11 November 2007

The Small Press Book Fair needs a public — and a board!

I hesitate to do this, but I'm concerned. The Toronto Small Press Book Fair is a big part of my life and I don't want to see it die.

Yeah, I had a very good time at yesterday's fair. But it would've been nice to see the big room crowded with members of the public. Because I've been around and doing this small press stuff for 30 years, and there are some people who follow my work, I did pretty well at my table. But I could have done far, far better, and met far more people. In fact, meeting new people and seeing old friends is one of the best parts of the fair.

Some context, and pardon me if you've heard this story before. I started the Toronto Small Press Book Fair in 1987, with Nicholas Power. We both had small literary presses — mine is Proper Tales; Nick's is Gesture — and we wanted to find ways of getting our publications out to a broader public. Not ways of selling thousands of copies, but of finding our modest readership, or making it possible for our readership to find us.

Over the three years that I was one of the fair coordinators, we saw attendance rise from 400 to 1,000 to about 1,200. It was a major event for the small press community in Toronto. The room was packed. There was excitement.

Yesterday, I'd say that maybe 120 members of the public came through. Maybe.

It wasn't a good sign when just about nobody I knew was aware of the fair during the week leading up to it. And not a good sign when I didn't see a single poster on the streets, or even around the venue.

The day before the fair I sent out a mass emailing to my list of 400 or so Toronto contacts. That might have got a few people to Trinity-St. Paul Centre.

And it was a terrible sign when the fair's coordinators, Halli and Myna, didn't show up at the venue until 10:51 and 10:53 respectively, when they hastened to set up the tables for their own presses. Volunteers were already at the venue an hour earlier, putting up tables and chairs, and most of the presses were already there and waiting for the public to arrive when the doors opened at 11 a.m.

I know that Halli and Myna believe in small press and are committed to poetry. And I'm sure they worked hard on aspects of this fair. But I think it has to be said: I saw just about zero evidence of their getting the public to the event.

- There were no free listings in Eye, NOW, or Word. The only reason there was a listing on the Patchy Squirrel Lit-Serv was because I sent one in myself. There were no announcements sent to the Lex list or the Smallpressers list.

- There were no posters. No posters for this grass-roots event that has had a poster every time for the past 20 years. I asked one of the coordinators why and she told me, "They cost hundreds of dollars." I suggested that 500 copies of a letter-size poster could be printed around the corner at 3-Cent Copy for $15. You need only go into bars, restaurants, bookstores, etc., and if they have a bulletin board, ask to put up one of your posters; and then there are all the guerrilla postering sites, like lampposts and garbage bins and hoardings. I remembered back to the days when Nick and I spent several days in advance of the fair putting up posters. I told her I'd put up a hundred posters in the Annex for the next fair.

- There was no emailing from the coordinators to the presses urging us to invite every goddamn person we knew. No JPG invitation that we could forward to our mailing lists. The only communications I received were those inviting me to book a table, a confirmation of my booking, and a list of who had volunteered to help set up and take down the fair.

- Facebook, as I told the current coordinators before the spring fair, is an incredible tool for getting the word out. But the Book Fair's Facebook group has only about 65 members. That's ridiculous. It should have 500. No Event was even created for the fair so that invitations could be sent out on Facebook. And what is the graphic on the Facebook page? A photo of chapbooks? Of a busy fair? No - a photo of Myna and Halli. What would that mean to anyone? And the announcement section on Facebook merely had a note saying, basically, "THE TABLES ARE ALL FULL," and announcing the "special guest" reader, Pricila Uppal [sic]. I posted a note on the wall on Thursday asking where the buzz was, and where the invitations were. On Friday, Myna posted on the wall that there'd be an afterparty for the presses at Kilgour's.

I'm sure I've already made the coordinators feel terrible, but my intent is not public humiliation - it's a call for discussion and action. And this is the best way I could think of doing it.

The problem, as I see it: the coordinators seem to be focussing on the presses, not on the public. The focus should be on the public.

The presses will be there: you don't have to worry about that.

Everything should be about getting the public to the fair. Hitting every free listing venue, getting the word out to everyone at every reading for two months leading up to the fair (and this means posters and flyers handed out at all these events), repeated mass emailings, smart use of Facebook and MySpace opportunities, making the Toronto Small Press Book Fair website an exciting and useful place to visit, peppering listservs with info, putting up posters everywhere and repeatedly, striving to guilt the media into giving the fair at least some coverage. It's the 20th-anniversary year of this fair! Did press releases go out to the newpapers and weeklies about that? Were arts editors phoned?

We've got this potentially great institution in place. But it's not enough to book a room, rent tables, and invite some presses. Let's get the public there. Let's woo Coach House and ECW and Mercury back behind their tables. Those presses are bigger machines, and they could help get small-press fans out - as well as being an important presence in the bell curve of small press publishing.

OK. I've griped enough.

But I believe I've also been constructive.

And there's one more thing. I'm assuming the fair still receives public funding. Is there a board to oversee the fair's operations? Who's on the board? And if there's not an operative board, there should be one. And not a board that consists of the coordinators. A carefully chosen board that provides, say, four more brains that can help make the fair great.

Over and out.


At November 12, 2007 4:40 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should have a look at recipients on the TAC web site -- seems that TSMG lost its funding in 07, last received funds in 06.

What happened?

At November 12, 2007 4:44 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The next grant deadline is March 1 -- someone had better spring into action on this one.

At November 12, 2007 4:49 pm , Blogger Greg Woods said...

Hear! Hear! I agree with everything you said. I do six or seven shows a year-- and within the six years I've been publishing, the Toronto Small Press Fair was the one I most anticipated. Now this venue has slowed down to a trickle. It's very sad. No one wants to create any ill will by saying negative things about the current state of the fair, but it has to be said, and acted upon to keep up the legacy and support it deserves.


At November 13, 2007 4:52 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Uh, OK, so the facebook group has a new post saying that the fair got an additional $900 this year -- and was to be used for marketing.

Wow, that makes the whole thing look even worse than no grant at all.

At November 13, 2007 8:20 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Here's my guess, having searched the TAC web site --

The TSPG DID receive funding, but because, for some strange reason, they're still on project funds, not annual funding after 20 years (?????) they applied to the second deadline, and not to the March 1 deadline. Results for the March 1 deadline come out in June, and would be on the TAC web site by now.

Anyhow -- since 1999, the TSPG has DECREASED from $3000, to $1125, to whatever they got this year. And over the past eight years, Canzine has gone up from nothing, to $3000. Also, new funds have gone toward the Toronto Comic Fair. So TSPG and Fair is perhaps being seen as less and less relevant in the eyes of the TAC??? Also, the Torontno Book/Magazine fair receives annual funds to the tune of $33,000 -- so the question is, what role does the Toronto Small Press Book Fair play anymore?

If the TSPG had a board, they could apply for annual funding and at least be more stable from year to year. I'm done on this thread now.

At November 14, 2007 8:01 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

As another past coordinator, I've been trying not to say anything, but I'm worried too. It's not only the small crowds, though that's a big one. It's the lack of a bunch of presses that seem to me important in different ways. It's that presses were coming to *me* for information because they couldn't contact the current coordinators. It's the general feeling of low spirits.

I think that sad two-day fair at the Victory was a real blow on many levels, and lost a bunch of good will and enthusiasm from the public and the presses. It needn't have been fatal, but it needed a good jolt of energy in the next cycle to compensate, and that didn't happen. I'm not sure the coordinators realize the extent to which they need to feed a sense of energy into the fair. It doesn't come from nowhere. It's a nurturing job as much as anything, in my view.

Okay, enough ranting. I've always felt I should stay quiet and let whoever takes over do their own thing, but I had to get that off my chest a bit.


At November 14, 2007 10:37 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Toronto Small Press Fair organizers are not entirely to blame here. What is happening however, is what is happening even on the scale of let's say a large horribly run big box bookstore that used to exploit me all the time.

It's what is called "Sales Prevention" a term I coined a few years ago when I used to make fun of upper management at Indigo. It's a term they are now very familiar with.

And it's happening at events like TSPBF as well.

This season has provided us with tons of book launches and opportunities to hang out, see what is new, etc.

But the TSPBF lacked legitimacy.

Funding or not, there is a time honoured tradition within the Small Press Fair, and to me it needs a complete overhaul. This is not a reflection entirely on the organizers, but the level of quality represented at the fair. How many legitimate publishers over the past decade have dropped out of the fair?

I agree with you SR, that the TSPBF lacked a certain focus in terms of promotion, flow and coherency.

In the tech-boom world of blogs and Facebook and Myspace, there is still the idea that we deal in paper.

It is quite simply that, postering works. Generating public interest works.

I remember hand postering fliers for the events over the past few years, and it never took anytime at all, it was simply just postering a library or two, a pub, and emailing the weeklies.

The readings also got hyped on these posters. This year it felt a bit like a flea market.

Like the LPG letting in new publishers, which is good I suppose, the trouble with events like TSPBF is there is no measuring stick for young upstarts who want to rise in the ranks of publishing and become someone worthy of respect.

Regardless of the community nature of the fair, we are still trying to make money, and act as much as is possible, as though we are in an industry.

It's disparaging to see this happen: within the same week of the Gillers, the TSPBF, an event I have supported for almost a decade, seemed to really focus on the idea of being small and establish the ongoing depressing and highly visible gulf between the small and the large.

It cannot solely be blamed on a lack of funding.

To me the solution lies in the dormant LPG website, who should take the Toronto Small Press Fair and make it their own. They should book readings, get sponsorship and control the event, and then repeat it on a bi-monthly basis NATION-WIDE.

What is this? Amateur hour? I'm all for new upstarts and unknowns trying to sell their things and connect with an established market, but I didn't see a lot of people who used to be there 5 or 8 years ago.

The small can still appear to be somewhat professional and papered.

Were there listings in Now/Eye? Where were the posters? Coherency?

There was effort being made for the Instant Anthology. There was an effort to make the readings important, however the fact that they existed whilst the fair was going on compromised things. And all the shouting, it was a bit tacky.

A sunny day should have been conjured up a better turn out.

So that's my point. I believe the the LPG should actually do something, get some balls for once and should have a national small press book fair.

The sponsorship element, legitimizing the event has to be exploited if a future is to exist. This event has to have, by now evolved.

Attendance was down, morale, in general, it seemed sawed-off.

I have one word for all you Torontonians (I was born and raised here, but still, there is more to life than 416 small press drama 101)


Nathaniel G. Moore

Danforth Review

Critical Crushes

At November 14, 2007 11:39 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, lots of good points b=y Nathaniel. I have to say I agree, something like Expozine brings together what Canzine, Comic Fair and Small Press Fair are doing , I dunno though I see the merits of highlighting the fair on its own for literary small presses (as opposed to zines and comiccs), there is something ot be said for the critical mass. And it relieves competition for funding. If there were a way to do this without compromising the integrity of the Small Press aspect, that would probably be very powerful.

At December 13, 2007 2:56 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I was one of the readers at the most recent small press fair, and I had a great experience. I thought having the readings during the fair was a great idea, which Myna and Halli should be commened upon. I sold five books as a result of that readings and I know other writers who read that day had comparable successes. I liked being able to drop in on the readings, listen to a few poems, check out books and then come back and listen to, say, a story. It gave the event an added layer and richer dynamic. The band was fun as well.
For what it's worth.

Jacob Scheier

At December 14, 2007 2:58 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think these are all valid issues, but I don't agree with your method. Posting to a blog, before engaging in closed discussion with the coordinators, shows poor foresight. I'm an outsider, but I've been following this public train wreck and it seems to me that damage has been done to your community by this blog post. Damage that was wholly avoidable.

As for TAC funding, I know for a fact that each year the TAC gives the fair the amount it asks for. If the funding was lower in recent years, that's only because less funding was requested. If you doubt that assertion, call the TAC and ask them.

At December 14, 2007 3:24 pm , Blogger Razovsky said...

I hesitated to publish the above comment, as it comes from an anonymous user, and states as fact something that I don't believe is a fact.

I have been on arts council advisory committees that have recommended less money be awarded to groups, events, and organizations than was requested.

I have set the preferences on my blog now to exclude anonymous commentators. I may reverse that at some point.

At January 15, 2008 8:52 pm , Blogger Zane said...

Per the Dec. 14th anonymous post - just how is keeping this discussion behind closed doors going to help the writing community? The original blog post aired one person's informed opinions and observations about the state of the fair. The proper place for this is in the public ear where it can be discussed, debated, and, yes, if necessary, refuted, contradicted, countered. For a quality event many points of view need to be considered. In the end this 'train wreck' will hopefully result in a higher quality event in the future because of the discussion, not in spite of it, once all parties involved realize that criticism is important, not unfortunate. Onwards!



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