Sunday, May 25, 2008

Report from the Writers' Union of Canada AGM 2008

The Writers' Union of Canada's 2008 AGM concluded today in Toronto. I attended sessions on May 22 and 23, before family duties called. (My step-son turned eight!)

May 22nd: Panel on "Making Our Words Count: Canadian Authors in the Electronic Era"
  • The panel consisted of Derek Weiler, editor of Quill and Quire; Bill Kennedy, Coach House Books web editor and director of the Scream Literary Festival; Simon Chester, copyright lawyer; Jill Tonus, new media law expert.
  • The key message that came out of this session was authors need to be online.
  • At the same time, there is still no viable business model for making money through digital publishing.
  • Ten years ago, I graduated from the Canadian Film Centre's new media program. A bright future was then imagined for "digital storytelling." While some of that has come to pass, we still seem deep in the middle of a transition. Are writers just "content producers"? The Writers' Union represents writers "of books," but the consistent message through the AGM was "go online." You need to have an online presence to "get a platform" to "get an audience" to ... sell, sell, sell.
  • The other key message from this session was that copyright law is in a state of confusion. Technology has evolved and continues to evolve well ahead of the ability of legislators to keep up ... if they even care to keep up.
  • The final message was, it's an awful lot easier to sell non-fiction than fiction. Online communities can be built around areas of common interest -- like wine -- but how does a novelist build an online community. By spinning off a subject related to the novel? Isn't this just non-fiction? How does fiction survive in a virtual world demanding links to the "real"?

May 23: Workshop on "Looking Forward: A New Generation of Industry Insiders"

  • The panel consisted of Amy Logan Holmes, of Open Book Toronto; Jennifer Lambert from HarperCollins; lawyer Warren Sheffer; Suzanne Brandreth from The Cooke Agency.
  • While the subject of this session was shaping "the books of tomorrow," the panel really talked about the pressures shaping the book business today. There was more focus in this session on the literary market.
  • For example, Jennifer Lambert talked about the types of submissions publishers see. Right now, there are apparently lots of people writing from the point of view of dogs and elephants. Please, people, stop! Your work is hard to distinguish from each other!
  • Suzanne Barndreth talked about trying to sell Canadian novelists to foreign publishers who recoil at the thought of yet another "Canadian suicide novel." No more protagonists dying in the snow! More fulsome, thumping endings!
  • Key message repeated: Authors need to blog, get online, build up a community of readers.

May 23: Workshop on "The Future of Magazine Lit"

  • Bill Nickerson with The New Quarterly's Kim Jernigan; The Walrus's Daniel Baird; and the managing editor of Descant and Carousel, Mark Laliberte.
  • Once again, this was a workshop advertised as a talk about the future, but the participants spoke about the pressures of the present (and the evolution of magazines over time).
  • Norman Levine's short story "We All Start in the Little Magazines" was invoked, as was the notion that the small lit mags are the breeding ground of the literary stars of tomorrow. Perhaps it ought to have been said that the literary magazines are where literature lives (they are the big leagues!).
  • The lasting impression left by this workshop: the funding model for literary magazines is insane.
  • Why was no one on this panel from an online magazine, say The Danforth Review? Online magazines are not the future of magazine lit.... They have been its present for a decade already!

May 23: Workshop on "Raising Your Public Profile"

  • The panel consisted of moderator Ray Argyle; Cynthia Good, former President and Publisher of Penguin Canada; Rick Broadhead, literary agent; and pod-caster extraordinaire Charles Hodgson.
  • How do you raise your public profile? Write non-fiction; get a platform; go online and blog blog blog.
  • What's a platform and how do you get one? Think: Who are you? Why should anyone else care? Aristotle would have said it's your ethical appeal. What makes you convincing?
  • No one addressed the question: How are you supposed to find time to write your book, when you are spending so much time trying to get famous doing something else?
  • Bottom line: Books written by famous people are easier to sell than books written by people with no public profile.
  • How do you get a public profile? Don't write a book!
  • As above ... blog, blog, blog.

May 23: Workshop on "What I Wish I'd Known"

  • The panel consisted of novelists Susan Swan, Wayston Choy, Nino Ricci and Paul Quarrington.
  • Ricci and Choy said they're glad no one told them was the writing life was really like. It's better not to know and to find it out for yourself.
  • Quarrington repeated some learned wisdom: "Bitterness is the writer's black lung disease."
  • Ricci agreed. You need to accept that you will be repeatedly humiliated. Last year (!), one of Ricci's readings had an audience of three people. The reading was in an Italian neighbourhood in Toronto. The audience consisted of two tourists from England who'd never heard of him and someone who'd wandered in off the street. The organizer said: "I thought you were better known."
  • Swan said she wished she'd known that funding bodies expect writers to be professional. They don't just hand out money because you have a brilliant idea!
  • Choy said: At the end of the day, learn your craft. Having a good idea is not enough.
  • Quarrington said: At the end of the day, there's the body of work. Be proud of it. Avoid careerism.
  • No one said: Start a blog!