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BC's Busy Book Season

Fests and sales are hot, but BC content is not.

By Vanessa Richmond 17 Apr 2007 |

Vanessa Richmond is the managing editor of The Tyee.

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Alma Lee: Writers fest exploded.

Call it a literary paradox. On the one hand, B.C. has grown one of the most successful literary communities anywhere. B.C. writers have graced national and international bestseller lists. The Vancouver Writer and Reader's Festival has gone from near obscurity to attracting big name writers and large crowds, and other festivals around the province have bloomed. And local book publishers' sales are up, selling more copies nationally and around the world.

But at the same time, there's less about B.C. in locally produced books. The books written here may not be about our province nor really appeal to the interests of B.C. readers at all. Does this have to be the price of fame?

"We've garnered an international reputation as a centre for writing," says Alma Lee who was the artistic director of the Vancouver Writer and Reader's Festival for 18 years before stepping down last year. "I used to have to beg publishers to send writers, and by the end, they were begging me to take them."

By the end of her tenure, the festival saw more attendees, too. "Way, way more," laughs Lee. In the beginning, local newspapers wouldn't even list the events, and now, most have whole, regular sections dedicated to book readings and festivals. Currently, she's working to get UNESCO to designate Vancouver as a world city of literature.

Cost of boom

Attendance at the B.C. Book and Magazine Week has gone up in recent years and has added events. "We're a city that really responds to festivals," says Margaret Reynolds, executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of B.C., which is putting on next week's event.

Reynolds says events have grown partly because they've been around long enough, partly because they're well organized and partly because people are simply interested in B.C. books. She says there's much more diversity now, for example, in terms of local publishing, so it attracts more people. "We've always done really well with regional history, natural history. But now, there's more children's books, poetry, urban, and gay and lesbian."

And B.C.'s publishing community is booming. With the rise of Canadian big box bookstores, sales are up. "And right now, many more B.C. publisher's books are selling to the U.S. From an economic point of view, that's not a bad thing," says Lee.

But she says the cost is that we're losing books with a B.C. focus.

Big box blues

"You can see anything with a rosy hue. It would be Pollyannaish to say everything's better because attendance at events is up, and publishers are publishing more books and making more money," says Alan Twigg, publisher of BC Bookworld. "There may be more, but it may not be better for British Columbians."

So who's to blame for the decline in local content? Lee and Twigg point fingers at the rise of the big box store and demise of the independent booksellers.

"B.C. was the last bastion of independent bookselling in North America," says Twigg. "In any town in B.C., there would be at least one decent bookstore."

He says national chain stores don't tend to sell books about B.C.; rather, they buy and sell books with a national or international focus that sell equally well in every store. "So, I don't perceive a strengthening of the B.C. literary climate. There may be more people wanting to be in it. But it's harder to find culturally newsworthy books about B.C. in 2007 than 1997."

Books for the bears

Twigg says books with a more local focus can be important. He ties advances made in treaty negotiations with First Nations, for example, to the over 500 local titles written about First Nations culture. The creation of the Great Bear Rainforest, he says, was helped by the coffee table book about it. Twigg says if someone wanted to write an important book about Gordon Campbell, there are only now a handful of publishers that might consider it and few stores that would carry it.

Reynolds points to another loss: "We're really curious about things we can see -- whales, small pioneer towns, familial landscapes. She says that a few years ago, an adult literacy program decided to use only B.C. books since they found those books lead to higher success rates. The readers were more likely to find them engaging and stick with the program."

Independent booksellers offer "worthy and valuable advice," to buyers says Lee. And selling through big box stores is riskier for small publishers. A small bookstore will take a handful of copies and often sell them, which poses little risk. But a big box demands thousands of copies -- often the whole print run. They hold onto those books for a certain amount of time then send back any copies they haven't sold (for a full refund), leaving the publisher with stale copies they can no longer sell.

"There's been a dilution of the content," says Twigg. "People are creating more sophisticated packaging, becoming better organized, throwing more professional events, but where's the content?"

To celebrate the achievements in B.C.'s writing and publishing community and also look at the "sobering aspects" of its future, Twigg is organizing a symposium in the fall at SFU, called Reckoning. There, he and others hope to look fame in the eye, keep the successes, and wrestle back the benefits of local content.


For more information on these and other events throughout the week, click here.

Book & Magazine Promenade
Magazine subscriptions, books and more from BC publishers.
Sunday, April 22 1 p.m. - 5 p.m. Vancouver Public Library, 350 West Georgia St, Vancouver, Free

How to Get Published: Direct from Industry Insiders
Six experts in the book and magazine publishing industries talk about how to get published. The Georgia Straight's books editor, John Burns, will be moderating both discussions.
Sunday, April 22, 3 p.m. - 5 p.m. Book panel from 3 p.m. - 4 p.m., magazine panel from 4 p.m. - 5 p.m. Alice MacKay Room, Vancouver Public Library, 350 West Georgia St, Vancouver $8 per panel, $12 for both, pre-register at [email protected]

CBC Radio Studio One Book Club: Bill Richardson
Bill Richardson, author of The Bachelor Brothers Bed and Breakfast and the brand new children's book The Aunts Come Marching (Raincoast Books), is in conversation with the CBC Radio One Book Club.
Tuesday, April 24, 6:30 p.m., Vancouver Public Library, 350 West Georgia St, Vancouver
Ticket information here

4-City Magazine Cabaret
Join the BC Association of Magazine Publishers in this province-wide celebration of BC magazines and their talented contributors. For one night, in four cities, magazine writers from across BC will showcase their work in simultaneous readings. Choose your city and enjoy!
Wednesday, April 25, 7 p.m.
Vancouver: The Alibi Room, 157 Alexander St., $10
Victoria: Victoria Event Centre, 1415 Broad St., $5
Kelowna: Rotary Centre for the Arts, 421 Cawston Ave., $5
Prince George: Books & Co, 1685 3rd Ave., $5

Main Street Literary Tour
Michael V. Smith and Billeh Nickerson lead readers from haunt to haunt along Vancouver's Main Street. Readings, launches, syllable wrestling, bicycle poetry? Come out to find out! To register, email [email protected] with Literary Tour in the subject line.
Presented by Indas Ltd.
Thursday, April 26, 6 p.m. - 9 p.m., Beginning at Lugz Coffee Lounge, 2525 Main St., Free