(How) Do Authors Get Paid?

Listen. All I needed was ONE FRIEND to tell me that an industry-related post explaining royalties would be interesting, and I’m so ready to dive into this topic. The last time I wrote I post like this, I included this disclaimer, that is still true: I’ve been a little self-indulgent here. I love these details, but I hope that even if it’s not usually their jam, readers will be able to use this knowledge to support authors! This post is a massive info dump, but I hope that even if it’s long, it will contribute toward an ongoing goal of mine for more transparency in publishing.

BUT FIRST, before I dive headlong into how authors make their (very small amount of) money from the books that they publish in traditional publishing stream, I’m going to offer up a review of All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, written by our regular contributor Jack (thank you so much!!), and a short review of a simple and queer visual novel I completed recently.

Review of George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, by Jack

Cover of All Boys Aren’t Blue

The specificity in Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue makes this memoir a survival guide. Johnson explores carving part of themselves in their relationships, community and individual while simultaneously thriving off their duality. It’s the Black Queer joy, Black magic, is skipping rope with your girlfriends and playing football with your father. All Boys Aren’t Blue is an exploration of lived experiences, the linking and unlinking of one’s gender, sexuality, and favorite past times. Johnson’s work is meant to inspire, educate, illustrate, and challenge the stereotypical depictions of Black boys.

Johnson is an activist and writer based in New York who according to Macmillan publishers has written on race, gender, sex, and culture for numerous prominent publications. Their writing experience is evident in their memoir, which is an exploration of gender and sexuality intersecting with race and class; it’s a love letter to intergenerational relationships.

Johnson mentions interpreting their feelings for men as an indication of their gender identity rather than sexuality. Similarly, to how Sara Ahmed connects orientation and orientalism to explore how one physically orients themselves in space and identity, All Boys Aren’t Blue explores how in a world of social constructs, we use often use race and gender as tools of understanding our sexuality.

CW includes but is not limited to violence, misogyny SA, incest, transphobia, and homophobia.

Johnson’s memoir doesn’t shy away from acknowledging their healing journey and demonstrating what accountability looks like. Or how confusing it can be when those who are supposed to love you can harm you. All Boys Aren’t Blue, Johnson’s story, deserves to be heard both in the context of educational generalizations and a memoir. Too often are marginalized authors demonized for not representing or speaking for the collective.

***This is a note regarding representation: no Black Queer person needs to/can represent all our experiences when they write.***

I recommend this memoir to all boys who aren’t blue, to families and kinships who are trying to create communities, Black Queer kids, and adults who deserve to see versions of their story being told. 15+ and up.

All Boys Aren’t Blue is the warmth and comfort one feels when being hugged by someone they love, it’s the presence of community and visibility.

Review: A Hero and a Garden

The banner for the video game A Hero and a Garden

A while back, I posted about having discovered visual novels for the first time, through first buying a Switch Lite to play Animal Crossing in lockdown. Well, if 2020 taught me anything, it taught me that visual and interactive novels are masterful storytelling that’s just as powerful as any book I’ve ever read… and it can be just as super queer, too. A Hero and a Garden is an indie game by npckc available for Switch, PS 4, Android, Windows, Linux, Mac, and Xbox One. In it, you play Cyrus. He was a knight, born and sworn to protect a princess… until she ran away from home to live in a village of monsters. Cyrus went after her, and destroyed the town to save her – only to find that she was actually pretty content, and not in need of saving at all.

The game begins at this point – when Cyrus has been cursed by a local witch to tend a magical fruit garden until he has repaid his debt to the villagers, and helped rebuild their town. This game is super simple and light to play – literally zero pressure – but brings all the feels. As Cyrus helps the town, he learns about the villagers, their lives, their love, and himself. This game doesn’t play into normative expectations when it comes to gender, sexuality, or monogamy. If you’re indulging in a lot of baking shows and slice of life anime right now to get through this weird time in human history, maybe what you need is to pick some berries, and get to know the delightful cast of this very fluffy and sweet, LGBTQ2S+ celebratory game.

The creator of this game has SO MANY OTHER COOL GAMES, and because I don’t usually play on my computer (I spend too much time with this machine as it is – they need a rest every now and then, and so do my eyes!!), I am just very very hopeful that Ratalaika Games will port more of them to Switch ASAP. Take my meagre dollars, I beg of you!!

Let’s Talk About Money

I have previously used this space to write industry-related posts about things like how to best use your purchasing power to support authors through choosing to support the best retail outlets for authors, but it’s been brought to my attention recently that some readers might be interested in a post about another aspect of how money flows from readers to authors in traditional publishing. Once the money goes into a bookshop’s coffers – how does that money make it from the bookshop, via the distributor, back to the publisher, through an agency, and then back to the original creator of the intellectual property that you’re ingesting: the author? One part of the answer to that question is through royalties.

Royalties are used in all kinds of industries, including traditional publishing. In basic terms, royalties are the percentage of money that an author gets from the sale of a book. Any time that a reader buys a new book – not a book that’s purchased second hand, and not a book that’s remaindered – but a brand new book, the book’s author generally gets a little bit of money from that sale. That applies to all formats: hardcover, paperback, mass market, special edition, eBook, and audio. The one notable exception to that (that I can think of) would be if the book was written on a Work For Hire contract, and that contract included a fixed rate, but no royalties. That happens most commonly, in my experience, in a licensed content situation, which you can learn more about by watching the video below, by Alexa Donne 👇🏼

A YouTube video called WHAT IS IP IN PUBLISHING?

The amount of royalties that an author will get depends on a LOT of different factors. Some of these might include the size of the publisher, the size of the imprint, the values of the publisher/imprint, the negotiating power that an author’s agent or agency has with a particular publisher, the author’s platform and their past publication history or track record, the economy in general – the list goes on and on.

From here, the information that you want to know may depend on your positionality a little bit – so I’m going to split the rest of this post into two sections. The section that follows is probably most relevant to authors. If you’re not interested in the back end of how royalties come together, but you are a reader who wants to know how to best spend their money to support creators, skip to the next section!


For authors…

Royalties are negotiated individually on every book deal between either an author or their agent, and the publisher, and are often based on what are called boilerplate contracts. These are standard template contracts that publishers have in place that serve as the starting point for negotiation – and they vary between agencies and publishers. If an author is lucky enough to be represented by an agency with a long history, their boilerplates with publishers will be well-established, and that often means that authors can receive more royalties than if they are unrepresented, or if they are part of a newer literary agency who has yet to establish standards with different imprints around the world.

That said, like most things, there are some industry standards. For a deep dive into these, I recommend checking out the Writers’ Union of Canada’s royalty math page, but the basic numbers are these: for hardcovers, 10% of the cover price on the first 5,000 copies sold, 12.5% on the next 5,000, and 15% thereafter; for paperback, 7.5% of the cover price, and for eBooks, 25% of the publisher’s net receipts. For more information on retail versus net royalties, check out this post from Alexander Field at the Bindery. It’s important to know that most publishers, while they will compete on advances, do not typically compete with each other on royalties.

If you want to know more about the publishing process and where contract negotiations fit into it, there are three resources I recommend: one from Bloomsbury, a guide to the publishing process; one from blogger Rachel Kent for Books&Such Literary Management, about the publishing timeline; and one from KN Literary Arts, a publishing timeline for first-time authors.

Photo by lucas Favre on Unsplash

The other big question that authors tend to have is when do I actually get my royalties? The answer is, as soon as you earn out your advance. It’s always a difficult balance to strike as an agent when you’re advocating for an author: do you negotiate for as high an advance as you can manage, or do you go more modestly on the advance so that the author starts getting royalties sooner? Royalties are a more sustainable form of income for an author, and the higher the advance payment they receive, the less likely it is that they will ever see those payments, in this economy. Let’s take a recent release as an example.

As I write this, Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo is #4 on the Barnes and Noble bestsellers list online, the first listed paperback, at $10.99 USD – which I’m going to call $10 for the sake of simplicity. From that $10, applying a standard royalty rate of 7.5%, Bardugo is entitled to $0.75. If you set aside hardcover sales and subrights sales, and you consider that most authors are printed straight to paperback, you can see how earning out a high five figure advance would take some time – and a huge number of sales. After the advance earns out, that’s when an author begins to see royalties – but not the full $0.75 per copy. From that, you need to also subtract the 15% of that royalty that would be collected by her literary agency, $0.11, bringing that amount down to $0.64 per copy sold.

There are, however, other ways to earn out your advance as an author that don’t involve royalties at all. For this part of my long-winded story, I consulted with BBB contributor, CeCe Lyra, who is also an agent for PS Literary. Since she gave such valuable insight here, and this section of this post is specifically for authors, you can see CeCe’s most recent MSWL here. This might get a little bit convoluted, but the TL;DR of this next paragraph is: any money that you earn for your publisher as an author before you have earned out your advance counts against your advance. The way that this most often happens is through subrights sales.

Photo by Mirza Babic on Unsplash

If you want to learn the basics of subrights, check out this blog post from Valerie Peterson for The Balance Careers. For the purposes of this post, the thing to understand is that any subrights that publishers retain for your book and sell generates income for the publisher. If this happens before you’ve earned out, it will also count against your advance. To illustrate this, let’s say that I write a great new book, and it is acquired by a publisher for $20K, but they negotiate with my agent, and manage to hold on to my international and translation rights. This book is getting a lot of good press, and the publisher has a super keen rights team, so they manage to sell it in four different countries before the book even goes on sale. A huge coup! Each of those rights sales generates a $5K advance – and, just like that, my advance is earned out before my book has even hit shelves. FANTASTIC, in so many ways – but as CeCe pointed out to me, this also comes with downsides. Some argue that if the publisher sold $20K worth of foreign rights and the author’s advance was already earned out, then they could lower their marketing budget for the book’s debut in its home market, since they’re not worried about losing money if the advance doesn’t get earned back. This is part of the reason why the best thing for authors is often for their agents to advocate to retain as many of their subrights as possible and sell them separately on the author’s behalf, rather than having that service be performed by the publisher.

Now – let’s say that an author has earned out their advance (yay!), and now their agency is receiving royalties statements, and cutting them a check for their earnings twice a year. I got a question from a reader over Twitter, and it’s a great one: how do returns get factored in? Royalties payouts and statements are anything but straightforward. If you really want to do a deep dive on this, you can check out the (slightly older, but still reliable) video below, from the Authors’ Guild. If you aren’t ready for the deep dive, though – and I don’t blame you, because unless you are an unrepresented author, understanding all of this is really your agent’s responsibility and not yours as an author – let me give you a wee primer on how book distribution works!

A YouTube video on Understanding Your Royalty Statements.

In this hypothetical world, your book birthday has passed, you have earned out your advance, and bookstores are steadily ordering new copies of your book to sell. In their retail outlets, booksellers put in their orders for merchandise to their distributors. These are companies that exist between publishers and retail outlets/wholesalers who organize book sales. Books flow from the publisher to the distributor, who then makes sure that all the retail outlets get their orders. The general rule in the industry is that book retailers have 90 days from the time that they receive the books from the distributor to either sell them or return them without any financial loss.

That allowance is essential for book retailers to stay afloat… but how does it affect authors? It means that when your royalties statement comes in, the publisher will hold back a small percentage of your royalties earned on “reserve” to safeguard against books that have been ordered by booksellers, but will be returned instead of sold. If you are an unrepresented author, you should always keep an eye on exactly how much of a reserve your publisher is holding, and be sure to ask them their policies around this. If you are represented, your agent should be reviewing your statements and verifying that they are being executed correctly on your behalf.


For readers…

If you are a reader who is lucky enough to have some money to spend on books, and you wonder what the best way to support an author is, the basic answer is a bit unfortunate, but also pretty simple: the more money you spend, the more the author gets. In general, authors make more money on hardcover sales than paperback, more on paperback than mass market, and if you buy at a store that gets special sales editions and pricing (like Costco or Target, or through a subscription like a book box), the author will get a little bit less than if you buy from a brick and mortar chain store or an indie.

There are two exceptions to these rules. One is that if you buy a book that’s on sale at a regular retail outlet, for example, a 30% off hardcover at Indigo, usually that loss in profit is absorbed by the store, or in rare cases by the publisher, and not by the author. The second is if you buy an eBook. Because eBook royalties are often calculated based on net profit rather than cover price, authors don’t always come out on top, but in general, they make a higher percentage of the cover price of the book than they do for physical books, and this can serve them well in the long run.

There are two red flags that you want to keep an eye out for if you’re wanting to make sure that an author is getting full royalties from your book purchase (aside from where you’re shopping). One, a sticker over the cover price of the book that advertises a lower price than the original. This generally means that the book was sold through special sales (explained in this post from Ingram Spark), and authors often get a lower royalty rate for these kinds of bulk sales. The second is a remainder mark, usually a mark made by a Sharpie or other permanent marker to the pages of a book, near the binding. While they may be sold at a more advantageous price for consumers, authors do not get royalties on remaindered book sales.

Last but not least, is there a way to support authors financially without having your own money to spend? Always our heroes, the libraries. Authors do get some financial benefit from library loans, although the format of the book and the location of your library both play a role in this – and unfortunately, my knowledge here is limited to North America, so if you live elsewhere, it pays to do your own research about this! Also, when it comes to libraries and eBooks, what I will say is that at best, things are complicated, and if you want to support an author to the best of your ability, consider purchasing a hard copy of a book for your personal collection or as a gift or donation if you read something from your library’s eBook collection and you love it.

In the United States, authors only get royalties from libraries on physical books when they are purchased for their collections, no matter how many times the book is borrowed. That said, if you are an American reader, make sure to request titles from your local library so that they get that support! In Canada, we are #blessed to have the Public Lending Right program, which means that your library loans mean more to Canadian authors, so keep borrowing all the Can Lit you can manage!


PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Badass Illegal Funtimes!

Currently Reading: The Seep, by Chana Porter.

News

Before I jump into this week’s post, I want to do a quick shoutout to Gemma Hickey, fellow non-binary Newfoundlander, whose new book just hit shelves in time for holiday shopping.

The cover of Almost Feral, by Gemma Hickey, which shows a tree-lined highway disappearing into the distance against a cloudy grey sky.
The cover of Almost Feral.

From Breakwater Books, Almost Feral chronicles Hickey’s literal and figurative journeys – across the island, on foot, but also to the realization that they are transgender. There are so few visible non-binary folks from my little island that this book has been on my radar for a while. I haven’t gotten my hands on it yet, but I suspect it would be a great read for the Eat, Pray, Love crowd.

For more book recommendations for your holiday shopping, feel free to check out the holiday gift list from Another Story, the bookshop where I work! I contributed to this list, curated by our staff every year. Simply click on the image below to view it, and if you choose to purchase a book on the list, please consider supporting your local indie, and/or dropping a tip in my ko-fi.

A collage of five cover images, and a caption that reads Another Story Bookshop 2019 Holiday Gift List. The covers are, In the Dream House, Frying Plantain, I Hope We Choose Love, Pet, and Nibi's Water Song.

Quick Personal Note

This has been a wild ride, but I have two personal notes to make this week. First, this is the ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY POST for Books Beyond Binaries. This project has become so near and dear to me, and I never imagined that I would enjoy it this much. I wanted to say thank you to everyone who’s supported the blog, and me, and trans and non-binary literature this year. If you are reading this, you have no idea what it means to me to have your support.

Relatedly, I had to say goodbye to one of my beloved dogs this weekend. This post may be a little more scattered than usual. I appreciate your understanding!

Dinner Date, affectionately known as D. August 1 2008 – December 7 2019.

New from M. K. England: Spellhacker!

Two books laying in some festive foliage. Underneath, a hardback of The Disasters, a space helmet on a pink background. On top, an ARC of Spellhacker, a purple galaxy print cover with sparkly gold text.
Spellhacker and The Disasters, by M. K. England.

Readers may know queer author and librarian M. K. England from her queer YA space opera debut, The Disasters, which came out in 2018. I am thrilled that today’s post is part of the blog tour for England’s sophomore novel, Spellhacker! This new book is the story of a heist gone wrong in a futuristic world with magic, starring a girl named Diz who is basically a cactus secretly filled with marshmallow. Diz is joined by her non-binary childhood friend Remi (who she is definitely not dating), her fierce bestie Ania, and her dad-friend Jaesin.

For this post, I asked England to tell me a bit more about our heroine: Diz.

So, here’s the thing about Diz from SPELLHACKER: There’s the person she thinks she is, and the person she actually is. She is a champion self-liar. She’s a Hufflepuff who thinks she’s a Slytherin, a cactus secretly filled with marshmallow. It makes taking personality quizzes on behalf of Diz kind of challenging, because… am I taking this as the more self-aware Diz at the end of the book, as the angry, oblivious Diz at the beginning of the book, or as the author who knows her true heart? Take a look at the results and see what you think. 🙂

M. K. England

First off, let’s start with something basic… we asked Diz, What Dog Breed Are You?

Diz’s result in the What Dog Breed Are You quiz: Mutt!

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the most informative result. Being a mixed breed dog gives you all kinds of advantages in the evolutionary lottery, but there aren’t a lot of specific characteristics we can pin down from that: You’re a renegade, an artist, and you will not be confined to any sort of box. You have tons of real-life experience that makes you a great dinner-party guest with tons of stories. Plus, you are cute in that “je ne sais quoi” kind of way. Luckily, our collective Twitter feeds have been flooded with Which Three Disney Characters Are You? results!

Diz’s result in the Which Three Disney Characters Are You a Combo Of?

In this quiz, we learn SO MUCH MORE. Diz got some big personalities on this one – Megara, a young woman enslaved by Hades in Disney’s Hercules, Disgust, from Inside Out, and ice princess Elsa, from Frozen. Fierce and feminine, Diz definitely doesn’t want to be messed with: You’re sarcastic, opinionated, and fiercely independent. You blaze your own path and don’t let the rules of society dictate how you live your life. Although you boast about your tough exterior, you actually have a very sensitive heart and fall in love easily.

Diz’s result in the Which Type of Explorer Are You quiz: You’re a climber!

Next, we asked what kind of explorer Diz would be. Our lovable but formidable heroine aptly got “climber”: Brave like a rock climber, you’re a natural risk taker. Climbers scale rocks and mountainsides for fun. Like these daredevils, you never say no to a good challenge of any kind. Friends rely on you to take adventures to new heights!

Since England’s previous book was set in space, and Spellhacker is more of a fantasy, I had to ask Diz – did she feel more like an alien or an Earthling? Turns out, England’s new MC may have a little disaster in her yet…

Diz’s result in the Are You More of an Earthling or an Alien Quiz: Alien!

If you weren’t born among the stars, you certainly should live there now. Since you likely came to us from afar, you embody a vibrant spirit of curiosity, wonder, and exploration. Never relinquish your love of space, alien friend!

Last, but not least, it would be a total travesty to have a queer as heck book, and not ask of the MC, What Kind of Rainbow Are You?!

Your rainbow is intensely shaded green, red, and black.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

What is says about you: You are an intelligent person. You appreciate mystery. You may meet people who are afraid of you. You get bored easily and want friends who will keep up with you.

Find the colors of your rainbow at spacefem.com.

This one gets Diz spot on: You are an intelligent person. You appreciate mystery. You may meet people who are afraid of you. You get bored easily and want friends who will keep up with you.

…of course, it was too tempting to read all of Diz’s results, and not wonder what mine would be. Would I be able to keep up with this badass? Dear reader, definitely not. This pug polar explorer with a greyed out rainbow is firmly rooted to the earth. And my Disney characters? Predictable: Alice in Wonderland, Sully from Monsters Inc., and Peter Pan. Lighthearted, confusing, cozy adventures only, for me. I’m glad that I can at least live vicariously through Diz in Spellhackers!

England is hosting a HUGE pre-order campaign for this book, which officially launches on January 21, 2020, with HarperTeen. If there are fans of Marie Lu, Space Unicorn Blues, or Nicky Drayden on your holiday gift list or if you read and loved Alex Harrow’s Empire of Light earlier in 2019, you should definitely get in on this, and get all the rad Spellhacker swag – a bookmark, stickers, a signed bookplate, a postcard, and some additional digital goodies are all on the table for this one.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

A badge that reads Spellhacker Launch Crew member.

Guest Post: Poetry from a Former Skeptic

Currently Reading: A Madness of Sunshine, by Nalini Singh

This week, I am extraordinarily grateful to Beck Andoff, for providing me with a FANTASTIC guest post on a topic that I have neglected in my previous posts: poetry! I don’t read enough poetry, and I certainly don’t give it the coverage it deserves in this blog, so I’m glad that when I asked for a post from a fellow Toronto indie bookseller, this is what I got!

Andoff is somewhat of a local celebrity, and someone who I very much look up to in my local indie bookshop world, who can sometimes be heard sharing their book recommendations on Metro Morning!

Beck is a cheerful, messy queer whose gender could best be described as HIM from Powerpuff Girls. Too much gender for one tired anxious depressive body. Beck manages two locations of Type Books in Toronto, reads a lot of pop culture crit and micro histories, and lives with Bill Pullman the malamute mutt.

I’m honoured to host this guest post and share their poetry recommendations in this space!

From Beck: Queer Poetry

The Gay Agenda is just about getting you to read poetry.

Once upon a time, I loved being that smug 20 year old jerk who dismissed poetry as boring. I was yucking people’s yum left, right, and centre. In the years of bookstore experience I had before I worked at Type, I never ONCE handsold a poetry book.

But then, one day this past fall, The Queers got me. They caught me with the simplest little poem in the teeniest prettiest little book (Sennah Yee’s How Do I Look), and made me realize that poetry could be irreverent and current and kind of ridiculous and still have bite to it. The year since then has been an excited process of discovering just how much of a contrary fool I was to be missing all this for a decade. So here’s a little list of my fledgling queer poetry collection recommendations from someone who hasn’t a fuckin clue how to talk about poetry.

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway

Wow. Gwen is a trans girl of Anishinaabe and Métis descent (and a hero of the trans/NB/GNC community here in Toronto right now), and this poetry collection ACHES. It’s righteous and exhausted and graceful and very, very real. And tremendously readable for something that deals with some incredibly painful subjects. Take your time with this one, and watch her work forever.

Hera Lindsay Bird by Hera Lindsay Bird

This miserable joyous snarky work by bisexual New Zealander Hera Lindsay Bird fully embraces rooting her pieces in time with frequent absurd references to pop culture, like the poem MONICA… which is about Monica from Friends. She also just has some of the best titles in the game: KEATS IS DEAD SO FUCK ME FROM BEHIND, WILD GEESE BY MARY OLIVER BY HERA LINDSAY BIRD, BRUCE WILLIS YOU ARE THE GHOST.

Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Danez Smith is often one of the best things about my twitter newsfeed— their recent (joke) thread about top privilege was a thing of beauty (I caught myself literally saying to someone “it’s funny because it’s true!”). Their poetry’s really tremendous. Not an easy read for me— fragmented and abstract, plays with form— but very worth it. a note on Vaseline is one that burned its way into my heart and brain.

How Do I Look by Sennah Yee

Every one of these itsy-bitsy poems was a precious lil jewel of delight for my soul. Irreverent and goofy and artful and specific. I am endlessly tempted to get the whole of the poem My Type tattooed on my body.

NDN Coping Mechanisms by Billy-Ray Belcourt

Griffin-winning poet. He tangles longing and gay sex and colonization, and his style is an amazing clash of academic and conversational. And he has a poem titled AND SO I ANAL DOUCHE WHILE KESHA’S ‘PRAYING’ PLAYS FROM MY IPHONE ON REPEAT. Come on. My standard for all poetry now is unflinching reference to the realities of queer sex prep, apparently.

Lunch Poems by Frank O’Hara

Why had none of my jerk friends never told me Frank O’Hara was queer? Rude. He writes yearning and contentment and wanting to be loved like absolutely no one else, and with precise clarity of language. His poetry often feels like a warm bath. Reading this really makes me wonder if it was fluke that I wasn’t born a white cis gay man writing poetry in the 1960s rather than white genderqueer queer person writing fuck-all at the end of the world.

Full-Metal Indigiqueer by Joshua Whitehead

Easily the most high-concept collection on this list. A Two-spirit Ojibwe Cree storyteller and writer (his novel Jonny Appleseed was visceral and RAW and sexy and heartbreaking), this collection uses a kind of scifi-meets-lore conceit, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

This is a list of poets that have captured me (mostly through my coworker Sasha’s amazing recommendations), but it is also the list of someone who has only been dipping their toe into poetry for less than a year. There’s a huge body of amazing queer poetry out in the world, and the right bookstores and libraries will be able to indoctrinate you better than I have.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!

Can’t Lit Fall Previews

Currently Reading: Your House Will Pay, by Steph Cha

Not to throw shade (except kind of really to throw a little shade…), but there is one Canadian book that has been getting some serious buzz this fall. And guess what? I don’t think it’s the most exciting CanLit that’s being released this season! Not even close. Let me tell you about what I DO think is the most exciting CanLit being released this season…

Empire of Wild, by Cherie Dimaline

The cover of Empire of Wild: A Novel, by Cherie Dimaline. The cover also notes that the author is the same as the #1 Bestseller The Marrow Thieves. The image is a mostly desaturated image of a green armchair sitting in the middle of a forest clearing.

I work at Another Story, an indie bookshop in Toronto’s west end. The year that I began working there was the year that Cherie Dimaline’s YA Indigenous speculative fiction novel The Marrow Thieves took the world by storm. When I chewed through it in one sitting, the cover was fresh and bare. Now, the cover is littered with medallions representing the awards that this title has won since its released, so much so that they nearly obscure the art. By the time the winter holiday shopping season rolled around, we were literally having cartons of this title delivered by hand from our distributors at the last minute to keep up with customer demand.

I was working at the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD) in Brampton in 2018 when I learned that Dimaline had secured contracts for four more books after the success of the Marrow Thieves, and on September 17th, the first of those will be available to the public. Empire of Wild is, like Dimaline’s last book, an Indigenous speculative fiction title, this time written for a mature audience. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on an ARC of this book.

I wasn’t disappointed. Much like when I read the Marrow Thieves, it took me a few chapters to really get into the pacing. As a settler reader, I sometimes find myself challenged by this aspect of Indigenous storytelling, but the more Indigenous lit I spend time with, the more that I am growing accustomed. Taking the time to get into the rhythm of brilliant books is always well worth it.

In Empire of Wild, Dimaline skillfully weaves her Métis heritage into a politicized, suspenseful narrative that centres around a woman’s search for a missing partner, the damage that Big Oil does in Indigenous communities, and the rougarou – a Métis mythical creature that calls to mind an anthropomorphic, demonic wolf.

CWs for this book include murder, other violence, possible abduction/abandonment by a family member, extreme right religious content, and substance use. It is an adult title, and it doesn’t pretend to be for a YA audience. I would definitely recommend this book. Is there any more enjoyable way to learn about social justice issues than through delicious, #OwnVoices storytelling?

If you are a settler and pick up Dimaline’s work, and then want to learn more about Indigenous issues, there are some great resources and books that can be read as follow up – including Billy-Ray Belcourt’s fall release, NDN Coping Mechanisms, which I recommend later in this post.

Other resources I would recommend are the final report of the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and the content produced by Idle No More. Some non-fiction titles that would be fantastic follow up include 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act, by Bob Joseph, Seven Fallen Feathers, by Tanya Talaga, Heart Berries, by Therese Marie Mailhot, and A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Alicia Elliott. Last but not least, if you can’t get enough Indigenous speculative fiction, I can’t recommend Jonny Appleseed enough, by Two-Spirit author Joshua Whitehead.

I Hope We Choose Love, by Kai Cheng Thom

The cover of I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl's Notes from the End of the World, by Kai Cheng Thom. A red flower with a yellow and red centre on a black background, with white lettering.

Kai Cheng Thom is one of the only authors whose work I savour. From her insightful articles and essays to her picture books, Thom’s writing is some of my favourite. She has an advice column in Xtra, and her recent essay on the legacy of trauma within queer communities has been resonating with lots of folks online. From the Stars in the Sky to the Fish in the Sea is one of my all-time favourite, gender-affirming picture books to read with children and adults alike, and Thom’s artwork is sumptuous and vibrant.

I’ve read, re-read, and been repeatedly brought to tears by her poetry collection a place called NO HOMELAND, but I’ve actually held off on reading her fictionalized memoir, Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars, which got some buzz recently since it was Emma Thompson’s Shared Shelf pick in March of 2019. I couldn’t bring myself to read it, because Thom didn’t have any other books, and I didn’t want to have read everything she’d published! I was so excited when I heard that Thom had a new project in the works, and now the wait is almost over, since her new collection of non-fiction essays, I Hope We Choose Love: A Trans Girl’s Notes from the End of the World, will hit shelves on September 24th.

Heartwrenchingly, I find myself hesitant about this new collection. It is beautiful, and brilliantly written. It is thought provoking, and that Thom brings a perceptive, and well-informed analytical lens to the issues that marginalized people face surviving the current political climate together. I would never hesitate to recommend any of Thom’s work (this collection included) to another reader, but I wondered even reading the title if perhaps our paradigms had diverged too far in recent times for me to find Thom’s newest work meaningful for me personally in the same way that I had her previous publications. Am I too cynical? Am I too white? Am I too hopeless? Am I too immature? Am I too angry?

I saw red flags that led me to believe this book was not for me. In the first chapter, Thom referenced works that make me deeply uncomfortable, for example, Sarah Schulman’s Conflict is Not Abuse, which is a deeply problematic work that can be used to gaslight victims of harassment. Thom also criticized “call out culture” or “cancel culture”, when I am of the opinion that if cancel culture’s existence isn’t a myth entirely, people often use this rhetoric when what they really mean is “consequences.” Yet, when Thom outlined her political views, I found nothing objectionable, and so I decided to proceed with caution.

Whatever it is about me and my social location, or about this political moment, I struggled with this collection. The format alternates between essays and poetry, and while much of the poetry reached me in a way that felt reminiscent of NO HOMELAND, the essays did not. They’re accessible and well-articulated, and I was often right there with Thom, until about three quarters of the way through. At some point in each of the essays, I found myself taking pause.

There was a conversation on Twitter recently about how instead of describing the written work of a marginalized person as “important” or “urgent”, we should be approaching these works as requiring “urgent listening.” I hold Kai Cheng Thom in great esteem, and while the conclusions drawn in this book are difficult for me to agree with, it is a book that I think warrants urgent listening, and probably for me, revisiting. I would definitely recommend it to fans of books like Emergent Strategy, by adrienne maree brown, and it may just become my alternate recommendation when folks come into my shop for Conflict is Not Abuse. In the meantime, me and my rage are looking forward to savouring Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars in the not-too-distant future.

NDN Coping Mechanisms, by Billy-Ray Belcourt

The cover of NSN Coping Mechanisms: Notes from the Field, by Billy-Ray Belcourt. The cover notes that the author is the winnter of the Griffin Poetry Prize. The image is a person with long, dark hair, wearing a black shirt, set against a backdrop of dry, tall grass or wheat, and a pale, clear blue sky. The person has their hands folded as if in prayer in front of them, and the hands are bound together with white fabric. They are holding a piece of wood that looks like a dried, dead tree, with a hole positioned over one of the person's eyes. The wood obscures the rest of the face.

I was honoured to be able to attend the Toronto launch of this book as one of the staff of Another Story, who are the book vendors for the literary events held at the Art Gallery of Ontario. As Belcourt himself noted during his talk, the event was very well-attended, and I spent the majority of my time behind the bookselling table admiring the spectacular beadwork and other Indigenous jewellery that so many of the people in the diverse crowd seemed to be wearing.

In my doctoral studies, I cite Belcourt’s work on animality in decolonial thought constantly these days. He is one of few Indigenous scholars based in colonial Canada who has written academic work in this area, and since I study working animals using an anti-racist and decolonial lens, his work has been invaluable to me. Because I had yet to read Belcourt’s Griffin-award-winning poetry collection This Wound is a World, I was intrigued by this new work consisting of both scholarly theorizing, as well as poetry.

The event, like the book (title pronounced N-D-N Coping Mechanisms), was varied in both tone and intellectual register. The book is a gripping commentary on the paradoxical horror and beauty of Indigenous queer life in colonial Canada. Belcourt noted that the book had already made the CBC Books Bestseller List for its first week out – but had, strangely, been placed in the fiction category.

Belcourt was joined at the AGO by fellow Indigenous author and scholar, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, who asked questions ranging from how Belcourt conceptualized success and envisioned his responsibility to future Indigenous queer authors, to probing for details about the men that Belcourt writes about in his new book. Belcourt himself joked about being born in the 90’s and thus having too short an attention span to write a novel, and also mused about who the anthropological object of his creative work was. I simultaneously enjoyed the evening, and felt (appropriately) like a complete outsider. At times, the conversation was theoretically challenging for me to keep up with – and I say that as a fifth year PhD student. I was both awed, and at times, a little lost. Both Belcourt’s and Simpson’s readings of excerpts from the book made me shiver.

There were a few moments in the evening that were particularly poignant for me. When asked why he writes, Belcourt responded, “I don’t know how else I would deal with all this shit.” As someone who has been eyeball-deep in affective scholarly work for the better part of my adult life, this was deeply relatable to me. In some ways, NDN Coping Mechanisms appeals to me as a work precisely because of this. I am interested and often validated when I have the opportunity to read about the experiences of other marginalized people who have found creative ways to cope with the state of the world, or who cope through content production.

I was also charmed and impressed when Simpson inquired whether Belcourt suffered from imposter syndrome, and he replied, “Maybe it’s just my generation’s thing of being like, I know I’m amazing!” The audience laughed, and Belcourt paused before continuing, “I know what I bring to the table.” As a bookseller and a member of the literary community, if I could have one wish for all Indigenous people, it would be that they all feel this kind of confidence in their work. Indigenous literature is certainly having a cultural moment right now, one that I hope will have a lasting effect on the literary scene in our colonial nation state, and I hope that Indigenous creators can all be aware of just how much they bring to the table.

Lastly, and to make reference back to some of my complicated feelings about Thom’s I Hope We Choose Love, Simpson mentioned during the launch that some of Belcourt’s lines of poetry would stay with her forever, and I think that the one that she mentioned is a good place to end this recommendation of Belcourt’s NDN Coping Mechanisms, which is available for purchase now. He wrote, “Revenge is more decolonial than justice,” something which feels equitable and firey and powerful to me. Simpson therefore asked herself, and Belcourt, and I think that it is a good question for everyone in the Canadian literary community to consider: what does revenge look like in CanLit?

Other Fall Books That Just Can’t Lit

…and if two books won’t be enough to stock up your TBR this fall, there are lots of other Canadian releases you should know about, for readers of all ages. These are some of the ones that I would recommend:

  • One Drum, by Richard Wagamese, October 19th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • On Fire, by Naomi Klein, September 17th
    Political non-fiction.
  • From Where I Stand, by Jody Wilson-Raybould, September 20th
    Political non-fiction, Indigenous author.
  • Breaking the Ocean, by Annahid Dashtgard, available now
    Memoir, Iranian-Canadian author.
  • Pickles vs the Zombies, by Angela Misri, September 21st
    Middle grade dystopian.
  • Angry Queer Somali Boy, by Mohamed Abdulkarim Ali, available now
    LGBTQ2S+ memoir, POC author.
  • Hustling Verse, various authors, available now
    Poetry, authors are sex workers.
  • African Canadian Leadership, various authors, available now.
    Political non-fiction, POC authors.
  • I Promise, by Catherine Hernandez and Syrus Marcus Ware, available now
    Picture book, LGBTQ2S+, POC authors.
  • Blanket Toss Under the Midnight Sun, by Paul Seesequasis, October 22nd
    Photography, Indigenous artist.
  • We Three, by Markus Harwood-Jones, available now
    YA with polyamory and LGBTQ2S+ representation.
  • In My Own Moccasins, by Helen Knott, available now
    Memoir, Indigenous woman author.

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2019: A Year of POC Authors

Currently reading: Devoted, by Jennifer Mathieu
The cover of Tanya Tagaq's book Split Tooth.
Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq.

Recently, I was raving on Twitter about one of my favourite new releases of this year, Split Tooth, by Tanya Tagaq. Not only is it a book every settler should read, it’s also this beautiful white hardcover edition with red paper edging. It’s a stark and beautiful book design. In a response to one of my tweets, someone commented that she had made a resolution to only read books by authors who aren’t white in 2019… so I offered to make her some recommendations. 

She told me:
1. Her resolution was to read only POC authors.
2. She was hoping to get Guns of Penance and Trail of Lightning for Christmas.
3. Three recent favourites included None of the Above, Eragon, and and My Life on the Road.

My Picks

This project took a lot longer than I anticipated, because this was a person who I’d never encountered before, and didn’t have in front of me, so I didn’t have as much information to go on. Because of that, I came up with a wide range of suggestions for her.

First, I decided to look at memoirs. nîtisânak is a new book from Lindsay Nixon that just launched locally at the Naked Heart festival in Toronto, and lots of people are raving about it. It can be described as a queer Indigenous punk rock memoir. If that isn’t an incredible hook, I really don’t know what is.

A photo of Lindsay Nixon, as seen on the cover of her book.
From the cover of nîtisânak, by Lindsay Nixon.

Another memoir I decided to point her toward is When They Call You a Terrorist. I feel like I haven’t heard as much about this book this year as I expected, and it has broad appeal for people interested in progressive politics and activism. It’s written by two Black Lives Matter movement founders, Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele. 

Bonus pick: After I had given this reader her recommendations, I managed to get my hands on an ARC of Alicia Elliott’s A Mind Spread Out on the Ground. I read it on a plane, in one sitting, and I was pleasantly surprised. I read a handful of Indigenous memoirs and non-fiction volumes in 2018, and I wondered if Elliott’s book would give me new things to think about, or if it would feel like more of an echo. I was humbled to be reminded that there are still many things for me to learn, and I appreciated Elliott’s willingness to play with format, and the richness of her story. I’m ever grateful for the generosity of Indigenous authors. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground is Elliott’s full-length debut, and it is available for pre-order now.

Because of this reader’s mention of two YA books and their interest in diverse literature, I couldn’t help myself. I had to suggest Hurricane Child by Kheryn Callendar. This is the best middle grade book I’ve maybe ever read. It’s poetic, it’s a spooky and magical story, and it’s a rare gem with a young, black, queer MC.

The cover of Girls of Paper and Fire, by Natasha Ngan.
Girls of Paper and Fire, by Natasha Ngan.

Inspired by the mention of Eragon, I had to include some YA fantasy on this list. I wanted to be sure that there was some some LGBTQ content, because the reader had mentioned None of the Above, so first, I went with Girls of Paper and Fire from Natasha Ngan, but since that book doesn’t include any fantasy creatures like the Eragon dragons, I also decided to give her Aru Shah and the End of Time, by Roshani Chokshi. While I’d not really recommend a Riordan book to any reader, I’m excited about this title from his new imprint as an alternative to his wildly popular fantasy series. Aru Shah is based on Hindu mythology, and has reviewed and sold very well. Chokshi releases her next book in January of 2019.

My last recommendation wasn’t really related to the recent favourites this reader had mentioned, but rather was inspired by her Christmas list, which included Indigenous SFF. I don’t think I can recommend Indigenous SFF and YA in the same post in good conscience without bringing up Cherie Dimaline’s extremely lauded Marrow Thieves. This book has so many awards that the medallions are starting to obscure the cover art, and it sold so well at the shop where I work during Christmas of 2018 that we literally had our distributor driving over cases in their personal vehicles because we kept running out. 

Response?

It’s too soon to say if this reader enjoyed the books, but her feedback on the recommendations was positive, and she mentioned bringing a couple of them to her book club next year. Bonus: If these recs appeal to you, and you’re interested in allyship, you can join this reader’s public book club, Our Marginalized Relations, on Goodreads!

If you enjoyed reading these recommendations, and would like some of your own, head on over to my contact page, and send me a message! I love giving recs and readers’ advisory, and have lots of experience from my work as a bookseller.

PS, if you enjoyed this post, please consider leaving me a tip! It only takes a minute, and it allows me to keep creating content just like this, buying food for my pets, and pursuing my career as a literary agent!