Writing about First Nations (Read Local BC)

As part of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia’s Read Local BC campaign, Laraine Coates of UBC Press hosted a panel discussion on writing about First Nations, featuring:

After Coates acknowledged that the evening’s event was taking place on unceded Coast Salish territories, she launched into the program by asking each panellist to describe their books.

Written as I Remember It was Elsie Paul’s idea, said Raibmon, and consists primarily of teachings and historical stories from Paul’s life. Paul, one of the last remaining mother-tongue speakers of Sliammon, wanted to create a booklet of teachings to share with her family. Raibmon thought Paul’s stories would interest a wider audience, and they decided to work together, along with Paul’s granddaughter, Harmony Johnson, to turn the booklet into a UBC Press book, which was organized into chapters based on key themes, including grief, education, spirituality, and pregnancy. “All of these stories were told and lived in a completely different language,” said Raibmon. “Elsie has lived a fascinating life, and she has a lot of interesting stories to tell.”

Jean Barman has written about BC history before, but “I’d always acted as if French Canadians didn’t exist in the province,” she said. She wanted to redress this deficiency and find out more about them. “That’s the nice thing about being an academic,” she said. “I get paid to find out!” As she did research for the book, her focus expanded from the French Canadians themselves to the fur trade that brought them to the province and the indigenous women who kept them here.

Jennifer Kramer co-edited Native Art of the Northwest Coast with art historian Charlotte Townsend-Gault and Nuuchaanulth historian Ḳi-ḳe-in. They wanted to challenge the “one monolithic idea of what native Northwest Coast art is”—the red, black, and white ovoids and formlines we so often see. The book unearths 250 years’ worth of commentary about Northwest Coast art from multiple perspectives, beginning chronologically with writings by Captain James Cook and including contemporary native artist–authors, to show the heterogeneity and richness of the region’s artistic past and present.

Coates noted that although the three books are different, they all deal with Aboriginal lives and legacy. She asked the panellists what they learned in their research.

Barman said that although over 90 percent of the men and all of the women she researched for the book were illiterate, she could still find traces of them in fur trade records or in the work of other people who had written about them. Barman looked at the relationships Aboriginal groups forged with the newcomers—particularly the way indigenous men encouraged their daughters to interact with the fur traders so that they could get access to trade goods—as well as the motivations French Canadian men had to stay rather than return to Quebec.

Raibmon said that unlike Barman’s project, hers “came with a workaround of the problem of finding traces.” Elsie Paul invited Raibmon to pull together audio material to create a book and allowed her to learn from the inside out, interconnecting teachings with history.

Kramer’s goal with her book was to consciously and actively address the problem that the majority of writing about Northwest Coast art has been by non-native authors. She wanted to bring in as many voices as possible to undermine the narratives repeated by Western, non-Aboriginal authors. “As an anthropologist, my number-one concern is, ‘Who am I to write about someone who isn’t me?’ We have this chronic problem or paradox: museums represent people who want to represent themselves. How do we get around that power imbalance?”

Kramer described the critical shift in the 1990s toward reflexivity, making the research process open to reflection and collaboration. “First Nations don’t have just one perspective, either,” said Kramer. “They’ll have many opinions. There’s no one way to write this. It’s not about correcting an incorrect history—it’s about acknowledging all the ways of knowing.” Kramer saw the draft of the book as a living, breathing archive, and she expressed apprehension about taking it to press and fixing it to a page. “It might have been better as an online blog, like Wikipedia, with many people engaging. We’re in this engagement together, and we’re co-creating these products of representation.” She also mentioned the discomfort that some of the artists felt, having the huge responsibility of representing not only their own artwork but also their culture, by extension.

Raibmon’s experience uncovered a bit of that tension as well. “Elsie did not get permission from the Sliammon people to write the book. She didn’t want to be seen as taking authority or speaking for her community.” She added that the university set up procedures requiring researchers who work with First Nations communities to get band approval, but “that’s not always appropriate. Elsie found it offensive that UBC wanted to get band council agreement so that she could tell her story.”

As a historian, said Barman, “I carefully document where all the bits and pieces come from so that others can add to them or challenge them.” She wants to make it clear that she’s telling a story, not the story, and there will always be pieces that are right to some and wrong to others. But if we don’t risk criticism and put your work out there, we’ll never learn, and our knowledge will never grow. “You’re doing something, but at least you’re doing something.”

Barman described a perennial difficulty that comes with historical research and writing: what to do about names. “What do we mean by the Northwest Coast?” To Americans, it includes Alaska and Washington but sometimes also Oregon and northern California. “What do you do before we had borders? What was something named in the past, and how have names changed? These issues can get you into conflict.”

Kramer agreed that names carry a lot of weight, and people can react strongly to them. She wanted her book to take an unconventional look at Northwest Coast art, which would naturally entail unconventional names and terms, yet still be discoverable to people using more familiar search terms. “That one would be accused of cultural appropriation is always a fear,” she said. Many First Nations groups have a very real fear of theft, given the historical theft of their land, their children, their sovereignty. But she had to grapple with the reality that no one member of the community could tell her that what she was doing was acceptable or give her a blank cheque. “You have to know you’re doing it with a good heart, that your intentions are clean.”

Kramer asked Raibmon if she had a voice in her book or if she felt as though she had to keep quiet and let Paul take the lead. The approach to narrative was different from her usual approaches, said Raibmon, but “the goal was to get Elsie’s voice on the page.” She still made a historical argument, but in an engaging way that foreground’s Paul’s voice. “I hope people who read the book will still see the historical connections, the connecting themes.” She added that she didn’t consider herself to be the historian and Paul to be her subject. “We were two historians working together, from different historical traditions. Personally I didn’t feel any tension from letting Elsie decide what topics would go in.”

“I didn’t actually understand why certain topics were off limits,” Raibmon continued. “Why are certain stories so important? There were chapters that were super important to them, but I didn’t understand it at the time. I learned how long it can take to let go of our assumptions that block our understanding… I understand now. But if my authority had trumped Elsie’s, I wouldn’t even have remembered the question, let along learn what I’ve learned.

“Elsie had stories of other families, but she didn’t feel that was appropriate to have in the book. She didn’t want to assume the stories would offend them. Cultural difference is understanding human difference.”

What the heck’s happening in book publishing? (EAC-BC meeting)

Freelance writer, editor, indexer, and teacher Lana Okerlund moderated a lively panel discussion at the November EAC-BC meeting that featured Nancy Flight, associate publisher at Greystone Books; Barbara Pulling, freelance editor; and Laraine Coates, marketing manager at UBC Press. “There are lots of pronouncements about book publishing,” Okerlund began, “with some saying, ‘Oh, it’s doomed,’ and others saying that it’s undergoing a renaissance. What’s the state of publishing now, and what’s the role of the editor?”

Flight named some of the challenges in trade publishing today: publishers have had to scramble to get resources to publish ebooks, even though sales of ebooks are flattening out and in some cases even declining. Print books are also declining: unit sales are up slightly, but because of the pressure to keep list prices low, revenues are down. Independent bookstores are gone, so there are fewer places to sell books, and Chapters-Indigo is devoting much less space to books. Review pages in the newspaper are being cut as well, leaving fewer options for places to publicize books. The environment is hugely challenging for publishers, explained Flight, and it led to the bankruptcy just over a year ago of D&M Publishers, of which Greystone was a part. “We’ve all risen from the ashes, miraculously,” she said, “but in scattered form.” Greystone joined the Heritage Group while Douglas & McIntyre was purchased by Harbour Publishing, and many of the D&M staff started their own publishing ventures based on different publishing models.

The landscape “is so fluid right now,” said Pulling. “It changes from week to week.” There are a lot of prognosticators talking about the end of the traditional model of publishing, said Pulling. The rise of self-publishing—from its accessibility to its cachet—has led to a lot of hype and empty promises, she warned. “Everybody’s a publisher, everybody’s a consultant. It raises a lot of ethical issues.”

The scholarly environment faces some different challenges, said Coates. It can be quick to accept new things but sometimes moves very slowly. Because the main market of scholarly presses has been research libraries, the ebook issue is just now emerging, and the push is coming from the authors, who want to present their research in new ways that a book can’t really accommodate. She gave as examples researchers who want to release large amounts of their data or authors of Aboriginal studies titles who want to make dozens of audio files available. “Is confining ourselves to the book our mandate?” she asked. “And who has editorial control?”

Okerlund asked the panel if, given the rise in ebooks and related media, editors are now expected to be more like TV producers. Beyond a core of editorial skills, what other skills are editors expected to have?

“I’m still pretty old-fashioned,” answered Flight. “The same old skills are still going to be important in this new landscape.” She noted an interesting statistic that ebook sales are generally down, but ebooks for kids in particular have fallen 45% in the first half of 2013. As for other ebook bells and whistles, Greystone has done precisely one enhanced ebook, and that was years ago. They didn’t find the effort of that project worth their while. Coates agreed, saying “Can’t we just call it [the enhanced ebook] a website at this point? Because that’s what it really is.” Where editorial skills are going to be vital, she said, was in the realm of discoverability. Publishers need editors to help with metadata tagging and identifying important themes and information. Scholarly presses are now being called upon to provide abstracts not just for a book but also for each chapter, and editors have the skills to help with these kinds of tasks.

Pulling mentioned a growing interest in digital narratives, such as Kate Pullinger’s Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths, interactive online novels that have readers contribute threads to the stories. Inanimate Alice was picked up by schools as a teaching tool and is considered one of the early examples of transmedia storytelling. “Who is playing an editors’ role in the digital narrative?” asked Pulling. “Well, nobody. That role will emerge.”

Okerlund asked if authors are expected to bring more to the table. Flight replied, “Authors have to have a profile. If they don’t, they are really at a huge disadvantage. We’re not as willing to take a chance on a first-time author or someone without a profile.” Pulling expressed concern for the authors, particularly in the “Wild West” of self-publishing. “What happens to the writers?” she asked. In the traditional publishing model, if you put together a successful proposal, the publisher will edit your book. But now “Writers are paying for editing. Writers are being asked to write for free. They need to be able to market; they need to know social media. It’s very difficult for writers right now. Everybody’s trying to get something for nothing.” She also said that although self-publishing offers opportunity in some ways, “there’s so much propaganda out there about self-publishing.” Outfits like Smashwords and Amazon, she explained, have “done so much damage. It’s like throwing stuff to the wall and seeing what sticks, and they’re just making money on volume.”

Pulling sees ethical issues not only in those business practices but also in the whole idea of editing a work to be self-published, without context. “It’s very difficult to edit a book in a vacuum,” she said. “You have to find a way to create a context for each book,” which can be hard when “you have people come to you with things that aren’t really books.” She added, “Writers are getting the message that they need an editor, but some writers have gotten terrible advice from people who claim to be editors. Book editing is a specialized skill, and you have to know about certain book conventions. Whether it’s an ebook or a print book, if something is 300,000 words long, and it’s a novel, who’s going to read that?” A good, conscientious book editor can help an author see a larger context for their writing and tailor their book to that, with a strong overall narrative arc. “It’s incumbent upon you as a freelancer to educate clients about self-publishing,” said Pulling. Coates added, “We have a real PR problem now in publishing and editing. We’ve gotten behind in being out there publicly and talking about what we do. The people pushing self-publishing are way ahead of us. I think it’s sad that writers can’t just be writers. I can’t imagine how writing must suffer because of that.”

Both Flight and Pulling noted that a chief complaint of published authors was that their publishers didn’t do enough marketing. But, as Pulling explained, “unless it’s somebody who is set up to promote themselves all the time, it’s not as easy as it looks.” Coates said that when it comes to marketing, UBC Press tries everything. “Our audiences are all over the place,” she explained. “We have readers and authors who aren’t on email to people who DM on Twitter. It’s subject specific: some have huge online communities.” Books built around associations and societies are great, she explained, because they can get excerpts and other promotional content to their existing audiences. She’s also found Twitter to be a great tool: “It’s so immediate. Otherwise it’s hard to make that immediate connection with readers.”

Okerlund asked the panel about some of the new publishing models that have cropped up, from LifeTree Media to Figure 1 Publishing and Page Two Strategies. Figure 1 (started by D&M alums Chris Labonté, Peter Cocking, and Richard Nadeau), Pulling explained, does custom publishing—mostly business books, art books, cookbooks, and books commissioned by the client. Page Two, said Pulling, is “doing everything.” Former D&Mers Trena White and Jesse Finkelstein bring their clients a depth of experience in publishing. They have a partnership with a literary agency but also consult with authors about self-publishing. They will also help companies get set up with their own publishing programs. Another company with an interesting model is OR Books, which offers its socially and politically progressive titles directly through their website, either as ebooks or print-on-demand books.

The scholarly model, said Coates, has had to respond to calls from scholars and readers to make books available for free as open-access titles. The push does have its merits, she explained: “Our authors and we are funded by SSHRC [the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada]. So it makes sense for people to say, ‘If we’re giving all this money to researchers and publishers, why are they selling the books?'” The answer, she said, lies simply in the fact that the people issuing the call for open access don’t realize how many resources go into producing a book.

So where do we go from here? According to Pulling, “Small publishers will be okay, as long as the funding holds.” Flight elaborated: “There used to be a lot of mid-sized publishers in Canada, but one after another has been swallowed up or gone out of business.” About Greystone since its rebirth, Flight explained, “We’re smaller now. We’re just doing everything we’ve always done, but more so. We put a lot more energy into identifying our market.” She added, “It’s a good time to be a small publisher, if you know your niche. There’s not a lot of overhead, and there’s collegiality. At Greystone we’ve been very happy in our smaller configuration, and things are going very well.”

Pulling encouraged us to be more vocal and active politically. “One of the things we should do in Vancouver is write to the government and get them to do something about the rent in this city. We don’t have independent bookstores, beyond the specialty stores like Banyen or Kidsbooks. And at the same time Gregor Robertson is celebrating Amazon’s new warehouse here?” She also urged us to make it clear to our elected representatives how much we value arts funding. One opportunity to make our voices heard is coming up at the Canada Council’s National Forum on the Literary Arts, happening in February 2014.

Book review: Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text

Too often we see book production as a sequence of tasks—writing, editing, design, proofreading—forgetting that behind these tasks are professionals who have to work as a team to make a book happen. Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text (edited by Darcy Cullen, published by University of Toronto Press) urges us to shift our perspective—not only towards the dynamic, social aspects of the production process that are so critical to its functioning but also away from the notion that an editor is “an invisible figure who must leave no trace of his or her presence or as a taint to be expunged.” (p. 4)

Darcy Cullen, an acquisitions editor at UBC Press, has assembled an impressive cast of contributors to this authoritative collection, including Peter L. Shillingsburg, author of From Gutenberg to Google, and Amy Einsohn, author of The Copyeditor’s Handbook. We hear from academic experts as well as editors and designers in a rich mosaic of experiences and complementary viewpoints. In short, this unassuming volume brims with wisdom.

Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text focuses naturally on academic publishing, but much of the insight and information it offers would also be useful to trade publishers. It divides its attention between scholarly editors (scholars who develop, curate, and compile) and academic editors (in-house or freelance professionals who acquire manuscripts, copy edit, and project manage), and although I found many of the former pieces interesting, I gravitated towards essays about the latter, which were both a mirror of my own experiences and a window into a parallel universe. Editors (and publishers) may operate according to the same set of best practices, but they all have different approaches, and it’s these details that intrigue me most.

To give a sweeping review of such a heterogeneous collection would be an unfair oversimplification, so my goal here is to hit what I considered the highlights, from my perspective as an editor, rather than attempt to be comprehensive.

Cullen’s motivation for bringing together these essays carries a subtle but definite tone of activism. Of the legions of books devoted to publishing, most are focused on helping authors get their manuscripts published or marketed, yet, writes Cullen, “the ‘middle’ part of the publishing process, sandwiched between acquisitions and sales, is often closed from view, or viewed as closed off, even though it is here that the manuscript’s metamorphosis into book occurs.” (p. 3) The shrinking-violet stereotype of editors must be abandoned because it perpetuates a certain self-marginalization that denies the important social contribution of an editor to the publishing process. Cullen hopes that “these chapters engaging the question of minority cultures and ethnicity in the spheres of scholarly and academic editing and scholarly publishing should serve as an impetus to editors who still invisibilize themselves, so that they acknowledge their place and position of influence as it extends beyond the chain of production.” (p. 12)

That thread is carried through Rosemary Shipton’s brilliant chapter, “The Mysterious Relationship: Authors and Their Editors,” in which she gives readers a most cogent description of the editorial process, comparing trade and academic publishing. “So long as the editors’ contribution to publications in all genres… is not given the recognition it deserves,” writes Shipton, “editors will remain vulnerable to low salaries and, in times of economic downturn, early layoff.”

The relationship an editor fosters with an author is key to a book’s realization—and it may play a role in a publisher’s ability to retain an author: “When the collaboration works well,” Shipton writes, “inevitably authors bond with their editors—they request them for book after book.” But “if the collaboration between author and editor does not work well, the author very quickly feels threatened and loses confidence in the editor.” (p. 51) As one of the founders of the publishing program at Ryerson, her advocacy for the editing profession is grounded in her belief in high standards and a solid foundation of editorial principles, as she warns, “The most common disputes arise when copyeditors lack training and experience.” (p. 45)

Shipton explains that whereas “most trade publishers know that, to make their books excellent and interesting, to attract good reviews and other media attention, to win book awards, and to get that word-of-mouth buzz that entices readers to buy, they really should edit at both the macro and the micro level,” (p. 50) meaning that manuscripts at trade houses go through structural, stylistic, and copy editing, “scholarly publishers do not usually do intensive substantive editing—and for many good reasons. Their mandate is to publish books that make an original contribution to knowledge; most of their authors are professors or researchers; the majority of their readers are academics and students; and the number of copies they print of most titles is small.” (p. 52) Because they write for an academic audience, says Shipton, scholars “know that these readers will understand the specialized jargon and the guarded, often obtuse long sentences in which they make their arguments.” (p. 52) (I haven’t worked much with textual scholars, but based on my experiences with scientific scholars, I couldn’t help wondering if scholars’ resistance to being stylistically edited or have at least some clear communication principles applied to their writing is a symptom of an academic culture that routinely conflates abstruseness with erudition.)

Shipton also touches on issues specific to legal editing and educational publishing, adeptly showing not only the peculiarities of each genre but also aspects of our work that unite us all as editors; as far as I’m concerned, her chapter should be required reading in all introductory editing courses. Veteran editors—trade or academic, freelance or in house—would also benefit from her wisdom.

Amy Einsohn’s piece, “Juggling Expectations: The Copyeditor’s Roles and Responsibilities” provides equally valuable information for both novice and seasoned copy editors, encouraging them to pull back and look at their own vulnerabilities so that they can become more effective in their work. “Conflicting opinions about what constitutes good or acceptable expository writing can be particularly difficult to negotiate. Because any sentence can be rewritten (and arguably “improved” thereby), copyeditors must learn to resist the impulse to tinker,” (p. 79) she writes, cautioning that copyeditors “labour in the presence of benevolent or fearsome ghosts: a high school English teacher, a freshman composition instructor, one or more publishing mentors, and the authors of favourite usage books.” (p. 69)

Copy editing is an exercise in juggling quality, collegiality, cost, and control, Einsohn says. And true to the book’s overarching message, she emphasizes the importance of the relationships built—largely through clear, respectful communication—between copy editor and author and between copy editor and press. Most importantly, she offers concrete suggestions to improve these relationships and improve editor retention, including checklists, sample edits, and style memos.

Whereas Einsohn’s contribution focused on text, Camilla Blakeley revealed through a case study of an award-winning project of hers, The Trickster Shift by Allan J. Ryan, the complexities of editing an illustrated book. Tactfully mediating a relationship between the author and designer, securing permissions within a specified budget, coordinating captions and credits, and taking into account the effect these added tasks have on the project schedule are some of just some of the considerations for illustrated books, and, again, communication is paramount. On this project, Blakeley set up a meeting with the author and designer at the very early stages, which the designer, George Vaitkunas, credited with making the project particularly rewarding. Blakeley notes, “early communication makes the job not only easier but more pleasurable. This is significant.” (p. 156)

One point of hers that caught my attention was that “while an experienced scholarly editor knows that a table or a graph requires as much editing as a narrative—often more—most of us have no training in how to look at photograph.” (p. 165) She points to a positive editor–designer relationship as an opportunity for editors to educate themselves about these kinds of issues so that they can better serve the author, designer, and, ultimately, the book.

Blakeley’s contribution is packed with examples from The Trickster Shift—of such details as art logs and schedules—that are useful not only because they inform readers about the anatomy of an illustrated book project as it evolves but also because editors can easily appropriate and adapt these documents for their own use.

Blakeley does a tremendous job of giving the designer on her project a voice, but what sets this book apart is that we get to hear directly from designers themselves. Learning from designer Richard Hendel, for example, about not only how designers fit in to the book production process but also how designers view editors (both flatteringly and unflatteringly) can be an important step to better communication and a more effective workflow. Hendel stresses that “The designer cannot properly address a text until an editor has understood and clearly dealt with the physical aspects of the content: how chapters and chapter titles are arranged, how subheads are dealt with, kinds of extract, and the like.” (p. 175) Referring to English typographer John Ryder, Hendel writes, “Ryder felt that editors should be more critical about how something in the manuscript will eventually appear in the printed book—the need to edit visually before the design process even begins.” (p. 176)

In her chapter, designer Sigrid Albert looks at the evolving role of the designer and the changing relationship between editor and designer as the publishing landscape adjusts to accommodate ebooks and other technologies. “The traditional printed book as a highly crafted cultural object, whether in a humble, low-budget or a luxurious, highly produced format, is the goal of the editor and designer. At the highest level of the book production process, the editor has shaped a piece of history, and the designer has shaped a piece of art,” writes Albert, in one of my favourite quotes from the book.

Whereas the traditional book all but demands a strong, communicative relationship between editor and designer to transmit a single vision, digital books have meant that content and form are separate: “book content is increasingly being stored in databases and tagged with content-related markup—such as chapter titles, subtitles, subheads, extracts—by the editor, while the visual design is controlled by a separate style markup—such as margin widths, font, font size, font weight, colour, or line height—delivered by the designer.” (p. 184) Albert wonders if the relationship will only grow further apart as designers eventually stop designing single books and instead create digital templates that they license. Yet, Albert says, “From the designer’s point of view, the design process, despite the technological advances, still requires a synthesis of information and a variety of visual choices to form an aesthetic unity.” (p. 193)

Yuri Cowan (“Reading Material Bibliography and Digital Editions”) and Darcy Cullen (“The Object and the Process”) also explore the implications of a workflow that incorporates digital outputs, with Cowan taking a more theoretical approach and Cullen sharing the triumphs and growing pains of UBC Press’s first steps into the realm of digital production. Writes Cowan, “our editors can inform their theoretical approaches with recent scholarship in the sociology of material texts, creating a model of readerly engagement and a generation of reader/editors who will be neither overawed by the authority of print nor seduced by the hyperbolic claims made for the electronic edition.” (p. 236)

The book’s other contributors—Peter L. Shillingsburg, Alexander Petit, Peter Mahon, and John K. Young—offer scholars’ perspectives on various facets of the academic publishing process, and although these chapters are all worth reading for the sake of interest, I believe that the general editor-reader will find the essays I’ve mentioned most engaging and directly relevant to their work—and it’s to this specific but vast audience, editors of whatever genre and whatever experience level, that I wholeheartedly recommend this book. Freelance editors who have never worked in house may have the most to gain from this insiders’ view. As Amy Einsohn writes, “Some presses make an effort to train, coach, and acculturate their freelancers, but most freelancers have few opportunities to learn about the publisher’s activities, customs, and mores,” (p. 69) and being informed about a publishing house’s inner workings helps editors anticipate what may be expected of them.

UBC Press—and hence Cullen’s book—specializes in the social sciences, but I would be intrigued to see how the processes described in Editors, Scholars, and the Social Text compare with the workflow and author–editor relationships at academic presses focused on the natural sciences. Most of those authors probably will not read this book, and perhaps even most social science scholars hoping to get published would not think to read it. In many ways, it is much more information than they need to play their roles in book production. Yet, I hope that some academic authors choose to hear what Cullen’s roster of experts have to say. This book beautifully humanizes the publishing process in a way that could only foster mutual respect between professionals—ones with the common aim of producing great books.