This year’s finalists of the BC Book Prizes were revealed on Wednesday, sharing a glimpse of the diverse, expansive talent in the province and territory. We spoke with the West Coast Book Prize Society’s new Executive Director, Sean Cranbury, about this year’s list—and what we can expect from his tenure.
Hi Sean! How have the first weeks in the role been?
It’s been challenging but overall quite excellent. It’s a short timeline and a steep learning curve between now and the Gala where the Prize winners are announced, so the vector is pretty intense. We lost a bunch of institutional knowledge in the transition from the previous organizers to our current one – the team went from four or five people to just two of us—one of whom is Sharon Bradley who has been working with the Book Prizes for a few years, and the other of whom is me. Sharon brings lots of knowledge, experience, and enthusiasm: who knows what might have happened if we didn’t have that?
For all of the pressure that comes with a tight timeline and limited resources there’s also days like today, when we released the lists of finalists for each award. To see the news wholly embraced and to feel the excitement within the community of writers and publishers, and how much this type of organization means to people is really gratifying. We have to take this momentum with us into the Gala season.
What has surprised you since taking on the role?
The breadth of talent among the types of publishers that are putting out great books these days. There’s lots of traditional publishers doing excellent work, big and small, but also there’s these weird hybrid models emerging that are taking new routes to the same destinations and they’re getting some pretty interesting results. I feel like we’re at the gates of a new golden era. If we’re not already in it.
For those who aren’t as familiar with the BC Book Prizes, tell us what they represent in the community.
The quality of publishing and writing in this province and territory has always been extremely high. We’ve had some of the best writers in the world, but now we’re experiencing a kind wave, a very dense wave of extremely high quality work that is meeting its audience squarely.
We’re seeing a greater representation in lists of Indigenous stories and authors, and there’s greater diversity across the spectrum in terms of voice and perspective; lots of intersections happening on these lists. Including intersections of creation, production, and dissemination.
The prizes give readers a chance to see the breadth and diversity of the shortlisted books.
For example, you see big names like Knopf Canada on the same list as McKeller and Martin, one of the smallest publishers in BC! Figure1 and Page Two were digital experiments a few years ago; now they have grown to a place that their work is being shortlisted. That’s a huge development.
And in literary adult publishing there’s such a breadth—from Talonbooks to Arsenal Pulp Press to Nightwood. For example, the fiction shortlist is all women, all very different people with very different perspective on the world.
What are your plans for the organization in the coming years?
I want to preface this by saying that none of these ideas have been validated by the BC Book Prizes Board. These are just sort of blue prints for what may happen in the future.
The Board and I will continue to discuss plans, but some of the initial ideas we’re working towards have two overarching goals:
1: to increase the amount of money for each prize + adding more prizes available for writers and creators to win. Is it possible to add prizes that reward graphic novels, popular fiction, and genres like science fiction, fantasy, and young adult? We hope so.
2: to give everyone more time, and to stretch the pace throughout the year in such a way that we can strategically put authors and publishers in positions that sell more books and build more recognition for all.
One idea is to give the shortlisted books a much longer timeframe to work their magic by announcing the shortlists in the Spring but announce the Winners at an event on the first weekend of October. This would give the books the entire summer for promotion and sales and it would put the winners in a situation to sail into the Holiday while joining/pre-empting the other big fall awards.
This longer shortlist season also allows us to focus on the two “Fs”: ferries and festivals. Can we develop a plan that works with the BC Ferries and the summer festivals to highlight the nominees? Through conversations with others partners like festivals, libraries, cultural events across BC and Yukon we want to time our activities so that we’re working in concert with available opportunities to put writers and books in front of readers.
It’s about the community. It’s about momentum and enthusiasm and working with sponsors and partners to put everybody in the best position to reach readers and fans.
And how will this also affect the tour of authors to towns across the province which the Society arranges each year?
We will continue to send writers out to communities across the province, but we also want to support writers in their community throughout the year, rather than just during a three-week period in April only. We’ll be seeking some major sponsorship to do so.
We’ll also be working to develop closer partnerships with libraries, bookstores and cultural centres across the province so we can organise events anywhere, and work with the writers to reach more readers.
It seems to be that we have an opportunity to transition the organization into one that embraces the digital opportunities. Can we develop a strategy for capturing, broadcasting, and archiving writers reading or presenting their work so that it’s globally accessible? Can we livestream the Gala across the province or anywhere for readers in distant communities to experience with us? Can we find a way to share the great work being produced by BC and Yukon writers across the prince, territory, country, and even globally? The potential is there, that’s for sure.
It’ll take a lot of work but I think that the results would be worth it.
The BC Book Prizes are announced on May 11 at the annual gala. For the full shortlist, and further information, visit bcbookprizes.ca.