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Shelagh Rogers’ multimedia Northwords project brings city-dwelling authors out of their comfort zone
Led by CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers, five urban Canadian authors spent a week writing and observing life in Northern Labrador. Northwords, a documentary that captures their experiences, is screening at IFOA, Oct. 20 at 2 p.m. The film will make its television debut Oct. 25, 10 p.m. ET on CBC’s documentary channel, and the radio documentary is available here.
This article appears in the November issue of Q&Q.
Many authors find the familiarity of daily rituals a necessary part of their practice. Take away the comforts of home, and the writing process can become even more of a challenge.
“I think that writers can be quite obsessive about their routines,” says Toronto’s Alissa York, author of three novels including 2010’s Fauna (Random House Canada). “Sometimes [with] travel that you don’t necessarily plan for, or that’s outside of what you normally do, you think, ‘How am I going to fit that with my life?’”
York posed herself that question when she was approached to participate in Northwords, a multimedia project instigated by CBC Radio’s Shelagh Rogers, host of The Next Chapter.
In August 2011, Rogers invited five writers – York, Sarah Leavitt, Noah Richler, Joseph Boyden, and Rabindranath Maharaj – to join her on an expedition to Torngat Mountains National Park in Northern Labrador. For one week, the authors traded the coziness of their homes and offices for tents and vast, rugged landscapes lashed by inclement weather. They participated in helicopter rides, interacted with Inuit elders, and witnessed caribou hunts and polar bears.
Adding to the sense of disruption was the fact that Rogers brought along a film crew, which captured the writers’ reactions to their unfamiliar surroundings. The resulting Northwords documentary, which airs Oct. 25 on CBC TV and had its premiere screening at the Eden Mills Literary Festival, won the best documentary prize at the Banff International Pilots Competition. Accompanying the film is an interactive website, an ebook published by House of Anansi Press, and an episode of The Next Chapter.
For York, the Northwords project changed the way she looks at Canada’s North.
“I’m looking at it as wilderness, and right beside me there’s someone looking at it thinking, ‘I grew up here,’” says York, referring to an Inuit elder who guided the writers through an ancestral village from which her people had been forcibly evacuated. “It’s just a question of shifting away from where we’re told the centre of life is and understanding that there [are] as many centres as there are lives.”
Maharaj, who lives in the Toronto suburb of Ajax, Ontario, was likewise moved by his Northern experience. The Trinidad-born author of the Trillium Book Award–winning novel The Amazing Absorbing Boy (Knopf Canada) recalls studying the geography of Northern Canada in his youth and being motivated to visit a place he’d only encountered in books.
“There was that kind of romantic idea of seeing things that I’d heard about or read about in the distant past,” says Maharaj. “There are some places that are so different from your own experience in every single way that it takes a while to process that, and sometimes the true significance and importance [comes] gradually, rather than some grand moment of clarity while you’re at the place.”
Leavitt, an artist and author of the graphic novel Tangles: A Story About Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me (Freehand Books), felt a sense of reverence not just for the landscape and its people, but for the seasoned, well-known writers whose company she kept.
“I had one book and some shorter publications, but those guys all have multiple books and they have much higher profiles than I do,” says Leavitt, who credits the experience with boosting her confidence as a writer. “It was intimidating, but they’re all just really, really nice people. Just meeting people who are so dedicated to their writing and working on their craft was inspiring.”
While in Torngat, the five authors were required to write original stories and read them out loud to the group. Leavitt produced a series of illustrated, one-page vignettes. Maharaj’s short story followed his Absorbing Boy protagonist on a new adventure, while York’s story was spurred by thoughts of her brother. Richler riffed on the daunting waiver the writers were asked to sign before embarking on the trip, and Boyden wrote from the point of view of a polar bear.
The stories are included in the Northwords ebook, the first publication produced by Anansi’s new digital division. According to president and publisher Sarah MacLachlan, the stories, available as a collection or as digital singles, put an exclamation point on the project.
“I think if you go to the interactive [website] or you watch the movie, you get an idea of each of these writers and their response to the North, but the fun is in reading what they actually wrote all the way through,” she says.
Though he thinks the stories are all unique, Maharaj identifies a common element throughout his fellow travellers’ work. “What we wrote reflected that sense of uncertainty,” he says. “That sense of awe, that sense … of being in a place that may possess secrets or answers.”
Canzine, the country’s largest festival dedicated to zines and independent culture, happens this Sunday in Toronto (the Vancouver edition is scheduled for Nov. 17). Following the success of last year’s event, writer Jason Spencer spoke to several independent publishers about the importance of zine fairs to building readership. This article appeared in the Jan./Feb. issue of Q&Q.
Last October, publisher Beth Follett decided to try a new method of connecting with readers: she signed up her company, Pedlar Press, as a vendor at Canzine Toronto, a daylong celebration of indie culture presented by Broken Pencil magazine. Not knowing what to expect, Follett carefully arranged a selection of Pedlar titles on her display table just inside the front doors of the 918 Bathurst Centre, including ReLit Award winners Sweet by Dani Couture and Blood Relatives by Craig Francis Power. As hundreds of misfits, hipsters, and readers began crossing the threshold, she realized she had come to the right place.
“It’s very difficult these days to find an audience and reach new customers,” says Follett, who understands the need to build new alliances as more independent bookstores close down. “It’s very important for me to be here and not in some ivory tower, where only a slice of the populace knows about Canadian literature.”
With nearly 200 vendors, 2010’s Canzine was one of the biggest in its 15-year-plus history. Likewise, thousands of people showed up at Montreal’s Expozine, a two-day event held in November that celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011. “What does this mean for small presses? It’s a motivation to keep publishing,” says organizer Louis Rastelli. He adds that attending alternative gatherings can be eye-opening for people in the established book industry. “If the industry doesn’t get involved in what the new generation is doing, similar to the music [business], they [will] have some catching up to do.”
For some small presses, zine fairs perform a similar function to book launches. “You can do direct sales, so it’s a little cash boost, especially around the holidays when the [printer’s] bills are coming in,” says Nic Boshart, co-publisher of Invisible Publishing, which has had a presence at recent gatherings in Toronto, Halifax, and Montreal. But for many, such events are not so much about sales as they are about building relationships with new readers. Brett Savory, co-publisher of ChiZine Publications, says he attended Canzine Toronto in the hopes of accumulating social-media followers and promoting the press’s monthly Chiaroscuro reading series. Boshart adds that zine fairs are a good place to scout talent and network with presses one wouldn’t otherwise meet.
Not only do zine fairs bring scores of cultural artifacts to the public, they also provide a venue for interesting side events. In an effort to trump the previous year’s Puppet Slam, Canzine organized the Typewriter Orchestra Room, a cacophonous installation featuring a dozen poets attempting to channel Shakespeare. Canzine also hosted more conventional readings from authors such as Jonah Campbell, who read from his essay collection Food and Trembling (Invisible), and Expozine welcomed author Jonathan Goldstein, host of CBC Radio’s WireTap.
Such inventive programming can be an opportunity for authors who don’t fit in elsewhere. “If you can’t get a reading, make your own show,” says first-time Canzine Toronto vendor and seasoned attendee Liz Worth, author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond (Bongo Beat/ECW Press) and the poetry collection Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions). “You really have to get creative and you have to push really hard.”
Still, publishers who want to succeed at zine fairs need to adapt in order to stand out. Given the number of exhibitors at Expozine – more than 270 – Rastelli recommends that publishers avoid selling titles at list price. “A lot of customers would like a bit of everything instead of spending all their money at one table, so we encourage people to have inexpensive books,” he says. “Even a publisher of perfect-bound books can produce a small zine worth $2, and at least if someone doesn’t buy a $20 book, they can go home with a sampler.” For her part, Follett, who plans to attend Canzine Toronto again in 2012, says she doesn’t advertise prices, in order to encourage discussion with interested readers.
Follett suggests potential vendors should think twice before dismissing zine fairs as lowbrow. “[T]here is a lot of ignorance, some of it willful, about who is producing art in Canada,” she says. “This is the ground where seeds are being planted for future excellence.”
Joseph Boyden’s writing interweaves the multifarious spirit of Canadian experiences by drawing upon a wealth of northern narratives. His first novel, Three Day Road (Penguin Canada), examines the trauma of the First World War through the story of two young Cree men, while his 2008 Scotiabank Giller Prize–winning novel Through Black Spruce (Viking Canada) questions the death of tradition in First Nations communities. Now, Boyden’s new novel, The Orenda, to be published by Hamish Hamilton Canada, takes a further look back into Canada’s formative years.
The Orenda opens in the 1630s with the kidnapping of a gifted Iroquois child, and the arrival of a charming Jesuit missionary, who interposes himself into the native community, in order to lead them onto the path of Christ.
Boyden’s long-time editor Nicole Winstanley, president and publisher of Penguin Canada, acquired the book. In a press release she says:
History is often portrayed in fiction in soft-light and sepia-tones … With The Orenda, Joseph brings a vivid immediacy to the violent collision of social, political, and spiritual forces that forged the beginnings of our country.
Publication is planned for September 2013.
Less than 24 hours into a September business trip to New York City, three people had already asked Iris Tupholme the same question: how could they land an invitation to the International Visitors (IV) Programme? In truth, the guest list is chosen collectively by a committee, which Tupholme chairs, but that fact didn’t stop her peers from trying to wrangle a spot in what has become one of the industry’s most coveted networking events.
Launched in 2008, the five-day IV Programme runs in conjunction with the International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, which kicked off its 2012 edition on Oct. 18. Participants arrive on the first Sunday of the festival and spend the following week attending publisher-hosted breakfast and lunch meetings, touring bookstores and literary agencies, taking in festival readings, participating in pitch meetings, and attending presentations. It’s a fast-paced symposium that immerses visitors in the Canadian publishing industry and, ideally, sends them home with a list of promising Canadian authors and attractive foreign-rights opportunities.
“Five years ago, we started it with the goal of bringing a small group of editors and publishers and an occasional agent or literary scout to Toronto for a series of meetings with colleagues, and attending readings by our Canadian authors and others,” says Tupholme, the vice-president, publisher, and editor-in-chief at HarperCollins Canada. “It has blossomed from there.”
Tupholme first approached IFOA director Geoffrey Taylor about creating the IV Programme in 2005, after attending the Visiting International Publishers program in Sydney, Australia. Creating an IFOA-related networking event was already in the festival “job jar,” says Taylor, so the pair began developing a program designed for publishing professionals in mid-career who might not be able to attend major international book fairs in Frankfurt or London.
But right from the beginning, says Taylor, “everyone wanted to be a part of it at a much more senior level.” The program also fills the annual networking gap created when Reed Exhibitions announced the permanent cancellation of BookExpo Canada in 2009.
Funding for the IV Programme comes primarily from the Ontario Media Development Corporation, with the balance covered by the Department of Canadian Heritage, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, individual publishers (who might sponsor a party or event), and foreign arts councils or funding bodies affiliated with program participants. The program pays for airfare, accommodation, meals, and ground transportation for all “fellows,” while “distinguished guests” (such as agents) cover their own travel costs.
“The exact mechanics vary from year to year,” says Taylor, who emphasizes that the distinction is purely financial. All invited guests participate equally in the week’s events.
While organizers can’t quantify the number of deals and foreign-rights sales that have resulted directly from the program, most alumni confirm that they have, indeed, discovered Canadian talent in Toronto.
Ziv Lewis, foreign-rights manager for Israel’s Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing, learned about Deborah Willis’s Vanishing and Other Stories (Penguin Canada) during the 2010 IV Programme and recently published a Hebrew translation. Lewis also met Andrew Kaufman in Toronto, and Kinneret will release an Israeli edition of Kaufman’s second novel, The Waterproof Bible (Random House Canada), in early 2013.
Likewise, London-based literary scout Rosalind Ramsay learned about Katrina Onstad’s novel Everybody Has Everything (McClelland & Stewart) during a 2011 visit to Westwood Creative Artists, and has since encouraged Netherlands publisher Artemis/Ambo Anthos to secure Dutch rights.
The cultural exchange can also happen in reverse. During the 2010 program, former Picador editor Sam Humphreys (now publisher at Penguin U.K. imprint Michael Joseph) introduced Coach House Books editorial director Alana Wilcox to Eye Lake, a novel by U.K.-based Canadian writer Tristan Hughes. After connecting with Humphreys in Toronto, Coach House bought Canadian rights and published the novel in October 2011.
Agent Gray Tan, president of the Grayhawk Agency in Taipei, sold The Man with the Compound Eyes by Taiwanese author Ming-Yi Wu to his fellow 2011 IV participant Lexy Bloom, a senior editor at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group in the U.S. Tan and Bloom became friends during the program, and two months later, Bloom bought Wu’s novel for the Vintage and Anchor imprints.
Perhaps most importantly, representatives from independent Canadian presses have a chance to rub shoulders with influential visitors during the IV Programme. Alumnus Aram Fox, a New York City literary scout, introduced Coach House’s Wilcox to more than a dozen publishers at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair after the pair connected in Toronto. “Scouts aren’t that excited to see smaller presses,” says Wilcox, “but [Fox] was open, has the greatest contacts, and arranged the meetings.”
Many alumni agree that running IV during the festival gives the event a cozy atmosphere often lacking on a trade-show floor. The intensive schedule also encourages long-lasting bonds. “It’s something completely different from meetings at book fairs,” says Tan, who represents The Cooke Agency, Random House of Canada, McClelland & Stewart, and the Beverley Slopen Literary Agency in the Chinese market. “Sure, we would still love to do business with each other, but the priority is simply to make friends and exchange ideas and experiences.”
“A huge amount of trust and goodwill is generated, and I imagine that many Canadian authors have benefited indirectly as a result of that goodwill,” says Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In addition to Barley, directors from some of the world’s leading authors’ festivals – including the Melbourne Writers Festival, Beijing’s Bookworm International Literary Festival, and the International Literature Festival Berlin – have participated in the IV Programme, and in 2010, the five festivals formed a unique partnership known as the Word Alliance.
Organizers say they don’t plan to expand the number of fellowships available in future years. The current group size of roughly 20 participants – including both fellows and distinguished guests – ensures each visitor has a meaningful experience, says Taylor. The 2012 IV Programme, however, saw the addition of a Canadian editorial fellowship (awarded to Trena White, publisher of Douglas & McIntyre) and a new industry prize known as the Ivy Award. The committee also hopes to create events for the growing list of program alumni and institute a juried IV application form to replace what’s currently a more subjective selection process.
Alumni suggestions for improving the program are strikingly minimal. “I hope the ‘speed date’ part of quick meetings with Canadian publishers and agents can be modified according to the needs of each IV [participant],” says Tan. “Otherwise 10 minutes is just too short.” Barley says the focus on meetings and socializing comes somewhat at the expense of attending literary events, but he adds, “This is a very minor quibble. The organization of the IV Programme is 99 per cent right.”
Overall, past participants have nothing but praise for the event – including the annual field trip to Niagara Falls. Many souvenir photos are snapped while these literary VIPs sport the requisite yellow ponchos. Visiting the landmark site is also one of the most relaxed moments in an otherwise demanding week. “You make people get up really early in the morning, you pour them onto a bus when they’re barely awake, they suddenly arrive somewhere and they get soaking wet,” says Taylor. “What’s not to love about that?”
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Random House of Canada has offered one answer with today’s launch of a multifaceted digital strategy that includes an online magazine (known as Hazlitt), an ebook imprint (Hazlitt Originals), and a website redesign.
The centrepiece of the campaign is the online magazine, the subject of some industry speculation ever since Random House of Canada hired Christopher Frey, a founder of Outpost magazine and Toronto Standard, earlier this year. While Hazlitt, which takes its name from a 19th-century literary critic and essayist, will be hosted on the Random House of Canada website, the company says it will maintain editorial independence, relying on freelance journalists to provide much of the content.
“As the idea evolved, there was an understanding at several levels of the company that for this, as a magazine, to succeed and build an audience and have credibility, it will have to have its own editorial identity,” Frey told Q&Q, following a media launch earlier this week. “Many of the people writing for it will have to be non–Random House authors or working journalists. We will need to be able to write about everything in the culture, and not just Random House books.”
Contributing writers will include Lynn Crosbie, Kaitlin Fontana, Billie Livingston, Jason McBride, Drew Nelles, and Carl Wilson, as well as filmmaker Scott Cudmore (who will provide multimedia content). Frey says he views the magazine as “competing with any other Web-based magazine out there, like Slate or Salon or The Awl, or the Web versions of other print magazines.”
Hazlitt stories can be read online for free. At launch, the magazine features limited advertising, and cross-promotions for Random House titles appear low-key.
“This is an opportunity for us directly to engage with readers, and to bring the writers we represent close to readers,” says Robert Wheaton, vice-president and director of strategic digital business development. “Learning from readers is of tremendous importance to us across the entirety of our business.”
As for the other key facet of Random House of Canada’s online push, the digital department will work with the company’s book publishing division to produce ebooks under the Hazlitt Originals imprimatur. The first title in the series, which will focus on non-fiction and essays, is journalist Patrick Graham’s The Man Who Went to War: A Reporter’s Memoir from Libya and the Arab Uprising. It will be followed by U.K. journalist Steven Poole’s “anti-foodie polemic” You Aren’t What You Eat and Ivor Tossell’s The Gift of Ford, about Toronto’s mayor.
The digital-only publishing initiative takes a page from Byliner.com and the Canadian Writers’ Group, the writers’ organization behind the ebook Finding Karla: How I Tracked Down an Elusive Serial Child Killer and Discovered a Mother of Three by journalist Paula Todd. Likewise, the Organization of Book Publishers of Ontario’s Open Book project and the Association of Canadian Publishers’ 49th Shelf are both attempts to create an online hub serving the dual role of marketing tool and source for compelling content.
But the scope of Random House’s digital ambitions are unprecedented in Canadian publishing. “Ultimately, we view this as a platform for future innovations in publishing,” Frey says.
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Random House and FremantleMedia, two companies owned by the media corporation Bertelsmann AG, have partnered to launch Random House Television – a new project that will develop television content from Random House books.
Galleycat quotes the press release:
Random House Television will work together with Random House’s editors and publishers, and their authors’ agents, to identify and acquire performance rights for the full range of broadcast network, cable, and premium television scripted formats. The partnership will also seek to collaborate with Random House authors to develop original scripted television properties they might create.
The new venture is part of Random House Studio, the publishing house’s entertainment division led by Peter Gethers. Veteran television executive Jeffrey Levine will head Random House Television, working out of Los Angeles and reporting to Gethers.
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