To the visitor who drops in but once or twice a year it takes a moment to adjust to thriving Calgary’s culture of boisterous enjoyment, clean-pressed shirts (none frayed at the collar), and mobile devices attached to the hip. Calgary is booming, clean and new. Energy is the driving engine but the sector’s spirit of can-do entrepreneurship and innovation is infectious. Last night, at the sixth annual opening night ‘WordFeast’ dinner celebrating the city’s literary festival, now in its fifteenth year, the fella next to me was immaculately turned out—damn it, I should have worn a tie—and probably found the proceedings touchingly quaint: authors toting their own books (I’d helped the accomplished Katherine Govier at the airport with her carton the say before) and somehow managing to get by on print runs of a few thousand in a publishing model he declared, with some authority, “broken.”
He was Jeff Buick, a thriller writer whose longtime publisher, Dorchester, operates out of New York. “Are you writing a book once a year?” I asked, knowing that publishing houses are desperate to find authors who can do just that, year in and year out, and in this way build a constituency. Buick writes one every four months, and has thirteen stockpiled. His print runs are around 120 000 and, the Calgary-born author (who still lives here) said, he “sells through pretty well.”
That would be exciting enough for most but Buick, who seemed an interested and generous sort, is banking on a whole new publishing model to blow the old one out of the water. Also sitting at the table was Wayne Logan, a musician-turned sports and entertainment lawyer working out of the Field Law Group’s Calgary office, who is one a team of “over-achievers,” Buick calls them, behind the new publishing venture Enthrill Entertainment, “a boutique publishing company specializing in digital media and experience,” says the operation’s actually quite fascinating website. Enthrill claims, with legitimacy, to be something altogether different—a publishing company that is much more than that, ahead of the curve and creating “books” for today’s mobile reading platforms with sufficient investment, innovation and ingenuity that Apple itself is watching with a view to developing texts for the specific capabilities of its iPad.
Enthrill describes its interactive books as “projects” and is putting very substantial resources behind each. “If we try to play by [other publishing companies] rules,” says the website, “we’ll be flattened and left in the dust. So why bother doing things the same as everyone else. We’re small and agile – innovative and visionary – determined and grounded. We see incredible opportunities opening in the world of publishing and we’re chasing them. Even better, we’re defining them.”
Buick describes Enthrill’s books as “immersive experiences” that do not depend on mere hyperlinking but on embedded material that can be called up and dismissed on the iPad (and, presumably, RIM’s tablet when that is launched) without having to leave the text. Apple has been pushing this sort of development of texts recently, though more so with a view to non-fiction where, say, it might be handy for the reader to be able to remind him or herself of who Martin Luther King was and to hear, immediately, about that dream he had. The Calgary company is doing exactly this but providing fictive material, too. Buick’s One Child is a novel about the war in Afghanistan that culminates in the U2 benefit concert played this last August in Moscow, with a cast of principal characters ranging from an Afghan child and a soldier and embedded reporter in the country, to a Wall Street trader in New York. Buick wrote the book and then it was released in a sort of test-0case build in daily installments on the web daily, this last July and August, culminating on the day of the concert itself.
For the “interactive” Enthrill version (the book is also available as a good-old fashioned paperback beach read), the company spent some thirty thousand dollars on live enactments to be available to mobile device readers, as well as links and even Facebook pages for the characters that will answer readers when they write. The director, actors and marketing staff who do this are a part of the very large budget for each book: Buick said that Enthrill put more than $100 000 into the developing and marketing of One Child, and is prepared to do so for all the books it publishes. Money is the object and, true to that Calgarian entrepreneurial spirit, it believes it can make it.
A lot of claims are made for the internet, and what it will do for publishing, and a lot of them are very dull, a repackaging of the same old and by now very dull Don Tapscott message that the whole world is changing and only he (or the web journalist in question) has noticed!
What was fascinating to me about Buick and Enthrill.com was not only the massive confidence they were displaying—with money—in their re-imagining of publishing, and the fact that they were putting their money where their e-mouths were, but that the venture was laced with a very interesting idea about the place and power of the novel in today’s world, as well as an honourable sympathy—and more than that—towards other writers. Buick may have found backers to put him at the forefront of publishing developments and technology, but he has not forgotten where his heart is, and nor has Enthrill CEO Logan—whose father, he reported with evident pride, had played for the troops during World War Two and was Alberta’s Senior Champion Fiddler 23 years in a row. (Aside from practicing law on behalf of impecunious writers and athletes, Wayne himself plays keyboards and the fiddle: “what else was I going to do?” he says). The company is actively looking for other writers to enlist to its new model. It wants to grow.
“At this year’s Thriller Fest,” said Buick, “I talked to a dozen really good writers who were all mid-list and pretty well destined to stay there and every one of them said ‘yes’ when we talked about bank-rolling their projects.”
Who wouldn’t? But there was more to the talk. The ‘En’ in ‘Enthrill’ comes from the company’s maxim to “entertain, enlighten and engage,” and it believes, with some reason, that fiction is the medium to do this, that it offers 100 000 words and a whole imagined world and argument where an op-Ed column offers 800 words and a Tweet the statutory 140, and that the novel has the power to propel the community even to political action.
This is not an outrageous thought, and it is akin to the explanation Eva Gabrielsson provided to CBC Radio’s The Current this morning (the 13th of October), when asked to explain the global success of her late common-law husband Stieg Larssen’s Millenium trilogy. The books had tapped into a sense of powerlessness before corporations and governments, and the courage of the ordinary person heroically fighting back. Enthrill, to this end, is actively looking for thrillers that address issues such as, for instance, the world’s imminent water shortage crisis, and even provides researchers to developing stories to that end. In a manner of speaking, it is a Harlequin for the modern, anxious, digital age—and that is no slur, the internationally operating Harlequin probably being the most successful homegrown Canadian book publishing company ever.
Enthrill, says Buick, is going to be publishing books that offer a “merging of fact and fiction … a coming together of multi-media, ideas and writing.” It will elevate publishing from selling a mere product—the book—to marketing “experience,” and that there is a healthy and untapped revenue stream to be found in doing so.
In a sense, we’ve been here before, a number of Californian companies inspired by the Hollywood story factories in their neighbourhood already having tried to look at publishing as the marketing of ideas and experiences to be issued in complementary rather than competing forms—films and books, in particular—but there is an energy and a transdisciplinary literacy (and numeracy) at work here, that means they’re worth keeping an eye on, this bunch. It’s something to see book publishers of any kind sitting with healthy expressions on their faces as if there is no reason to believe that the sort of success that has come to software companies in this day and age cannot also be theirs—a welcome change from the haggard looks of self-doubt that now possess just about every author and publisher I know bravely (and much to their credit) trying to find and develop new ways of maneuvering in today’s economy. And it’s even more cheering to see that values routinely described by the journeymen seers of the new digital publishing reality as “fusty” and “old world,” et cetera, have not, in truth been left behind.
When I asked Buick if he actually thought he was in the book-writing business anymore a great big smile lit up his face and he said, “Absolutely. Oh my God, I love writing. I love books. I live to write.”
– Noah Richler, WordFest’s Official Festival Blogger
Noah Richler is a writer and broadcaster. His book, This is My Country, What’s Yours? A Literary Atlas of Canada won the 2007 B.C. Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. He blogs for WordFest and his column,“The Writing Life,” appears here and on roverarts.com.