If I were to advise young Canadian writers I’d tell them: Leave Canada. Move to New York or Paris. Get out, and write about subjects with international appeal.
Since before the invention of Jack McClelland or even of the typewriter, budding authors have been told, “Write about what you know.” Fair enough. But it’s much better to know things that will ring a bell with readers in the United States or Britain. In Canada, writers of fiction are an endangered species. If you want to make a living, vamoose.
And this isn’t sour grapes. I recently published a novel that “made it” in Canada and gained me a lot of satisfaction ... plus enough money to buy a very used car. Luckily I don’t need the money. I have a privileged position as a professor, plus the ineffable luxury of a working wife. Because the wolf is not at my door, I can be candid about the economics of the Canadian book trade.
To receive laudatory reviews and to appear on almost every talk show on radio and TV is heady stuff. The trouble is, it raises false hopes in the bosom of the writer. My novel (Zinger and Me) made Maclean’s best-seller list and when Barbara Amiel called it i “marvelous,” who was I to quibble?
After 10 weeks on the Toronto Star’s national best-seller list, the book went into a second printing. Is this not success?
It was at that point that wellintentioned friends began to gibber about how they envied my vast royalties. “Booming sales, eh? Guess you’ll retire on the proceeds. Well, at least a couple of years on the Riviera, right?” C ’est à rire, as Mr. Diefenbaker used to say. It is to guffaw. Established writers, particularly of nonfiction, often earn big dollars, but the truth is that trying to sell new hard-cover fiction in this country is like selling fish bait in the Sahara.
I finished my novel in May, 1977, after working on it for a year, or 44 years, depending on your perspective. Within two weeks, McClelland and Stewart agreed to accept it— “for the spring.” Being arrogant and impatient, I asked whether it couldn’t be published by the autumn? “You don’t understand,” I was told, “we mean the spring, not of 1978, but of ’79.”
A two-year wait. This prospect seemed to me like having a baby, then being told you couldn’t see your offspring for 24 months. Had I known about the ratio of manuscripts submitted to those accepted (at least 100 to one) I’d have been on my knees in gratitude. Instead, I submitted the fruit of my labor to three other publishers, with visions of speed if not sugarplums dancing in my head.
Result? One editor gave me a definite “maybe”—if I’d do an extensive rewrite. A second rejected it, saying that the only thing harder to sell than a first novel was a comic novel. A third editor lost the copy I had sent him. I ran back to M & S and signed for March ’79.
Jack McLeod is a professor of political science at the University of Toronto and is a free-lance writer as well as novelist.
When the book appeared and The Globe and Mail hailed it as “both serious and wildly funny,” I started to float. Reality began to break in when friends in the Writers’ Union told me that the normal print-run for a first novel is a trifling 2,500 copies. Had I heard of the well-known local scribbler who sold 30,000 copies in England, but fewer than 2,000 in Canada? Or of another name writer who cracked the best-seller lists on total sales of only 1,700 copies?
Time to make a few calculations. Zinger’s initial printrun was 3,000, priced at $12.95. In round numbers, the publisher receives 50 per cent of the price, the bookseller 40 per cent and the author 10 per cent. So I could expect royalties of some $3,800. Before taxes. Minus expenses. Minus the revenue from, say, 200 copies distributed to media reviewers, free. With a net return like that, a writer could live for almost three whole months on his loot ... if the price of macaroni doesn’t rise.
Small wonder that most writers have other full-time jobs, or else live at the level of grubby subsistence.
Basically what writers need are sales, buyers. I wish I had a dime or even a cookie for every person who has told me that he got my book from a library, or who read a media reviewer’s freebie. What is this phobia that Canadians have about buying hardcovers? Granted, a book at $15 is not cheap. But book prices have risen much less than costs of clothing or coffee, and people who think little of paying $15 for a tank of gas balk at paying that much for a book that may last a lifetime.
Doesn’t the writer at least wallow in the supreme ego trip of being interviewed on radio and TV? Hardly. Half of the program hosts had not read the book. Okay, fair enough. Yet on one live TV show I was asked: “Do you do anything apart from writing?” “It says on the dust jacket, I teach at U of T.” “Oh. I must have missed that. And isn’t your book like C.P. Snow’s?” “No, more like a beginner’s Stephen Leacock.” I should have seen it coming: “Really? Who’s Leacock?”
So you hope for publication abroad, in the larger markets like London and New York. My publisher has tried hard to get me printed there, but keeps getting turned down because my references are to real Canadians like Crombie and Diefenbaker and Lévesque. “Who are these people anyway?” one Yankee publisher asked. “Can’t the thing be rewritten with jokes about Jimmy Carter?”
No, I wrote about what I know and what I care about. So my advice to young writers is: don’t write about Regina or Ottawa. If you want success, or just three squares per day, write about sitting in a New York bar and thinking about Regina or Ottawa. Then, you’ve got a hope. Until Canadians begin to regard books about themselves as important necessities, not mere luxuries, that’s your only hope.
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