The Press Gallery

K.I. Press on writing • literature • publishing

Category: Book trade

Notes on AWP 2015 from a Canadian first-timer

In no particular order…

1. America: the service really is better, notwithstanding the grumpy man at the New York Times booth (Picture not available).

2. But all the medical ads are unsettling. Also, did you know the art gallery doesn’t allow guns on the premises? Now you do.


At the Walker Art Center, where there are no guns.


3. Okay: AWP. For those of you who don’t know, it’s the biggest writers’ conference in North America, with more than 500 sessions, 700 trade show exhibitors, and about 12,000 delegates; this year’s event was in Minneapolis, which is why I decided to go (it’s possible to drive down from Winnipeg). First thing that became obvious: the book fair (trade show) really is where it’s at. I mean, there were good sessions, and I wish I’d seen more of them, but there were really more opportunities to meet people and gather information in the book fair.

Random book fair picture


4. Do I need to declare free swag at the border?


Mostly free

5. At Canadian writing gatherings, I find people struggle to talk about poetry. It’s often not presented well; people make jokes about it; poets are a bit sheepish and self-deprecating and apologetic. Basically, poetry gets relegated to second-class. Not so here. There were featured poetry readings, poetry presses by the score, poets collaborating with museums and art galleries and film makers, and just a general attitude of respect for poetry that I don’t normally feel when writers get together. Or maybe I’m just totally insecure and imagining that.




6. And about collaboration: I saw so much of it! Maybe it’s just that the sheer size of the community offers so many more opportunities, but it was really inspiring. It makes me want to write proposals.


The Walker commissioned a collaborative novella about this Hopper painting, and published it on its website.


7. Memorable panel moment: to paraphrase panelist Roxane Gay, nothing “substantial” can be accomplished in a 600-700 word article whether on-line or elsewhere, and if you can’t read long articles, you should go “have a conversation with your God.”


Most of these contain more than 700 words.


8. Things I’d do differently if I came again: plan ahead and get a hotel near the conference centre so I can attend more events, and go to some of the social events to meet more people.


I did a relatively small amount of socializing.


9. I’ll be interested to hear how much business the Canadian presses did at the book fair. There were so few there! Is it always thus? Is it just not enough business to be worth the expense?


I may be biased because I’m a UBC student, but — Best. Canadian. Booth.


10. Last, there were a lot of regionally themed sessions at the event, but hardly anyone from Manitoba came down. It seemed a shame–there were sessions about North Dakota literature, so why not something about Canadian Prairie writers? Ah, well, that moment has passed, and the next conference is in L.A.


Ariel womanning the Brick Books table. Note the books by Winnipeg authors.


So, those are my ten disjointed thoughts about AWP. I’d like to go again some day–but probably not next year.



Books, bountiful and rare

So, a little over a week ago, we ordered Chinese food. My fortune read thusly:

"Something interesting will happen soon at work."

My fortune

In case you can’t read that terrible photo, it says, “Something interesting will happen soon at work.” Or, on the French side of the fortune, “Il se produira bientôt au travail quelque chose d’intéressant.”

Now, “interesting” is a weak, sickly and slippery word, so this fortune struck nervousness into my heart. A little bit. As Mindy says to Homer, “Desserts aren’t always right.” (It’s in the episode with Michelle Pfeiffer guest starring, for those who can’t quite remember the line.)

The next day at work, I got a mysterious email message from a new college librarian I’d never met before, saying there was a gift he wanted to give me that he’d had for a few years, and now that we were colleagues, he thought he should give it to me, sorry if this sounds creepy, etc.

The thorough LinkedIn background check I performed revealed only an affinity for books, and for rare books in particular, so I quickly assented to a meeting, despite feeling at the mercy of a fortune cookie.

It turned out I was gifted with the best surprise I’ve had in a long time: a copy of Henry J. Morgan’s 1903 illustrated biographical dictionary Types of Canadian Women. Volume 1.

Nearly six years ago, my book Types of Canadian Women—Volume 2—was published. It’s a mock biographical dictionary in poems and poetic prose, inspired, you guessed it, by Morgan’s Volume 1. I talked about the source material in the publishers’ bumpf, and in some interviews at the time. Morgan’s book says a Volume 2 was in the works, but, having never found trace of one, I thought I’d just have to write it.

Types of Canadian Women title page

Types of Canadian Women title page, with lovely 1903 print ads opposite.

I’d been in Winnipeg for about a year when Types came out. But our mysterious new librarian, Matthew Handscombe, was still in Toronto, where I’d written all but the last few drafts of the book–partly on Toronto Island at the fantastic Gibraltar Point centre, partly in a second-floor apartment in a Victorian brick oven in Parkdale, with no air-conditioning, one summer on a Canada Council grant.

Matthew was operating a tiny bookshop specializing in fine press books. My publisher, Gaspereau Press, does some pretty fine printing, so Matthew had no doubt seen my book in the catalogue, probably read one of the interviews, and may have been familiar with my earlier Gaspereau release, Spine, which contained, among other things, poems about fine printing. Somehow, my reference to Morgan’s Volume 1 stuck in his brain.

I used to consult Volume 1 in the Robarts Library at the University of Toronto, as part of my work as a researcher on Canadian history books and book proposals. The Robarts had a circulating copy, and while I was aware of a few copies on offer from book dealers, even after I’d fallen for the book and decided to write Volume 2, acquiring my own copy—which dealers listed for around $300—had never become a priority.

Still with me? Let’s get back to Matthew Handscombe, who, somewhere in the depths of his brain, catalogued this detail about my interest in this book.

A spread from Morgan's Types of Canadian Women, Volume 1: the book responsible for inflicting 50 of my poems on the world.

(Wait, I have to digress again to say how much I like librarians. There’s Wendy, with whom I hung out during my M.A. in Ottawa, and now works at Memorial University Newfoundland; my sister Christine who works at the library in the Law Courts in Edmonton and is finishing her MLS on the side; Brian in the cubicle opposite mine who teaches in the library tech program–Hi Brian!; his colleague Tabitha whose CanLit class I once bombarded with my collection of obscure–duh–Canadian poetry chapbooks. I used to think librarianship was my lost calling, but then remembered that I promised myself, after paying off my student loans, never to go to university again. In short–go visit your library.)

Matthew’s father, Richard Handscombe, taught linguistics and children’s literature at York University (scroll down the linked page for bio), and was an avid book collector. Though significant parts of his collection were donated to the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the U of T—particularly a collection of over a thousand items by and about John Cowper Powys and his brothers—when Richard died, Matthew was left with a massive number of books to find homes for. Thirteen thousand, I think, was the number he told me (he’ll correct me if I’m wrong. Right?).

Types of Canadian Women was not, alas, lurking in the collection. But slowly, as Matthew and his family donated or sold books, he started to acquire things from the dealers, essentially doing part of the transaction in trade, with the intention of gifting specific books to individuals. It was at Greenfield Books here in Winnipeg that Matthew saw Types of Canadian Women and acquired it, somehow remembering that I, a writer he’d never met, had wanted it. It never occurred to him that I was also living in Winnipeg, until he noticed that I was a colleague at Red River College, where he’s only recently arrived.

Matthew styled the gift as a present from his father. I never met Richard Handscombe, and Matthew had never met me when he picked up this book and put it aside. I ran back to my office to get Matthew a copy of my little Volume 2, as an inadequate thank-you.

Types of Canadian Women Volumes 2 and 1

Types of Canadian Women Volumes 2 and 1

This post has gone on too long, and there is much I still want to research and write about: how books end up in rare book collections (my books are all in the Fisher, I can only assume by virtue of being Canadian small press books); more about Matthew’s father and his collection; how all this talk of book collecting reminds me of my father-in-law, Martin Levin, and his house filled with books; how Morgan’s Volume 1 will read to me now, years after I left my project behind on the poetry circuit; and how none of this would happen in a world where books are infinitely reproducible.

Why you should learn to spell

After circling umpteen incorrectly swapped instances of “your” and “you’re” in my first-year students’ screenplays recently, I engaged in water-cooler ranting with other instructors about spelling. Now, creative writing may not be the class where spelling counts the most, but don’t think that I don’t notice. Oh, I notice. As the the students in my second-year class now know from this morning, I am intimately familiar with the difference between an en-dash and an em-dash, and will fistfight typesetters on it if necessary. So yes, I notice when you don’t know the difference between a possessive and a plural, or “complement” and “compliment.”

Creative writing students sometimes come in with the attitude that, you know, it’s creative, so why does it have to be correct? Bad spelling tells me that you don’t care about your writing, that you aren’t serious about it, and that you probably don’t read very much, because the best way to spell well is to read lots. And if you don’t read much, how good will your writing be? Bad spelling crushes confidence: any confidence your reader may have had in you is gone.

I spent a while in the publishing trenches, reading the slushpile and writing the rejection letters. Manuscript readers get paid nothing or next to it, and have a gigantic pile of work in front of them, and it’s a thankless job. So, a spelling mistake in your cover letter? REJECT…. without even turning to your manuscript.

Legal mumbo-jumbo

In case you are burning for some accessible yet in-depth commentary on the e-book age, here are two articles that have been going around lately: one Amazon (partly on its regular business, but partly on the Kindle), and another on the Google Book Settlement.

Amazon vs Macmillan

Google Book Deal in jeopardy

I haven’t joined the Google Book Deal myself. I know those who have. What would you do if you had published a book?

Where are the bookstores of yesteryear?

My first post, and the closure of two recently opened McNally-Robinson locations is crying out for comment.

I’m saddened by the closures. I love bookstores, but it’s starting to feel like a nostalgic kind of love, like my love of developing my own photos (you’ve heard of film?), letterpress printing, and correct, or at least plausible, punctuation.  Despite being a writer whose book sales ostensibly depend on independent bookstores like McNally, I’m as guilty as anybody for largely having abandoned brick-and-mortar stores. Amazon is both cheaper and more convenient. Other bookstore lovers may protest here, but I’m just trying to be realistic.

Of course, Amazon can’t beat bookstores at some things, like events, helpful staff, browsing… all of which has been said before, so I won’t dwell on it. The shaky ground on which McNally now stands has been trodden by many the bookstore before it (even Chapters), and I’m not the analyst to tell you if this round of ruination is the result of hasty expansion or the omnipresent publishing world questions: Whither the bookstore? Whither the book? Yadda, yadda, yadda. (I’m only yadda-ing because if you read book blogs, as I do, you’ll know that this discussion comes up about every other paragraph.)

I’m boldly predicting a brave new world, not tomorrow, but some time in the future—say 30 years—in which e-readers, in whatever form they work themselves out into, are pervasive enough so everyone either has one or has access to them through schools and libraries. E-readers will be the normal way to read both books and periodicals. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the e-books were full of ads.

New books, as we know them, will be like vinyl is now: reserved for total nerds. Only, since we’ll pay through the nose for them (because not only will they have lost the economy of scale needed to produce them cheaply, there will hardly be any trees left), they’ll also be a status symbol. So only books appealing to nerds (including artists) and the wealthy will be produced. Children’s books will also have a market, maybe a subsidized one (because you still won’t be able to trust a two-year-old with an e-reader). Printed books will be sold through specialty channels—bookstores resembling art galleries—or ordered directly from the publishers.

Books will become truly antiquated. (Whither libraries? Whither used bookstores?) People will eventually dispose of them, assuming that Google or somebody has scanned them already. (Though, on the bright side, unlike recorded music, books won’t rely on old technology to be readable, so more people will keep them around than they will, say, CDs.)

All that is crazy talk. For now.