Seen Reading goes national

May 14, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Julie Wilson, online content manager at House of Anansi Press and the brains behind the popular literary site Seen Reading, is expanding her blog’s focus to encompass the entire country. For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past two-and-a-half years, Seen Reading is a locus for what Wilson calls “literary voyeurism.” Wilson makes a note of what she sees people reading on her travels, goes to a bookstore and copies a passage from the book, then creates a short imaginative piece based on the book and her impression of the individual reading it. For her troubles, she and her site have appeared everywhere from the CBC to the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen, the Globe and Mail, and elsewhere.

Until now, Seen Reading has been pretty much a one-woman affair. Last year, Wilson instituted a “Readers Reading” section on her site, featuring podcasts of readers (including Rebecca Rosenblum, Mariko Tamaki, and Stacey May Fowles) reading short passages from some of their favourite books. But for the most part, the site has spotlighted readers Wilson noticed on her travels around her home city of Toronto.

Not anymore. Beginning this Victoria Day, Monday, May 18, Seen Reading is expanding its focus to include the entire country, from the East Coast to the West. Wilson has enlisted the help of three writers from different parts of Canada to provide installments for the site each week. The new national format will begin on Monday, with a post by Nova Scotia’s Ami McKay, author of The Birth House. Other new contributors to the site include Montreal’s Saleema Nawaz, author of the story collection Mother Superior, and Vancouver’s Monique Trottier, who runs Boxcar Marketing, an Internet consultancy firm.

Wilson initiated the idea of bringing other bloggers from around the country on board a few months ago:

It had been over two-and-a-half years of collecting sightings and responding to them, and I was unsure of the next step. I confided in Monique who, remarkably, offered to take care of Seen Reading if I wanted a break. Through Twitter, I had learned that Ami and Saleema were both supporters of the site. I simply took the plunge. I admire each of them as writers and their sense of community within the publishing industry. I had the utmost faith that they would be kind to the project, while offering a new perspective from different parts of the country.

The feeling of admiration is clearly mutual. McKay says that she’s been a fan of Seen Reading “from the start,” and was “thrilled” to be asked to participate. “I plan on bringing a quirky, curious, rural sensibility to my posts,” McKay says. “My sightings will largely be based in the day-to-day of Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley: pee-wee baseball practices, doctor’s offices, small-town coffee shops, and grocery store parking lots.”

For her part, Trottier says that she has long admired Seen Reading. “The structured format was fun and flexible and as a fellow blogger I wished that I’d thought of something similar.” And Nawaz admits to a similar strain of blogger envy where Seen Reading was concerned: “Just about every weekday on my way to work, I’d notice somebody reading something fantastic and I would be thrown back into the same wishful reverie of a Montreal Seen Reading.” Nawaz wants to bring Montrealers’ love of reading out into the open: “Montreal readers are keen and passionate. I can’t wait to find out more about them. I’ll be the one on the back of the bus, in the park, in the cafĂ©, furiously scribbling notes while trying to look invisible.”

Wilson herself plans to continue posting from Toronto, but says that she envisions a time when her role begins to resemble that of an acquisitions editor. “There’s no reason why Seen Reading couldn’t evolve into a true community,” she says. “It will take a larger team, and funds, but the possibilities are exciting.”

In the short term, Wilson plans a three-pronged approach to publicize the new, expanded Seen Reading. She is soliciting the assistance of litbloggers and booksellers to help get the word out, and has partnered with McNally Robinson in Toronto to give away two books per month on Twitter. “People are asked to submit 10 words to describe themselves. Using that biographical information, two winners a month will be picked to have their book needs met by Book Madam,” an alter ego Wilson created for the Twitter venture.

Secondly, Wilson wants to mount a charity event with an evening of readings by authors whose books have been “seen.” The proceeds would go to support a national literacy program.

And finally, Wilson is relying on word of mouth, through blogs (McKay’s Incidental Pieces, Trottier’s So Misguided, and Nawaz’s Metaphysical Conceit), as well as social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Linked In, to reach out to the online community. Calling this “connector publicity,” Trottier expects that the contributors’ various Web-based networks will form the “first line of promotion” for the beefed-up Seen Reading. “It’s very exciting to see how quickly interest in the project has surfaced.”

This focus on Web-based marketing is entirely appropriate for Seen Reading, of course, and each of the contributors to the site is a passionate advocate for the Internet’s potential to spur interest in, and discussion of, books. Says McKay:

Without a doubt, there’s a literary community out there [online] that is just as valid and valuable as the writing in publications such as The New York Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement. Universal access is part of what makes the ‘Net such a brilliant place for sharing ideas. It makes room for conversation rather than striving to be the last word. I guess I’d say to the critics that I believe our words and our creative selves are like nature, they thrive on diversity.

Nawaz agrees, saying that “writers, readers, and publishers are generally delighted with the way the Internet can expand and enhance traditional coverage, as well as the opportunity it offers for bringing books to a wider audience.” And Trottier points to declining book coverage in traditional print media versus the volume of online coverage, which continues to grow. “Depending on whose numbers you cite,” she says, “60-80% of offline purchase decisions are made after online research or recommendations. In my mind, this signals a huge opportunity for literary blogs to reach an audience interested in books and reading.”

Wilson also points out the creative side of Seen Reading, and emphasizes its function as a repository of what could be termed “flash fiction”:

Seen Reading has most often been discussed as a project that notes reading habits, and less as an archive of creative writing. By bringing in more perspectives, and certainly authors such as Ami and Saleema, my hope is that the site will begin to function more visibly as a publisher, and that contributors will be viewed more apparently as writers.

THIS POST CONTAINS MATERIAL THAT HAS BEEN CORRECTED. Julie Wilson is no longer a publicist at House of Anansi, as was originally posted. Her current position is online content manager. TSR regrets the error.