Writers, publishers and booksellers unite for Read Local

In April, 23 publishers, 300 authors, 50 bookstores and 40 libraries will unite to celebrate the talent of British Columbia’s writers. Events for Read Local B.C. will take place throughout the province until April 22—from Victoria to Vancouver, Tofino to Fernie, Williams Lake to Haida Gwaii. It’s an initiative of the Association of Book Publishers of B.C., which works to support the long-term health and success of B.C.-owned and controlled publishers. Hannalora Leavitt spoke to the association’s executive director, Margaret Reynolds, about the province’s extraordinary depth of writing talent.

When I first looked at the press release for Read Local B.C., my first thought was wow, what a great, grass-roots approach—getting writers, booksellers and publishers out there face-to-face with readers. Can you tell me about the initiative and how it came about?

There were two influences. One was that last year we did an event at the Legislature called B.C. Book Day. We had our publishers there in the rotunda of the Legislature buildings. The MLAs and their staff were invited to come down to meet with us. We gave away books, and it was a huge success. The Lieutenant-Governor was there as well. There was real excitement and buzz in the building. But, it was a private event. Then we wondered, how can we roll this out a little more so that it engages the public as well as our representatives in Victoria?

Simultaneously the booksellers who were actually at that event came to us and shared that they’d just returned from a conference in the States. There’s quite an active, independent booksellers’ community in the States. They’ve done some very successful campaigns that focused on their importance in the community and the importance of local publishing. We had some discussions about how we might work together on a campaign that focused on the local, whether it’s the local bookseller or the local writer or the local publisher. That’s how it came together.

B.C. Book Day 2015 will take place on April 22 in Victoria. So we backed it up and we’re doing three weeks of author interviews and events in stores and libraries. We want to give it a wider attendance and awareness.

How it has been received by the publishing industry?

When you look at what the festivals are doing in this province, they are hugely successful. Last year the [Vancouver] Writers Festival completely sold out. Every year they seem to do better and better. The Sunshine Coast Festival is hugely successful. [There’s] one in Shuswap; another one in Victoria on the Island. There’s definitely a lot of interest from the public and the writers are out there.

One of the challenges in our industry is to get the word out about what we do. We don’t have a lot of media any more. We have social media which is definitely helpful but we don’t have the traditional newspaper, radio and television that we used to have to support us in getting the word out about books. Now we have to be a bit more creative about how we do that. Read Local is probably one of the ways we can get the word out but the writers festivals are another way. We really want to see those festivals continue.

There’s a confluence of effects of libraries and booksellers and publishers and writers that has helped to create an industry and to generate interest in local writers. That has been sustained, but I think it’s somewhat threatened when you don’t have a way of getting the word out about events. We do our best, but it’s definitely a challenge.

There are so many events planned throughout the province. Can you talk about the creativity that has gone into that process? Of course we expect events in major centres, but could you share some of the more remote events scheduled during Read Local B.C.?

As part of the campaign we wanted to ensure that authors throughout the province are recognized, and that both small towns and large cities can participate in the festivities. The event farthest from our headquarters is in Haida Gwaii at the Masset Maritime Museum. Our Stories Behind the Stories features local authors storytelling and readings, in partnership with Literacy Haida Gwaii. There’s a Poetry Picnic at Tofino’s Botanical Gardens or an afternoon at The Book Nook with author Bruce Burrows at Cafe Guido in Port Hardy as well.

Two Read Local B.C. events of note taking place in the Lower Mainland are North Vancouver’s Lynn Valley Public Library’s hosting of Secrets, Booze & Rebellion: Vancouver’s Unknown History, and Fishing for Tales held at the Pacific Angler, where two celebrated authors will deliver a unique perspective on the ocean, its wildlife, and the people who work on its waves. The campaign includes events in Victoria, such as On The Road and Poetry Without Borders. Both feature a range of talented and award-winning writers, and we’re very much looking forward to these flagship events in the city. Check out the events calendar.

Is there a way to measure the success of this initiative? Or, is it a matter of just doing it?

In a sense it is just give it a try because we’ve never done this before, not on this kind of scale where there are events taking place all over the province. If you’re just measuring by sales, it’s pretty much impossible to know whether it’s related to this campaign. We can certainly measure books going out. Our publishers can measure that. Gathering the information is a complex matter. We are going to try to measure orders from the booksellers over the course of the event and the subsequent months.

A terrific outcome of this campaign is if we could introduce books that half the people didn’t know about, books that have been published here by people who live down the street and the public didn’t even know. You never know who you’re touching when you do an interview or bring a person to town. But if you don’t do it, then people won’t know. I’d like to emphasize how positive a campaign this is. This is about the kind of creativity that goes on, both on the writing and on the publishing end in this province.

I’ve always understood that B.C. is the most well-read, literate region of Canada. But does that necessarily translate into a healthy industry? Today we hear so much about the demise of the print book because of digital technologies. In your role as executive director of the association, could you share what the industry looks like from your perspective?

Historically it has definitely created an environment where it is possible to publish books here. We’re far away from the centres of publishing: Toronto and New York. We have the largest English-language publishing community outside Toronto and within Canada. Library-book circulation is also one of the highest in the country. For the longest time, we had the most independent book sellers in the country, and I think we’re still pretty good. That end of things has changed, but historically that kind of symbiosis, readers who are interested in reading about where they live and where they come from, created this environment where it was possible to publish regional books or literary books about where we are. The industry really started in the early 1960s and over the years we now have magnificent children’s publishers, a scholarly press and lots of trade publishers.

Overall, I would say that the state of the industry is pretty buoyant right now in B.C. We’ve got a lot of great publishers doing really good publishing, highly professional, award-winning type publishing. That’s not to say that there aren’t challenges in our industry. The retail market is complex and difficult right now.

The indie bookstores are getting, I think, more aggressive, more engaged and are rising to the occasion. They can see how important they are on the one hand and how difficult it is coping in cities like Vancouver where there are so few indie booksellers.

I can see some good things on the horizon, but it’s still a pretty challenging industry. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. However, that said, I think we have a very strong community here, a lot of it focused around our association. There is a lot of co-operation, energy and creativity within the organization, which has led to initiatives like Read Local B.C.

Hanna Leavitt is a Victoria writer. She has a MFA in Creative Writing from UVic.