Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Globe 100 (Plus)

Almost in spite of myself, I've been looking forward the last few weeks to seeing the Globe 100. It's been a good year for Biblioasis in the Globe: counting the paperbacks section, eight of our titles have been reviewed in the Globe since May. Three of these -- the review of Helwig's Saltsea, Ormsby's Time's Covenant and Metcalf's Shut Up He Explained, have been raves. So I felt fairly confident that Biblioasis would rate a mention this year, and hopefully, for the first time, might receive a multiple inclusion. I wasn't counting on it, but I thought it a distinct possibility. So when I picked up my morning Globe at the corner store and flipped to the Books section to see the Globe 100 listing, I let the car idle for a few minutes in the parking lot and quickly flipped through the listings to see what I'd find.

What I found was that Biblioasis did not this year merit a mention. I put the car in drive and headed on home.

I'm not going to lie to you: I was a bit disappointed. I've just finished writing my first Canada Council Block Grant this past week, and I could have used the pick-me-up. Grant writing, I've discovered over the last few years, is one of the primary functions of a Canadian publisher; though I'm now writing about 10 -12 a year between press and magazine, they don't seem to get any easier. I find the whole experience both depressing, frustrating and exhausting. As I've said elsewhere, there are times I feel more like a minor functionary in the literary bureaucracy than a publisher, and this week -- paring down my contribution to Canadian literature, my artistic vision and editorial excellence, my management and 3-5 year plan to approximately 1500 words -- I was feeling particularly bureaucratized.

But it's also not Martin Levin's job to give me a timely pick-me-up. It's his job, in this section, to list the 100+ books he and his crew considered among the best of 2007, and if Biblioasis titles couldn't crack that line-up, in their opinion, than they shouldn't be there. I might respectfully disagree -- and, trust me, I do -- but that's about as far as it goes.

I read Martin Levin's Shelf Life piece when I got home. It was quite similar to other Globe 100 Levin apologies, and no doubt absolutely true. "Rest assured, your editors have agonized -- I do not exaggerate; the pain is physical -- in winnowing the year's best to a mere fivescore. This involves a combination of gut-wrenching triage, tearful callousness, second-guesses and regrets." But then he goes on to give an example: "Have we given small presses their due? This year, I would say: Probably not."

I went back and did a count. Of the 26 titles listed in the Canadian fiction section, exactly two -- both from Cormorant -- merited mention. (I did not include Anansi in this total.) 3 of the 5 First Fictions were from "small" presses, bringing the total to 5 of 31. 2 of 5 poetry titles were from "small" presses. 2 of 50 nonfiction inclusions. Of these sections, then, 7 of 86 titles were from, quote-unquote, small presses.

So: what's my point? Not what you may think. This showing may or may not be poor. After all, the larger Canadian presses or conglomerates publish more titles, by bigger names, and are more regularly reviewed; and then a substantial number of the best books, quite reasonably, weren't Canadian at all. So for Canadian "small" presses to publish 7 of the top 100 -- or 100+ -- titles reviewed in the Globe from all books published in english seems to me to be pretty wonderful. If this is, indeed, what all of this pointless math means.

What sticks in my craw a bit is what seems to me the underlying assumption of Levin's example. It suggests that quote-unquote small presses operate on some different, likely lesser, level. That the criteria used to judge a book published by a smaller house is not the same -- and may need a touch more generosity -- than that of the larger presses. We're the country cousins and provincials who don't know what all the silverware is for and drink from the finger bowl. I fear it indicative of some belief that quote-unquote small presses need to be, in some fashion, propped up. That their best books can't stand up on their own.

It all reminds me of what a professor of mine said to me a few years ago when I told her that I was turning Biblioasis into a press. This woman is one of the leading scholars of book publishing in the country, a specialist in Victorian book publishing with several excellent histories to her credit. She smiled at me and said that that was very nice, but what I was setting out to do was not real publishing. It was more self-publishing, or hobby publishing. Nice and quaint and enthusiastic and commendable, she hinted, but not to be confused with the real thing.

This has been a motivating burr ever since. And I fear that the same somewhat muted if more well-intended impulse may lay at the heart of Levin's example.

This is not to ignore the obvious differences between Biblioasis and Coach House and Cormorant and Gaspereau, on the one side, and M&S and Random House and Douglas & McIntyre on the other. The latter obviously pay larger advances (& therefore attract more recognizable names), have larger marketing budgets, and have in-house designers. But when it comes to judging the books themselves, and especially the best of them, I think the differences between the big houses and the small houses largely evaporate. The best books produced by Coach House and Cormorant and Gapereau and Porcupine's Quill and Vehicule (& hopefully Biblioasis) show the same attention to detail, are chosen with as much care, and are as well edited, as well designed and produced, as books published by the larger houses. I would argue, in fact, occasionally moreso. As books, there are no differences, and no need to judge them by different measuring sticks. There's no need to make excuses, or be apologetic about or for them.

Literary (ie. those of us suffering from small press syndrome) publishers probably only have themselves (or, ahem, ourselves) to blame. We often trundle out the excuse of our size when it suits our purpose. And as often as this might be valid (we don't have the marketing budget for regular Globe ads, or to whisk our writers around on national tours, as do some of the larger presses) it still does damage. It contributes to the notion that we're not the real game, that
we're the minor leagues (there've been "small" presses that advertise themselves as such), at best a necessary stepping stone to the big leagues where M&S and Random House and Knopf and the big boys and girls play; at worst a place for the has-beens and never-quite-were's. We bemoan the fact that our best writers get snapped up by the larger presses ( and to illustrate this point, it could be pointed out that at least 8 of the 24 writers from large presses listed under best Canadian fiction began their careers with "small" presses).

I might be wrong, and I'm sure there are many publishers and editors out there who will disagree with me, but maybe we're creating our own problem here.

I don't buy the argument that it's the "small" presses who are doing most of the best publishing in Canada. I've met enough of the publishers and editors at the larger houses to know that they are equally committed and passionate about what they are doing, that we are all brothers and sisters in the same literary trenches (even if they do wear shinier uniforms). Some of the best books published in Canada come from smaller houses, but so do most of the worst. But it's also true that because of the nature of what we do and how we do it at the smaller houses, we can take some chances the larger presses often cannot. We can survive -- barely -- on sales of 300 to 1000 copies of a title. Commercial considerations need not weigh in quite as much. It's our advantage, especially in the BookNet era, and I think it evens the proverbial playing field quite nicely, so much so that there's no need to speak of small and large presses at all, but only the good and the bad.

I don't think there is anything "small" about any of Biblioasis' 2007 titles, and I suspect Alana Wilcox or Andrew Steeves could say the same. Lorna Jackson's Cold-cocked, John Metcalf's Shut Up He Explained, Eric Ormsby's Time's Covenant, Kathleen Winter's boYs or Patricia Robertson's Goldfish Dancer -- just to name a few -- are as well designed, edited, copy-edited, written and produced as any book produced by a larger press in 2007. They are as good, in my opinion, as almost any other book produced in 2007. Some of these may prove, in time, to be more important than any of the books that have received award nods or Globe 100 inclusion (this is absolutely the case with Ormsby's Time's Covenant).

No excuses are offered or expected. Or necessary.


Mary Soderstrom said...

Just like to note that VĂ©hicule did get a book on the Top 100, Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, by yours truly. Nice, but what it means I have no idea.


Susan Glickman said...


I think the "small" presses might do themselves and everybody else a favour if they renamed themselves "literary" presses, since they chose their lists according to literary merit rather than the bottom line. Too many of the editorial decisions and the big trade publishers are compromised by the need to please marketing people; to keep the large presses going they need large profits. This doesn't mean they don't publish some wonderful writers. But plenty of wonderful writers are winnowed out, or never get picked up by agents, because their work is seen as not having big market potential.

Susan Glickman said...

I meant to type "editorial decisions at the big trade publishers" -- sorry!

biblioasis said...

Yes, Vehicule's inclusion was one of the two in nonfiction, the other coming from Goose Lane. And Coach House was also included in First Fiction. And there were a couple of others that made the cut as well. Congrats, Mary. Something I promise to pick up.

I agree with you Susan. That's the point of what I said towards the end: smaller publishers can afford to take more chances because they can survive on smaller print runs. No editor or publisher I know working with "literary" presses is making six figures; many of us aren't making five. I'm sure things might be different at the larger houses, and the need just to cover the increased costs of production --let alone profit -- means that they cannot take the risks we do.

That said, compare the sales figures for your average fiction title published by both a big and small press, and you might be surprised at how close they tend to be.

Susan Glickman said...

I know two people (excellent writers both) who got much much much bigger advances from major houses than I did for my first novel from Goose Lane--and sold fewer copies than I did.

What happens now?

Well, they still have agents while I can't get one, and they are seen as having more selling power than me. But they lost their presses a lot of money--and I didn't!

Quite the conundrum.