The word is out

This year the Halifax International Writer's Festival is cancelled and the Atlantic Book Awards has split into two events. Is there turmoil in the literary community?

Jane Buss is tired. She sits in her dark, cubbyhole-like office, plastered with posters of literary events. "I have six little fires burning here," she says, pointing to piles of papers on her desk from writers who need her help. "That's in addition to building a library and running the programs and workshops. I'm never bored, but we do burn out."

Buss is in her 17th year as executive director of the Writers' Federation of Nova Scotia---a two-person organization that's been supporting writers in the province for 29 years. She says though the number of members---around 900 writers---and number of contracts on her desk continues to grow, she struggles with limited resources and more complex challenges.

"It's never easy, but boy, oh boy, is it hard right now," she says, adding her job now involves advising writers about electronic rights and thinking of ways to support a generation of aging writers with no pension.

This year, in an effort to minimize the chaos, WFNS broke off from the Atlantic Book Awards and Festival (April 14-19), a group they started in 1999 to amalgamate smaller awards ceremonies around the province. Instead, they're organizing Atlantic Ink (May 4-9), a smaller awards ceremony and festival with four awards sponsored by the WFNS, as opposed to the 12 presented last year at the Atlantic Book Awards. This allows them to focus time and energy on their current priority: sustainable programs for writers.

"Our goal, short and dirty, is to get money in writers' pockets," she says. "Circuses are nice but bread is vital. What sustains a Stephen Kimber or a little Sarah Mian who's just starting out? That's what's important."

A third of the WFNS funds ($100,000) go to a program called Writers in the Schools, where they pay a writer to teach at a school in their area for a day or half day. Buss says though the salary is only $250 per day, writers aren't travelling far, so they can teach as many workshops as they're offered and get better known in their community.

"The only thing writing needs is time, and unfortunately time costs something," says Buss, pointing out that only the WFNS' $15,000 fiction award could sustain a writer for any amount of time. "Can we afford big splashy-splash stuff or do we invest in communities and people?"

Meanwhile, the other four organizations involved in the Atlantic Book Festival and Awards are expanding the event. They formalized a non-profit society in January---made up of nine board members from various publishers, library systems and advocacy groups---and want to hold future events in other Atlantic provinces.

Heather MacKenzie, president of the Atlantic Book Awards Society, says with limited resources, one large awards ceremony makes more sense than many smaller ones, because impact and attention from the media and public are greater. She says though one award (on average $1,500) can't support a writer, their book will get attention, better circulation and more sales. And, she says, celebrating success and giving authors something to look forward to is important.

Robbie MacGregor, co-founder of Invisible Publishing, says that in a time when creative industries are struggling, the literary community needs to support one another by pooling resources. He says local festivals and awards ceremonies are important for getting writers noticed. Without festivals like the Halifax International Writers' Festival---cancelled this year due to personal reasons of the organizer Heather Gibson---MacGregor won't be able to sign international writers because he can't get local media attention to market them.

Lesley Choyce, award-winning author and owner of publishing company Pottersfield Press, sees awards as a necessary reality of being an author. "I think most writers are happy to sit in their little rooms and write books," he says. "But they have to find a publisher to make income from it and have to be out there in front of the public at festivals to get media attention."

When Buss looks at her desk she still sees fire, and wonders how she can best use her resources to put them out. "We're all running, running, running, doing, doing, doing," she says, flaying her hands up and down to mime a runner. "OK, great. Fabulous. We exist. But do we want the province throwing money at us to do festivals or investing money in more interesting, sustainable programs?"

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