Thursday, November 04, 2010

The Carnival Barker Speaks... ( A Canada Reads Post)

[cue Tom Waits' Black Rider]

Ladies & Gentlemen.... Canada Reads 2011 Brings to the Big Top tonight, not only human oddities (& what better description can there be for most authors and publishers?) but the 40 essential Canadian novels to be voted on by YOU, to be whittled down to the 10 essential Canadian novels to be voted on by YOU, to be further whittled down to the 5 essential Canadian novels to be selected and defended by... someone else. Or, at least, so we assume. No one knows for sure what the Canada Reads folk have in mind for this. If you want predictions, you're in the wrong tent. Go see the woman with the feather in her cap and the mirrors under her table.

There's been a lot of discussion about this new approach to Canada Reads, both for & against (mainly against). It's left me a bit ambivalent. I agree with much of the criticisms Beattie & co. have made of the process, and though those who have countered by saying it's just marketing or a populist response to a populist program make valid points, it doesn't mean that there isn't something at least slightly distasteful about it. It's led to a bit of a sense of inertia here: though I have posted a Canada Reads memo here late last week (Canada Reads Needs More Rock & Roll [which it most certainly does]), and done the FaceBook thing, and *Tweeted*, and arranged a few newspaper stories and a radio interview regionally to get the word out, I haven't been able to beg my mailing lists on our behalf. I will, selectively, likely later today, but felt I needed to make a case for this book, here, first.

But how to do so? Readers of Thirsty have other commitments, even public ones. There's no reason they shouldn't vote for Sean Dixon, a very worthy candidate. To ask them to vote for a book that they haven't read, or read and did not love, merely because we published it, seems ... unreasonable. Erin Balser tweeted that more than 6000 people have voted for the final 10 books: if any of the handful of small press books make the cut, it's likely that they have been carried by people who haven't even read them, who are voting for it out of some sense of team spirit or for other reasons entirely their own. And there's nothing wrong with that either. But there is something queasy-making about it. Getting repeated Facebook messages to vote for one book or the other when, as a publisher, I have a book on the list, seems callous, and makes me feel as if the writers and publishers sending these messages either don't know who their audiences are, or don't care. It is, in the end, all about them. I can't ask Kerry Clare to vote for Moody Food because she's already made it clear she's voting for The Girl Who Saw Everything. Or Bronwyn Keinapple, as she's already said she didn't like it. Or others, who represent other presses, or may have books of their own in contention. Or who have friends with books of their own in contention. Or ...

There is a difference between marketing and popularity contests: mainly one of knowing your audience. Whatever else I might say about all of this, I have no doubt that Canada Reads knows theirs, and whatever they do to reach out to it can't be an entirely bad thing. We may wish the audience was different, but that is not the same thing at all.

Yet, had Canada Reads not opened it up to the public in the way that they have, a Biblioasis book wouldn't even be a contender. The token small press inclusion would be a Coach House or Cormorant, which isn't meant to disparage either press, because they are both exceptional: it's merely to acknowledge that we do not often look beyond our own noses, and one can see it time and time again when Toronto tastemakers decide to get charitable. So, despite the discomfort I feel about all of this, I owe a debt of gratitude to the Canada Reads crew in this instance: without this, we wouldn't even be on the list. We've been able to generate considerable regional media for it, and sold at least a handful of copies we would not, likely have otherwise done. By opening things up, there's at least a slight chance that Moody Food, a book we believed in enough to bring back in print last year, might find a real audience for the first time in its history. And, for me, that is the most exciting thing about Canada Reads, when it works well. And who can complain, really, about that?

We published Moody Food last year as part of our Renditions reprint series. When we started this series 5 years ago, we dreamt of doing two, then four, then six or more titles a year. It was part of our commitment to bring back books that we believed deserved to find their audience. In that sense, the Renditions series and Canada Reads, at their best, share a common goal. Moody Food was the sixth title in the series. It is also the last. We've been forced, by necessity, to shelve the series for a while, simply because we couldn't sustain the losses. It's no less costly to produce a reprint, and in several instances we have done so without even the benefit of funding. To publish a great book and see it sell 20, 40, 100 copies, is heartbreaking. No one will review a reprint. And in our focus on the new, new, new, no one cares about what was published a decade ago, or four decades ago. The only chance a book like this has, or a series like our Biblioasis Renditions has, is if we see course adoptions, the writer in question wins a major prize, refocusing interest on backlist, or we get lucky and get the book on CanadaReads. So, for now, Moody Food needs to represent the series, the idea of the series, from Ray Smith's Century -- a book we need to get on Canada Reads some day -- to Terry Griggs's Quickening. And all of the others we would like to do, a list of books and authors longer than my arm.

So why vote for Ray Robertson's Moody Food? First, hopefully, because it's an excellent book by an excellent writer, voted among the Top 10 Rock & Roll novels of all time. It's fun and sexy and witty and moving and thoughtful and -- in the best of all possible ways -- moral. But it also isn't for everyone, which is fine too. You need to know your audience. But it's a book, like others on the list of forty, which deserves a chance at a wider readership, a readership which, at this moment and time, for this particular book, only CanadaReads can provide.

But if this isn't enough for you, perhaps you might also vote for it because it does represent something, as part of the Renditions series, larger than itself. The idea that we need to keep these key books around so that eventually they will find their audience, so that they won't get lost in the weight of what is new, new, new. Every author and aspiring author and perhaps even every reader knows something about that, or at least the fear of getting lost in the mass and mist. A vote for Moody Food, frankly, will help us keep the series going, which will ensure that other Moody Foods and Centurys and Quickenings have their chance to find their audience as well. And that, my dear Thirsty Readers, is no small thing.

Carnival Barkers, of course, know their audience very well. They are the impresarios of the boardwalk. They know both what their customers want, and what they can provide, and do their best, even if only with occasional smoke and mirrors, to find the spot where the two meet. And, I suppose, in the end, there's no shame at all in that.

So: if you can do so, please vote for Ray Robertson's Moody Food. You have until Sunday.

Thank you.

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