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Quebec literary prize on hold after Amazon sponsorship controversy

MONTREAL — A prestigious Quebec literary prize has been suspended amid public outcry over the announcement of online giant Amazon as the main sponsor.

The Prix litteraire des collegiens announced the decision Wednesday after members of the public and the literary community criticized the multinational's involvement.

Reaction in Quebec was swift after Amazon was announced as the main sponsor on Nov. 9, with many commenters accusing the online retailer of hastening the demise of local bookstores.

Among those speaking out most forcefully were the five finalists for the 2019 edition of the prize, who said Amazon Canada's involvement caught them by surprise.

In a joint letter published in Le Devoir, Karoline Georges, Kevin Lambert, Jean-Christophe Rehel, Lula Carballo and Dominique Fortier denounced what they called Amazon's "extreme competition" and its detrimental effect on small booksellers.

"Must we recall the precariousness of the book trade and literary publishing?" they asked. "Must we bring up the inhuman methods of this online selling giant, which constitutes a peril for small retailers and cultural sites?"

In conclusion, they found "defending Quebec literature and promoting a multinational that hurts bookstores, and therefore this same Quebec literature, cannot go together." All five of the finalists' books are available for purchase on Amazon.

Claude Bourgie Bovet, co-founder of the prize, wrote in a statement that partnerships such as the one with Amazon "allow us to increase the influence of the award, to make it grow and to put in place a solid structure to ensure its durability."

Bourgie Bovet said the negative reaction "saddened us and forced us, because we did not have all the necessary tools to achieve our ambitions, to suspend the prize."

In a long message published on the prize's Facebook page, the other co-founder, Bruno Lemieux, said the real problem wasn't so much Amazon as the failure of the Quebec government to support the prize.

He noted that many previous corporate sponsorships have dried up and that, in the event's 15-year history, no provincial government offered the kind of funding needed to sustain the event.

The award's format includes sending copies of the finalists' books to colleges and universities across the province. Representatives from the schools meet in Quebec City in the spring, where they debate the merits of each title and select a winner.

Amazon Canada's only comment was that the contest's organizers have the company's full support "as they address the next steps of the 2019 edition."

Amazon has also drawn the ire of booksellers in France, whose union put out a statement denouncing the company's "sprawling strategy" earlier this year ahead of a popular Paris book fair.

Elsewhere in Canada, though, Amazon sponsorships do not seem to have drawn the same reaction.

The Amazon Canada First Novel Award, which The Walrus magazine produces on the online retailer's behalf, has received nothing but positive feedback, according to the magazine's executive director, Shelley Ambrose.

However, Ambrose noted that the context is different since Amazon created the first novel award rather than attaching its name to an existing program.

Cultural factors may also be at play, the president of a group representing Quebec writers said.

Laurent Dubois believes Quebec's French-language literary community is particularly sensitive to the need to promote its homegrown culture.

Independent booksellers are usually highly involved in the local writing community, but "here in Quebec, we don't get the idea that Amazon cares about the place of French language in culture," he said.

While his group condemns the prize's association with Amazon, he says they're even more disappointed to hear about the award being suspended or possibly cancelled.

He is calling on the Quebec government and the business and literary communities to work together to secure funding needed to keep the prize alive.

The prize's organizers, meanwhile, have said they are ready to relaunch the contest if they receive enough support.

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press

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