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Hello Dear Readers,

A fellow writer likes to joust with me on a subject we’ve been debating back and forth for years. My friend firmly believes in the merits of the Canadian publishing industry, and refuses to submit his work elsewhere, even when his manuscripts have languished, unread, on editors’ desks for years. I, on the other hand, have heard enough horror stories about the “not-for-profit” Canadian publishing industry to seek agents in the United States, and even Britain. Granted, this hasn’t worked so well for me either, but I’m sure that has more to do with my lack of time and perseverance. I’m confident that I will be able to obtain a new agent, followed by a publisher, once I set my mind to it.

The thing is, as much as I love writing, it’s work. Yes, people–work. I get paid to write press releases, I get paid to write articles, and I’ve been paid to write short stories. Yes, the subject matter of my novels is my choice, and I have more freedom with the parameters, but it’s still a lot of work. Some might say it’s more work to finish a 400 page novel than it is to write an 800 word article, and I’m inclined to agree with them.

That’s why I don’t understand the so-called Canadian literary mindset that states that in order to be a “real” writer and create work worthy of exposure, you have to suffer and struggle, supplementing your paltry income with grant monies. The same people who tout this ideal are the ones who laud the great success of “Canadian” writers like Margaret Atwood, conveniently forgetting or overlooking the fact that those writers made the majority of their wealth by publishing overseas.

I don’t mind being Canadian. I don’t even mind being a Canadian writer, as long as my cohorts recognize that I want to make a living at writing, and that probably means being published outside of Canada. The United States is a larger market. Therefore, they have more readers and they publish more books. There is a lot more opportunity available there than here. Many Canadian publishers have American imprints, but I don’t think it matters what country you get published in first. Will I be less Canadian if my books are published by an American company?

My friend doesn’t think that “real” writers should expect to be paid for their work…that we should do it for love alone. Unfortunately, love doesn’t put food on the table. I think that sentiment is lovely, but only when writing is your hobby, and only your hobby. I’m not satisfied with that. Do I write fiction just because I’m hoping to be paid for it? No, of course not. But am I hoping to be paid for it someday? Definitely.

If wanting to be paid fairly for my work (and I’m not talking about great riches or fame here), makes me a hack in this country, then so be it. I find it interesting that writing is one of the only fields where people are expected to work for free, just because they “love” it.

What do you think, Dear Readers? Does being published in another country make a writer less Canadian? Is the Canadian literary establishment right in thinking that writers shouldn’t expect to make a living at their craft? Why do we turn our noses up at writers who are popular and financially successful? Does popular always mean “not as good”?

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  1. Anonymous

    Hmmm..always the “sell out” implication with success, and it’s not right or even fair. Suffering for art is a noble concept, however Atwood and the like are hardly living off ketchup soup 😉 A popular author does not always equal a poor writer, I think there are lots of talented and financially successful writers. You are certainly talented and with some luck too, you will make a living from writing novels

  2. Rand MacIvor

    Hi, writing is a love. As a self-published author I wrote my book for the experience, to go through the process, and to push myself.

    Truth is, the writing market is flooded with aspiring writers. They say only 10% of all writers actually make a living writing.

    There is nothing at all with setting your sights high and being ambitious. My thought? If you expect to write for the money, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment. If you write for the love of it, you’ll never be disappointed… My 2 cents :o)

  3. Anonymous

    As long as the check (sorry, cheque) doesn’t bounce, I’d be happy to be published in Timbuktu! Of course writers should expect to be paid for their work. It ticks me off when writers work for free (this is more in the journalism field, when people think that it’s worth the exposure or even for the promise of a portfolio piece). It devalues everyone’s work.

  4. Story Teller

    @ Anonymous – thanks for your kind and insightful comment. I certainly hope you’re right!

    @ Rand – welcome to the blog! That dismal statistic is actually wrong, as Dean Wesley Smith points out here: http://www.deanwesleysmith.com/?p=1121. I can tell you from my experience that I’ve made a good living from writing my entire adult life, even though only a portion of it has been fiction.

    I have dreamed of having books published since I was five years old, so I was always going to be disappointed if I didn’t get published. I think the disappointment of failing because I didn’t try would be much greater.

    @ Claudine – I completely agree. Freelancers have accepted such a low level of pay from a local paper that it’s hurting us all, because now the paper feels it doesn’t have to pay fairly. Quality and experience are not valued as much as getting the cheapest possible writer. When I was a rookie, I did offer a story to the Sun for free, because they didn’t have the budget to pay for it. But thankfully, that was the only time I had to do that.

  5. Kim

    I would say photographers do the same thing. Many of them work their passion for free or undersell themeselves. But maybe working for love is a start and a way to get known and then demand the big bucks. All the arts are unregulated professions. And, yes, it is terrible that those who pay writers take advantage of the fact that many of them will do it for peanuts and for love. Like most contracted work, the lowest bidder will always get the job. But the lowest bidder is not always the BEST at the job — but the newspapers don’t care. Most of the people reading them can’t tell the difference between an average writer and an exceptional one.

    And people immitate, emmulate, and outright steal from each other all the time both consciously and unconsciously in all of the arts. It is part of the learning process. Obviously you want to reach a point with your talent where you have originality. Some never do though…. Some end up slogging out a formula.

    It is a combination of talent and market analysis that makes success. And a little bit of good timing and luck. I think your and your friend’s argument is moot. They are both valid ways of approaching the industry.

  6. Laura Best

    Writers do have to make a living. Why shouldn’t we? I don’t work very hard at selling what I do mostly because my income isn’t really counted on the run the household. Would I like to quit my present job and replace my income by writing. You bet!But wanting something and do something about it are two different things.

    Here in Canada I feel as though we’ve been conditioned to think that writers can’t really make a living by writing. I know some writers who do. They mostly write non-fiction, which from what little experience I’ve had, pays much better than fiction.

    Let’s face it, we write the book, maybe get an advance,(nothing large) and then royalty cheques twice a year. Most copies of your book sell during the first six months while it is being promoted. Hard to live on trickles of money.

    We writer for the love of it, we try for publication because, like everyone else, we need to make a living otherwise we probably wouldn’t put ourselves through the torture of rejection and long, long wait periods..

    While I like the idea of staying within Canada and Canadian publishing, I guess it comes down to doing what is really best for our writing careers. Isn’t it?

    Good post, Holli!

  7. Ev Bishop

    I don’t think it ever has to be an either or–love or $$$/quality or popularity. I write for the love of it and have made a living with my words off and on for years. One day (soon?! ;)), I’d like to be making my living writing fiction, so I have time to write MORE fiction–but I know that’s sometimes easier said than done and that’s where the love kicks in.

    And as for more Canadian or less Canadian, depending on what you write or where you publish–I get irritated by the whole debate. I am Canadian, hence whatever I do _is_ Canadian. It’s like when black authors are criticized for not writing “black” fiction (how I wish I could remember where I read the article I’m referring to)–like there’s some rule about content for each ethic group, gender, etc . . .

    Very thought-provoking, as usual, Holli! 🙂

  8. Story Teller

    Thanks for your comments, ladies! It’s nice to have a writing-related post on this blog again.

    @ Kim – You are right; our argument is moot, especially since we’re both going to continue doing what we think is right anyways. My point has always been that, to get published, it’s better to cast the widest net you have than to limit yourself at the very beginning by saying you’ll only accept Canadian publishers. It may be a noble mindset, but the fact of the matter is that there are very few Canadian publishers; the variety of the work they’ll accept is extremely limited; and most of them cannot pay their authors well. That is why I have no guilt about looking beyond our borders.

    @ Laura – Well said! And, as far as the “trickles of money” are concerned, the solution seems to be to write more books, articles, etc…if there isn’t a “blockbuster” that can support you for a few years. I’ve read Dean’s blog posts about the fallacy of writers making no money, and I agree. As a fulltime freelance writer, I couldn’t sit on my laurels. I always had to be searching for the next assignment. But was it worth it to be my own boss and set my own schedule? You bet!

    @ Ev – welcome back! I agree; it’s a ridiculous argument. No one faults people who leave their hometowns (or provinces or countries) to seek out a better job, and to me, this is akin to that. There is a faction of authors who try to define what “Canadian” writing is, and I want no part of it. I won’t be writing about running through the wheatfields of Saskatchewan anytime soon. It’s just not my thing. 🙂

  9. Elspeth Cross

    I’ll publish where they want me. I’d love be published at home but I’ll go where the success is. I think that each writer must choose his or her definition of success and professionalism, and that holding others to a personal definition limits both parties.

  10. Story Teller

    Thanks for your comment, Elspeth. Being published by another country first does not mean you won’t be published at home. As you’ve indicated, it’s not an “either or” choice.


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