The confluence of voices, languages, and poetic traditions in Otoniya Juliane Okot Bitek’s poetry reflects her sense of belonging and migration across many places. In this wide-ranging conversation, Acholi Canadian poet Okot Bitek will talk about her writing process as a poet, her experiences with publishing in Canada, her collaborative projects with poets and visual artists, and her practice of listening across histories, identities, continents.
The year 2020 will long be remembered for the global Covid 19 pandemic. Lockdowns impacted work spaces as people scrambled to reorganize their work and home lives.
The whole world suddenly seemed to be online and publishers and retailers had to quickly up their game in the virtual space. Ironically, demand for books skyrocketed. Everyone was stuck at home and desperate for ways to pass the time. The 2021 Emerging Leaders in Publishing Summit reflects this changed world by going virtual and through discussing the many ways book publishing led innovation and embraced entrepreneurship, as well as the many challenges still left to meet.
On Tuesday, February 9 at 2 pm, join psychological thriller authors Samantha Bailey (Woman on the Edge), Amy Stuart (Still Mine, Still Water, Still Here ), and Catherine McKenzie (I’ll Never Tell, Six Weeks to Live) with their editor, Nita Pronovost, for a spine-tingling panel discussion about their writing process.
This free virtual event is part of the Emerging Leaders in Publishing Summit and is open to the general public.
I’ve worked in publishing for about 15 years, but every year I’m caught off guard by the January phenomenon of aspiring authors who’ve resolved that this is the year they’re publishing a book. Manuscript submissions and calls about the publishing process become more frequent, as do inquiries about how to get into the industry itself. When we field these calls at the Association of Book Publishers of BC, we direct these individuals to various resources and wish them luck, but in 2021, I’d also suggest they pay close attention to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic when pitching themselves to the industry, whether as an author or a publishing professional.
The year 2020 was tough: at the end of it, BC book publishers were projecting a 30 to 40 per cent decline in their annual sales, in line with what was being reported across the country. While many bookstores were reporting strong sales leading into the holiday season, store closures through the first and second waves continue to impact publishers’ cash flow, forcing difficult decisions about acquisitions, printing, marketing and overall business operations. It’s too early to say if the fourth quarter results of 2020 will indicate a gradual return to normalcy.
Industry consolidation also presents challenges for independent publishers, who invest in new and diverse voices. The pending sale of Simon & Schuster, announced in November 2020, to Bertelsmann/Penguin Random House, will create a behemoth that dominates market share. Books written by established and bestselling authors, and published by well-capitalized multinational companies, have a competitive advantage in a changed marketplace, where booksellers and, in turn, consumers may gravitate toward safer bets. Authors will also find a narrower market for their work, which may mean lower advances.
So where are the opportunities for change in book publishing in 2021 and beyond? The pandemic hasn’t really highlighted how much is possible so much as it has underscored what should have been happening already.
Nothing will replace in-person book events. That said, online events have increased accessibility, and I expect these will continue in a hybrid capacity, even when social gathering restrictions are lifted. Some of the best virtual events I attended in 2020 were those in which the audience could interact via the chat or be present on-camera.
Publishers also got creative, reinvigorating their sales and marketing strategies. They offered higher discounts to independent bookstores, experimented with digital licensing for schools and libraries and creatively engaged readers online. In BC, Orca Book Publishers’ digital class sets, Rocky Mountain Books’ Think Outside podcast and Arsenal Pulp Press’s author Twitter takeovers and @arsenalpups Instagram account are examples of successful adaptations.
Publishers are well-equipped to work from home, and many are meeting their operational needs by hiring more remote staff. While these are still early days, we may observe that publishing begins to decentralize from major urban centres with higher costs of living, better positioning West Coast companies to compete for and retain talent.
I taught in the SFU Master of Publishing program last fall, working with a brilliant cohort of emerging publishing professionals. While they’re understandably anxious about their job prospects, they’ve recognized that their experiences working independently and resourcefully in a remote learning environment are an asset to prospective employers. Up-and-coming authors and publishers alike will need to be comfortable using collaboration tools (not just Zoom!) and to hone their skills as thoughtful and efficient communicators.
Finally, we can’t let the pandemic overshadow our need to grapple with the industry’s diversity problems. Just as the deeply rooted societal inequalities that were further exposed during the crisis will not be undone simply because anti-racist books sold well in 2020, neither will book publishing’s own lack of diversity. There are numerous initiatives underway in Canada to hold the industry accountable for its lack of diversity, and to change who and what gets published, including the BIPOC of Publishing in Canada collective. The pandemic presents a watershed moment for publishers to re-evaluate outdated practices and to expand their communities and their impact.
Whether you are hoping to get published for the first time, move into a career in the industry or stay the course, publishing in 2021 and beyond is going to require more of all of us. I hope we’ll answer the call.
When I first started teaching in the Master of Publishing, I was anticipating some culture shock. I have a much more traditional graduate school background — an MA and PhD in English literature — and my graduate education consisted largely of traditional seminar courses, deep dives into specific topics culminating in journal-article-length research papers. Trained in close and careful reading, scholarly research skills, and academic writing, I was a little nervous about teaching in a more professionally-oriented program. What I didn’t anticipate was a feeling I slowly developed over the course of my first few years, a feeling of jealousy.
Because as it turns out, the job of being a professor involves a whole lot of skills that grad school never taught me. But you know who is being taught these skills? My students! What follows is a brief list of reasons I secretly wish I could go back to school and do an MPub.
Every piece of text my students produce looks better than the best thing I can make, based on my fairly solid understanding of Microsoft Word. That’s because MPub students learn how to typeset text in Adobe InDesign, and learn how to do it with an eye to accessibility as well as aesthetics, from an actual professional book designer. Imagine how good our CVs and cover letters and syllabi and all the many many documents we produce would look if we actually knew what a hierarchy of type was!
They’re also better at making websites than me, which is a bit embarrassing because I swear back when I worked in English departments I was a real WordPress expert. Not only do my students know how to build beautiful websites, they also know how to use SEO and web analytics, all skills that would be wildly useful for any academic trying to build a platform for their work online (which, in the 21st century, is pretty much all of us).
They learn how to collaborate effectively and manage projects, a skillset that didn’t seem particularly relevant to me when I was writing a dissertation (a decidedly lonely undertaking) but that I’m deeply jealous of now that I spend my weeks chairing meetings, running committees, and overseeing collaborative grants.
They can balance a project budget! Many of our students come into the MPub certain that they’re bad at math, but they all come out able to balance a P&L (a profit and loss statement, used to calculate the costs and revenues associated with publishing books). Meanwhile I’m over here building my grant budgets in Word because who has the time to learn Excel?
We still have seminar classes (that’s what I teach!) in which our students can explore the history and theory of publishing, but those ideas are always intertwined with a focus on practice that is much closer to the reality of my own academic work. One of these days I’m going to sit down with my colleagues and make them teach me how to set a line of type, how to dig into my website’s analytics, and how to balance a budget. But until then, I’ll just keep hiring my own wildly useful students as research assistants, and wishing I was as good at project management as they are.
I’ve spent much of this pandemic summer preparing to teach PUB 800 for the first time: wading through dense treatises on publishing and working out how to deliver an engaging remote seminar. So you’ll forgive me for devoting my introductory post for SFU Publishing to a delightfully frothy show that I’d like to recommend as a companion to your quarantine reading: Younger.
If you aren’t watching it already, Younger is a romantic comedy/drama series, based on a novel by Pamela Redmond, now heading into its seventh season. The premise: a 40-something woman attempts to reenter the book publishing world after taking a hiatus to raise her family, and finds she’s better received when she presents herself as a millennial industry neophyte. So she commits to the lie.
Younger’s ostensible focus is its love triangle (#TeamJosh all the way), but it’s actually a Trojan horse for plotlines ripped from the headlines of Publishers Weekly; Jia Tolentino, writing for The New Yorker, described it “a Gossip Girl for the publishing industry.” Publishing personalities who’ve been lampooned include George R.R. Martin, Karl Ove Knausgård, Marie Kondo, John Green, Kathryn Stockett, and Jeff Bezos (Paste Magazine has a full rundown of who’s been trolled). There are knowing nods to trends (colouring books! hygge! influencers-turned-authors!) and scandals (bulk-order bestsellers! plagiarism! #MeToo!); with a real-life New York book editor serving as a consultant, the show feels firmly grounded in reality. Empirical Press, the venerable yet scrappy book publisher where the show is set, is hopelessly cash-strapped—perhaps in part because their publisher, Charles Brooks, is a self-professed romantic better at making speeches about how “great literature will survive, because we need great stories,” than he is at publishing said stories. Empirical is forever courting investors, considering a merger, or else being bested by Amazon—or, ahem, “Achilles.” Like I said: the verisimilitude is there.
Sure, there are quibbles. There’s the episode where the team decides to go to the Frankfurt Book Fair…the week before the Frankfurt Book Fair, or the instant-book pace with which every new acquisition hits the market, or the fact that there seems to be only one literary agent in this version of New York City. And the show is sorely lacking in racial diversity, which you could say is actually a little too accurate for a show depicting book publishing today.
Still, I’m predisposed to like any series with a publishing angle, and Younger offers those of us in the trenches an escapist rendering of the industry, where the untenable P&Ls and the massive returns happen off-camera. Even real-world publishers are getting in on the fantasy: Simon & Schuster published Marriage Vacation, the roman à clef written by in-show character Pauline Turner Brooks. Besides, it’s been a few years since the CBC’s Being Erica, where the perilous trade was always more of a backdrop to the protagonist’s time-travelling journey to self-actualization. And Gilmore Girls, for all of Rory’s bookishness, never quite got it right: remember the Yale prof who confidently asserted, about the assignment of her own book as course text, “I get full royalties whether you buy the book new or used”? (No, she doesn’t.)
If you’re enrolled in my PUB 800 seminar this fall, we’ll talk about how publishers accumulate, deploy, and signify cultural and economic capital, publishing’s colonial roots, and the future of the book, among other topics. And I look forward to those spirited discussions. But, if I could add a “recommended binge watch” to my syllabus, it would be Younger, which has some surprisingly trenchant commentary on publishing to offer as well. As Rachel Syme observed, writing for The New Republic, “Publishing, at its heart, is about trying to capture and disseminate the zeitgeist; many of the conversations that the characters end up having on Younger are about how best to shepherd these new stories into the world and about the bumps they hit along the way.” May publishing provide enough industry gossip to sustain the show for years to come.
When Vancouver’s public libraries abruptly closed their doors as part of March’s Covid lockdown, my book-addicted family was suddenly forced to go cold turkey. Hallelujah for Little Free Libraries, which have sprouted all over town in the last few years.
As the lockdown dragged on and we all got sick of hearing each other’s audiobooks playing in the next room — who is she talking to? Oh, it’s William Hurt reading Ernest Hemingway / Jack and Annie from the Magic Treehouse / the cats from Warriors — I began taking my kids out on bike tours of the neighbourhood, trawling for good reads.
We slowly learned which libraries had the best pickings and the fastest turnover. Now we have a circuit we follow, a looping trajectory that takes us to five rich reading sources in half an hour. We come home sweaty and elated, showing off the latest discoveries.
Entrepreneur Todd Bol created the first Little Free Library in Hudson, Wisconsin in 2009, to celebrate his book-loving mother, who had just died. He carved wood from an old garage door into a mini, one-room schoolhouse, then set it up on a pole in front of his house and filled it with books. Passersby were asked to “Take a book, leave a book,” and they did. The movement, which became a nonprofit in 2012, spread fast; Bol’s original aim was to create 2,510 libraries, more than Andrew Carnegie; there are now more than 100,000, in 91 countries.
One of the many joys of working in publishing is free books. The salaries are pitiful, the wait for that prized promotion eternal — but the people are great and you receive lots of free books, which I’ve always loved to pass on. My mother, an ardent reader like Todd Bol’s mother, has never complained of all the birthday and Christmas presents with “Advance Reading Copy — Not For Sale” stamped on the spine.
Like many book lovers, I grapple endlessly with all the books I haven’t read yet, piling up by my bed and crammed into the bookshelves in every nook of the house. So Covid seemed made for “Take a book, leave a book.” Time to clear out the shelves and give away some great books that I’ve already read, or will never read, or that aren’t, truly, quite as great as the gripping copy on the front flap (which I may have written) claims.
Except I almost always end up taking more books than I leave. And having to find more space in those crammed shelves for more volumes I’ll probably never read.
Little Free Libraries are a fascinating window into the reading habits of your neighbours. A lot of airport reads, naturally: romance, mystery, crime, mostly well-thumbed and ruthlessly discarded. Computer manuals, academic tomes, travel guides, all worth reading once, all surely doomed to
never be re-read. And a surprising amount of CanLit, oversized B-format paperbacks with worthy endorsements, often pristine, i.e., bought with good intentions but never cracked (I ask myself the same question; should I read last year’s Giller shortlist? Really?).
Every trip I stumble upon wonderful books. My first discovery was “The Sisters,” Mary S. Lovell’s fascinating joint biography of the six extraordinary Mitford sisters. Minor aristocrats, the sparkling siblings took 1930s’ British society by storm — until two of them fell in love with Hitler and became pariahs (Diane spent most of the war in prison; Unity shot herself when war was declared). Nancy wrote bestselling comedies of manners that seem Cretaceous today; thank god for Jessica, a lifelong leftie who satirized her adopted home in exposés like The American Way of Death. Six hundred gossipy pages got me through the first month of quarantine.
By the time May rolled around I was deep into Music: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia and re-reading Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, with the ITV characters in my head. Marvelling that someone had left Vera Cacciatore’s The Swing — who doesn’t judge a book by its cover? — and trying to believe in Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight. Except that time was now passing very slowly, and I wasn’t finishing any books. Just refining my bookshelves, like that (apocryphal?) purser rearranging the deckchairs on The Titanic.
By the time I stumbled into July all I was good for was Louis L’Amour, “the world’s bestselling Western writer.” I won’t defend him — there’s a PhD on settler colonialism in every pulpy volume — but I do love his author bio, which mentions no awards but 40 million books sold and the fact that “since leaving his native Jamestown, North Dakota, at the age of fifteen, he’s been a longshoreman, lumberjack, elephant handler, hay shocker, flume builder, fruit picker, and an officer on tank destroyers during World War II.” Note to self: publish more ex-elephant handlers. And how do you shock hay — with an elephant?
In the vast European colonial project, from the 15th century onwards, three institutions – church, school, and book – formed the non-military means by which European empires and cultures established social and economic dominance over practically every continent on earth. Publishing has been central to this; the rise of print culture in Europe coincides neatly with the rise of imperialism and colonialism.
In 19th-century Canada, this played out as part of a nation-building project: an effort to secure an enormous resource base, which involved explicitly racist efforts to centrally control both the First Nations and the waves of diverse immigrant populations that already had and continued to move into North America – while at the same time working to resist American “manifest destiny.” Colonial and later national governments in Canada promoted a curriculum and a school system designed to assimilate and normalize British culture across a diverse and dynamic population. That the earliest publishers in Canada were the same people that designed the Residential School system is not coincidental; these were parts of the larger nation-building project.
It began with religious, government, and educational publishing, but in the 20th century, as “colonialism” ceased to be an orienting term in public life, the project was articulated more in terms of class and social mobility. Books and literature had long been the markers of class distinction and indeed self-improvement for the middle classes. The ways in which trade and mass-market publishing shaped up in the 20th century reinforced notions of what it meant to be cultured, educated, well-read.
The idea of a best-selling book – the book that everyone reads – comes out of the colonial paradigm: gathering and sustaining mass audiences around a small number of texts in heavy circulation. The “economy of scale” in mass production means that the more copies of a book that can be printed and sold, the greater the profit. So, while publishing has often prided itself on plurality and freedom, the economic logic of the best-sellers can’t help but to reinforce cultural hierarchy: the big book, by the star author, that everyone reads, succeeds both in making money and in generating cultural capital for the author, the publisher, and the ideas — this is the force behind all the “cultural industries.”
But that means that exclusion is part of the mix; it’s a constitutional part of how cultural markets work. It doesn’t have to be exclusion by design or intent, but exclusion is a result of choosing what to include, and what to take a risk on. If as a publisher I decide that a particular thing is worth publishing, that means I am also deciding that something else isn’t. As we elevate certain things to the status of cool or desirable or important, we are making a distinction in favour of those things and against other things. We can call this “curation,” but the other side of it is “gatekeeping.”
So, if by its very nature publishing is trading in distinction, then it always risks participating in and trading on the forms of oppression that are shot through the social order of the day. Our social order is pre-conditioned by racism, by class structures (or the legacy of class structures, if you want to deny that class still exists), by gender normativity, and by the persistent capitalist mass-market reification of all sorts of “norms” – all of which serve to guide a publisher’s ideas of where a profitable market is likely to be. And here is where the systemic, hidden racisms are most dangerous: in the unspoken, unexamined assumptions about what and who is important, and where so-called “colour-blindness” is such a liability, because it leads back to an unexamined white normativity.
The result is a nasty feedback loop, as in the incredibly oft-reported claim that “people [who aren’t white] don’t read,” which then discourages publishers (who are mostly white) from taking risks on any books that don’t assume the usual white audience. Which means those books don’t get published, and by extension, that readers of colour remain invisible (while invisibly reading those same white books). A recent piece in The New York Times, “A Conflicted Cultural Force: What it’s Like to Be Black in Publishing” provides a stark illustration of this pattern.
There isn’t a straightforward way out of this loop. Five years of Lee & Low’s Diversity Survey tell the publishing industry over and over again that it is shockingly homogeneous, and publishers claim to have heard the call. But It’s hard to get out of the rut because a good deal of economic energy is devoted to staying in the rut. And because this is such a ‘constitutional’ problem to the publishing industry, it’s not easily solved via any means already sitting on the desk of industry insiders.
Rather, it is going to take a lot of different actions and agendas working in concert. Yes, publishers can make more informed and proactive decisions, both about acquiring books and about hiring staff. Affirmative action-style plans help because they directly address patterns of marginalization; this is necessary but not sufficient. There also needs to be a diversity of publishing organizations themselves: Indigenous publishers; Black publishers; LGBTQ+ publishers – and booksellers too. And the cultures of literature and reading themselves have to change – the recent calls for white readers to go find and read books written by people of colour are important because this addresses that invisibility and also helps to broaden the discourse across formerly distinct reading audiences.
The late Greg Younging – Publisher at Theytus Books, Professor at UBC Okanagan, and tireless advocate for Indigenous publishing – made me believe that a decolonized kind of publishing was possible; that it was possible to escape these colonial legacies and the logics that perpetuate them. His optimism — and his dogged work on this — inspired many of us. The surge of activism and awareness around racial justice in 2020 also inspires me. This defines the work to be done right now — by everyone in publishing, but especially those of us in publishing education — to bust open these old assumptions and hide-bound ways of thinking about publishing, and markets, and culture. We need to understand these legacies and how they shape us, and we need to tell ourselves new stories about what writing and publishing mean in today’s world, about who it’s for, and why.
To get better at something, one needs practice. I asked students to createan artifact every day for the duration of the Design Awareness in Publishing Process and Products. This course is all about challenging the students’ creative thinking and design practices (like wrestling with some of the dilemmas designers face and talking about our professional, social, and ethical responsibilities).
I did mean every day (well, kind of). Some days off or cheat days were okay (let’s be realistic). To make it easier to keep up the practice, students could spend as little as 5 minutes a day. And to keep everyone accountable to this daily practice (to avoid doing 30 mini art projects in one day), every student had to share their work with their classmates or make it public.
It could be messy, weird, and silly.
The goal of this project is not to create something pretty, amazing or flawless. Instead, it’s all about getting better at a creative practice and trying to push one’s creativity. It could be messy, weird, and silly. And I asked students to avoid selecting something they were already good at doing to explore something new.
The first task was to submit a creative brief, including what they wanted to learn and the scope of their project. Most students limited themselves to a medium (like calligraphy, photography, tea leaves, software, etc.), a subject matter (monsters, drop caps, logos, lyrics, etc.), and a time frame (ranging from 5 to 90 minutes). Second, was carving time out of every day for their daily creative practice. Third, was to submit a reflection on the process, discussing the evolution of their work. It was amazing how every student ended up with very different projects. Some explored particular skills in a familiar design world, others learnt new software from scratch, while others focused on gaining an entirely new art practice.
The instructor tries … ish
To support my students in this daily demand for work (it’s not easy), both our TA and I participated. My own goal was to learn a new application, focusing on drawing things from my garden in 30 minutes. Thinking back on my process and progress, the results of my daily illustrations were mixed.
I really liked focusing on one subject (my favourites being the slug and snail) and trying various methods to illustrate it. Since I was interested in learning a new tool and what it could offer, the drawings were very different from one another (I was using different brushes and blending tools). A few illustrations only took 5 minutes, while others took a couple of nights to complete. The time spent plus the tools selected dramatically impacted the level of detail in each post.
I go back and forth about which one I prefer or which one I would want to make “my” style. The more detailed illustrations felt satisfying and felt like “real” art. (Let’s not even get into what “real” art might mean!) But the looser (and quicker!) illustrations felt freeing and daring; a fantastic feeling! Strangely, the quick, fast, less perfect drawings were more challenging for me, not because they took more attempts to get the lines to work “perfectly,” but because they are rawer and made me feel more exposed.
Where all my students succeed, I failed terribly! I only did 15 of 30 posts! Many of us stopped posting for #blackouttuesday. Questioning what to post, if anything, was particularly important when, in class, we were talking about representation, cultural appropriation and decolonizing design practices. It felt important to talk about the impact our design artifacts have in our worlds. But without this project’s public accountability, I stopped my daily practice. Yet my students continued, some privately and some publicly, each at their own pace. Their thoughtfulness and their dedication humble me. So, I will keep doing this project, even though the class is done, and I’m submitting this assignment soooooo late.
Mauve Pagé is a Publication Design lecturer with Publishing @ SFU. She hopes to inspire students to find creative solutions through conceptual thinking, and get them excited about the unlimited potential to communicate ideas aesthetically.