Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Is Amazon all BS?

There is no doubt that more people are reading than ever before. They are buying more books too, in a variety of formats. But are they reading crap? Is the reading public being dumb-downed by the tidal wave of literary garbage that book purveyors like Amazon.com have made cheap, available and convenient? Has it changed how we define books and what we expect from them? Can it be that literature is being sacrificed on an altar of BS (the Best Seller)? Is the situation analogous, as Ursula K. LeGuin says, to the promotion of fast-food: The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is. I believe that reading only packaged microwavable fiction ruins the taste, destabilizes the moral blood pressure, and makes the mind obese.

My take on whether Amazon is to blame for dumbing down books is in agreement with this writer's when he says, The mass culture has been convicted of killing off serious writing for about as long as there has been a mass culture. I don't agree with LeGuin that just because McDonalds sells more burgers and fries than any other restaurant, people think that that's what food is. In fact, people got tired of Big Macs, which is why McDonalds is selling salads these days. Mass marketing changes things for a while, and then they change again. People have always bought books in a variety of new formats and controversy has typically ensued with the introduction of each new format to the marketplace. For instance, when the mass market paperback was first produced and sales of pulp fiction skyrocketed, purists made the similar arguments about the decline of the literary novel. And yet great novels continued to be written and sold. Like the advent of pocketbooks, ebooks have made reading more affordable and convenient. When it comes to the book market, the general rule has always been that there is no general rule. 
Tastes change. People read books for a variety of reasons including enjoyment, education, escape, entertainment, and enrichment. The beauty of books is that they can satisfy all these needs. There are books that cater to the largest segment of the reading public (Harlequin romances etc.) and there are books that cater to smaller, more refined segments. What I will say about books in the digital era is that there is a lot more of them, and there is much more choice and variety, which is about all I'm willing to pronounce about the fate of literature. 

But from the point of view of this author, I think Amazon has been, on balance, positive. Yes, there is a lot more crap out there, which means it's more difficult to garner attention for any particular book. People have to be more creative in this highly competitive, crowded marketplace. But as a publishing, marketing and selling platform, Amazon has empowered authors in a game-changing way, and that's significant, since authors were so powerless before. 

Here, for what it's worth, is my experience a nutshell. My debut novel was published by a small respected independent publisher nine years ago. It garnered quite a few good reviews in local and national newspapers, and was shortlisted for a respected national first novel prize. It sold relatively well in the national market, relatively, that is, for a first novel by a completely unknown writer, and in a national market that is relatively small. There were no sales whatsoever internationally. My royalties, at the standard rate of 10% of the cover price were pretty paltry. 

Almost eight years after it first appeared I decided to re-issue my novel myself in ebook format (in the contract with my original publisher I had not signed over the digital rights - it was still early in the game.) Amazon enabled me to make the novel available, quickly and easily, and to reach an international market. In the eighteen months since making the book available it has sold steadily and one hundred percent of new sales have been international. Copies sold have not yet reached the number of the previous eight years of the print edition - which benefited at the outset from some mainstream media attention and the sheer luck of having been nominated for that aforementioned national prize - but it's getting close, and with absolutely no marketing investment to speak of. Since the author's royalty from the ebook is seven times higher than that the royalty I received from the print edition, even though the cover price is half, the revenue from ebook sales will shortly surpass the print edition in a fraction of the time. On top of that, I retain complete control, no waiting for sales reports from a publisher or agent, no waiting for payment (the royalty cheque arrives on time and regularly). Admittedly, the main challenge remains marketing, how to get the book some attention, but Amazon provides a number of tools that make marketing, on a small, economical and highly selective scale, possible and simple, even for a doofus like me. Amazon has enabled the author to be an entrepreneur with his own product, and that's no BS. I like to think, though its unprovable so far, that the reason my book has sold almost a decade after it was published, is that Amazon gave it a chance to find its readership and that the quality of the work has prevailed. Unlike many good books that are abandoned by their publishers and go out of print if they have not found their readers within the allotted time, ebooks have an indefinite lifespan, which is about as much time as any author can hope for. 

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Money, the ethnic vote and literature

I was recently invited to take part in a panel discussion on Mordecai Richler and Montreal Jewish writers. It was a lively discussion focused mostly on Richler, which I guess might be expected, so synonymously is he identified with Montreal Jewish literature. I don't think Richler would have any qualms about the close association with his beloved native city, but categorizing him as a Jewish writer brought him to fits during his lifetime. One of the panelists was an academic who is translating Richler's oeuvre into French for a Montreal based publishing house Editions Boreal, the latest novel a translation of Solomon Gursky was Here. Two things I learned from the discussion that I had not known: First, that many of Richler's novels have never been translated into French. I would have expected that an author of his international reputation and standing, translated in dozens of languages around the world, would have by now had all his novels translated into French, the language of his home province. Second, the novels that were translated into French were published in France not by Quebec publishers. Notwithstanding the difficulty (enmity?) that the Quebecois had with Richler I would have thought that a Quebec publisher would have published, if not his essays which were particularly damning of Quebec politics and history, than at least some of his fiction. It appears that the new Boreal series is the first. I guess that time (and death) has softened the edges of the relationship between Richler and the Quebecois literary establishment. This initiative by Boreal seems to signal that the accomplishment of the late author's literary legacy has begun to endear him to a less sensitive, self-conscious society. And it only took a little more than 14 years, less than a generation.  

By coincidence, The New Yorker - a magazine with which Richler was associated - has published an interesting piece by Toronto writer Pasha Malla on Quebecois fiction being translated into English. Malla makes the argument essentially that this fiction has a distinct quality that merits broader attention in Canada and the US and the time is right. He writes, Despite tapering enmities, though, the dynamic between Canada’s Francophone and Anglophone communities remains less one of cohesion than indifference and estrangement. Championing a recent translation of Raymond Bock's story collection "Atavismes: Histoires" Malla's uncommon (for an English-Canadian) fondness for French-Quebec fiction may stem from his stint studying creative writing at Montreal's Concordia University. Despite his effort to spotlight French-Quebec fiction in the pages of the NewYorker - counterpoint to Richler's famous expose of Quebec historical anti-Semitism in the same magazine more than two decade ago - it is unlikely that much notice will be paid. The fact that Bock's novel is being publishing through something called Dalkey Archive's and Literary Translation Program (and not by a mainstream publishing house like Penguin or Viking) speaks volumes about how far outside the margins it (and all French-Quebec literature) remains.

By another coincidence, a recent article in the daily Le Devoir also speaks of the thawing of the cold political and cultural climate in Quebec to outside influences and a new openness. Like Malla who writes about the 'international sensibility' of the new French-Quebec fiction, the author of the Le Devoir piece characterizes the current younger generation's distaste for the old separatist paradigm which simply has little relevance in this hyper-connected, borderless digital world: « Les jeunes ont moins peur de l’assimilation crainte par les générations précédentes. Ils sont moins dans la tension, l’animosité et dans cette logique identitaire nationale forte »

In addition to the Richler translations to French and the Bock translation to English, Malla mentions the initiative of Montreal publisher Vehicule Press and editor Dimitri Nasrallah (who hosted the panel in which I participated) who have committed themselves to exposing French-Quebec fiction to English-speaking readers by devoting half of their publishing program to translations next year. So we seem to have an auspicious confluence of political opening, generational attitude shifting and literary initiatives all resulting in a new spirit of understanding and rapprochement. I'm all for togetherness and openness and Kumbaya singalong moments, but you'll excuse me for being skeptical.

I don't think Richler's novels will sell in Quebec or be read in high-schools, as they should. I don't think the US or English-Canada will clamour to embrace a long-lost, shamefully neglected kin in French-Quebec novelists. And Malla makes one major conceptual error in his article; grouping Canadian writers as either English-Canadian (also called Anglophone) or French-Canadian (also called Francophone). This, to me is a false dichotomy, for several reasons, one being that in Quebec there are many kinds of writers and I don't believe Quebec-English fiction writers should be grouped with the writers outside the province. Quebec-English writers are a distinct sub-species that, with few notable exceptions, Yan Martel, Heather O'Neill, Rawi Hage among them, have not generally been readily accepted either outside provincial borders or within them. It is telling that of the writers listed, Martel and Hage struck gold with major international prizes before they were embraced nationally or locally, an old refrain. The Richler translator on our panel made one very revealing remark. She said (I paraphrase) that the Quebecois could never acknowledge a Montreal (or Quebec) regarded through the eyes of 'others', by which she meant ethnically diverse Quebeckers (such as Richler), whether they were born here or not. The experiences they wanted to read about had to reflect and support their own pure laine current, historical or mythical experiences. Are the new Richler translations indicative of a new 'acceptance' of another experience and perspective on Quebec? More likely they just serve to underscore the shameful fact that Quebec has never cared about its English writers and remains suspicious of us and other minorities.
On the day it was announced that former Quebec Premiere Jacques Parizeau had left the planetary plane, his bitter drunken remark on referendum night in 1995 still resonates for some of us: C'est vrai, c'est vrai qu'on a été battus, au fond, par quoi? Par l'argent, puis des votes ethniques, essentiellement. And I think about Le Prix Parizeau, a literary prize founded by Mordecai Richler in response to those fateful utterances to celebrate Quebec 'ethnic' writers (and to mock Parizeau's remarks) and I smile and miss him more.