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Celebrating Canadian non-fiction, er, factual writing

No matter which of the four short-listed authors for the $40,000 British Columbia Award for Canadian Non-Fiction ultimately wins the prize in Vancouver this Monday, corks will pop on King Street East in Toronto, home of Random House of Canada and its affiliate, Knopf Canada, where all four finalists published their nominated books.

It makes for a sunny scene, what with the Canadian branch of the Bertelsmann AG media conglomerate doing so much to promote factual writing by Canadian authors and an abundance of top-dollar prizes honouring the craft - not only the relatively new B.C. prize but also the upcoming Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction, as well as the recently bestowed Writers' Trust and Governor-General's awards for non-fiction.

"The awards are all doing a very good job of celebrating writers not only for the content of what they do but the craft of what they do," says Random and Knopf Canada publisher Anne Collins, who edited James Fitzgerald's What Disturbs Our Blood, a B.C. Award finalist and the Writers' Trust winner, as well as three of the four books nominated for the B.C. award last year. Although traditionally outsold by fiction, factual writing remains "a very strong, healthy, vital chunk of the market," according to Collins.

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"Commercial prospects in my view have never been better," she said. "There's so much really strong non-fiction we're doing and committed to."

But others are not so confident, seeing the market for such award-worthy work shrinking as downsized publishers turn to celebrity, diet, how-to and health books - or anything with a Facebook page - to make ends meet. Among them are authors who can no longer afford to fund years-long projects that often lose money, even when they succeed.

"They try it once and it's so frustrating and disappointing money-wise, they won't do it again," said Toronto literary agent Daphne Hart, who specializes in non-fiction. "I don't blame them. There's so much work involved, and nobody's willing to advance a decent wage."

Awards certainly help, according to Hart, but opportunities have dwindled along with the advances publishers are willing to pay even established authors.

"I run up against that all the time," said fellow agent Rick Broadhead. "I'll have someone offer $50,000 for a book, which in Canada is quite good, and the author will say, 'That's not enough, I can't do it.' And it's not easy to get a $50,000 offer."

But that has always been the case, according to Mr. Broadhead. "I don't think it's any different than it was 10 years ago."

Veteran author Katherine Ashenburg, a former judge for the Writers' Trust prize, summarized the conundrum in a 2009 trade magazine article titled The Penniless Trade, in which she documented "how I lost something like $270,000 in opportunity and real costs while writing The Dirt on Clean, a much-applauded book published in 12 countries."

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Non-fiction "is still like the plain step-sister compared to her more glamorous sibling the novel," according to Ashenburg, its status reflected in its negative definition. "Calling it non-fiction is like calling men 'non-women,' " she said.

"I've always described it as the toughest writing of all," she added, "because you need to use all the novelist's bag of tricks - pacing, figures of speech, compelling characters, narrative momentum - but at the same time it has to be true." Despite its dubious commercial value, "more and more Canadian writers are mastering this most challenging genre," according to Ashenburg.

Non-fiction books limited to the Canadian market are difficult to finance, Collins admitted. "You have to be incredibly clever about how you put together your funding, and you may have to work a day job," she said. "But I still find it incredibly vibrant and exciting."

More typically, cautious publishers today seek out potential authors who have already established an online fan base, according to Hart. "Publishers want people who have a platform, and you can see why," she says. "They can contact thousands of people when their book comes out, or even before it comes out." Rather than being the focus of their authors' efforts, such books function as value-added extras in their social networks.

Platform is king, Broadhead agrees. "It's hard to get publishers on board when somebody doesn't have that kind of name recognition," he said. The market for the right book launched from a strong platform "has never been better." Content aside, he added, the sales difference between non-fiction books by platform and non-platform writers, is "like night and day."

But even the pessimists agree there is always room for award-worthy labours of love. "Good things do happen once in a while," Hart says.

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A whole series of them will begin next week with the awarding of the B.C. prize, followed two weeks later by the Charles Taylor prize in Toronto and the Cohen prize in Ottawa.

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