The Divide over the Canadian Book Industry

This column by the Toronto Star’s Michael Geist grabbed my attention. In it, Geist does a pretty decent job of pointing out the contrast between The Association of Canadian Publishers and foreign publishing interests. Of note, the following passage clearly articulates why, in my opinion at least, the Canadian publishing industry needs to get it’s head out of the sand:

Geist writes:

“The Association of Canadian Publishers argues that the rules should remain unchanged as it is hard pressed to find any redeeming quality about foreign competition or any relaxation of the rules. It maintains that the current restrictions are “effective, practical, flexible and fair.”

The association is dismissive of foreign publishers, arguing that head offices in New York or London invariably make the decisions based on “assessments of return on investment and shareholder value.”

By contrast, it suggests that Canadian independent publishers do not answer to foreign executives or shareholders and are more likely to publish Canadian authors. Moreover, it believes that Canadian booksellers and distributors are also more likely to understand Canadian customers than are foreign-owned companies.”

You see, this bugs me for a host of reasons. Chief among them is the presumptuous notion that Canadian publishers seem to *understand* Canadian readers far more than those vile, profit-driven foreign publishers. What I’m about to say here is likely going to piss off the purists who are addicted to the status-quo, but here goes: spoken like an industry that’s addicted to government subsidy. Seriously, when you’ve got grants from the Canadian taxpayer helping you remain *competitive*, there’s no burning need to focus on profitability and the bottom line, now is there?

Sure, Canada is next door to the United States and yeah, I get that the US publishers have far more financial clout than small Canadian publishers. Yep, they can flood Canadian bookstores (and really, in Canada just as every where else in the world, independent booksellers are closing every day. Most Canadians shop at Chapters-Indigo, Canada’s big box chain) with non-Canadian titles, but here’s a thought: those US publishers are publishing books that people actually want to purchase! By that I mean that US publishers have a very diverse line of books that range from serious literary fiction to a hell of a lot of genre fiction, and folks, genre fiction is pretty much taboo in the Canadian publishing industry.

Case in point? Moi! I write an urban fantasy series that is uniquely Canadian. It’s filled with everything from Tim Horton’s references to Canadian history and one of the main characters is the ghost of one of Canada’s Prime Ministers. How ironic, therefore, that I had to go to a UK publisher (read foreign publisher not in touch with what Canadians want to read because they’re not from Canada) to publish a series of books that take place in Canada!

I know a lot of Canadian genre fiction authors and every single one of them is looking for a literary agent right now. They’re looking to publish outside of Canada because our heavily subsidized publishing industry whose sole focus is on literary fiction (which simply does not sell anywhere near the numbers that genre fiction sells) won’t even consider looking at a query letter from them. (Did I mention the vast majority don’t take email submissions? Another bee in my bonnet!) Apparently, Canadian readers don’t want to read books about vampire romance or zombie outbreaks written by Canadian authors that often take place right here in our own back yard!

I might sound like a heretic for this, but just what the heck is wrong with a publisher wanting to make a profit? Lots, apparently.

You see, government subsidies are kind of addictive. There’s a natural assumption that they’ll always be there and as a result, you can pursue acquiring books of high literary merit that just aren’t going to sell anywhere near what genre fiction sells. The authors in my circle of associates are damned good writers with damned good stories to tell. It burns my butt that they, like me, are forced to pursue their writing aspirations outside of their own country because their own country doesn’t do vampires, erotic romance,or basically anything that has a cover with a hot bare chested guy and a doe-eyed female in a corset.

There are a few glimmers of hope out there. Canada produces world class kid’s lit and publishers like Edge Publishing in Calgary or Bundoran Press both produce some of the best science fiction and fantasy on planet earth and neither (to my knowledge) receives a penny of government help.

I’ll get off my soap box for now because ranting brings up my blood pressure and I’m up to my ears in line edits for Unseen World. I’ll close by pointing out that my beef isn’t with authors of literary fiction or that literary fiction can never be profitable. It’s just that decades of government subsidy ultimately produces an industry that refuses to embrace change. And folks, change is coming. Big time. E-Book readers are dropping in price. People are shopping online and cutting out even the big box stores like Chapters-Indigo. Technology is driving change and publishers who don’t focus on profitability and the bottom line are going to be in a world of hurt in short order. Don’t believe me? Two words: Dorchester Publishing.

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Time, or lack thereof …

I haven’t blogged here for … well, like forever. Sorry about that but life has been getting in the way of my regularly scheduled life for going on two months now. I’m moving next week and it’s been a hectic summer of looking at houses, getting hopes dashed, finding out you have to do work to your existing house and finally, packing.

But it will all be over soon, thank heaven. Next Saturday the better half and I are moving and with a little luck, normalcy will once again take over and all will be well.

So, what’s going on with me in the writing world? Well, I’ve completed TIM REAPER and will be sending to my agent in September. I’d initially thought I would have the clean version of the third draft available by end-July, but as mentioned, life got in the way of that. I’ve set a target date of September 30th to have it to her – god love my agent and her team for their support and patience.

Once I’m done, I’ll be digging into THE NORTH – my dystopian novel about a group of teen milita who bust out of a Calgary that is bursting at the seams with the living dead. They will do this in their two armored personnel carriers and they’ll be heading north to Churchill Manitoba, on the south west corner of Hudson Bay. They’ll face the living dead, starvation, infighting, wild animals, feral humans who’ll kill anyone for a can of Libby’s baked beans and of course, the unforgiving cold of Canada’s north country. Oh, and they’re going to run out of gas for those two 10,000 pound armored personnel carriers, so yeah, they’re going to be hoofing it.

This is going to be a marked departure for me as an author. Most of the stuff I’ve written up until now has been traditional urban fantasy – books with colorful characters and loaded with humor. THE NORTH, on the other hand, is going to be dark, terrible and at times, hopeless. I think the underlying theme in the book (and I’m about 20k words into it now) is one of finding hope when hope no longer exists, and seeing it through the eyes of a character who is desperately trying to keep it together for his eight year old sister and the small group of teen soldiers he is leading.

As for my novel POLTERGEEKS … well, no news yet on that front but if something really cool happens, I’ll be blogging about it.

I am reading, though. I finished Jim Butcher’s GHOST STORY which I quite enjoyed. Harry Dresden continues to entertain albeit from the hereafter in this one. I’ve read latest installment in the Shaman Bond books by Simon R. Green and had a few laughs as Edwin Drood kicked Satanist ass. I’ve been keeping up with the changes at Dark Central Station and I still have a day job. (Oh, to be able to write full time and pay the bills. What a dream. What a dream.)

So, that’s the update from yours truly. I hope you are having a great summer and reading some awesome books!

All best,

Sean!

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Review: Dark Heart – The Purgatory of Leo Stamp

I think it was February of this year when Anna Torborg, cover artist and editor extraordinaire at the small but mighty indie publisher Snowbooks, emailed me to see if I’d be interested in doing a cover blurb for a book she thought I’d really like. I didn’t hesitate in my answer since she’d already asked authors for blurbs for my books, so I thought to return the favor.

What I didn’t expect was how rewarding a reading experience it was going to be. Dark Heart: The Purgatory of Leo Stamp is the first book for British author Darren J. Guest and to sum it up in a short sentence: it’s a helluva read! I thoroughly enjoyed this book not because I’m a fan of horror or that I’m constantly looking for books that deal with our darker nature, and there’s a lot of that in this book. Leo is a guy with a fair amount of wealth as the book starts out. He lives a relatively solitary life with few friends and there’s this business of a James Bond poster on the wall that … well… it talks to him. It analyzes him. It calls into question Leo’s motivations and points out his flaws, and it does this using Sean Connery’s voice. He’s Jiminy Cricket on acid, seriously.

At first glance, you might think that Leo is mad – he does, after all have conversations with an old movie poster, but it doesn’t take you long to realize that these conversations exist because Leo’s heart is empty. He admittedly floats through life. He covets his best friend’s girlfriend Sadie because of an almost moment years ago. He is a shadow of the person he could be and very early on in the book, he dies. That’s when everything changes for Leo because he’s going be engaged shortly in some heavy duty body swapping – and the real head spinner is the *other* body swapping that is about to happen. That’s where things really start to take off because the person occupying Leo’s body might just be a killer who is as old as time itself.

I truly can’t reveal much more of the plot than what I’ve written because this book becomes a real page-turner and there are plot twists that will make your head spin. There’s a shadowy character who forms an alliance of sorts with Leo. There’s a race against time to stop further murders and there’s this business of stopping the being that is currently residing in the mortal husk of dearly departed Leo.

This is a classic horror/suspense novel. It shines a light into the dark places that make up the human psyche. It challenges you to root for a hero who by all accounts isn’t exactly someone with terribly redeeming qualities and it pushes you into wondering whether what Leo is experiencing might well be an out-of-control schizophrenic hallucination. This is the stuff of a great book, where the reader must suspend belief to reconcile fact from fantasy. Is Leo’s purgatory in another body real or isn’t it? Is this murderous person someone that deeply flawed Leo can stop?

I finished this book in a day, and that’s rare for me because I’m a notoriously slow reader. It’s a fresh take on horror because it doesn’t lend itself to formulaic writing and predictable plot twists.

Give it a spin and buckle up. There’s hair-pin turns in this one and you’ll need your wits about you because the ending will make you wonder why the hell you didn’t see it coming in the first place.

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Review: FLU by Wayne Simmons

He’s probably going to kill me for posting this because he’s a buddy of mine, but I’m going to review FLU by fellow Snowbooks author Wayne Simmons. Sit tight and get ready to be zombified!

Alright, where to begin – ah! Yes, well, you see – zombie outbreaks are not limited to major US or UK cities. FLU takes place in Belfast, a city with a history of outbreaks of a different kind that are now hopefully a thing of the past. This immediately grabbed my attention because the setting allowed for the introduction of some great characters who, at least in my estimation, offer the reader some cultural flavor that tends to be missing in more homogenized zombie fiction.

Make no mistake, though, this ain’t your grandmother’s zombie novel. Yes, these are virus-zombies, and what makes the book so darned readable is the fact that by choosing Belfast, Simmons gives you the sense that, well, a zombie outbreak could happen anywhere – even where I live in Saskatoon Canada population 230,000. (Zombies would freeze solid here, though, it drops to -35 Celsius and stays that way for about four and a half months each year. That actually might make cleaning up easier, but enough about the frozen Canadian prairie)

He gives you a real flavor of the city and hopefully without offending my good friend because he lives there, I would describe the setting in one word: bleak. This is important because the end of the world is happening and it’s almost as if the sun itself has forsaken the place. Simmons presents Belfast as brick and concrete labyrinth where the stuff of nightmares hides away in dark places and swarms you like a wave of locust. A place that is entrenched with blue-collar toughness in its inhabitants. A quality that might yet give them a leg-up in the survival game because to survive the end of the world, one must make unthinkable choices. One must become a predator in their own right because Simmons’ monsters don’t care if you’re a Catholic of a Protestant or a mum or dad or five-year-old little boy or girl. You will die horribly, so the toughness you’ve experienced all your life is going to prepare you for what awaits the minute you set foot outside of your hiding place.

Lark was my favorite character – tough as nails, a bit vulnerable, (of course, who isn’t when the dead walk and the living linger on like ghosts) I think, and the ability to swear better than any drunken sailor during a pub crawl at a foreign port-of-call. Actually, there’s quite a bit of swearing in this book which makes sense since the freaking world is about to end. But I digress. The plot is simple: zombie outbreak. Kill zombies. Find a place to hole-up. Fight more zombies. Experience the deaths of those close to you and for crying out loud, do try to not lose your mind because everything you’ve ever known or loved is gone and the concept of hope is a distant memory.

Simmons has woven the politics of Northern Ireland into his book in a way that summarizes the decades-long tensions that we North Americans used to watch on the evening news. People who might have been bitter enemies before the end came must put aside their differences and embrace the new common enemy. They must experience hardship and privation that they’d never before dreamed and they must somehow,(and this is key to the book’s credibility in zombie-lore) find a light at the end of the tunnel when the tunnel is pitch black and they don’t have a match, or a candle, or a flashlight for that matter.

FLU is different. Far different that 99% of the zombie-novels at your local bookseller. (And believe me, as a zombie-fan, I want originality. I recently read one zombie novel that is a massive bestseller with a major US publisher and disliked it immensely because the protagonist was unlikeable, cynical, and just plain bitchy, and the zombies were a tool for someone to become the President. It was original, alright, but the protagonist didn’t have any qualities I could embrace. Worse, I didn’t want to root for her and that killed the book for me.)

Different doesn’t always mean better, by the way, but FLU is different because the setting makes it so. The characters are the living manifestation of Belfast and throughout, the book is peppered with cultural truisms that give someone who has never been there a sense that they might well have visited the place. You know, except that it’s teeming with the living dead.

Read this novel not because it is a zombie novel, that’s just the bonus stuff. Read it because Simmons has done a bang-up job of showing us that safety, security and comfort are simply constructs we create for ourselves. Read this book because those constructs can be wiped away and replaced with a nightmare scenario that is impossible to conceive.

Simmons could have used the book as a metaphor for the politics of the setting, but he doesn’t. This is a horror novel, plain and simple. It just happens to occur in Belfast.

So, if you’re tired of predictable zombie-fare (and God knows, we’re bombarded with it now) then pick up a copy, sit back and get ready to rock and roll. The end of the world just happened. What are YOU going to do about it?

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FUNERAL PALLOR – Book Launch & Reading

Last night, McNally Robinson Booksellers hosted my official launch of FUNERAL PALLOR, the second in my Valerie Steven’s urban fantasy series. I’d long wanted to write a book about a zombie outbreak but I’d been on a necromancy kick in me reading leading up to penning the novel, so I thought that virus zombies wouldn’t fit in the overall theme of the series which is, of course, magic being the new weapon of choice for terrorists, etc.

It was a very good turnout and I had a fantastic time meeting fans of the series – so my great thanks to everyone at McNally Robinson for hosting and to all who showed up.

Here’s a YouTube video we shot of my reading. Sorry that it’s not the best quality but I’m kind of low tech when it comes to these things. Enjoy!

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