The Divide over the Canadian Book Industry

This column by the Toronto Star’s Michael Geist grabbed my attention. In it, Geist does a pretty decent job of pointing out the contrast between The Association of Canadian Publishers and foreign publishing interests. Of note, the following passage clearly articulates why, in my opinion at least, the Canadian publishing industry needs to get it’s head out of the sand:

Geist writes:

“The Association of Canadian Publishers argues that the rules should remain unchanged as it is hard pressed to find any redeeming quality about foreign competition or any relaxation of the rules. It maintains that the current restrictions are “effective, practical, flexible and fair.”

The association is dismissive of foreign publishers, arguing that head offices in New York or London invariably make the decisions based on “assessments of return on investment and shareholder value.”

By contrast, it suggests that Canadian independent publishers do not answer to foreign executives or shareholders and are more likely to publish Canadian authors. Moreover, it believes that Canadian booksellers and distributors are also more likely to understand Canadian customers than are foreign-owned companies.”

You see, this bugs me for a host of reasons. Chief among them is the presumptuous notion that Canadian publishers seem to *understand* Canadian readers far more than those vile, profit-driven foreign publishers. What I’m about to say here is likely going to piss off the purists who are addicted to the status-quo, but here goes: spoken like an industry that’s addicted to government subsidy. Seriously, when you’ve got grants from the Canadian taxpayer helping you remain *competitive*, there’s no burning need to focus on profitability and the bottom line, now is there?

Sure, Canada is next door to the United States and yeah, I get that the US publishers have far more financial clout than small Canadian publishers. Yep, they can flood Canadian bookstores (and really, in Canada just as every where else in the world, independent booksellers are closing every day. Most Canadians shop at Chapters-Indigo, Canada’s big box chain) with non-Canadian titles, but here’s a thought: those US publishers are publishing books that people actually want to purchase! By that I mean that US publishers have a very diverse line of books that range from serious literary fiction to a hell of a lot of genre fiction, and folks, genre fiction is pretty much taboo in the Canadian publishing industry.

Case in point? Moi! I write an urban fantasy series that is uniquely Canadian. It’s filled with everything from Tim Horton’s references to Canadian history and one of the main characters is the ghost of one of Canada’s Prime Ministers. How ironic, therefore, that I had to go to a UK publisher (read foreign publisher not in touch with what Canadians want to read because they’re not from Canada) to publish a series of books that take place in Canada!

I know a lot of Canadian genre fiction authors and every single one of them is looking for a literary agent right now. They’re looking to publish outside of Canada because our heavily subsidized publishing industry whose sole focus is on literary fiction (which simply does not sell anywhere near the numbers that genre fiction sells) won’t even consider looking at a query letter from them. (Did I mention the vast majority don’t take email submissions? Another bee in my bonnet!) Apparently, Canadian readers don’t want to read books about vampire romance or zombie outbreaks written by Canadian authors that often take place right here in our own back yard!

I might sound like a heretic for this, but just what the heck is wrong with a publisher wanting to make a profit? Lots, apparently.

You see, government subsidies are kind of addictive. There’s a natural assumption that they’ll always be there and as a result, you can pursue acquiring books of high literary merit that just aren’t going to sell anywhere near what genre fiction sells. The authors in my circle of associates are damned good writers with damned good stories to tell. It burns my butt that they, like me, are forced to pursue their writing aspirations outside of their own country because their own country doesn’t do vampires, erotic romance,or basically anything that has a cover with a hot bare chested guy and a doe-eyed female in a corset.

There are a few glimmers of hope out there. Canada produces world class kid’s lit and publishers like Edge Publishing in Calgary or Bundoran Press both produce some of the best science fiction and fantasy on planet earth and neither (to my knowledge) receives a penny of government help.

I’ll get off my soap box for now because ranting brings up my blood pressure and I’m up to my ears in line edits for Unseen World. I’ll close by pointing out that my beef isn’t with authors of literary fiction or that literary fiction can never be profitable. It’s just that decades of government subsidy ultimately produces an industry that refuses to embrace change. And folks, change is coming. Big time. E-Book readers are dropping in price. People are shopping online and cutting out even the big box stores like Chapters-Indigo. Technology is driving change and publishers who don’t focus on profitability and the bottom line are going to be in a world of hurt in short order. Don’t believe me? Two words: Dorchester Publishing.

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Posted August 10, 2011 by Sean Cummings in category "Blog


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