Writers are a vulnerable genus in the cultural community of Saskatchewan, especially with the recent shifts in the world of writing and publishing, the reallocation of support previously given to the cultural industries by government agencies and the uncertainty in our current precarious economic situation. The challenges for writers in this province extend beyond this, many living as they do in isolated conditions whether because of location or simply the nature of the art.
The comparatively lower population numbers and distances between central gathering hubs contribute to a lack of connection to the writing community. Writers need and prefer the quarantined solitude to pursue their craft, but they do seek stimulation and find benefit from networking with other writers. Although they are able to link electronically to a degree, connecting with other writers in person is a necessary support. It is crucial to learning, advancing the craft and having a sense of community, of belonging to an understanding group that is sensitive to the needs, foibles and sharing of accolades. This sense of camaraderie is a valuable asset to the personal growth of a writer not as easily attained as it is in heavily populated centres or provinces.
The most crucial challenge for most writers is to find writing time—time to write on a regular, uninterrupted, stress-free basis. Typically inherent in most artistic fields, there is the need to balance “earning a living” while pursuing the art form, which requires parcelling time. “Very few writers are able to eke out a living and for the most part must do their writing when their full time jobs and family responsibilities allow,” says Weyburn children’s writer, Jo Bannatyne-Cugnet.
“Another challenge is the astonishing numbers of folks who are willing to write for miniscule amounts, such as $3.00 for 500 words,” says Shirley Byers of Kelvington, who for years has earned her living as a freelance writer of news stories and creative nonfiction.” Writing for a wider variety of mediums, including for the net, can prove to be lucrative for some, but on the whole markets have dwindled, and along with them, payments.
Typically royalties are meagre and usually only appear once a year. Book sales are limited, again for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is because of the population statistics in this province and the distances writers most travel to promote either within the province or across the country. Writers now are also expected to have an online presence, which costs money to build, as does generating public appearances.
The support for writers in the form of audiences of their peers at readings, launches and award presentations has also dwindled over the years. More often than not, only a handful of family and friends appear for these events, whereas before the writing community as a whole would be present to cheer one another on. Somehow we’ve lost touch with the community spirit support, the solidarity that once prevailed in being there for the “team.”
Finding ways of attracting public audiences is becoming increasingly more difficult too. Bannatyne-Cugnet points out that, “There are fewer opportunities for writers’ published work to be showcased- libraries are not filling the void created with the loss of bookstores that once held book launches.”
Book sales in general have taken a hit. “Things changed dramatically in Saskatchewan schools when the teacher-librarians were cut. Now library books are often ordered by a parent volunteer who makes their book selection based on how many books they can purchase with their budget- resulting in cheaper massed produced American authors being chosen,” Bannatyne-Cugnet has observed.
Of the few bookstores left, most don’t feel an obligation to promote Canadian writing. “Their mandate is to sell product…often toys, reprints of “popular” classics, etc.” says Bannatyne-Cugnet. “Newspapers are more likely to promote a popular published American than a local author- if they promote a book at all.”
Nik Burton, Managing Editor of Coteau Books adds, “Reviews are getting scarcer. Readers more and more are rejecting any “authority” on what they should read.” Tastes of the reading public are changing and certainly the accessing of reading material has taken a dramatic twist—Amazon, EBooks, less independent book stores, more box stores buying at bulk costs and undercutting, to name a few. This has turned the publishing world on its head, not knowing what will emerge as a suitable publishing standard.
Whether seeking an agent, which is required of some publishing houses, or simply finding a publishing firm that will accept the work is a major challenge for writers more so than in the past. Not only first timers, but even well-established authors with regular publishers are having their manuscripts rejected. Besides this, there are a diminished number of publishers and they are very cautious about publishing as many books and unsure about what kind of books to take, or in what format will sell.
Byers says, “To be fair, the folks we’re hawking our wares to, have taken some hits too. Their production costs have increased, while the same technological advances that have made our lives easier have also seduced away the readers of the books and magazines we’re writing and writing for.”
Nik Burton, Managing Editor of Coteau Books says another challenge is, “To be a “published author” these days requires the author to be one of those who are selling the writing…Publishers can’t do all the work selling YOUR book for you. Not only do we not have the resources – we don’t have the authority.”
The days when most publishers can mount extensive tours or significant publicity campaigns are gone. “It is actually a miracle when a Canadian writer is published and has any book sales,” says Bannatyne-Cugnet.
These days many writers are opting to self-publish. Although some established writers are making successes of self-publishing, this too can be precarious ground. Skilled writers with self-published books are often competing with those that aren’t always high calibre, and the authors of them are aggressive marketers. E-books, whether commercially published or self-published, are slowly catching on in a limited numbers of genres as well.
With writers facing so many more challenges, especially with the added barriers in Saskatchewan, the likelihood of their work coming to light and being shared with the public is greatly reduced. However, writers in Saskatchewan are a hardy, persevering species. If they must become astute with the publishing, marketing and distribution world in order to survive, they will.