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All stories by Stuart Woods

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Michael Serbinis out as Kobo CEO

Former Kobo CEO Michael Serbinis

Michael Serbinis has been at the helm of Kobo since the company’s earliest days, overseeing its development as Indigo’s digital content division (known at the time as Shortcovers), helping rebrand the firm as a global ebook retailer when it was established as a separate corporation, and arranging for its sale to Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten.

Now, according to a report in the Financial Post, Serbinis is stepping down as Kobo’s chief executive officer. He will be replaced by Rakuten executive Takahito “Taka” Aiki, who plans to relocate to Toronto. Serbinis, meanwhile, will remain with Kobo as the company’s founder and vice chairman.

According to the Post, Aiki said in a statement that he is “excited to be joining Kobo, one of Canada’s most prominent brands and a true innovator in eReading.”

He added: “The Kobo team is extremely talented and, working together, I look forward to driving Kobo’s leadership in eReading.”

Rakuten officials offered the following statement:

“Taka brings to the role a wealth of experience in building and growing successful projects and companies, and has built his career on achieving ambitious goals and forging strong teams.”

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Authors lose out in Google Books ruling

After a lengthy legal battle lasting the better part of a decade, the lawsuit against Google’s massive book-scanning project has been dismissed by a New York court. U.S. circuit judge Denny Chin ruled against a complaint brought by the Authors Guild (and several individual authors), arguing that Google’s scanning and indexing of books from several U.S. library collections qualifies as fair use.

Google launched its digital books program in 2004 and, to date, has scanned more than 20 million titles, many of which remain in copyright. Authors sought hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, with Google suggesting it could owe “more than $3 [billion] if the class action succeeded.”

However, Chin ruled on Thursday that Google’s book project provides significant public benefits and qualifies as fair use under U.S. copyright law. The decision is an important victory for Google, the implications of which could stretch beyond the book world. From Reuters:

“This is a big win for Google, and it blesses other search results that Google displays, such as news or images,” said James Grimmelmann, a University of Maryland intellectual property law professor who has followed the case.

“It is also a good ruling for libraries and researchers, because the opinion recognizes the public benefit of making books available,” he added.

The Authors Guild has already expressed its disappointment with the decision and says it plans to appeal. Executive director Paul Aiken told Reuters, “Google made unauthorized digital editions of nearly all of the world’s valuable copyright-protected literature and profits from displaying those works…. Such mass digitization and exploitation far exceeds the bounds of the fair use defense.”

Meanwhile, Google provided the following statement to media:

This has been a long road and we are absolutely delighted with today’s judgment. As we have long said, Google Books is in compliance with copyright law and acts like a card catalog for the digital age.

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Graeme Smith’s war memoir wins Weston Prize

Former Globe and Mail foreign correspondent Graeme Smith has won the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction for The Dogs Are Eating Them, a searing memoir about his time covering the Afghanistan war from 2005 to ’09.

Smith, who now works in Kabul as a senior analyst for the think tank International Crisis Group, was in Toronto Tuesday night to accept the prize. He told Q&Q after the ceremony that the book was a form of “personal therapy” allowing him to put years of reporting in a broader context.

“It contains a lot of spit and vitriol and ranting, and it was a way for me to process a lot of things I had seen,” he said.

Smith added that he did not set out to draw conclusions about Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan. “I was looking to give you the texture on the ground that might reveal why it went wrong,” he said. “I was hoping that somewhere in all those hours of audio [of interviews] I would find the perfect scene, the perfect dialogue that might explain why it all went sideways. I think I failed at that, but along the way the book got born.”

The Dogs Are Eating Them is the second Knopf Canada title to win the Weston Prize since its inception three years ago. Charles Foran’s literary biography Mordecai won in the prize’s inaugural year.

Juror Candace Savage, last year’s Weston Prize winner for A Geography of Blood (Greystone Books), said the only criterion for the prize is “literary excellence,” which the jury “worked very hard” to define.

“In the end, we looked for books in which the author had come close to achieving what he or she had set out to do,” Savage said. “It was the quality of the storytelling in Graeme Smith’s book that won the jury over, his ability to persuade people like me, who don’t want to be taken into the war in Afghanistan, to go there with him and take the subject seriously, to feel and think what needs to be felt and thought.”

The shortlist was selected by a jury comprising Savage, Toronto author and critic Hal Niedzviecki, and Andreas Schroeder, who holds the Rogers Communications Chair in Creative Non-fiction at the University of British Columbia. Two other jurors helped select the winner: War Child Canada founder and executive director Samantha Nutt and CBC broadcaster Evan Solomon.

Savage said the additional jurors helped streamline the process. “It made the choice easier because, out of five, there was a majority choice that might not have been there out of the three,” she said.

Smith’s memoir was nominated alongside Thomas King’s essay collection The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America (Doubleday Canada); J.B. MacKinnon’s paean to wildlife The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be (Random House Canada); Andrew Steinmetz’s genre-bending biography This Great Escape: The Case of Michael Paryla (Biblioasis); and Priscila Uppal’s Govenor General’s Literary Award–nominated memoir Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother (Dundurn Press). Each finalist received $5,000.

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Canadian-born Eleanor Catton wins Booker

(photo: Janie Airey)

Canadian-born author Eleanor Catton has won the Man Booker Prize for her sprawling second novel, The Luminaries (McClelland & Stewart), an historical epic set during the 1860s New Zealand gold rush.

At 28, Catton, who grew up in New Zealand, is the youngest author to win the prestigious literary prize, worth £50,000 (roughly $83,000). Weighing in at more than 800 pages, the novel is also the lengthiest winning tome in the prize’s 45-year history.

Catton is the first Canadian to win the Booker since Yann Martel took home the prize in 2002 for Life of Pi. Canadians Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient, 1992) and Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin, 2000) have also won.

The Booker win is certain to skyrocket Catton to a new level of literary fame. She received acclaim for her debut, The Rehearsal, which won the 2010 First Novel Award. The Luminaries is also nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award.

In Q&Q’s review of The Luminaries, Vit Wagner writes that the novel ranks “as a remarkable achievement for a writer of any age” and “can be enjoyed for its engrossing entirety, as well as for the literary gems bestowed on virtually every page.”

Catton’s win comes at the end of an era for the Booker, which until now has been open to writers only from the U.K. and Commonwealth. Next year, all writers who have published an English-language novel in the U.K., regardless of nationality, will be eligible for the prize.


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Kobzar shortlist announced

The nominees for the 2014 Kobzar Literary Award, handed out every other year in recognition of Canadian books that present “a Ukrainian Canadian theme with literary merit,” include poetry, a play, a “folk history,” and a pair of novels (including one for kids). The shortlist is as follows:

  • Luba, Simply Luba by Diane Flacks, with Andrew Tarasiuk and Luba Goy, (Scirocco Drama/J.Gordon Shillingford, 2013)
  • The Unmemntioable by Erin Mouré (House of Anansi Press, 2012)
  • Baba’s Kitchen Medicines by Michael Mucz (University of Alberta Press, 2012)
  • Blood and Salt by Barbara Sapergia (Coteau Books, 2012)
  • Making Bombs for Hitler by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch (Scholastic Canada, 2012)

Each of the finalists will read from their work on Oct. 27 as part of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors. The $25,000 prize will be handed out on March 5.

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Alice Munro wins Nobel Prize for Literature [UPDATED]

Alice Munro has been awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first Canadian (and only the 13th woman) to win one of the world’s top literary accolades in the prize’s 113-year history.

In a statement provided by Munro’s publisher Penguin Random House Canada, she is quoted as saying: “I am amazed, and very grateful…. I’m particularly glad that winning this award will please so many Canadians. I’m happy, too, that this will bring more attention to Canadian writing.”

A subsequent statement from Munro, also provided by her publisher, reads in full:

This is so surprising and wonderful. I am dazed by all the attention and affection that has been coming my way this morning. It is such an honour to receive this wonderful recognition from the Nobel Committee and I send them my thanks.

When I began writing there was a very small community of Canadian writers and little attention was paid by the world. Now Canadian writers are read, admired and respected around the globe. I’m so thrilled to be chosen as this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature recipient. I hope it fosters further interest in all Canadian writers. I also hope that this brings further recognition to the short story form.

Munro is the author most recently of the short-story collection Dear Life (McClelland & Stewart), which she had previously declared would be her last book. Born in Wingham, Ontario, she continues to live for part of the year in Southern Ontario, where many of her stories are set.

In a phone interview with the Nobel committee, Munro indicated that, in fact, there may be more stories to come. “I’ve been writing and publishing since I was about 20,” she said. “That’s a long time to be working, and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s time to take it easy.’ But this may change my mind.”

Munro has long been considered in the running for the Nobel. In her distinguished career she has also received the Man Booker International Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize (twice), and the Governor General’s Literary Award (three times).

Munro is published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Her work is published in paperback by Penguin Canada, which released a paperback edition of Dear Life this week.

In a brief statement, the Swedish Academy in charge of the Nobel noted simply that Munro is a “master of the contemporary short story.” A tweet from the academy claims that they informed Munro of her win via phone message.

The prize is estimated to be worth roughly $1.3 million.


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Giller shortlist offers excitement (and lots of new faces)

Lisa Moore is among five authors nominated for the 2013 Giller Prize

The 20th anniversary shortlist of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, announced this morning in Toronto, contains some surprises, some new faces, and some past nominees.

Among the biggest surprises is who was left off the list. Longlisted author Joseph Boyden did not make the cut despite receiving stellar reviews for his third novel, The Orenda (Hamish Hamilton Canada), which was recently nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award.

Wayne Johnston also failed to make the shortlist for The Son of Certain Woman (Knopf Canada). The Toronto-based novelist has now been longlisted for the Giller for his three previous novels without moving on to the next round, and has been shortlisted twice (for The Navigator of New York and The Colony of Unrequited Dreams) without winning.

Also notably absent from this year’s shortlist is David Gilmour, whose recent comments about his narrow literary tastes have stirred much controversy. The jury noted, however, that it had decided on the five-title shortlist before the media firestorm was ignited.

Instead, the shortlist comprises well-reviewed titles that have largely flown under the radar. Perhaps the only exception is Lisa Moore’s Caught, a follow-up to the St. John’s–based author’s Canada Reads winner, February.

Set during the late 1970s and involving  a pot dealer on the lam, the novel is nominated alongside Edmonton-based author Lynn Coady’s short-story collection Hellgoing, which could be considered another frontrunner.

Both Caught and Hellgoing are published by House of Anansi Press (the only Canadian-owned press on the shortlist), and both are also nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Both authors have been shortlisted for the Giller in previous years: Moore received the nod in 2002 and ’05, and Coady’s previous novel, The Antagonist, was nominated in 2011.

The shortlist is rounded out by a trio of first-time nominees. Dennis Bock appears for his third novel, Coming Home Again (HarperCollins Canada), the story of two brothers dealing with personal and familial crises. Also nominated is Craig Davidson’s Niagara Falls–set novel Cataract City (Doubleday Canada), about two friends on opposite of the law, and Dan Vyleta’s The Crooked Maid, set in post–Second World War Vienna.

Speaking to Q&Q after the announcement, jury member Margaret Atwood noted the strength of this year’s submissions, which comprised 147 titles from 61 publishing houses.

“In my past experiences, there were fewer contenders,” says Atwood, a past Giller winner who is now serving on the jury for the fourth time. “If you think of it as a steeplechase, [in previous years] the number of starters was fewer, and the ones that ran out in front were fewer in number and … they were pulling away from the pack in a more obvious way.”

Fellow juror Jonathan Lethem agrees it will be a challenge deciding on a winner, though he notes that the high level of competition reflects well on the current state of Canadian fiction.

“As a national literature, it has a very thrilling character of being open to negotiation,” says Lethem, the Brooklyn-based author of Dissident Gardens. “The identity is being worked out in front of you, and that is a very vibrant characteristic.”

Lethem also acknowledges that he is drawn a wide variety of fiction but tends to favour books with elements of humour and good storytelling.

“Obviously, to reach this position among the final five, a book has to be doing an extraordinary number of things well, but I do find that I like to be beguiled,” he says. “You want to be thrilled by a book, and whatever larger themes, whatever other ambitions you might detect, they still have to operate on the level of the reader’s excitement.”


Q&Q publishing industry survey suggests job satisfaction despite stagnant salaries, gender bias

(Illustration: Sophie Casson)

What is it like to work in book publishing in 2013? In some ways it has always been thus: publishing professionals are generally overworked and underpaid, but content in their chosen careers (if not their current jobs). But as demonstrated by the results of Q&Q’s latest salary survey – our first in five years – pressures on the industry are having an effect on salaries and job satisfaction, a trend that could bode ill for employers’ ability to attract and retain top talent. (Click on the PDF to read the full results.)

First, the good news. People who seek employment in the book business are, by and large, satisfied in their work. Sure, overtime is a fact of life for nearly half the workforce (for which only a small minority is compensated) and salaries are comparatively small, but of the more than 300 respondents who filled out our online survey, only five per cent rated their current job satisfaction as “poor.” By contrast, 40 per cent scored their job satisfaction as “very good” or “excellent,” and a further 38 per cent marked it as “good.”

Those figures are practically identical to results from our previous survey in 2008, and the explanation seems to be largely the same. People who work in publishing are book-lovers, so they take great pleasure – joy, even – in creating books (or promoting them, or selling them) and being surrounded by others of their ilk. (There are also the parties, of course.) When we asked what people liked most about their jobs, the most popular responses, by a wide margin, were “the kind of work I do” and “my colleagues.”

However, a lot has changed in five years. This survey does not measure the overall size or diversity of the book industry, but signs that it has become leaner and meaner – with employers having shed jobs, merged with competitors, or gone out of business – show up in the data in other ways. Salaries have stagnated, with the average annual income of $48,300 having increased by only 2.3 per cent over the past five years, despite the fact that other demographic factors (such as age and work experience) have remained constant.

Not surprisingly, cost-of-living raises of more than three per cent are rare – fewer than a quarter of respondents had received one the previous year – and salary levels are by far the most common cause of job angst. Respondents also expressed pessimism about their chances for upward mobility, with only seven per cent rating their likelihood of receiving a promotion in the coming year as “very good” or “excellent.”

Perhaps more troubling, the data seems to indicate that a versatile and experienced segment of the workforce is deeply ambivalent about their future in publishing. Out of all respondents, 22 per cent indicated that, in two years, they no longer expect to be working within the book industry. That figure is skewed, however, by a particular demographic – namely, those who have been in the industry for three to 10 years, 31 per cent of whom are contemplating changing careers. (The number skews even higher for publishing professionals with six-to-10 years experience.) In other words, at a time when workers in many industries can expect to be taking on roles of greater responsibility and prestige, a substantial number of publishing professionals are considering leaving the book trade altogether.

This trend could be chalked up to mid-­career angst, but an equally plausible explanation is borne out by the survey. When asked what would most improve job satisfaction, by far the most common answer – besides a salary increase – was “better opportunity for advancement.” Even if those opportunities aren’t easy to come by, it’s possible that more training, work-related travel, and mentorship could alleviate the looming problem of worker attrition.

When it comes to advancement, another key demographic stands out. According to the survey, 75 per cent of the publishing workforce is female, but only 52 per cent of senior management roles are held by women. On average, women earn 18 per cent less than men, and are less likely to have earned a bonus or raise in the prior year. And women in larger firms are systematically given less responsibility than their male peers: only six per cent of female respondents reported that they supervise more than five employees, compared to 21 per cent of men.

In an industry whose strength is its workforce, evidence of such systemic bias cannot be tolerated.

About the Q&Q salary survey: We collected survey responses online over several weeks in late spring 2013. We solicited responses on our website, in email newsletters, and via social-media platforms. The surveys were completed anonymously. • Results are based on completed surveys from 393 publishing professionals. (The previous survey, in 2008, received about 395 responses.) Not all respondents answered every question; percentages and averages are calculated based on the number of answers for a given question. In calculating the average salary, we did not include positions for which there was only one respondent. • Averages based on a small number of responses are most susceptible to variation due to the small sample size. We opted to include these figures in order to provide a comprehensive snapshot of the industry, but they should be used as guidelines only. • Salaries were rounded to the nearest $100, bonuses to the nearest $50, and most percentages to the nearest whole number.

This article appeared in the September issue of Q&Q.

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Kobzar Award announces jury

The Board of Directors of the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko has announced the jury for the 2014 Kobzar Literary Award, a $25,000 prize presented every other year in recognition of “a Canadian writer who best presents a Ukrainian Canadian theme with literary merit.”

The jury comprises four authors:

  • Joe Kertes, author of the novel Gratitude
  • Frances Itani, author of the novels Requiem and Deafening
  • Annabel Lyon, author of the novels The Golden Mean and The Sweet Girl
  • Olive Senior, author of the novel Dancing Lessons

The Kobzar shortlist will be released in the coming weeks, with the winner announced on March 5, 2014. Each shortlisted author will receive $1,000.


UBC responds to complaints over fair dealing

The University of British Columbia has responded to complaints from The Writers’ Union of Canada that the university is failing to compensate writers and publishers for the use of their works in photocopied course packs.

The dispute stems from differing interpretations of fair dealing under the Copyright Act. TWUC’s position is that, in opting out of a collective licence offered by Access Copyright (which remits royalties to creators), UBC is in violation of existing regulations. The university does not agree.

In his response to an open letter from TWUC, UBC president and vice-chancellor Stephen J. Toope says the university is “committed to meeting its legal obligations” with respect to copyright, noting that it pays “in the neighbourhood of $25 million to publishers and authors every year” via library acquisitions, digital subscriptions, and book sales.

The letter also notes that UBC seeks “transactional licences” for materials that do not fall under fair dealing. Toope suggests that not all creators have been willing to play along:

It has come to our attention over the last year or two that some publishers and authors have decided not to grant any transactional clearances. This is unfortunate, as this restricts faculty and students from utilizing the materials produced by the affected publishers and authors and, it would seem, unnecessarily cuts-off a source of revenue for them.

This salvo will hardly be the last in the ongoing skirmish between post-secondary institutions and this country’s professional writers and publishers.

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