
Wayne Johnston, The Navigator of New York
Lisa Moore, Open
Carol Shields, Unless

Ten years on, those choices hold strong.

So I suppose what I’ve learned in ten years of bookselling is that however random and unworthy a list may or may not look at the time, only time can really bear it out. Those jurists are no fools, and what is today unknown to us might be classic tomorrow.

September 26, 2012

Back From Leave!

I do mix bookselling and parenting. A little.

I’ve been back at the store exactly one month now, launched from the relatively peaceful life of the stay-at-home mom into the bustling world of trade bookselling successfully. We’re at the height of our busy season now, receiving and selling thousands upon thousands of books for the 2012-13 university year.  Even so, I have had more time to read, write and think in the last 30 days than I had in the previous 320.

I am pleased to find that very little has changed here. In fact, books still sit on the shelf exactly where I left them one year ago. The same customers come looking for the same books, the same professors ask us to provide the same books for the same English students. From the news I’d found on the Internet it had seemed as if the book business was changing entirely every week I was away, and I’d wondered if I’d even have a bookstore to come back to. Ebooks continue to find their place in the market, publishers fold and get sold, and Amazon continues to come up with new innovations to destroy us all reinvent bookselling. But no, now that I’d back in the belly of the beast, I see very little has changed after all.

Part of the stasis I’m seeing seems to come of the differing aims and ideas of bookselling’s players. Amazon introduces same day shipping, but ever more titles are shifting to print-on-demand. Ebooks continue to gain market share, but our students are discovering the format’s limitations. People are still buying books in bookstores, and demographically it seems likely to continue for some time. If ebooks or internet sales are ultimately going to put an end to my line of work, they aren’t doing so quickly, at least not until they get their acts together and form a unified plan of attack.

There are two big reasons people continue to come into the shop, and neither one of them is because of the patient and romantic respect for the time-honoured profession of bookselling. As much as individuals wax eloquent about the community services and individual attention neighbourhood bookstores provide, at the end of the day every one of you succumbs to the convenience and savings offered by Amazon or Chapters-Indigo.ca. Very few people really boycott big online sellers. To do so requires some sacrifice on the part of the book-buyer, and we’re not a people who are generally fond of sacrifice. To cite a recent example of the disconnect between professed love of independent booksellers and the reality of the indie’s powers I offer up Salman Rushdie’s new memoir, Joseph Anton. This memoir of Rushdie’s years spent under fatwa has been, in publicist lingo, “hotly anticipated” to the point where it was classified as an embargoed title, meaning there would be no advance reading copies and no shipments of the book in advance of the release date. Logistically this tends to mean that stores who order enough copies of the book to receive sealed boxes (containing perhaps 12 copies) will get their shipments on the release date, but if you have ordered fewer than a box worth, you have to wait until the cases have been cracked and individual copies can safely go out. In our case, because we ordered only five copies, this meant we received our books on September 24th rather than the 18th.

So while on the one hand, Rushdie crafted an open love-letter to independent booksellers for their support of Satanic Verses while he was under fatwa, in reality, most independent bookstores miss whatever mad scramble the publisher thought there would be for this book. Will the buyer wait? I had a few requests for the title on the 18th, but I have not yet sold any of the copies which came in on the 24th. I suspect, no she won’t.

Yet people do show up and we do sell books. The biggest draw is convenience. When we have the books, they are on the shelf right there. You don’t have to wait, or order. You pick it up and start reading that minute. For students this is especially relevant, because often it doesn’t occur to them to buy the book until they are three days from an essay’s deadline. They can’t wait. This is, of course, one of the biggest draws of the ebook as well – there you don’t even necessarily need to leave your home to instantly receive your book. Yet whatever market share we’ve lost to ebooks we’ve made up for by the loss of older competitors. Chapters Indigo don’t seem to carry many books anymore. One desperate student calling to confirm we had his book in stock informed us that the closest copy Chapters had of Lattimore’s translation of Homer’s The Odyssey – surely an easy-to-find staple if ever there was one – was in Stoney Creek. The ease of “finding a used copy” has also tanked, as used bookstores around the GTA go belly-up. A few monster used bookstores don’t make a suitable replacement either – while ten small stores might have an Odyssey each, that doesn’t mean one big one will have ten copies. We have books, so people come to buy them.

The second draw remains a fundamental mistrust of ebooks. Consumers may be warming to the idea, but in my experience, many ebook readers have mistaken ideas of what an ebook is, and what rights it gives them. Several people have tried to return ebooks to us because they discovered they “could not print them out”. For a student or academic, having a paper copy – even in fragments – is still key.  You need somewhere to scribble your notes. You need a copy to bring in to the exam. You need to copy a chapter for your students. These consumers also have mistaken ideas about to what extent they own the “book” they’ve bought. They want to lend it out, to sell it when they are done. They need access to it even if they’re having technical difficulties. It is apparently easier to phone me than to reach tech support for many ebook publishers, and I find myself trouble-shooting my customers’ reading experience. This is in no way my job, and while I like to be helpful I am reluctant to be yelled at when a customer is, for whatever reason, locked out of her book. Loathe as I am to ever refuse to help a customer, I begin to wonder if I should even admit I know anything about ebook difficulties. To own up to any knowledge seem to be to invite blame. To avoid headaches, I recommend paper books every time.

So I don’t know if it will last, but as of today the bubble holds strong. People read, and we facilitate reading. The thrill of a new release, a new find, or a new favourite hasn’t gotten old for the customers or for the seller. I count myself lucky that I can still be in the business now, and I hope to still be here in 15 years. And beyond? I’m not willing to forecast, just enjoying the good weather while it lasts.

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