On the road again

The second stage of touring/travel for a spring book usually kicks in during the autumn after. In Canada that’s an increasingly busy author’s festival season. It is also awards seaosn, but that’s a different matter.

Immediate trip is New York, for meetings with agents there (principal agent and the foreign rights department) and my splendid friend-and-editor Susan Allison. First discussions may take place about concepts for a new book. Maybe. Perhaps.

After emails and phone calls and juggling, I’ve worked it out through Penguin Canada that I’ll go to Saskatoon for their Word on the Street Book Fair on September 22nd. I’ll be interviewed on stage there by the very fine writer Arthur Slade, who is also a scholar and a gentleman of the first order. One other writer attending is the equally fine Lesley Livingstone, and I have a memory of the two of them (who have apparently never met) threatening/promising to have a sword fight. This may be even more fun than usual. (Lesley is tough, Art may be in trouble.)

I’m also going to do Toronto’s major literary event, the Harbourfront Author’s Festival, on Sunday November 3rd. Again a stage interview it appears (as of now); not sure whom I’ll have to fend off or make laugh. I’ve also agreed to do one of Harbourfront’s ‘outreach’ gigs, in Owen Sound. I really like the idea behind these, where smaller communities around Toronto can reap the benefits of the authors from all over the world coming into town for the main festival.

And finally (for now) grant funding came through to the Halifax library for their request to have me read and speak there, so I’ll be headed that way later in November. Not sure which dates yet, but it is a long way off, we are still in midsummer here, right? Campari on a terrace not single malt inside. (Though I’ll confess to having a Springbank this evening.)

Even with the long time-line to next spring, discussions have begun here as to a new cover for the Canadian paperback of River. Everyone loves the blue one we have on the hardback, but there are sometimes different mandates, different contexts for paperbacks (including different ones for mass market and the larger trade paperback format). Nicole Winstanley, (Penguin’s president and publisher, and my editor here) and I have begun exchanging image thoughts in emails – and it is increasingly clear to me that she has an idea. We shall see. They haven’t let me down yet, actually.

The envelope, please

A small discussion about honours and awards in literature was started over on Twitter this morning, when one of the coordinators of a good sf-focused website nominated Tigana as the ‘best fantasy ever’ in a competition on their site. (They are limiting it to books that can be read and fully-appreciated on their own, not only in a series.)


I did a Twitter-note on it, because it was a well-written appreciation, over and above the touching generosity. Alec and Elizabeth linked it to the Facebook page and a lovely number of people seemed to have given the idea a thumbs-up there in an hour or two.

All of this will obviously make any writer feel rewarded. I wrote something earlier this week trying to suggest that it is not just egotistical it is imbecilic for an author to take readers’ support for granted. For one thing, there will always be people who say ‘Meh!’ – or worse – about any book. (I do a good meh! myself.) For another, intelligent, thoughtful responses are golden, or oxygen, you pick your image. ‘You rock!’ is great (really great!), but I cited Randall Jarrell’s two long, brilliant, illuminating essays in appreciation of Robert Frost as what writers long for.

But I didn’t want to write here about Tigana, whether it is even my own best book or not. I wanted to use what this discussion started me thinking about as an opening to do my usual thing here regarding the nature of the book world today, to say a bit about awards, because they are absolutely a major part of the industry.

In the world of literary fiction it has become increasingly the case that come the ‘awards season’ publishers and authors get increasingly edgy and agitated, waiting for the nominations. Indeed, to push the publicity benefits even further, we tend to see longlists now, which are then trimmed to shortlists some time later, extending the attention window. In Canada, the Giller Prize (and to a lesser degree the Governor General’s), in England the Man Booker, in the US the National Book Award and the Pulitzer – there are others, and other countries have their own, various genres and categories (picture books, say) have theirs, too.

What’s happened is that for a certain kind of book, not obviously commercial, not by a known literary bestseller (say an Ian McEwan or a Hilary Mantel now), just about the only avenue to a ‘breakout’, short of Oprah, is one of the big awards.

I have known established writers and publishers hold a title back to get it into a different year from some literary star’s ‘feared’ book. (And of course the next year will almost always have its own star power.) Book people talk with a mix of hunger and chagrin, it sometimes seems, about awards. Recently the Pulitzer gave ‘no award’ in fiction and there was outrage, in part because that meant that no winner would reap the  boost the award gives. The feeling wasn’t that ‘all the other literary works will share’ it was a sense of a sales spike for one book utterly missed. (There were other elements to this story, too.) Being nominated is nice, but it is the prize-winner, in almost all cases, that gets the massive reprint and sales.

Some authors (this isn’t just a book issue, but I’ll keep it there for this post) lament the whole process or aspects of it. I am one of those, for example, uneasy with the idea of lobbying for reader-based awards, others are specific about the way internet voting and campaigning changes what is going on. Some take a Woody Allen approach and dislike awards applied to art, period. Others worry about the politicization of the process, one kind of politics or another – though there really is nothing new about that, either.

But in the publishing world, with the big awards the bottom line is the bottom line. It is harder and harder to sell books once you get past the Dan Browns and J.K. Rowlings, the established stars or the newest YA dystopia. Awards season means that what newspapers are left  run pieces on nominees (or even earlier articles on potential nominees). Websites debate and assess. Oddsmakers (especially in the UK) let you place bets. Books are in the news for a while. That is, everyone in the business agrees, a good thing.

Or, well, a few books are in the news. The downside becomes, of course, that those literary works that don’t show up on a major list, for reasons of merit or politics, trends or karma or the accident of who is on a jury in a given year, are likely locked in to their more limited, dispiriting sales. The winners get cheques and photos and reprints and a major offer for their next. The un-nominated go home to … write another book. This isn’t to say all such books deserve to make their authors household names, it is just to note that an award can make it happen, and missing the list means that door’s closed for another year.

Be prepared for a fair bit of ironic shrugging and blasé eyerolling among authors you know when the season comes. Be also aware there is often a duck-like churning of legs beneath the surface of the water, sometimes from these same people. A lot is at stake, in a crowded, diminishing duck pond.

It feels important, as in so many spheres, to try for balance and perspective, and these aren’t always easy. (‘That book won? Are they crazy?’) I remind myself when honours or simply praise come to one of my books that there are those who have hurled that same book, unfinished, against a wall, and blogged their disdain. Books can be in current fashion or out of it, while remaining exactly as ‘good’ as they are. I try to remember that obvious ‘campaigners’ are doing something to feed their children, and it has a long tradition in many different areas of endeavour.

And I try to hang on to the idea that if we are serious about our art and craft, we are working towards a longer horizon.

Other markets

I think I’ve said this before, but maybe not here. I am hugely interested in my foreign language editions. I have surmised it is partly being Canadian, an awareness that literary success demands readers outside my own country, purely because of numbers. But I admit it is also a straight curiosity: I’m genuinely intrigued by how different books are received in different countries and cultures. The similarities and the differences, both. I say this about history, the past, too: how astonishingly different and startlingly similar it can be.

The first review for River of Stars appeared in China this week. In a way it doesn’t count: this was an English-language review of the original English book. It ran in ‘That’s Beijing’ and ‘That’s Shanghai’ magazines, their July editions. The Chinese translations of both Under Heaven and River of Stars won’t appear till later this year or next (not sure yet), and that will be a different measure. But for now, this was lovely:


I’ve also been busy with my Portuguese/Brazilian publisher, Saida de Emergencia, this week. They are releasing Tigana in Brazil, and requested a version of my Afterword adapted to that market, and then sent over an email interview. Good questions, not hard to address. I also sent them, on request, jpegs of a couple of the newer ‘truth in advertising’ author photos, too. The one we’ve been using is several years old by now. Of course I look exactly the same. (Only the glasses have changed. Twice.)

Then the translator for Brazil showed up with some questions. I like when this happens, I always make sure publishers know the translators are absolutely allowed to check in with me. Most of his first set of queries had to do with some names and terms I invented for that book. Often translators want to double-check they aren’t an obscure real word in English that they don’t know. Khav would be a very good actual drink for first thing in the morning, I always say – but it was invented, alas.