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John Vaillant said he knows writers who are rushing to finish “important, research-heavy, non-fiction” books in a matter of months – books that would normally require years of work – because “that’s all they can afford to do.” (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
John Vaillant said he knows writers who are rushing to finish “important, research-heavy, non-fiction” books in a matter of months – books that would normally require years of work – because “that’s all they can afford to do.” (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)

The harsh reality of non-fiction writing Add to ...

Earlier this week, I spoke with a Canadian literary agent who was bemoaning the depressing prospects for non-fiction writers in this country. She told me about a client who’d put together a proposal that attracted the interest of a publisher, but the advance – money provided upfront that counts against future royalties – was such that the author felt it wasn’t enough to complete the book. It was shelved.

“Advances have come down so considerably it can be impossible for someone to do the book they want to do,” the agent, Hilary McMahon, said. “If they’re not going to get the support upfront from a publisher, they just can’t spend three or four years doing the necessary research.”

The previous day, I’d spoken to John Vaillant, one of Canada’s most acclaimed literary journalists. He said he knows writers who are rushing to finish “important, research-heavy, non-fiction” books in a matter of months – books that would normally require years of work – because “that’s all they can afford to do.”

“You have good people doing half-baked work against their better judgment and inclination,” he said. “I’m seeing writers make those compromises.”

Last September, when the finalists for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction were announced, one of the jurors, journalist and novelist Charles Foran, told me that “it’s hard to find the support to write a really major non-fiction book in Canada.” (It must be noted the $60,000 prize, one of the richest in the country, went to Naomi Klein for This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.)

Are they right? Well, yes and no. I’ve spent the past week reading the finalists for another one of the country’s major non-fiction awards, the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize, the winner of which will be announced Monday. With the exception of historian David O’Keefe’s One Day In August: The Untold Story Behind Canada’s Tragedy at Dieppe, for the first time in the award’s history, four out of five finalists are works of memoir. Plum Johnson’s They Left Us Everything is an exploration of grief and the meaning of material possessions; M.G. Vassanji’s And Home Was Kariakoo: A Memoir of East Africa, finds the two-time Giller Prize-winner returning to, and attempting to understand, the place where he was born and raised; Barbara Taylor’s The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Times is both a cultural history of mental health care and a raw portrait of troubled life; and Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage, which chronicles the author’s two-week voyage to the Far North, is both a family memoir and a lucid travelogue of a place most of us will never visit.

Despite not all being “major” books, they still required time and effort to produce. In the case of Boundless, Winter’s travel costs were covered when she agreed to serve as a writer-in-residence aboard a Russian icebreaker. “It would have cost me, altogether, at least $20,000,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do [the book].”

Which brings to the problem of how to fund non-fiction. It’s somewhat of a paradox. “We are living in a golden age of non-fiction,” Vaillant says. The hashtag #longreads is a constant on Twitter, and there are more non-fiction prizes showering more money on Canadian writers than ever before. According to BookNet, Canada’s most recent Canadian Book Market Annual, six of the 10 bestselling Canadian-authored titles of 2014 were works of non-fiction.

Then why is it so cost-prohibitive for writers to produce it? “We have to remember how small the Canadian market is,” says Diane Turbide, Penguin Canada’s publishing director. “For a lot of serious non-fiction, the audience is maybe 3,000 to 5,000. And that is not going to earn a large advance.”

One prominent Canadian writer told me she fears that, soon, only those aligned with institutions – universities, think tanks – or with “the cash to support the habit” would be able to produce worthwhile non-fiction. Several suggested the decline of the magazine industry, which had served as both incubator and funder, hurt more than low advances.

For many, looking outside Canada is key. Andrew Westoll, whose book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary won the Taylor Prize in 2012, says the book would have been radically diminished had he not found an American publisher: “While the advance was still modest, a modest advance in the States is different than here. When I got the American advance I knew the book was happening.” Vaillant says his two books of non-fiction – The Golden Spruce and The Tiger – needed the support of the international market: “That’s the only way I could do it.”

When it came time to fund This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein says, “I wouldn’t have been able to do the level of research that I did, and put together the research team that I did, just with my Canadian advance. And it still doesn’t cover it,” she adds, noting she received help from organizations such as the Lannan Foundation and the Nation Institute. “It’s a debt-driven process, but I don’t think I can blame my publishers for that.”

Finding foreign support is easier said than done. McMahon told me how her client James Raffan’s Circling The Midnight Sun, one of the most acclaimed non-fiction works released last year, hasn’t found an international publisher: “We have sent it to more than 30 publishers in the U.K., but they want the British man who went and travelled the Arctic. Everyone wants the expert from their own market.”

A Canada unable to tell its own stories is a diminished Canada. “If you want to have your reality, your culture, your art and land and people, chronicled in a way that’s worthy of the country and of the intelligence of the country, then you’ve got to pay,” Vaillant says.

To read excerpts from the books nominated for the RBC Taylor Prize, as well as Q&As with the finalists, visit globeandmail.com/arts/books.

*Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed a comment to journalist John Vaillant.
It was author Andrew Westoll, speaking of his book
The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary, who said: “While the advance was still modest, a modest advance in the states is different than here. When I got the American advance I knew the book was happening.”

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