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Why are some Canadian authors and agents looking outside our borders to sell their work?

For J. Kent Messum, the publication of his first novel seemed auspicious. Bait – a high-concept thriller about a group of heroin addicts kidnapped and abandoned on an island where they are required to fend for themselves in a survivalist scenario for the sport of a group of rich voyeurs – appeared with Penguin Canada in 2013 to generally positive reviews and solid word of mouth. Though sales were modest, the book went on to win the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award for best first crime novel. Not bad for someone who abandoned the music industry after 15 years to dip his toe in the precarious waters of Canadian publishing.

Yet even the prestige of winning a fairly major award did not help Messum when he and his agent shopped around his second book. Husk is another high-concept novel, set in a near-future version of New York City. Technology has become so sophisticated that scientists have developed a way to maintain consciousness after a person perishes. Living vessels, called “husks,” offer their bodies as hosts to wealthy buyers who want to experience a kind of life after death.

As a work of popular fiction, Husk seemed to check off numerous boxes that would appeal to prospective publishers. It takes up themes with cultural currency – the anxiety over the speed of technological advance, the dubious ethics surrounding artificial intelligence and bioengineering, and an apparently insatiable public appetite for speculative fiction (a genre that even boasts Margaret Atwood’s high-
literary imprimatur). The book is plot driven and cinematic in its approach (so much so that it has already been optioned for television by Warp Films), and its author has a proven track record for appealing to award juries.

Why, then, did Messum have to go to the U.K. to get his book published?

Bait was brought out simultaneously by Penguin Canada and Penguin U.S., and subsequently acquired by Penguin U.K. The Canadian arm of the multinational passed on right of first refusal for Messum’s sophomore novel – though not, the author claims, because no one in-house expressed interest. “The editors wanted it,” Messum says. “They were told no by other people.”

Those “other people,” Messum suggests, were the ones who held the purse strings, and who were less than impressed with what they saw as Bait’s underwhelming sales record. Messum was not left out in the cold: Husk was published in August 2015 by Penguin U.K., which, according to the author, seemed more enthusiastic about his work from the beginning. “Penguin U.S. and Canada said, ‘We’re just going to do one book and see how it goes.’”

Publishing has always been a conservative business, and publishing in Canada, especially, has occasionally displayed a distressing aversion to risk. At a time in which more books are being released than ever before, the irony is that even authors who have been published domestically in the past – or, in Messum’s case, actually won awards in Canada – can’t find a home for works that don’t appear immediately saleable. Material that is too dark, too uncomfortable, or too iconoclastic can potentially have a tougher time finding a receptive home among larger Canadian houses. Smaller, independent publishers appear willing to take chances on less intuitive material, but for the multinationals – and even some mid-level houses – a cautious retrenchment seems to be the general order of the day.

“A lot of publishers were very responsive, but [demanded] major changes I didn’t want to make, which is my own burden,” says Andrew F. Sullivan, author of the debut novel Waste, out this March with U.S. publisher Dzanc Books. Waste tells the story of a trio of would-be skinheads in a southern Ontario city in the 1980s (Sullivan hails from Oshawa); the violence is raw and visceral, and there is no hope for redemption in the conclusion. “Almost all of it is taken from police blotters and police reports,” says Sullivan of the brutality in the book. “I basically went through microfiche of newspapers from small towns in Ontario in the ’80s. A lot of the crimes were weird things like baseball bats and drills and being thrown out of windows or head first into a TV. All that stuff actually happened in one form or another.”

Verisimilitude aside, Sullivan – author of the well-received 2014 story collection All We Want Is Everything – posits that the novel’s content could represent a stumbling block among publishers and readers accustomed to a more recondite, reflective strain of fiction. “[In] Canadian narratives, if there is a terrible, heinous event, it was 50 years ago,” Sullivan says, “and it is now being processed or uncovered. Or, if it was immediate, or it was recent, it happened somewhere else and we’re reflecting on it here in a safe place. I don’t
necessarily see mid-size cities in Canada as always safe. And I don’t see that immediacy [of approach] very often in CanLit.”

One place such aggressively scabrous material may be acceptable is in memoirs, where it is consumed with a kind of po-faced schadenfreude. Which is one reason novelist Barbra Leslie was encouraged to turn her own struggle with crack-cocaine addiction into a work of non-fiction. After retreating to her family home in Nova Scotia to wean herself off crack in 2008, Leslie called her agent, Sam Hiyate of the Rights Factory, and told him she was anxious to write something about the experience. “He said, ‘Write a memoir,’” Leslie says. “‘Memoirs are hot. Misery memoirs!’”

Instead, Leslie produced a genre thriller called Cracked, about a female, crack-addicted, mixed martial arts practitioner tracking down the people responsible for her twin sister’s murder. Hiyate tried unsuccessfully to have the book placed with a Canadian house, and had a similar experience shopping the book in New York. Cracked eventually found a home – along with two sequels in a three-book deal – with U.K. firm Titan (which is distributed in Canada by Penguin). Similar to Messum and Sullivan, Leslie claims that editorial responses in Canada and the U.S. were positive, but there was reticence on the sales side.

“That the book wasn’t going to reach a wide enough audience,” is the author’s own assessment of the reluctance expressed by North American houses. Indeed, the only negative editorial reaction Leslie can recall came from a female editor at a U.S. house who assumed that the author’s name must be a pseudonym, because no woman could possibly write such a violent book. “But most of [the responses] were really good,” Leslie says. “‘She’s a great writer. If she’s writing something that’s not this, let us know.’”

“People wanted to like the book,” says Hiyate, “and I think in some cases genuinely did, but they didn’t think it was particularly Canadian. They didn’t know what the local market would make of it, and that’s who they’re publishing for.”

At least one Canadian publisher is adamant that market forces are not the only – or even the most significant – factor in making publishing decisions. Asked whether there would ever be a situation in which a publisher would turn down a book because of concerns about the content or a limited audience pool, Dan Wells, publisher of the Windsor, Ontario–based small press Biblioasis is definite: “Not among the better independents, no.”

While appearing unequivocal on this score, Wells also draws a distinction between the manoeuvrability of independents versus that of the large multinationals. “We have more freedom, in part because we can do more with less,” he says. “It comes down to the economy of the two organizations. We can do quite well on 1,500, 2,000, 3,000 copies, whereas Penguin Random House can’t, all other things being equal. So, the best independents are never going to turn something down because they think it might only reach 500 or 1,000 people. We’re fairly used to that.”

And some major domestic houses do take chances on edgy material. Nicole Winstanley, president of Penguin Canada, has published a number of debut authors who are not guaranteed bestsellers, including Miguel Syjuco, Ghalib Islam, and David Cronenberg. (Though in Cronenberg’s case, the author’s prior reputation as a filmmaker was no doubt an asset.)

Canadian author John Colapinto’s novel Undone, a satire with themes of incest and unbridled male desire, was turned down by 41 publishers in the U.S. before Patrick Crean picked it up last year for his eponymous imprint at HarperCollins. “It gave me pause for one weekend,” says Crean about signing up the book. “But, holy smoke, this is so brilliant. So we forged ahead.” (The novel has since been signed by Soft Skull in the U.S., where it comes out this April – one instance in which a large Canadian publisher actually blazed the trail for a book.)

Crean also published The Devil You Know, Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s 2015 thriller set in Scarborough during the period in which Paul Bernardo was committing his crimes.

Still, Crean is cognizant of a certain hesitancy among North American publishers, particularly multinationals. “I believe New York is in a state of moral terror,” Crean says. “There’s a conservatism there now that’s jaw-dropping.” And here in Canada? “I don’t think we’re much better.” Independents have a bit more wiggle room, he believes, echoing Wells’s sentiments. “Multinationals, it’s a different thing,” Crean says. “They have shareholders. Just think about that.”

The nervousness is somewhat strange, given the popularity of television series such as Breaking Bad and The Sopranos. Sullivan, for one, sees an inherent contradiction between publishers who refuse books based on the perceived limited popular appeal of their content, but also claim to be fans of dark television imported from outside our borders. “There is that disconnect that TV and movies do this thing, but books are supposed to be good for you,” says Sullivan. “A book should be spiritual. I don’t go to a book for that.”