How SaskBooks helped a funder fix an accidental oopsies

Books | by Gregory Beatty

The 26th annual Saskatchewan Book Awards are in Regina on April 26.

Hopefully it will be smoother than last year’s event.

Just days before last April’s awards, Creative Saskatchewan dropped a bombshell when it announced major changes to its Book Publishing Production Grant that seemingly froze out many of the province’s publishes.

The April 2018 announcement caught the publishing industry by surprise, and put a damper on what should’ve been a festive gala with the Saskatchewan Book Awards celebrating their silver anniversary.

“The way the funding announcement was worded, it made it really difficult for any emerging publisher to participate,” recalls SaskBooks executive director Brenda Niskala. “It also made it difficult for any publisher that had a different model than the standard royalty model to participate.”

Set up by the Saskatchewan government in 2013, Creative Saskatchewan provides funding to artists and organizations in six cultural industries to help produce and market their work. Other industries that receive support besides publishing include performing arts, craft and visual art, interactive digital, film and TV, and music.

SaskBooks is the industry organization that represents Saskatchewan publishers. A few members, such as literary presses Coteau Books in Regina and Thistledown Press in Saskatoon, and academic presses such as the University of Regina Press and Gabriel Dumont Institute, follow relatively standard publishing models.

The majority of SaskBooks members, though, rely on unconventional models — such as self-publishing and hybrid publishing, where authors and publishers team up to produce a book.

“When they made the change last year, they were doing that based on the status quo in central Canada,” says Niskala. “We’re not central Canada, where we’ve had years and years of support for book publishers. That’s just a fact of being in Saskatchewan. As a result, we’ve had to do some innovation in publishing models. That’s okay. In some ways, it may even make us stronger.”

But under the revised grant program, even well-established publishers such as Robin and Arlene Karpan (Parkland Publishing) and Heather Nickel (Your Nickel’s Worth) were frozen out, says Niskala.

“These are people who have been putting out books for decades,” she says. “Everyone knows their work, and they’re professionals. It’s their livelihood.”

Ironically, as part of Planet S’ Saskatchewan Book Awards 25th anniversary coverage, I’d just interviewed SBA executive director Courtney Bates-Hardy on how the awards had grown and evolved over the years.

One topic we discussed was the emergence of digital media, and the disruptive effect it’s had on book publishing (and other print media such as newspapers and magazines). Yet by thinking outside the traditional publishing box, Saskatchewan publishers (and authors) were finding ways to survive.

Creative Saskatchewan’s announcement was sadly out of step with that reality. It was doubly ironic, too, because in music — another industry that’s been radically disrupted by digital technology — the agency is strongly supportive of musicians building careers as independent artists.

Once the changes were announced, SaskBooks and its industry partners quickly contacted Creative Saskatchewan to express their concern.

“We had two roundtables in June that were pretty detailed,” says Niskala. “Publishers came to the table fully engaged and prepared. So we didn’t need a whole series of meetings. I think that was really useful, and there were a lot of occasions where Creative Saskatchewan. hadn’t really thought about certain viewpoints until then.”

Communication Is Important

On April 15, Creative Saskatchewan unveiled the results of that consultation when it announced a revamped book publishing program. The grant now includes separate streams for publishers that produce less than three and more than three books a year.

“It’s not 100 per cent what our publishers would’ve dreamed of, but they certainly did listen to us and our concerns,” says Niskala. “And there are now ways to manage many of the situations that were not able to move forward last year, so we’re hopeful.”

The grant deadline for the less than three book stream is July 17, So Saskatchewan publishers will soon have an opportunity to test the new system.

“Hopefully we’re able to monitor what’s successful and what isn’t,” says Niskala. “I’m hoping people will be getting in touch with Creative Saskatchewan, and with us, about their concerns and difficulties and then we can have more meetings and frank discussion with Creative Saskatchewan.”

There’s a definite object lesson here. Just like other sectors of society, the creative industries are constantly innovating to survive and hopefully even thrive in an ever-evolving marketplace. So it’s important for funding agencies to have regular sit-downs with their industry partners.

That’s especially true in the creative sector, where money is always tight.

“Part of the problem with any funder in making something work is that they have to have adequate funding,” says Niskala. “I know Creative Saskatchewan is working as best it can to use its funding responsibly. And they really did rework the whole program. So I have to give them credit for that.”