Who's killing non-fiction?
And why do books have prices printed right on them while banjos don't?
|ken whyte||Aug 1, 2019||1|
Last year we attended a meeting of the Association of Canadian Publishers where there was a lot of talk about the Canada Council narrowing its definition of non-fiction. We are not eligible for Canada Council grants so we didn’t pay much attention to the conversation but the issue has come up a couple of times since in chats with publishers and writers and government officials, and it does seem there is cause for concern.
Apparently the CC has decided that books that rely primarily on facts as opposed to the author’s voice are not art. Personal history, personal memoir, personal essay, personal anything meet the Canada Council’s standard for art, and are therefore eligible for CC grants and awards. Objective fact-based journalism, essays, histories, biographies, business and science writing, not so much.
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We are troubled by this distinction. The distance an author chooses to take from a subject – first person, say, versus third-person – is not what makes or breaks a piece of art. Same goes for an author’s fidelity, or lack thereof, to verifiable fact. But the Canada Council seems to know better.
The shift is recent, and you can see it in the nominations for the Governor General’s Award for Non-Fiction. The GGs are administered by the Canada Council. All 2018 nominees for non-fiction were personal stories. Heart Berries, a personal memoir of intergenerational trauma. Dead Reckoning, the personal story of an author meeting the man who murdered her father. The Wife’s Tale, my friend Aida Edemariam’s personal memoir of her grandmother’s life. Homes, a personal story about the author’s experience as a refugee. And Mamaskatch, the winner, a personal story of the Cree author’s coming of age.
Now, those all look like fine books. We’ve read Aida’s book and Terese Marie Mailhot’s Heart Berries. They’re both brilliant. We have no complaint with any of the five nominees getting CC funding or being eligible for awards. But there are a lot of other fine books that rely primarily on fact and/or a more-or-less objective narrative voice that would not qualify.
Indeed, a lot of fabulous books that have been nominated for the GG in the past would now appear to be ineligible. Books like Margaret MacMillan’s Paris, 1919; Michael Bliss’s Plague: A Story of Smallpox in Montreal; John English’s Trudeau biographies; Charlie Foran’s life of Mordecai Richler; Michael Harris’s Party of One (about Stephen Harper); David Halton’s Dispatches from the Front; Ross King’s Leonardo and the Last Supper; Christie Blatchford’s Fifteen Days (war reportage); Modris Ekstein’s Rites of Spring; Jeffrey Simpson’s Discipline of Power (about the Joe Clark government).
Being nominated for the GG isn’t a big deal – this year’s winner has sold a pathetically small number of copies so it’s clear Canadian readers don’t think the GG is indicative of merit.
What is a big deal is that Canada’s best fact-based history, business, politics, biography, science etc. seems no longer eligible for Canada Council support. Most Canadian publishers can’t afford to publish books that aren’t eligible for support. There is already a dearth of good Canadian non-fiction. This policy will make the situation far worse.
The more irksome thing about the policy is that officials at the council appear to have found a way to leap from their legislated mandate of supporting creative endeavor to a more ambitious role of directing creative endeavor. They have effectively appointed themselves the nation’s literary editors, effectively dictating what will get published and what won’t. We doubt anyone outside the Canada Council welcomes this development.
All your publishing questions answered
Last week we introduced the SHuSH Ask a Publisher Feature. This week’s question, from newsletter fan John Matthew: “Why do books have prices printed on them? Very few items I purchase have ‘suggested retail prices’ but books and magazines do.”
Excellent question, John, and a provocative one, it turns out. We posed it to our friendly bookseller, Ben McNally (above), and almost lost our hearing:
“Why do they have prices printed on them? Great question! It makes me fucking nuts. Why shouldn’t I be able to set my own price? I mean, the publisher can have a suggested retail price, fine, but I shouldn’t have to honor it. As a bookseller, I should be able to sell it for what I can get. Some of those books from places like Harvard University Press, I could price the shit out of them. Who else is gonna carry the goddamn things?”
So the prices aren’t printed on Ben’s say so.
It seems the reason books have prices on them and peanut butter, goalie pads, and banjos don’t is because the big retail chains like Barnes & Noble and Chapters/Indigo like it that way. They generally don’t accept books without prices because that would require someone in their warehouse to put a price sticker on each book, and that’s a bore and an expense.
According to Carey Low of Canadian Manda Group, our favorite book sales agency (they sell our books into Canadian bookstores), the chains will sometimes take a book without a price on it but they’ll charge the publisher for applying stickers. The charge is set to discourage the practice.
Carey says publishers are also complicit in cover prices. They like to have some control over the pricing and the value of the product. The idea of a publisher setting a net price, say $10 a book, and allowing retailers to charge whatever they want has been kicking around the industry for a long time, most recently in this Publishers Weekly article, but no one seriously thinks it will happen.
The practice of printing prices on books seems to have been going on forever. We looked for the oldest book we could find on our shelves without getting out of our chair and plucked Mark Sullivan’s Over Here, published in 1933. The $3.75 price is right there on the dust jacket. Incidentally, that same book, in fine condition, can sell for over $500 now. But that’s for another day.
Send your Ask a Publisher questions to us at email@example.com
Bookstores on prime real estate
One of the weird things about LA is that coffee shops and bookstores seem able to survive in some of the highest-priced real estate available. Diesel is located in Brentwood Country Mart. How upscale is Brentwood Country Mart? Goop is there.
It’s a wonderful little bookstore, Diesel, owned by John Evans and Alison Reid who used to have another store in super-upscale Marin County (with a working fireplace!). They sold that one some time ago. They’ve also previously had stores in Malibu and Oakland. It doesn’t sound like it’s been the easiest journey but we went into Diesel twice last week and it was packed both times.
One of the store’s strengths is its attention to the local market. At the top of Diesel’s bestseller shelf was Obi Kaufmann’s The State of Water: Understanding California’s Most Precious Resource, followed by two LA-centric novels, Ed Rucker’s Justice Makes A Killing and Frank Strausser’s Plastic.
We still have no idea how they make the rent but we’re delighted that they do. Same goes for Café Luxxe, LA’s best coffee chain. It’s also in the Brentwood Country Mart, and most other high-rent locales in southern California -- Malibu, Montecito, Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue. Even with $5 coffee and $4 croissants, it seems a miracle.