By Terry James
In 2015 the City of Courtenay celebrated its centennial. In response to a call for civic participation in the year-long festivities, the Comox Valley Writers Society (CVWS) undertook a legacy project to commemorate the contribution of book authors to this community. We wondered: Could we find 100 book authors in the last 100 years?
A list of historical writers was brainstormed by the editors and presented to CVWS members with an invitation to choose an author and to write a historical bio. Some chose to write about authors they had personally known, others chose to research someone unknown. To assist writers, and to keep entries uniform, a template was presented which required biographical and bibliographical information.
A second, but similar, template was made available to contemporary authors who were invited to complete their own submission.
The project was limited to book authors in order to make it manageable. The only requirement for inclusion was a published book with an ISBN. Self-published books were acceptable, although we did not include ebooks if there were no physical copies. Participation was invited across all genres.
Names of contemporary authors were initially gathered from brainstorming with CVWS members. The project was then advertised in the local press, in the island branch of the BC Federation of Writers newsletter, and on a local community calendar website. The long list was reviewed with bookstore owners, local museum staff, and local historians. Word-of-mouth advertising was by far the most effective method of gathering names. In fact, the project began to take on a life of its own as the names of book authors popped up the most unlikely places and conversations.
To our surprise, it did not take long to find 100 book authors. Rather than limit the number of authors we continued to gather information, not sure of how we might invoke screening. In order to do justice to all book authors, the decision was made to be inclusive of everyone. It became apparent, however, with a little more effort it would be possible to include the earliest writers as well, thus providing a very comprehensive historical record. Writers & Books: Comox Valley 1865-2015 documents 180 book authors over a 150 year period.
Candidates for inclusion were those writers born or raised in the Comox Valley, as well as newcomers. The research involved contact with authors, family members, publicists, and publishers as far away as the USA, Australia, and Japan. Maintaining a timeline which required publication before the end of the centennial year was one of the most difficult tasks.
The book was launched at the Courtenay Museum on December 4, twelve months after it had been proposed to the CVWS. The launch was a gala affair with 58 authors or family representatives present along with CVWS members, invited guests, and the general public. The cooperation of the Courtenay Museum in accessing historical photographs and book cover images added greatly to the value of the book. There are 157 author portraits and 205 cover images.
The book has archival value and presents a literary perspective on local history. There are three authors who have received the Order of Canada and one the Nobel Prize for Literature. There is a National Geographic Explorer of the Year, two local graduates who have become popular Hollywood stars, an Olympian, and a recipient of the Order of BC who wrote a local history column for 57 years. There are those who have contributed scientific discoveries, gained international recognition for their fiction or recorded natural history. There are best-sellers across many genres. The Appendix list 65 genres. There are authors of single books alongside career writers. Feedback suggests that more local books will be read by local readers as a result of this project.
Apart from assistance with the cover design, all work on the project was done by CVWS members. Of course, the launch did not end the story. Now there is the marketing. The City of Courtenay is selling the book at two of its venues. The book is also available at the Courtenay Museum and through local independent bookstores. The production of the book was handled by Poplar Publishing a home-based operation of a member of the society. Printing was done by Printorium Bookworks in Victoria. More than half of the production costs were made back in the first month of sales. It was expected that this book will continue to generate sales for years to come. The project was budgeted to break even with an initial printing of 350 books.
“Having the gumption to produce a useful directory such as this makes me want to shout hooray,” says Alan Twigg of BC BookWorld in the Foreword.