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Sometimes a Grant Notion

Cutting grants and and merging cities hurt writers and publishers

Nathan Berman sits by himself in the F æma coffee house on Dupont Street near Christie Street. The café is not enclosed and cozy like most but rather like an automobile dealership show room: a wide open room surrounded by glass windows on all sides. Several metres stand between the baristas behind the counter, and the tables scattered near the window looking out on to Dupont. The tables aren't crunched together either, so even when the place is full it is empty and can make you feel vulnerable. The café is empty right now, except for Berman. He chose the table in the dead centre.

"This place is like an office away from my home," says the 30-year-old. "Even though the decor isn't what you would call comfortable, it suits me just fine because I can work here." Nathan Berman brings his work here when ever he gets bored of doing it at home. He is a writer, and so his 'work', in the literary sense, is always with him. The question of how Berman can support himself as a writer has taken up a permanent residence too.

In the past four years, Berman has applied for and received two Toronto Arts Council grants. The money is meant to give emerging writers something to live on while they produce a major body of work.

"The benefit is much more psychological than fiscal," he says. "One can go out and buy a computer or a laser printer, but as a writer I already have these things. More than anything it was a shot in the arm when I wasn't published."

Berman's recent $1,500 grant represented only a small portion of the $266,225 in awards the Toronto Arts Council directed towards literature in 1996. These funds go directly towards helping a writer to continue working on their novels, poems, or stories. But its only enough to support those writers that live in the actual City of Toronto. This funding will be stretched to the limit when the provincial government creates a "megacity" by joining Etobicoke, York, East York, North York, Scarborough with the current Toronto. The total support those cities provide for arts is $5,134,353, with the Metropolitan Toronto government adding an additional $5,977,000. The Associate Director of the Toronto Arts Council, Anne Bermont, says that all $11 million is needed to support the areas' artists. With the amalgamation, and elimination of the Metro government, there would be a 54 percent reduction in arts funding. "We would not wish to set up expectations that would see the number of applications triple, or increase four or five times," says Bermont, "while the budget continues to remain the same."

Berman received his grant when he was working on his first novel, Suburban Gothic, in 1993. He saw an advertisement in NOW magazine, put together a proposal and sent it in. His submission was judged by a panel of writers and editors. When he was accepted by the Toronto Arts Council, Berman said the most satisfying thing was being accepted by his fellow writers.

"It's basically that pat on the back that says, 'Yeah, yeah, you are an artist, you are a writer, you have been judged by peers. Keep doing it.'"

The state of Canadian literature as a business suggests that writers and publishers need to look for new ways to produce their work. The publishing of fiction by new writers is risky at best. Few people are willing to go into the bookstore and pick up a book by unknown writers or poets, so large scale publishing might not be the way for Canadian publishers to go into the next century. Evidence of this is popping up in Toronto with the emergence of Gutter Press and Insomniac Press. These are both small presses determined to cast new and emerging Canadian writers into the public eye.

"We're doing very risky book, first novels, first short stories, and you don't know if they're going to hit or not," says Sam Hiyate, founder and publisher of Gutter Press.

Hiyate began his business in 1993, and has put $100,000 of his own money into it since then. He finances a third of Gutter's costs through his full-time job, a third comes from sales and a third from grants. He began receiving project grants from the Canada Council for the Arts in 1995. Gutter put out three books last year, and is looking at five this year. Its books are new fiction and poetry mainly looking at pop culture.

"Right now we're fitting into a niche nobody sees," says Hiyate. Gutter Press isn't making money right now, and is staying in business on Hiyate's dime. If he wants to keep on going, Hiyate knows he will have to become more of a commercial publisher. "As time goes on, I want more books I know I can make money on."

Hiyate is changing his business plan to that tune. He is looking for private investors to give up to $300,000 to reduce the necessity for government grants. "If I lost grants tomorrow, I would probably need a few months to restructure." The bottom line for Hiyate would be to do a book or two a year on his own money, and try to publish more commercial books to balance the coffers.

But the danger of a private investor will be compromising the editorial slant of the press. Hiyate says, "A lot of this can't survive without somebody giving money, saying 'This is a good cause.'" Canadian publishers have been looking to the government for pocket book boosts since the 1960s. Lessening government help might force publishers to hook up with private sponsors, who had never been considered as an option.

"You are going to find that private corporations to a certain extent will fill a philanthropists role," says Berman. Though they will have a different mandate than the public sector, namely in advertising, he says, "we shouldn't turn our backs on cigarette companies." Private sponsors are viable because they can afford to put money into the arts and promote themselves.

Corporate partnerships with the arts are nothing new. DuMaurier has lent their name to fund many jazz festivals across the country, while banks and telephone companies have sponsored others arts in recent years.

"It's a charitable donation," says Berman. "Although it's promotional, it isn't hard promotion." An example is the DuMaurier Centre for the Performing Arts in Hamilton. "It's necessary," he stresses. "It doesn't scream cigarettes at you. It's a theatre for God's sake, somebody had to build the place."

With the provincial cutbacks, however, both the Toronto and the Ontario Arts Councils are looking at ways to work with other companies and organizations. "We are looking at ways to raise the profile of artists and the arts community within the business sectors," says Bermont. "It doesn't mean we're going to go after the business community to support the Toronto Arts Council, because that's a very delicate balance for us. We would end up competing with clients we're trying to serve." One company they are talking partnership with at the Toronto Arts Council is Upper Canada Breweries.

It's part of a three part action plan released by the council in 1997, called "To 2001." The goals set out include: maintaining the funding for 1998 at its current level of $11 million and preserving the policies and practices that have been created; strengthening and protecting the arts by promoting new partnerships between arts organizations and communities; and for Toronto to gradually increase its cultural grants. Along with these initiatives, the Toronto Arts Council developed a foundation to hold special funds, and eventually act as an endowment that would provide a separate municipal funding source for the arts. Created in 1995 the Toronto Arts Council Foundation is a registered charity that already has three awards that recognize outstanding achievement in Toronto's arts community.

In February of 1997, the Ontario Arts Council opened their similar foundation for private donations. The provincial foundation manages $17 million dollars, and gives $750,000 annually to artist in Ontario. It's one way that the OAC is trying to maintain its funding levels in the face of public cutbacks. These foundations extends the metaphorical distance of both the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils from their relative governments. It also encourages the private sectors to spread out their donations. According to the Council for Business and the Arts in Canada almost 85 percent of all corporate and private arts sponsorships in Canada go to six organizations: the Toronto Symphony, the Stratford Festival, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Ballet of Canada, the Canadian Opera Company and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. Seven hundred arts organizations are left to share the remaining 15 percent of donations. The foundations set up by the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils, combined with provincial and federal changes to charitable donations laws, will, ideally, allow for a more balanced distribution of the donations directed towards the arts. But relying too heavily on private investment money can lead to other problems.

"So far I've come across two types of investors," says Mike O'Connor, who runs Insomniac Press out of his home in Toronto. "One is basically wealthy really wealthy guys going through mid-life crises who want another plaything, they want to be called a publisher."

The other type, O'Connor says, won't actually give him money, They will co-sign a loan from the bank and, when he pays off the bank loan, own a piece of him.

"I'm looking for people who believe in the vision I have for the press and ultimately I think the press will make money." O'Connor sees a lot Canadian publishers who retrenched themselves in the last recession. They couldn't get the grants they once did, and reverted to publishing books they know would sell. "It makes financial sense but what it does is make the literature very conservative as well."

Insomniac publishes fiction and poetry by young Canadian writers that is not in the tradition of the established cannon-of Margaret Atwood and Roberston Davies. "So much of that writing came out of the fallacy of a pastoral image of Canada," says O'Connor. "But 75 to 80 percent of the population lives in urban centres. A lot of tastes have changed." He also says that an entire generation of writers have been excluded from the Canadian canon because they don't see things the way their predecessors do. "There is this idea that young Canadian literature had this golden age in the early '70s, and you should be following that and everything since then is crap."

The ‘pastoral myth' O'Connor describes is embedded in Canadian fiction and poetry. "Canada is a really conservative place, particularly when it comes to literature," he says. "People in the industry and a good portion of the readers have very set ideas about what a book is, and what is Canadian literature, which I find pretty erroneous in general."

O'Connor says he sometimes gets criticized for the books he puts out, not on their literary merit, but because they don't follow 'traditional' Canadian literature. "I had someone say recently say, 'Why don't you get your writers to write nice books like Roberston Davies does?'" But O'Connor doesn't believe writers such as Davies or Atwood appeal to younger Canadians. "(Those) writers and publishers have nothing to say to a younger readership. They are trying to figure out why Margaret Atwood doesn't appeal to 20 year olds. It's boring to a 20 year old."

Those publishers, says O'Connor, then complain how their readership is dying off.

"Publishers hold up their hands and say, 'Ah, well, this generation doesn't read, they are not interested in reading at all.'"

The publisher's may feel that 20-year olds don't read, but the Statistics Canada General Social Survey, 1992, the most recent available, tells a slightly different story. Those under 20 had read more books than any other age group: 72 percent had read a book in the last twelve months. While this may be attributed to readings through school, 66.8 percent of those between 20 and 34 had read a book in the same period. Only the people under 20, and those between 34 and 44 had read more. Canadians that read the most fiction, however, are under 35. Of the books they had read, 42.5 percent were fiction.

Young Canadians do read, and O'Connor knows it.

He has set Insomniac Press in the direction of publishing fiction that will speak to young Canadians. He has a reputation for publishing work with a harder edge to it. O'Connor started out doing chapbooks in runs of 500, and has evolved into perfect-bound books "as a natural progression." Throughout its brief life, Insomniac has chosen to stay with darker-themed books.

"One of the things I have found is how people who follow the press may not know who the writer is," he says, "but they will pick up the book because they know it is from Insomniac."

The efforts of the Gutter and Insomniac Presses represent a changing attitude towards Canadian publishing as a business and Canadian writing as an art form. But both are still in the realm of traditional book publishing. However, there is a new small press in Toronto that is experimenting with the concept of the book as a thing.

Coach House Books is transcending both government funding and the standard press by taking its publishing enterprises on to the Internet. Although a namesake, this is not the same Coach House that went under in 1996. It is a regeneration, headed by original Coach House Press founder Stan Bevington, and writer and editor Victor Coleman. They have approached Internet publishing with the intent of making a business of it, and to broaden the definition of the word 'book.'

"(We want to) try to map out a future of literary publishing within a more high-tech realm," says Managing Editor Hillary Clark. The new Coach House started coming together last fall, and have published three hard-bound books with full-text versions available online. The books are essentially free on the Web, a notion that completely contradicts the traditional idea of book publishing.

"We want to encourage people who do read it for free and don't buy the book to pay the royalty directly to the author by tipping them off," says Clark. Coach House has set up a system on their Web site that is like an electronic pledge. Guests on the site leave their email addresses if they choose to tip the author, and the amount is recorded. It is then up to the individual to come through with the money.

A lot of what Coach House is doing depends largely on its readers keeping their word: actually paying their tips, and not stealing any of the work. The morbid fear of putting their work in the position to be taken by anyone in the world has kept a lot of writers away from Coach House.

"If people don't want to be online, then they don't want to be with us," says Clark. The press has set up a mirror site that dumps an HTML file of every work published into the National Library of Canada. The risk of theft, argues Clark, is just as high in regular books. "If people want to steal your work," she says, "they'll steal it whether they use a photocopier or a cut and paste on the screen."

By applying new technology to literature, Coach House is aiming to teach writers the tools to fuse their work with animation and sound.

"Concrete poetry and visual text moves into a whole new realm if you can animate it," says Clark. They also want to move into streamlined audio and video. Coach House is providing a point for Canadian literature to reinvent itself. Poetry and fiction in may not be so obscure anymore if it can be heard and read at the same time. The size of the web and relatively affordable publishing it brings can also open a place for the kind of writers Mike O'Connor looks for.

"I'm looking for new writers with some sort of experimental element to their work," he says. "I like writing that has a harder edge to it, generally, and an urban feeling to it."

That kind of work isn't being noticed because publishers are reluctant to give it a chance. But a lot of publishers can't afford the risk either. The marketplace isn't as forgiving as it was a decade ago, and they aren't getting the grants they once did. Cuts at the Canadian Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council have forced publishing houses to shrink their book lists. With less books being released, publishers will give precedence to commercially established writers. But it is the unproven authors who need funding from the Toronto and Ontario Arts Councils to develop their craft. "In the new way that the province of Ontario supports the arts," Hoffert said, "there will be much less money, and therefore fewer programs." With the continued cutbacks to Ontario Arts Council, and the potential elimination of the Toronto Arts Council's individual grants, writers like Nathan Berman, who are still relatively unknown, could remain so.

"Just because you get published doesn't necessarily mean you are going anywhere," Berman says. "You can be published and then be in limbo again. I don't think there are any guarantees in writing, ever."

The Toronto Arts Council received 286 applications for writing grants this year. Of those, only fourteen to fifteen percent will be accepted. Bermont admits it is a low success rate, and if the number of applications increased, as they would under the amalgamated city, the individual grant program would have to end. Otherwise they would be accepting only a select few writers, or handing out trivial grants. "Significantly increasing the amount of money that currently goes to the arts would be the only way to maintain the individual grant program." That, however, is not expected to happen given the provincial government's record on art funding.

If the Toronto Arts Council is scrapped, or mulched into a larger arts council for the whole megacity, then the City of Toronto will lose a vibrant and pragmatic promoter of its artists and writers. "It is a certain level of reassurance that artists are on the right track, that indeed they are artists as opposed to some guy sitting in a room," says Berman.

The City of Toronto's non-profit arts sector is being cut by $20 million for its 1996-97 funding year — 83 percent of those are provincial cuts. The provincial equivalent to the Toronto Arts Council is the Ontario Arts Council. Its budget has been reduced by $12 million dollars. Unlike its municipal cousin, the OAC funds book publishers and magazines, as well as writers. With 20 percent of its budget cut, the OAC is having a hard time sustaining its grants to 46 of Ontario's top publishing houses; as Coach House Press found out in July, 1996 when it suddenly lost three quarters of its Provincial funding and had to close its doors.

It was one of the first casualties in the Toronto literary community, and for Canadian literature. Coach House had received about $76,000 annually from the province. That was enough to live on, even though they had lost about $110,000 in federal funding over the previous two years.

Coach House Press trapped itself in the Canadian publishers' fallacy: too small a market to produce books cheap, and a consequent reliance on grants.

"It was a bit of a surprise when Coach House went under," says Victor Coleman, who worked along with founder Stan Bevington in the press' early years. They built it up into Canada's most famous publisher. But by 1990, they had both left the press and Margaret McClintock took it over.

She immediately started increasing the profile of the imprint. "Coach House Press, in its zeal to become a true publisher, did a lot marketing," says Coleman. It struck huge distribution deals with McClelland & Stewart in Canada, who helped them expand into the United States. In the six years under McClintock's direction, Coach House Press' all-time sales tripled to nearly 8.5 million copies by 1995. In that they barely broke even. Although sales rose, they still weren't high enough to make money or offset the returns coming in from its distributors. "They would print 1000 copies of a book they knew they would only sell three or four hundred copies of because they had to," says Coleman.

Coach House Press set an example of just how hard it is for publishers, never mind writers, to survive in Canada. The publishing industry in this country is fragile at best. According to Jack Stoddart, President of the Association of Canadian Publishers, a book written and produced in Canada with no subsidy-private or public-would be 10 to 20 dollars higher than in the United States. The book could end up costing nearly $50. So subsidies and grants are necessary to publish affordable books in Canada.

The Ontario Arts Council has been a major subsidizer for book publishers in Canada for over 20 years. And it's not just smaller presses — like the now defunct Coach House Press — that the OAC supports. McClelland & Stewart, Canada's largest domestic publishing company, has consistently received grants, averaging $44,000 a year, to support its books. Coach House had been receiving almost $33,000-a-year from the OAC, while others like ECW and Key Publishing received $35,000 and $40,000 respectively.

Even with this level of grants, publishing houses can rarely afford to give their authors sizable advances for their books. As such, both emerging and name writers have relied on grants to finish their novels. In 1992, Michael Coren received $20,000, Barbara Gowdy was awarded $13,000, and the poet Michael Holmes — who has been associated with both ECW and Insomniac presses for a number of years — was granted $1,000. Of the almost 550 writers who receive grants annually from the Ontario Arts Council, the majority are from Toronto. The impact of OAC grants, however, extends well beyond Toronto's city limits. In the 1994-95 funding year, $50 million was raised in tax revenues by OAC-funded arts organizations, which was 20 percent higher than the provincial funding to these organizations.

Established in 1963, the Ontario Arts Council is now operating with a $31 million dollar budget, down from $43.3 million in 1994. Since the council operates as an arms-length agency to the government, it can only support the arts "within the framework of the government of the day," says OAC Chair Paul Hoffert. And to the current government, he says, "the cuts to the arts and culture sector are integral to [their] fiscal objectives." But these cuts were anticipated, and the Ontario Arts Council had to make some hard business decisions. It cancelled some application deadlines, suspended programs and laid off 17 percent of its staff.