Time to Lead: The Shaky State of Canadian Book Publishing

By Anna Porter
Globe and Mail, March 15, 2011

I spent almost 40 years publishing books in Canada and, as my old friend and mentor Jack McClelland used to say, this terrible business has been kind to me. It gave me the opportunity to work with some very talented writers (Avie Bennett used to say that buying McClelland & Stewart was a small price to pay to be able to lunch with Margaret Atwood), a few interesting artists, politicians, industrialists, bankers and hockey legends.

Apart from that, it’s taught me a great deal about endurance and patience. And I’ve needed both to endure people who believe that the publishing business in Canada needs less government and more incentives for foreign investment. None of the bright-eyed free enterprisers has suggested that the government should change the protectionist policies that have helped our newspaper owners thrive.

How did people get the idea that there are electrified fences against foreign investment in Canadian literature? Unlike the protected business of banking, for example, there are no barriers to the free flow of books into Canada. If you don’t believe me, walk through a Chapters store and check where most of the books come from. And, yes, foreign-owned publishers do publish some of the best of our authors – many of them first discovered by the local farm team of publishers, then taken over by the larger foreign firms, once those authors became successful.

Canadian publishers publish about 90 per cent of Canadian-authored books, as they should, just as U.S. publishers publish more than 98 per cent of U.S.-authored books, as they should. The one significant difference is the size of the market. Ours is about the same as California’s, which makes this a labour-intensive, marginal business – one that has our risk-averse bankers run to the safer havens of foreign real estate, junk bonds and seemingly deep-pocketed developers. That, in turn, makes it hard for local publishers to get lines of credit so they can compete with foreign publishers when they try to retain those few very successful authors by paying them what they deserve.

Our government has tried to keep the locals going by providing modest subsidies. No, they’re not on the scale of farm subsidies or film subsidies or Bombardier subsidies, nor as effective as the tax deductibility of advertising costs if you spend your money on Canadian-owned media, but they’ve served the purpose of keeping book publishers working at subsistence-level pay, employing people at equally ridiculous wages, and paying taxes for the privilege.

Frankly, I believe most book publishers are brilliant business people with astonishing financial acumen and endurance through difficult times that would put those subsidized car manufacturers to shame. Sometimes, I wonder how wealthy Karl Siegler of tiny Talonbooks would be today had he gone into the car parts business instead of battling on year after year publishing those very fine Canadian books.

Fortunately, there are people in this country who value what they contribute to our lives above what they take out of the economy. (That, I hope, answers the question a distinguished lawyer once asked me: If that’s all you make in a year, why don’t you change professions?)

The only barrier against foreigners entering our market is that they, ostensibly, can’t buy Canadian book publishing companies. That bit of regulation is a hangover from the days one needed a physical presence in Canada to distribute books. Well, as those following book news would be aware, you don’t need a local warehouse any more – look at what happened to H.B. Fenn when its foreign-owned business partners decided they didn’t need a local distributor. It may even be cheaper to ship your books across the border. So why in hell would they want to buy a Canadian book publisher?

The real question is: What kind of government policies do we need to keep our vital publishing houses functioning? The old model no longer works. What’s at stake is our future as a distinct cultural entity, our being a country rather than a collection of self-interested people with nothing to hold them together but the comfort of knowing that our bankers are more prudent than others’.