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A publishing industry on suicide watch

In 1920, the poet Ezra Pound moved from London to Paris to “save American letters from premature suicide and decomposition.” In 2012, is there someone who will move to Toronto to save Canadian letters from a similar fate?

The question arises in the wake of two developments that are disturbing to Canadian writers and independent book publishers: The slide toward bankruptcy of the leading independent Canadian publisher, Douglas & McIntyre, and the merger of two of the world’s largest publishers, Penguin and Random House into a single entity owned by Germany’s Bertelsmann & Company.

Vancouver-based D&M, facing a debt load of $6 million, has taken the first step to file for bankruptcy protection. The prospects of finding an independent buyer to pick up this debt, or of working out a settlement of a few cents on the dollar with creditors, are slim, in my opinion. Sadly, the company’s creditors include many writers, one of whom is owed more than $50,000 in unpaid royalties.

Penguin and Random House have operated competitively in Canada for many years. They’ve been prestigious outlets for many Canadian writers, while also distributing in Canada the lists of their parent companies. Together, they own 40 per cent of the Canadian book market.

The worry is that the merger, even if it leaves the imprints standing, is likely to result in the publication of fewer books by Canadian authors.

The merger also raises serious questions about Canada’s existing policy on foreign investment in the book publishing industry. The Harper government is known to favor a more open approach to foreign investment generally. Its a fundamental of conservative thinking that such investment creates jobs and stimulates the economy. That’s why the test for a foreign buyer — in every other industry — is to show that the transaction will bring a “net benefit” to Canada.

That’s not the case of the cultural industries. They were intentionally left out of the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement, and its follow=-up, NAFTA. Too important to allow the sector to be swallowed up by foreign buyers, the thinking went. But now, there’s growing pressure to allow foreign publishers — like U.S.-based Simon & Schuster — to buy out or set up their own Canadian publishing companies.

Then came the Internet, and behemoths like Amazon, offering instant access to book buyers all over the globe, including Canada. A turning point may have come when Ottawa allowed Amazon to set up its own distribution centre in Mississauga, Ont., to better serve Canadian buyers.

While more book  buying shifted to the Internet, the advent of the e-reader further undercut traditional book stores, especially the dwindling number of independent book dealers. The Chapters-Indigo chain fought back with its own online presence, and by launching its own e-reader, Kobo, since sold off to a major buyer.

As a consequence of all of this, you’ve got observers like The Globe and Mail’s John Barber declaring that the “phoenix (of Canadian publishing) is now officially extinct.”

Consolidation at both the publishing and the retail levels is nothing new — every other industry has gone through it in the past few decades. The economics that drive monopoly practices — low profitability and stagnant sales — are even more obvious in book publishing than in, say yoga making or hardware retailing.

For authors and publishers, three realities are clear:

  1. People seem to be reading less, distracted as they are by social media and web surfing.
  2. The shift to e-reading shouldn’t hurt that much – authors are still needed to create the content.
  3. The printed book is still the basis of literary life – the indispensable building block for public recognition , author success, and publisher survival.

So how do we avoid suicide and decomposition in Canadian letters?

Writers will write and readers will read. How to connect the two is the question. The Awards programs — Giller, Writers’ Trust , BC Non-Fiction, Taylor — are fantastic because in additional to their cash value, they draw attention to the winners and boost sales. It’s great to see the Giller go to an unconventional choice, Will Ferguson’s thriller 419. But the key, I think, is more effective promotion and marketing by publishers. Too many books are published unheralded, shipped off to the stores unaccompanied, and little or nothing is done by the publisher to make the public aware of their existence. Publishers are leaning too much on authors to do this job. This has to change. Readers have to be made aware of a book before they’ll buy it.

No book should be published unless the publisher (and the author) have a clear, effective, and unique marketing plan to support it. It’s not just a matter of dollars. Example: My recent book, Joey Smallwood: Schemer and Dreamer, has joined the hundreds of other biographies on the book shelves, without any extraordinary effort being made by the publisher, Dundurn, to sell it.  Memorial University in St. John’s might have been talked into putting on a seminar on the Smallwood legacy – a reappraisal of his life, 21 years after his death. Every book has something unique about it, and that uniqueness needs to be better exploited.

An online voice, Andrew Losowsky of the Huffington Post, recently asked why  is it that we like to take books on vacation? Because “we read to be transported away from ourselves.” Adds Losowsky: “A great book is the very definition of a de-stress tool. It says, ‘Let me take you away from this for a while,’ and then, like a mystical masseuse for the mind, it does so.”

And don’t people need this now, more than ever?

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