Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Literary newspaper near a loss for words

Alan Twigg founded B.C. BookWorld in 1987.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
October 14, 2009


At 11:21 a.m. yesterday, Alan Twigg sent an email in which he asked for help.

B.C. BookWorld, the quarterly newspaper he founded 22 years ago, needs money.

He found out a week ago that the provincial government was cutting the paper’s funding. This year he got $31,000. Next year he’s getting $0. That’s dollar sign, zero, decimal point.

Also known as zip and zilch.

He’s calling on writers to sign up for a $25 mail subscription. That’s four issues sent to your home or office by mail.

“It’s not a charity. It’s a good deal,” he writes in the email. “In essence, I am asking one thousand authors to collectively replace Gordon Campbell’s government.”

(While that may not be a bad idea, he wants the writers to replace the government’s funding.)

He points out the subscription costs the price of two movie tickets.

“Writers are notoriously quick to plead poverty,” Mr. Twigg acknowledged when reached by telephone. “But they’re also known to go to the liquor store to buy a bottle of wine.”

No one is about to mistake a British Columbia author for Rich Uncle Pennybags.

You know times are tough when you beg from paupers.

He would not have made the appeal were circumstances less desperate.

“We’re a freighter in the middle of the ocean. We’ve been hit by a torpedo. We’re bailing with a tin cup.”

Four times a year, some 50,000 copies of the newspaper are distributed from 900 locations, from libraries to bookstores to ferries. The current issue features on the cover Alice Munro, whose latest collection of short stories is reviewed by W.P. Kinsella. Inside, the Comox writer Shane McCune, a former newspaper columnist, reviews the latest work by Denman Island gardener Des Kennedy. Other features include a poetry page, a history of Holocaust literature, and an admiring letter from a librarian at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

Even a cursory read uncovers much information about books, writers, and publishing in the province. You can’t beat the cover price. B.C. BookWorld is free.

Mr. Twigg and his staff were working yesterday on the pre-Christmas issue, which is to be distributed next month. The office is located in a renovated garage on an alley behind a westside home. The list of paid staff consists of Mr. Twigg and David Lester, who first worked together many years ago on the Georgia Straight.

“For 22 years, just me and him,” Mr. Twigg said. “Our mindset is we’re public servants. We were trying to be useful.”

Asked his salary, he said, “Well under $45,000 after 22 years. Not to pull out the violin.”

His mother proofreads each issue, a service for which she is not paid.

Mr. Twigg, 57, launched the newspaper in what he describes as a partnership with the provincial government. The first issue featured on the cover Rick Hansen, the wheelchair athlete, and Jimmy Pattison, the entrepreneur credited with rescuing Expo 86. B.C. BookWorld is a rare legacy for a Social Credit administration not remembered for its contributions to the arts.

The publisher’s goal is to “get as much information as possible about as many books as possible to as many people as possible.” It is deliberately middle-brow, avoiding what the founder describes as the “literary aristocracy” whose “corrupt” reviews are either logrolling for friends, or hatchet jobs on enemies.

He has in his mind the image of a reader. “The guy who drives the bus onto the B.C. Ferries. He has an hour-and-a-half to kill. I’ve got to be able to communicate with that person.”

Word about the paper’s circumstance is just now reaching the readership, which can safely be described as dedicated.

“Everyone reads it, whether in Vancouver, or on a ferry to Prince Rupert, and I can’t imagine British Columbia culture without it,” wrote Renee Rodin of Vancouver, an author who has owned and worked in bookstores.

Myrna Kostash, a writer who lives in Edmonton, said the provincial government should be ashamed. “At the same time as running up B.C.’s flag for the Winter Olympics, presumably for the world’s admiration of our athletes, they have treated B.C.’s writers, publishers and readers with contempt,” she wrote.

Jack Whyte, of Kelowna, author of the wildly successful “A Dream of Eagles” cycle, described the cut to the newspaper as “errant, self-defeating stupidity.”

As he scrambles for funding, Mr. Twigg, himself the author of 15 books, including the recently published, “Tibetans in Exile,” likes to remind himself of an equation. B.C. BookWorld has 100,000 readers. “I keep thinking, 100,000 voters, 100,000 voters.”

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