Balance the Books

The case for Canadian publishing

When motion picture ­technologies blossomed in the early twentieth century, filmmakers around the world set up small studios. In Halifax, for example, the Canadian Bioscope Company got to work and released Evangeline, the first of six features, in 1914. But by the 1930s, the feature film industry in this country was a thing of the past. Filmmaking shifted to the better-financed studios of Hollywood, with American companies operating large distribution and exhibition chains here. Our local movie theatres showed what they were sent. Today, even before London-based Cineworld completes its takeover of Cineplex, it is rare to find a Canadian feature in general release. “The box office in Canada largely belongs to American films,” as a parliamentary committee put it several years ago.

The failure of our early film industry was a power­ful warning for artists and politicians. It set the context for the Conservative government’s decision in 1932 to intervene in the communications market and to create a national public broadcaster, the original CBC. Following the Second World War, Canada saw a remarkable growth in cultural awareness, buttressed by policies and programs that gave Canadians more space to express our cultures and identities. Music, theatre, radio, and museums all benefited, as did publishing. But today many of those working in the literary arts, especially independent publishers, are sounding alarm bells.

Two recent reports highlight publishers’ fears. One of them, More Canada: Increasing Canadians’ Awareness and Reading of Canadian Books, put together by a volunteer task force of independent publishers and other industry players, draws a troubling conclusion about a dire situation: “Despite the presence of a burgeoning writing community and a stable, successful publishing industry, there is a steady decline in the reading and purchasing of Canadian-authored books by the Canadian public.” (The task force consulted me briefly, but I did not help write its report.)

While it is difficult to gather comprehensive statistics on purchasing and reading preferences, More Canada shows that sales by Canadian-owned publishers have dropped sharply in recent years: down 17 percent in French and an astonishing 44 percent in English since 2005. In 2017, English-language books from domestic publishers and from Canadian branches of foreign publishers garnered just 13 percent of total book sales (measured in revenues and numbers sold). “Canadians are now reading fewer Canadian-authored books,” the task force concludes, “even fewer than they were reading in 1978, near the beginning of the dramatic growth and success of Canadian writers and books in Canada as well as abroad.”

This situation is an “alarming paradox.” Canada has publishing know-how and many excellent authors, but our books are losing out in our home markets. They are less noticed and less read, drowned in a tsunami of imported materials. This contradiction also has an international dimension: many around the world see our literature and publishing industry as a great success story — an image that’s hopefully reinforced at the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair, in October, where Canada is scheduled to be the guest of honour. (It remains to be seen if the world’s largest book event actually takes place this year.)

The reputation that Canadian authors and publishers enjoy was unthinkable just a few decades ago. In 1951, the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, chaired by Vincent Massey, reported that English-speaking Canada had produced a grand total of fifty-five books three years earlier, in 1948. The Massey Report concluded that “neither in French nor in English have we yet a truly national literature,” while lamenting a “cultural environment” that is “hostile or at least indifferent to the writer.”

The Massey Report was Canada’s first compre­hensive statement on cultural policy, and it helped galvanize the country’s latent energy in many arts sectors. Literary output, in particular, expanded dramatically. New writers and entrepreneurs were supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, created in 1957, which set up competitive grants for authors. Regional and university programs soon followed. In 1971, Ontario stepped in to fund the debts of McClelland & Stewart, which helped keep a key player out of American hands. This million-dollar decision also paved the way for a national assistance program, now called the Canada Book Fund, and for similar initiatives by many provinces.

Seventy years after that fifty-five-book nadir, English-language publishers averaged 2,600 new titles between 2012 and 2017, while French publishers averaged 3,800 titles. (Much smaller numbers were produced in other languages.) This output, while impressive, is still limited when compared with the giant publishing industries in the United States and Great Britain: in a recent year, the U.S. issued 305,000 new and revised titles, while Britain brought out 184,000. Rare is the Canadian publisher or writer who gets wealthy from what Roy MacSkimming famously called “the perilous trade.” Nonetheless, our collective efforts in writing, publishing, and reading have spawned a national treasure, what the task force describes as “a vigorous, lively, and mature book culture.”

It should go without saying that the great digital revolution has had a huge impact on reading. Perhaps the most visible innovation was the appearance, in the early 2000s, of ebooks and tablets: press a button, pore over a screen, and the printed page seems a thing of the past. The business side of publishing also experienced huge shifts, with new production software, online retailing, high-profile mergers, and the closure of storied houses.

As they did elsewhere, publishers in Canada adapted to this digital world. They began issuing digital formats, turned to new marketing databases, and embraced social media. They seemed to make the right moves. Still, Canada has “experienced the declining impact of new books we publish: fewer people seem to know about them, and fewer people read them.”

There are several explanations for the paradox we face. First, Canadian books often lose out in marketing and distribution. The industry relies on digital sales systems, mainly based in the U.S., that utilize classification methods, promotional algorithms, and ordering tools that systematically ignore Canada as a category or even an iden­tifier. This makes it difficult for independent domestic publishers, who produce about 80 percent of Canadian-authored books, to be noticed even by proudly Canadian bookshops.

Simple economics also gives international publishers a distinct cost advantage over the independents; distributors can almost always deliver well-promoted foreign books with deeper discounts. While Canadian branches of international conglomerates, such as Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster, may take advantage of larger-scale distribution and promotion tools, they tend to focus their efforts on the biggest authors and bestsellers, irrespective of nationality. Often, it is simply cheaper and easier to import and promote American and British books than it is to sell our own.

Brick-and-mortar shops have been a traditional backbone for Canadian book sales, but they declined in numbers in the late twentieth century, and they must compete against large chains, supermarkets, and online behe­moths. Many of the 300 or so independent bookstores in English Canada are quite innovative, however, as seen in their efforts to continue operating during the COVID-19 crisis. They are generally strong promoters of Canadian-authored books, which represent roughly 18 percent of their total sales (compared with 13 percent of sales across other retail channels). The 250 independent bookstores in Quebec are also unique drivers of domestic sales: Twenty years ago, that province’s government reinforced its publishers’ wholesale and retail markets by incorporating local stores into its distribution system. As accredited suppliers to schools and libraries, booksellers have benefited financially while serving wider cultural goals.

Unfortunately, outside of Quebec, few public and university libraries have set policies for purchasing Canadian books. Wholesalers who service these institutions also use software that tends not to identify Canadian materials. Even institutional buyers who might favour Canadian books cannot fully compensate for the choices of more agnostic wholesalers. Consequently, our library shelves mirror the large American marketplace. In the words of More Canada: “The digital infrastructure currently in use in the Canadian book trade has inbuilt biases that invariably favour non-Canadian content.”

Challenges in the promotion, distribution, and recognition of Canadian books bring to mind the systemic obstacles that confronted musicians and content programmers before CanCon rules went into effect in 1971. Back then, the commercial weight of American ­culture and commerce dominated decisions about what to play on the radio and what to broadcast on the television. Unfortunately, the modern barriers to distributing and buying Canadian books are even more opaque than the influence of a Top Forty playlist.

More Canada does not lament the passing of an imaginary golden era, but it does raise a number of troubling questions: Is there no national sense of cultural responsibility among librarians and university administrators? Is there no limit to the parochial mentality of software producers and their corporate clients? Where is the policy leadership from federal, provincial, and municipal authorities responsible for cultural agencies and public education?

Multiple actions must join together, as in a jigsaw puzzle, to enable cultural expression on a commercial scale: creation, production, distribution, marketing, sales, and promotion. These connect into a cultural supply chain, and when connections break down at any point, the product has difficulty reaching its intended consumer. Canada’s ability to sustain large-scale cultural undertakings tends to falter with the distribution and marketing pieces of the puzzle — the business decisions that bring movies, broadcasts, streaming content, and books to audiences. These represent critical choke points — ones that tend to be controlled by foreign owners or suppliers.

How to deal with such choke points is the subject of numerous recommendations, sixty-eight in total, made by More Canada. Most of them seem eminently practical (although several reflect wishful thinking), and we can group them into four broad sets of initiatives.

The first set is focused on calls to action: ways to encourage institutions and governments to acquire and share Canadian content, and to make it central to their mandates. This would amount to a voluntary commitment to implement the publishing equivalent of CanCon policies. Public and university libraries, school boards, instructors, professors, and the CBC should all acknowledge their place in the network of Canadian ideas and identity. Their decisions in regard to the published word should reflect core institutional values of facilitating intellectual exchange grounded in Canadian perspectives.

Second, decision-makers and knowledge workers, including librarians, teachers, and media producers, should exercise their purchasing power to acquire domestic content. Like other smaller countries, of course, Canada would still acquire many works from other places, but responsible staff would ensure that buying, sharing, and using our own content is a top priority.

Third, we must address discoverability — how all of us, but especially booksellers and librarians, identify Canadian authors and books. Governments and institutions must recognize that the software that guides publishing and distribution decisions is not locked inside a static, inaccessible black box. Users can demand that searchable fields be upgraded to include Canadian-specific information. Governments should leverage their influence — financial or otherwise — to encourage these changes.

Fourth, federal and provincial programs, which offer essential support to publishers, must be expanded to include market access and distribution. Institutional subsidies, for example, could do more to support the acquisition of Canadian works in both traditional and digital formats. (Other provinces might also adapt Quebec’s bookstore accreditation model, but this would require a degree of buy-in from school boards and library administrators that seems unlikely.)

Civil servants routinely examine the effectiveness of their activities through program evaluations — technical reviews that are aimed at small internal audiences. Shortly after More Canada brought attention to the steady decline in the readership of Canadian books, the government completed a five-year evaluation of the Canada Book Fund, ending with 2017–18.

The CBF is the flagship program for Canadian-owned publishers and for wider industry projects; its annual budget of $41 million reaches about 245 publishers. The report of the evaluation offered a strong thumbs-up overall, saying the program achieved its main goal of ensuring “access to a diverse range of Canadian-authored books nationally and internationally, by fostering a strong book industry.” However, it also underlined major challenges that face the industry, in language that echoes More Canada.

The evaluation identified underfunding and a weak bargaining position as dominant features of Canadian books: “There is an established Canadian publishing industry, yet it remains fragile. Small publishers are more vulnerable in terms of their access to capital, bargaining power, cash flow and exposure to market fluctuations.” The bankruptcy of Coteau Books, Saskatchewan’s famed publisher, this past February speaks to this vulnerability. The regional effect on the literary landscape will be comparable to the im­pacts of General Publishing-Stoddart’s demise some years ago, as well as the relegation of McClelland & Stewart to a branch plant imprint for Penguin Random House Canada.

Like the More Canada task force, government evaluators pointed to the newer challenges of discovery: “Digital infrastructure, largely created by multinational companies, does not effectively recognize Canadian books.” Though Canadians continue to buy print, digital, and audiobooks, and while they express interest in Canadian authors, domestic publishers face declining sales. Books by Canadian authors sold domestically by Canadian publishers fell in value from $305 million in 2012–13 to $261 million in 2017–18, a 15 percent reduction. One bright spot: growth in exports partly offset the declines in domestic sales. (These business numbers still outstrip box office receipts for Canadian feature films, but the trends and the growing problems for books are ominously familiar.)

The top recommendation from the CBF eval­uation, addressed to senior officials in the Department of Canadian Heritage, calls for steps to assist “the discovery, marketing and promotion” of Canadian books, “including addressing information need, the capacity and skills gaps and issues relating to marketing infrastructure.” This recommendation is clear and direct even if it sounds bland. But if actually implemented, it could lead to real improvements and material support for domestic publishers.

On many points, More Canada and the CBF report are mutually reinforcing. Federal and provincial governments could take straightforward follow-up actions that would have immediate impacts, notably by assisting universities, colleges, and public libraries in the acquisition of digital books. Domestic literary output, while much larger than it was fifty years ago, is still relatively small; distributing digital collections would be affordable. The government should also actively work with database suppliers to improve search parameters for the materials we publish.

Other More Canada recommendations would pose additional challenges. Administrative attitudes and purchasing procedures among universities, in particular, are difficult to change. Encouraging teachers and professors to include Canadian materials in their curricula is not as straightforward as it might seem. There is also a deeper question left unexamined: Have reading habits fundamentally shifted away from books, and Canadian books in particular — just as reading habits have shifted away from printed newspapers? We might reach conclusions anecdotally, but the industry merits a full-fledged behavioural study grounded in the reality of Canadian — not American — reading habits. The research work by several excellent groups, notably BookNet Canada, could be a jumping-off point for deeper studies.

Policy solutions require leadership. Will the minister and deputy minister of Canadian heritage; the minister of innovation, science and economic development; the senators and members of Parliament involved with cultural production; and provincial authorities all step up to the challenge? In the wake of the pandemic, will there even be an appetite in government to deal with what may be seen as a low-priority issue — just books and culture? And, consequently, how will leaders within the industry — representing both independent and multinational companies — come together to galvanize action on these important reports and disturbing trends, even as they’re dealing with unprecedented disruptions to their publishing schedules?

Books of all genres are essential to our cultural survival. Without a healthy national publishing industry, and without policy actions that promote access to national readers, Canadian writing will be doomed to repeat the fate of our film industry. We will be reduced to supplying competent assistance to foreign publishers — but without voices, views, and values of our own.

Inspirations

More Canada: Increasing Canadians’ Awareness and Reading of Canadian Books
Canadian Publishers Hosted Software Solutions, 2018
Evaluation of the Canada Book Fund, 201213 to 201718
Evaluation Services Directorate
Canadian Heritage, 2019