Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Who’s Sponsoring Your Publishing Dreams: Puma, a publisher, or no one?

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By Dalton Higgins

There’s nothing like attending a book festival or fair to get a genuine spin on how Canadian literary types process info. I relish any opportunity us bloggers get to gather some completely unofficial, on-the-ground, informal market research, on the state of the biz. My cup (of innuendo) had completely runneth over after having spent three full days schmoozing and hobnobbing with booksellers, agents, publishers, fellow authors and consumers at the inaugural INSPIRE: Toronto International Book Fair.

Next to taking in some intense rumour-milling (e.g. another prominent Toronto bookstore might close its doors in 2015), what seemed to be on the top of many of the literati’s mind was that green stuff – and I ain’t talking about the environment, Kermit or envy. Money. How to make it. How not to waste it. How to get publishing types in Canada to obsess more about it.

Now what I mean is that I was getting into some spirited debates with some participating authors, and other burgeoning talents who seemed intent on getting their first book to market. I learned that many Toronto-based scribes write for a hobby, and simply enjoy seeing their name in print. Some were openly wondering why their manuscripts were not getting any love from any one of the dozens of great small and medium sized publishers that exist in Ontario (I am still not entirely convinced that most emerging writers are as well versed as they need to be about how to approach traditional publishers, but I’ll save that for another column). For others, writing is something they do on their free or down time, or while away from their 9-5 jobs. And still others in attendance made no bones about the fact that they write and partake in publishing activities for profit. After hearing these masses of literary hobbyists riff on about spending five plus years working on their debut, without a book deal in sight, I figured out very quickly that I tend to fall in the latter category. Publishing for pesos.

One of the aims of me sharing my written contributions to the world is certainly to disseminate some Big Provocative Ideas in the non-fiction realm. The Canadian literary world needs to hear from a diverse range of voices. That being said, one of my other aims for writing is to chip away at my mortgage, and enhance my children’s post-secondary education fund — with no apology. From my vantage point, it’s almost a privilege to not be thinking about revenue generation while scribing. While some grown adults with literary ambitions are still looking to volunteer at their fave publishing outpost, I am always thinking about ways to better monetize my literary contributions to humanity.

I found it odd to hear writers getting their pants in a bunch over the fact that the Land Rover car manufacturer sponsored William Boyd’s latest book The Vanishing Game. Some say that’s shameless. I say all the more power to him. Boyd is a respected novelist who has engaged cool presses like Bloomsbury to publish his work. He’s now just trying to top up his British 401k, and I am not mad at that.

Here’s my take. In the mid-90s when I received my first proper check from Now Magazine, I put that cash towards paying off my tuition, and kept it moving. I wasn’t so much concerned with what the self-anointed downtown indie writing police of the left persuasion thought. I did not grow up privileged like them, so I had to translate these opportunities into putting food on the table. I’m also of the firm belief that all artists, across artistic disciplines, need to understand their self-worth. Especially authors. Also, perhaps because many of my ilk have grown up with hip hop sensibilities, the idea of us getting into bed with corporate sponsors to shill our art is commonplace.

One of my favorite rap groups of all time, RUN DMC, recorded a song called “My Adidas,” while wearing Adidas, and ultimately got paid handsomely by Adidas for their efforts. As a journalist I’ve attended dozens of press junkets sponsored and/or organized by Fortune 500 companies and multi-nationals. When they approach scribes of my milieu, they know what they are getting (unfiltered editorial truths written from my distinct POV) and I know what I am getting (an opportunity to interview a subject I wouldn’t normally be able to access, plus a getaway from Toronto with flight and hotel costs underwritten). So long as the lead protagonists names in my written work are not Nike or Nespresso, who cares. Likewise, if the product placement in my work is not painfully obvious, like rapper Nelly’s song “Air Force Ones” (named after the hugely popular sneaker brand), then it’s a no-brainer to accept partial sponsorship for some of your written work.

For those authors who think Boyd’s The Vanishing Game routine was sacrilegious, that’s exactly the type of thinking that might land you in the poor house. And would give Shark Tank’s Kevin O’ Leary or YMCMB CEO Bryan “Birdman” Williams a stroke.

The idea of accepting sponsorship to write might be more of a class issue than it is a moral or artistic one. It’s simple. If you come from a working poor background, maybe the likelihood of you accepting a six figure sponsorship deal to write a specific kind of book might increase. For those that might’ve grown up with a silver spoon in their mouths, and can afford to write for gratis — or to crank out low selling art house projects — that’s an entirely different thing.

Certainly, product placement can veer into the moronic in the arts world (eg. rapper Rick Ross’ record label is named Maybach after the high end car, while music producer Timbaland is named after the popular footwear line). But what happens if you actually like the product you’re not-so subtly shilling in your prose? Boyd actually really digs Land Rovers. So, if a sparkling new LR4 model happens to show up throughout the book, then so be it.

The bottom line is this. I’m willing to bet that most of you authors would willingly accept monetary sponsorship (especially ones in the five to six figure range) for a literary side project. In my world, anything less, would be uncivilized. Making a living as a writer in Toronto is vastly different from trying to make a living as a writer in Peterborough. In Toronto, if you’re not generating revenue, your family is not eating. In light of the current Canadian economic realities — where the gap between the have and have not’s continues to widen — us authors will have to learn to adapt. Part proceeds of this column may have been brought to you by Sprite, so Obey Your Thirst.

Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. His book Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press, Oct. 2012) sheds light on the cultural conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His five other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T, Rap N' Roll: Pop Culture, Darkly Stated) examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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