The Houses CanLit Built

Why the business of publishing matters to readers

The hullabaloo around the purported death of the printed book is reaching a fevered pitch—again. Moveable type was going to do the book in, the paperback assured its demise and now we imagine the e-book as the one in the Grim Reaper’s robes. All this hand wringing is a sign of affection, to be sure; no one is losing sleep over the disappearance of the eight-track player, for example.

It seems timely, then, to ask all those fervent fans of the book to do what they do for their coffee and their carrots: to consider the source. Is the author being paid? Are the books legally sourced? Are the proceeds supporting Canadians or international shareholders? We are willing to ask these questions of our bananas but not our books; is it that we do not want to tarnish the “romance” of literature with questions of politics and cold, hard cash? If we want to keep the book alive, it would behoove us all to understand at least the basics of the publishing industry.

Enter Ultra Libris: Policy, Technology and the Creative Economy of Book Publishing in Canada, which offers all that (or perhaps more than) anyone concerned with book publishing needs to know about how this industry works in Canada: the nitty-gritty, including the state of the marketplace, the government’s role, the sad realities of distribution in a huge, sparsely populated country. The book is, then, an immensely valuable resource. Its closest analogue—yin to its yang, perhaps—is Roy MacSkimming’s The Perilous Trade: Book Publishing in Canada, 1946–2006, an anecdotal, even gossipy, study of the first 60 years of Canada’s publishers. But Rowland Lorimer, in Ultra Libris, eschews narrative, avoiding talk of individual presses and the characters who run them and instead speaking of the Canadian-owned industry as though it were a single entity, documenting the mechanics of the business and the forces that have acted on it over the past half-decade—unsexy but fundamental. If MacSkimming writes about the furniture and the parties, Lorimer focuses on how the two-by-fours hold the whole thing up.

It is worth turning to John B. Thompson’s The Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century for some background on the history of English-language publishing. The industry takes the form it currently does, he says, because of three major developments in the second half of the last century: the growth of the big retail chains, the rise of literary agents and the emergence of massive publishing corporations. These shifts have led to a polarization of the field (a few massive conglomerates and countless small presses, but very few mid-sized publishers), a resulting preoccupation with “big books” (the hollowing out of the middle in the context of book sales) and shrinking shelf time for books, with ever-growing rates of returns from the bookstore to the publisher. Thompson is relatively balanced about all this, but what he calls “short-termism” can hardly be regarded as anything but treacherous for a “product” whose entire raison d’être might be permanence, or at least “long-termism.”

(Let’s duck out here for a brief aside on the notion of permanence. It is, perhaps, the book’s greatest promise. How comforting to know that, no matter what happens in our own lives, Jane always marries Rochester and Molly Bloom always says yes. We live now on the internet, where everything is mutable and ephemeral, which partly accounts for our renewed faith in and attachment to the solid, unchangeable book. That is not to say that the format of the printed book is right for everything; reference materials, ever changing, work much more effectively in digital form—even, perhaps, books like Ultra Libris, which documents an industry that seems to change every day, such that even before its publication date there is outdated information in it. There is some irony in the fact that, in spite of this, the book becomes more credible somehow by being run through a printing press.)

The Merchants of Culture is about English-language publishing, which we all know means the United States and the United Kingdom. Canada merits barely a mention. And yet Canadian publishing is continuously buffetted about by these two forces outside our control and geography. We are at the mercy of their cultural dominance, their economies of scale, their media and our lingering sense of being a former colony. Which is why it is crucial that Canada retain its own indigenous publishing industry, and why we must have this clear chronicle of it. In his second chapter, Lorimer gives a brief history of the struggle Canadian publishers have faced to carve out a space for domestic writing and publishing from the overpowering presence of two literary superpowers both publishing in the same language—and, now, multinational publishers, with their accountability toward non-Canadian parent companies rather than Canadian culture, competing from within. It is an unenviable undertaking, with Canadian publishing playing the role of underdog. Speaking of the now foreign-owned McClelland and Stewart, Lorimer notes:

The stark reality of marketplace challenges is this: Over the long term, 1972 to 2012, in spite of all its renown, and all its awards and accomplishments, Canada’s foremost English-language trade book publisher of leading fiction and non-fiction primarily for the Canadian market proved to be financially unviable. Even its ability to take advantage of the economies of scale and the wisdom of Canada’s largest trade book publisher [Random House] on all but acquisitions and editorial preparation could not rescue its viability.

To grow an industry in a field that is inherently inhospitable to success in a landscape dominated by two massive competitors would seem foolhardy without some assistance. And so in the 1950s, a royal commission, headed by Vincent Massey, recommended direct governmental support for Canadian culture. From this emerged the Canada Council for the Arts and a recognition that persists, mercifully, to this day, that supporting culture is a worthy and even essential function of government. As Lorimer says,

the notion that Canadian cultural industries are weak and thus require governmental crutches to survive, let alone thrive, is not a fact but an interpretation … In the case of Canada, these industries require the fine tuning of the market infrastructure to counteract the size, shared language(s) with other countries, and cosmopolitan nature of our domestic market.

Lorimer neatly packages up the rather complex history of funding for publishers from the federal and provincial governments (he focuses primarily on Ontario here, as that province hosts the largest number of publishers). Recognizing that this history has always been a dialogue between the funders and the funded, he includes the positions taken by the Association of Canadian Publishers, the industry group for Canadian-owned publishers, on many major funding issues, which helps explain how financial support for publishers has ended up being so convoluted.

That our government still supports the industry is widely known (although perhaps not as widely approved of, which returns us to my earlier point about readers not necessarily understanding the context through which books are able to emerge). Less obvious, though at least equally influential, are the laws and policies that almost subterraneously shape the industry. It is here that Lorimer shines. “Structural interventions” is what he calls governmental support that is not financial, or at least is not direct monetary support to publishers. Ownership, trade and copyright legislation are the most significant areas of positive interference; they demonstrate that our government has historically recognized that publishing’s value is more cultural than economic (although of course the economic benefits are nothing to sneeze at). This, the industry worries, might be changing.

We have long had a foreign-ownership policy in place that keeps most of Canada’s publishing, distribution and bookstores in Canadian hands by insisting that any takeovers or start-ups led by non-Canadians prove a net benefit to Canada before being allowed to proceed. It would not have allowed Borders (before it went bankrupt), for instance, to buy Indigo. This policy has always been idiosyncratically and opaquely applied, but since the Conservative government instigated a “review” of the policy in 2010, it has all but evaporated. Amazon has been allowed to set up shop in Canada, and McClelland and Stewart (what Lorimer charmingly calls our “family silver”) sold off to Bertelsmann, the German owner of Random House. There is some fear in the industry, as Lorimer points out, that the retail sector might be next; what would the landscape look like if buying for a bookstore in Kelowna took place in New York?

The subject of cultural exemptions in trade agreements takes up a fair amount of real estate in Ultra Libris. There is simply no way to summarize the labyrinthine history of Canada’s position(s) on culture in trade, which has typically been in favour of “cultural diversity” but unwilling to antagonize trading partners. It is one of Lorimer’s concluding wishes for the industry that we move forward with cultural protections to allow Canada to grow:

On the basis of the principles and policies of both the [Convention on Cultural Diversity, to which Canada is a signatory] and creative economy initiatives, cultural markets will gradually restructure, which may lead to the injection of a multiplicity of diverse local expressions into global entertainment trade flows.

Copyright, as might be expected, plays an enormous role in the publishing industry, and thus in Ultra Libris as well. If we might return to that question of permanence, it is here that the printed word fails us: this book was finalized just before Canada’s new copyright act was imposed. Lorimer praises the old act, which, though ill equipped to deal with modern technologies, provided support for creators and cultural industries: first, by protecting creators by insisting on compensation for any use of their work, and, second, by enshrining in law the intuitive notion that Canadian booksellers, for example, should source books from Canadian distributors where available, rather than importing, say, an American edition. The new copyright law, which Lorimer hints is so flawed it could not possibly pass without amendments, passed; writers and publishers are still sorting out its implications, but there is much consternation that a new “educational” exemption, a term that may be applied more liberally than the law makers intended, will eliminate a significant source of income for creators and further encourage younger people to feel entitled to free content.

Other interventions are more secure and positive. The Public Lending Right Commission compensates writers for the availability of their books in libraries; Access Copyright (for now, anyway) manages reprography. And BookNet Canada has been created to document the book supply chain and allow booksellers and publishers to track sales and manage inventory considerably more effectively—Canada is the envy of other countries for the forward-thinkingness and efficacy of BookNet. Lorimer makes the astute observation that the Supply Chain Initiative (out of which BookNet emerged, among other benefits to publishers) was a savvy response to a retail challenge, the creation of the Chapters/Indigo monopsony: “[BookNet] precluded Chapters’ monopolization of industry-wide sales information; it prevented the monetization of that information, which would have given Chapters an even greater competitive advantage.”

Ultra Libris concludes its history of the Canadian publishing industry with some optimism and advice. Lorimer covers many of the difficulties the industry is facing: how technology is changing communication, readership and work flow; that bookstores are shuttering at an alarming rate; that publishers are at the financial and legislative mercy of an unpredictable government. As a publisher, I would add a few: the distressing polarization of title popularity (tiny “long-tail” numbers at one end, massive homogeneous bestsellers at the other, with no mid-list in between anymore); the ever increasing and terrifying global domination of Amazon; that while we love the idea of the book, we no longer always value what is in it or think very highly of its worth (publishers and booksellers are complicit in this devaluation by heavily discounting and remaindering titles, so that readers now feel they should not have to pay more a few dollars for a book—unsustainable in the long term).

The advice Lorimer offers to publishers is, unfortunately, a little dated, and not entirely convincing. He talks of using print-on-demand technology for keeping backlist titles affordably in print and of working to take advantage of possibilities for e-books; I cannot think of a publisher who does not already do these things. But there is some merit in his idea of service models: publishers selling their editorial or design services to self-published authors, for instance—although if publisher-as-curator is the most important way to set “official publishing” apart from vanity press, a for-hire service would have to be carefully managed.

A central theme through this book is Lorimer’s lament that an indigenous educational publishing industry has not been allowed to flourish; it would have made publishing in Canada viable, he contends, if Canadian publishers (rather than branch plants of foreign-owned publishers) had been the ones to produce Canadian textbooks over the last half-decade. I suspect he is correct, but that is an impossible do-over.

I have some quibbles with Ultra Libris, to be sure: there are some troubling factual inaccuracies, a mostly chronological structure that encourages much repetition, and a sometimes counterproductive lack of specificity (it is often an advantage to think of the industry speaking and behaving as one, but it is definitely not realistic, and at times it is the endless disagreements between publishers that are most productive and illuminating). But it offers a staggering archive of a cultural history: the appendix includes a ten-page listing of relevant policy documents and a breathtakingly thorough bibliography. Lorimer’s approach is clear headed and thorough, and while the subject matter does not lend itself to fun and frolic, it is of vital importance to Canadian culture, and documenting its scaffolding so meticulously—so permanently, so long-termishly—creates a valuable resource and a tremendous gift to Canadian readers. Who just might want to pay attention.