On the day Jian Ghomeshi explained that the books for Canada Reads 2011 would be chosen in part by online public voting, I happened to have a prep period at school from ten to eleven a.m. So I just happened to be tuned in to Q to hear the announcement live. The celebrity panelists this time around would be restricted to a list of “The Forty Essential Canadian Novels of the Last Ten Years,” a list to be determined by online public recommendation. I mulled this matter over for under a minute while it sank in. Online recommendation. Public input.
Ping! A kernel of popcorn expanded in my brain. This would be just like so many contests, prizes, and awards in the indie music world. In the world of indie music, many prizes, festival performance slots, recording packages and the like, are determined by online public input. The contest gets announced and the bands get moving on the internet: they Tweet their followers, they Facebook their fans, they message everyone they have any contact with online and beg, cajole, plead and jest for support. In the days prior to the Canada Reads announcement, I had been campaigning myself, in a moderate way, through my own Facebook friends, for a West Coast singer-songwriter named Aidan Knight. Knight was up for a big prize and had made a couple of short videos showing fans how to vote for him online and then make a silly pledge he called ‘spoon’s honour,’ in which his fans would take a photo of themselves with spoons stuck to their noses.
Seven Hundred Friends
Within a minute I knew exactly what I had to do. I have seven hundred friends on Facebook. All of them have friends and contacts who can be marshalled for such causes. I simply had to go on Facebook and ask my friends for their support: tell them what was going on, how to make their online recommendation, and ask them to tell anyone they knew to do the same.
But there were two weeks in which to make recommendations, and Facebook is all about the moment. It’s all about now. Status updates and posts flash before your eyes momentarily and are gone, more or less forever. I knew I was going to have to get online every day, maybe even more than once a day, and get my message out: people, help me by voting. I could not do this with words alone. For one thing, I’d run out of new things to say almost immediately. And for another, text on Facebook all looks the same. After two posts, people would see my name, see the words Canada Reads, and press the ignore button in their minds.
Again, taking my cue from indie musician Aidan Knight, I hit upon the idea of making short videos. I’d never done such a thing. But my daughter has a digital camera that takes videos. We have a computer that I was betting had some sort of simple video editing software on it. My son has a Youtube account and has uploaded videos before. I was sure he could help me there.
Within twenty-four hours I had posted my first Youtube video plugging my 2003 novel Twenty-six. (See my video page by clicking on the Video tab above.) And so began what I had no idea at the time would be more or less a solid month of daily video making, posting, sending FB messages, emailing friends and colleagues.
Up to that point, I had literally done nothing to self-promote as a writer. I had no website. My Facebook was completely non-writing related. I had no mailing list. I had no real contacts: no readers, very few fellow writers.
Getting Beyond ‘Icky‘
What I had to get beyond while making my first video or two was what Canada Reads official blogger, Brian Francis, calls the ‘icky’ feeling writers get when flogging themselves to the world. I said to a friend at the time that I felt like a child being forced to eat liver: there was a sick feeling in my stomach as I first went online saying how great I was and how deserving of glory was my work. But I am forty-six years old. I’ve been seriously dedicated to writing for over two decades. I know what it’s like to be recognized and have my work appreciated, and I’ve learned what it’s like to be ignored. And I’ve learned that sitting passively, waiting for the accolades to roll in on their own, does not produce results.
Although I felt Canada Reads was giving me an opportunity to right for myself the wrong I felt my novel had suffered since its release (that it had been unjustly overlooked), I also felt resentful in a way. I felt like a hapless homeless man being forced to scramble for thrown change by some cruel rich person. I knew it was slightly undignified to be on my hands and knees, fingernailing coppers off the sidewalk, but I was too desperate for some scrap of recognition not to chase the coins.
I never felt alone in my pursuit, however. I felt supported from the start by my online community. Part of the reason I started the campaign in the first place was the knowledge that many people I knew would have been angry with me had I not told them about the chance to recommend and later vote for my book. And far from feeling ‘icky’ throughout, turns out I actually felt very positive most of the time I was campaigning. I felt I was doing something. I was taking action. No matter what happened in the end, when it was over I knew I would be able to say: well, I did what I could. I was given an opportunity and I took it.
My desperate elbowing and clawing did not get Twenty-six into the Top Ten. But with the generous help of friends, we made it to the Top Forty. That’s something.