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Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson in Mantova, Italy, on Dec. 7, 2017.

Leonardo Cendamo/Hulton Archive

The Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, one of Canada’s most prestigious literary awards, is getting a new face. The $50,000 prize – which has awarded authors such as André Alexis, Alice Munro and, last year, Gil Adamson – is getting an additional endowment of $10,000 and is being renamed the Atwood Gibson Prize, after Writers’ Trust co-founders Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson.

The prize, originally created in 1997 as the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, was established to help bolster Canadian fiction and provide a financial boost to Canadian writers. The $10,000 annual infusion, courtesy of the full prize support of the new sponsor, Canadian philanthropist Jim Balsillie, brings the fiction award in line with the Hillary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-Fiction, also set at $60,000.

Last year, the Writers’ Trust – which was created in the 1970s – awarded more than $970,000 to writers across Canada. More than 60 per cent of that was through its roster of literary prizes, which includes the Bronwen Wallace Prize for Emerging Writers and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing. But it also raised $375,000 for the new Canadian Writers’ Emergency Relief Fund, established to help 250 struggling artists weather the pandemic with grants of $1,500.

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But at a time when book sales have slumped significantly and launch dates have been postponed due to COVID-19, that barely scratches the surface of need in the publishing community – for writers and publishers alike.

With book launches, events, festivals and workshops on hold indefinitely, many writers have seen a disastrous reduction in income – or lost it altogether. “It’s been hard for authors not to be able to travel and do events because those things, for a lot of authors, are really important for making community and starting dialogue around their works,” says Alana Wilcox, editorial director of Toronto-based Coach House Books.

It has been especially difficult for lesser-known and first-time writers, says Atwood, since they aren’t getting the same kind of exposure they might have before 2020. That’s why the Writers’ Trust disbursements are more important than ever, she says.

Shortly after the first lockdown in March, authors reported an average income loss of $10,000, according to John Degan, executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada. “And that loss has not been recouped in the market,” he says, “meaning dependable relief payments are essential.” (Last week, the Canada Revenue Agency backtracked on its statement about artists replaying CERB benefits, which claimed that grant funding didn’t count as income for qualification purposes.)

The shutdown of booksellers has been similarly devastating, adds Writers’ Trust executive director Charles Foran. Hand-selling, he says, is crucial for authors, particularly those who have not been published by one of the Big Five publishers. Being able to browse for new titles at bookstores and generate word-of-mouth recommendations is important not just for Canadian authors but the diversity of Canadian readership, as well.

As for publishers, some of them have seen a reduction in revenue of up to 70 per cent, according to Dan Wells, publisher of Biblioasis. “Industry-wise, we have deep concerns,” he says. “Further investments in writers and art and cultural programs are beneficial.”

But he’s wary of awards like those handed out by the Writers’ Trust. “I think part of the issue is that we are so award-centric now in our preoccupations that other books end up struggling for their share of readership.”

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That’s been exacerbated by the rise of online and conglomerate sellers, says Wilcox. “It’s the homogenization of culture.” She argues that large-scale distributors like Amazon only perpetuate top-sellers, which can have a significant impact on diverse up-and-coming authors. “We need little bookstores selling all kinds of different things,” she says.

In the short-term, Kate Edwards says smaller presses – which publish the vast majority of Canadian work – need a simple-to-administer program that can help shore them up as the pandemic drags on and support their recovery afterward. Long-term, Edwards says the Canada Book Fund, the core funding program for publishers, needs a fix. The fund hasn’t seen a budget increase in 20 years, which means its “real value” has declined by 40 per cent, says Edwards. Even if it weren’t for COVID-19, publishers are in dire need of investment in technology, production workflows and the resurgence of audiobooks. Now, with so many of them forced to pivot to respond to readers’ COVID-19 needs, this funding is pivotal.

The Department of Canadian Heritage, which administers the Canada Book Fund, was not immediately available for comment.

Dan Wells at Biblioasis shares Wilcox’s concerns about supporting small presses. The publishing world is now dominated by five firms – and possibly four, if Penguin Random House’s US$2-billion purchase of Simon & Schuster is approved. With the bigger publishers, he says, there is very little in the way of Canadian history and non-fiction, both of which are integral to “re-evaluating our past as we come to terms with Indigenous issues and racial injustice. We’re desperately at risk of limiting the types of stories we can tell ourselves.”

Regarding the potential Simon & Schuster sale, Edwards, the executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, says the effects on the Canadian market are still unknown. “There has been increased consolidation in the industry, not just in publishing, but in retail and distribution,” she says. With the closure of Canadian warehouses, supply has been a particular challenge over the past year. All the resources in the hands of just a few publishers means they have more leverage to offer larger advances and marketing investments – leaving smaller presses out in the cold.

Edwards says these issues have been there for years, but they’ve been exacerbated by COVID-19, to the point where some small publishers are barely sustainable. “Government funding helps to level the playing field,” Edwards says. That funding support in turn flows to writers in the form of bigger advances and royalties, and stronger promotion and sales support.

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As for the Writers’ Trust, Atwood believes it does help bolster diversity in Canadian literature. But she acknowledges that awards can come with a certain amount of stigma – at least for the writers who don’t receive a nod, with publishers potentially asking the question, “Why haven’t you won a prize?”

Interestingly, the Writers’ Trust was borne out of a feud with the Writers’ Union of Canada, which was concerned about appearing to favour certain writers over others. Back in the 1970s, Gibson, Atwood’s partner of four decades, until his death in 2019, and a few other writers (including Pierre Berton, Margaret Laurence and David Young) were putting together a response to high school teachers who said they’d like to teach more Canadian books in high school but didn’t know of any. According to Atwood, the Writers’ Union disagreed with singling out the work of particular writers.

“After a spirited feud,” Atwood says, “Graeme said, ‘Okay, I’ll start up a separate organization.’”

Charles Foran says the organization he now leads will continue to evolve. “There will be more innovation and creativity around different ways of reading books and accessing people’s work.”

Editor’s note: (Feb. 1, 2021): An earlier version of this article attributed statements to Alana Wilcox when in fact they were said by Kate Edwards.

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