For years, my annual budget for books has been in the thousands. I have shelves upon shelves of books in my office I’ve accumulated. But on those shelves?
There are exactly 9 crime fiction books by Canadian authors.
Because this topic came up elsewhere, and I was going to answer it there but then found it becoming too… angry for what I wanted to say there, I’m putting it here. Because this topic does make me angry. Any time I say anything on it, people jump up and tell me I’m wrong.
But this is my experience as a reader and book buyer going back about five-six years that I’ll look at here. It isn’t about right and wrong. It’s about my reality. And if people want to ignore it, that’s fine.
However, I think it reflects that there are problems in the Canadian book-selling industry and I think Canadian authors shouldn’t dismiss what I’m saying here so quickly.
It was five or six years ago, something like that. I was done a series, at least as far as the series was written. I was a very monogamous reader – one author at a time, one series at a time was my usual route.
I was frustrated with the end of the books I’d been enjoying. Incidentally, a series written by a woman. Now, being five, six years ago, I wasn’t using email, never mind shopping online yet. You know how I heard about books?
Gasp, shock of horrors, if they weren’t on the bookstore shelves, they didn’t exist. Not for me, anyway.
So I relied on those displays. And I tried some books, by American authors. Mostly women at the time, not that it matters. There were a few I didn’t finish and some I did finish that I thought, “it was okay”. I wanted a new series to read, and nobody was holding my interest.
Then I went back to the bookstore, and I had some ground rules. First, a good six inches. That’s how much space the author's books needed to take up on the shelves – they needed to have that many titles for me to consider them. I wanted another series, dammit. I wanted someone I could fall in love with.
I took books down and read the backs. LA. New York. Nothing really capturing my attention.
Pull down Ian Rankin. Well, I don’t need to bore you with a discussion about where that ended up, do I?
At that point, Ian Rankin had plenty to keep me satisfied as a reader for a long time. And when I was finally approaching the end of the series written thus far, I remembered my earlier frustrations and wondered how to avoid buying books that wouldn’t fill the hole for me.
By then, I was online, so I thought I’d be smart about it. I read some interviews with Ian Rankin - the first time ever that I started reading author interviews, although I was writing then (children's stuff, I might add, not crime fiction). After all, if I loved his stuff so much, maybe I’d like the authors he liked? Made sense to me. And so my referral list grew.
I’m not sure this link will come up to the exact lists cited by fans I was looking at but if it does, I think a scroll through will show just how few Canadians there are on the list.
Which is something that started coming up for me. Referrals had Peter Robinson, sure, but beyond that? Americans or Brits. And I was happy enough staying on the British police procedural side of the coin, because I loved those books. After all, why spend money on books you don’t like?
The only Canadian I was reading then was Mel Malton. I heard about Mel Malton because someone from Muskoka sent me her book as a gift 7 years ago. I've never once, ever, been able to find Mel's books in local stores, when I lived in Vancouver, or Calgary. Now, that's not to say they don't come in from time to time, but every book of hers I've bought I've had to order. 7 years ago I wasn't using email either, or ordering online, so until I started using the internet more and getting back into the writing world, I honestly thought she didn't have any more books. I caught up on them well after their release dates, but again, I went looking. A lot of people won't. I recommended those books to a friend recently and she came back and told me the first two aren't available anymore and she's trying to order the second two Polly Deacon books in. I haven't tried myself - relying strictly on what she told me - but last I heard she was still waiting.
I never go into any bookstore and rely on staff. The staff usually know less than I do. Because I live in the sticks, when I go to the bookstore, I have a list in hand -I don't drive 50 km each way to the closest Chapters for wasted trips! I do search online beforehand, but find the computers are usually not updated with correct stock, so I always check in-store. And I hate to say it, but I scoured every Chapters, Indigo and McNally Robinson on the east and north sides of Calgary looking for a Rick Mofina book - any Rick Mofina book - recently and couldn't lay my hands on one. Tried Red Deer too. Finally gave up and turned to the internet - I don't even know why I bother with the bookstores sometimes.
And I never take it at face value that they'll be in the mystery section either. (He's not Canadian, but) John Rickards' books are over in literature & fiction, for example.
Now, this is where I’m going to say sue me, I like gritty books. I like police procedurals. I don’t mind the occasional amateur sleuth but that’s not what the bulk of my reading is, nor is it in the PI vein. I want police procedurals, and I wanted to find police procedurals set in Canada that filled some of the Rebus void.
I asked a group of authors/aspiring authors how many had read a book set in Canada in the past year – not just by a Canadian, but set here. The list was pretty short.
Here’s my experience as a writer. I spent two years being told to set all my work outside Canada because the Canadian setting wouldn’t sell. And, yes, it makes me angry. Being rather obstinate, I went ahead and did what I wanted with my writing anyway, but I do have a stack of rejection letters that backs up what these people told me. It was hard for me to sell the Canadian book.
Now, because I wondered if the kind of books I liked were even being written by Canadians and set in Canada, I started searching. I went to publisher websites. I joined Cool Canadian Crime. And I have a list of Canadian authors I’m looking for, a list I keep in my wallet and check on in stores. And you know what? It’s taken me all these years to have ONE time when I went to the bookstore and exclusively filled my basket with Canadians.
Not for lack of bloody well trying.
And I'm sure I was improperly influenced, but local writers I knew told me not to bother joining the CWC unless I was an author, because they don't have meetings or local events or do anything but promote authors. I'M NOT SAYING THIS - it's what I was told. It's what I've heard other people be told as well, so I'm likely not the only person who should have joined sooner but didn't because local mystery writer's groups didn't exactly encourage it.
My point is that I had to go looking, very specifically, to find out about a lot of Canadians. I have actively made a choice to learn more about what's happening here, but if I hadn't decided to do that, would I be hearing about new authors? I'm skeptical. It's part of the reason I've stayed on DorothyL, actually. I have friends who keep telling me that it's like there's a whole world out there they never knew about, and every few months they ask me for a list of what they should be reading, and if you're on my radar, you're on my active referral list. They aren't writers, and they aren't hearing about Canadian authors. How are we marketing ourselves to the readers here? (Readers, how many of you rely on DorothyL? What other sources do you turn to to hear about Canadian authors? Is it better in Toronto, for example, than Calgary and there are lots of author events?) Sorry, but my friends don't even have internet at home, so take DL and enewsletters and ezines aside - we can't forget that surprisingly, I have friends in their early 30s who don't even have email. How are we reaching them? Based on my experience anyway, it doesn't seem like we're doing a stellar job.
And my sister is a librarian - she takes all author event referrals from me. They'd never been approached by a local author on their own. Can I say what the hell, people? Since when do librarians have to go looking for local author referrals? Sorry, complete vent here, but if she didn't know me, guess how many local mystery authors would be going there to do events? Big fat zero. We've been talking about three possible events for next year for months now, and if I didn't know these authors, I wouldn’t know they’re coming to Calgary this year on tour and we wouldn't have had those conversations. Fortunately, in the past year I’ve gotten connected, which means I can help my sister out.
Conversely, I hear about a lot of authors from the UK and US with no effort on my part at all. I won't bore you with an even longer post explaining how but I'll unbite my tongue. The Canadian issue of Spinetingler is the hardest one to put together each year. This topic is hitting on the supremely grumpy side of me, because this issue causes me more stress than the ezine does for the rest of the year combined. Even with the narrow focus for that issue, the submissions are far below the amount we'd expect. But set that aside. This year, months back, I contacted Canadian publishers and told them what we were doing and that we were looking for Canadian authors to feature (interview/profile) in the issue. I did announcements through CWC.
I didn't get a single response from any Canadian publisher, whereas whenever I've contacted publishers elsewhere they've been only too happy to jump at the opportunity of getting free publicity for their authors. I'm even interviewing a UK publisher when I go to England later this month, someone I've been in touch with since last July.
Call me cynical, but I've got people waiting to hear back from me about whether or not I'll take their review copies and I'm trying to find them reviewers, and not one Canadian publisher had a book coming out by one of their authors they wanted some free promotion for. Fortunately, one author took the initiative herself, and a Canadian reviewer stepped forward with submissions.
We're waiting on a replacement for a damaged file now, and then the Canadian issue will be out, and it's much better than last year for amount of content and strength of content. But this one always puts me through a few months of extra stress, wondering if we'll get enough material. I do more to promote this issue to writers to try to get submissions than the entire rest of the year combined and by the time we're assembling, I'm wiped out from all the advance promo. No doubt this has all contributed to my cynical attitude - talk to me in two months when I've forgotten about it and might foolishly start thinking about doing another Canadian issue again next year (two years out of two I've sworn I won't, no matter how much I want to promote Canadians. With my own edits coming due at the same time as this issue, it's been extra hellish). I have to say I highly doubt we will put out a Canadian issue next year, because it’s just too demanding time-wise, and we don’t get enough to fill a typical issue size now. I won’t just run crap just to fill numbers.
I simply can't believe, when I'm getting more review and interview requests from the US and UK than I can keep up with, why I have to beg for Canadians and it doesn't even seem like the publishers care. I stress seem. I mean, hell, the last issue had over 7000 downloads in the first month, and that doesn't include online reads. Even Miss Snark linked to us. And you offer people a chance for some free promotion and they don't want it? With all the talk I hear about how hard it is to sell books, I just don't understand.
I actually only found out John McFetridge had a book out because I've learned to google the name of anyone who emails me that I don't know. He never even told me he had a book out (tsk tsk John!). If I hadn't googled his name, I highly doubt I'd be reading Dirty Sweet now. And I didn't even bother reading about it online - his email was enough to persuade me if he'd written a book, I wanted to read it, and I haven't been disappointed. Yes, I’m that easy to persuade to give a book a try, especially if it’s set in Canada. I’ve been desperate to find some Canadians, setting stuff in Canada, I can be enthusiastic about.
And all that aside, when I was debating publishing options, I talked to independent bookstore owners who told me if I had an offer from even a small US press to take it over a Canadian one any day of the week. Am I the only person who finds that heartbreaking? I think it's tragic that this is the advice I'd get from within the industry here. I always hear people quickly jump on the defensive that this isn't so, but I know what people were telling me. What I'm trying to understand is why. Even the perception of problems within the industry here isn't good - independent Canadian booksellers shouldn't pull you aside and tell you not to bother signing with a Canadian publisher... Right? So why did that happen to me not six months ago?
Incidentally, in this Canadian Spinetingler, two Canadian authors chat about Canadian settings and how things are changing for Canadian authors. For the better, I might add, but it still indicates that there have been challenges for our authors here.
Hopefully, there will be fewer in the future.
This is pretty much rant - it's just frustration. Don't knock me if I haven't heard of a lot of Canadian authors - knock the system in place or lack thereof to promote them. I've been actively trying, for a few years now. I finally feel like I'm making some headway, but you know what? The average consumer here isn't an author and a lot of them don't think of going to publishers websites to hear about books by Canadians. They think about going into their local bookstores and buying something off the shelves there.
And nobody feed me some song and bullshit about population size of Canada vs the US. Look at Scotland. Just over 5 million. 1/12 of the population of the UK. Yet look at the Scottish crime writers alone – Ian Rankin, Alexander McCall Smith, Stuart MacBride, Christopher Brookmyre, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, MC Beaton. Internationally known best-selling authors that hold their own against the best from England, America or anywhere.
This subject came up because of a post about the summer reading habits of Canadian politicians. As they said themselves on Type M for Murder: So what’s the final word? McMurdy says that she’s unsettled by the preponderance of murder mysteries amongst MPs summer reading. Personally, I don’t think she needs to worry. With not a single Canadian crime novel on our MPs summer reading list, our federal politicians obviously prefer out-of-country crime. As long as we stay in Canada, we should be okay. Unless, of course, you’re a Canadian fiction writer writing about Canadian crime.
So, it isn’t just me who’s saying the Canadian authors setting books in Canada have some challenges. It’s been my experience. I’ve been brushed off and told I’m being ridiculous for saying so before, but the only reason I bother saying anything is that this is my actual experience, first as a consumer, then as a writer, and so sue me, I care.
I find myself thinking I should just pack it in and move to the UK because clearly, either I’m a completely inept shopper or there’s a conspiracy to keep books from Canadian authors away from me.
Though I doubt I’m important enough for the Canadian booksellers to come up with such an elaborate conspiracy.
So, come on, tell me I’m wrong. Maybe for you, but this has been my real experience. It’s getting better.
But there’s still a hell of a long way to go.
And my apologies to regulars here who’ve had bits and pieces of this before. The topic came up and you know what? I know it sounds ridiculous, but this subject upsets me so much I had a hard time sleeping last night because I kept thinking about why it is that it’s been so hard for me to find out about Canadian authors…
And why it seems unreasonable to me that it would be suggested I have to join lists to learn about them. In my day-to-day flesh-and-blood world, none of my friends are writers. And the majority of them don’t even use email.
Lists aren’t reaching those people. Now, they’re hearing about stuff through me. But if I wasn’t making such an effort, they wouldn’t be hearing about Louise Penny when I’m telling them about Val McDermid.