Last night I attended a fascinating panel discussion at The Communitea Cafe in Canmore about the state of Canada’s book and magazine industry. The panel, moderated by the Globe and Mail’s Ian Brown, included Jackie Flanagan, founder of albertaviews; Lynn Coady and Curtis Gillespie, founders and editors of Eighteen Bridges; and Anne Collins, publisher extraordinaire at Random House. Needless to say, the people sitting behind the microphones drew a large crowd to the cafe, including the participants of the Literary Journalism program at The Banff Centre.
I was fascinated by the topic, mainly because I’ve been getting the impression lately that the things we as writers love to do the most – write books, feature stories, creative non-fiction – are the least lucrative sources of income within the writing world. Ironically, these are the kinds of publications that others see as the most prestigious or accomplished. Sure, some writers “make it” and become celebrities of the bookworm variety. But, many writers, including myself, sit at our computers, pounding the keyboard, not daring to even acknowledge the fact that what got us sitting there in the first place was some kind of “doe-eyed, idealistic vision,” to use Coady’s words.
Brown asked the founders of Eighteen Bridges why the heck they started up a magazine in this day and age. I tuned in quickly to this one, seeing as I had hopped on board with Highline Magazine back in February, a grassroots magazine that is still working with the biggest doe-eyes you have ever seen. Their response was similar to mine and to Flanagan’s: the whole project was an idea and the magazine the vehicle.
Basically, if we want to see our magazines embody the values we want to express and tell the stories that are worth telling, we cannot treat our new found, glossy papered friends as a business. Likewise, if we’re writing a book because we want to make money, we may as well go work at Walmart. It’s all about the vision and being ready to love what we do because the hope of making money or breaking even are potentially far off. However, not so far off that we won’t be able to enjoy some quality of life. That, and every one seems to romanticize the life of a writer – surely we have the best gig in the world? :)
This question of business versus vision/money-maker versus vehicle-for-ideas seemed to drive the whole discussion over the course of the evening at Communitea. There is always a question of money and there are certain sacrifices and efforts magazines have to put into at least covering their costs. Publishers have to sell books. But, a lack of finances doesn’t mean a lack of attention. albertaviews, which still isn’t breaking even despite it being in its 14th year, was granted the National Magazine Award for Canada’s Magazine of the Year back in 2009 (claps to them). Writers may make little money off a book, but may find rewards coming in other forms, such as speaking engagements or more book deals (yay for more blood, sweat and tears!) And some, maybe even I, will have a bestseller that helps them buy a new office chair.
No matter how you look at it, though, it’s a (potentially) tough life. Considering this, more and more I respect other writers for their tenacity and drive despite a seemingly unfair return on their investment. Their relationship with writing goes deep – deeper than anyone outside of that relationship can understand. They, we, pour heart and soul into the written word, driven by some inner desire to express ourselves. This is what makes us writers. It can’t be about the money. Is that a risk I’m willing to take?
Yes. I might be the very definition of that doe-eyed visionary. And I’ve got big brown eyes to prove it.