Contemplating Canada’s publishing industry, most publishers located outside the country think of Toronto, especially when it comes to English-language books. Few realize that there is a small group of independent, English-language publishers hailing from the one Canadian province usually associated with the French language: Québec.
A few of these publishing companies are still quite young; Baraka Books, publisher of Ishmael Reed’s Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media, is only three years old, and Linda Leith, founder of the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival, recently established a new publishing company: Linda Leith Publishing. Others, however, have been around long enough to help build the foundation of what Québec English-language publishing is today. Celebrating its 40th anniversary next year, Véhicule Press, whose Techniques in Home Winemaking by Daniel Pambianchi has had unexpected and constant success in the United States since 1999, was among the founding members of the Association of English-Language Publishers of Québec (AELAQ). “A big part of the history happened in the 1980s with the establishment of the Québec Writers’ Federation, the QSPELL books prizes, and the AELAQ,” explains Simon Dardick, Véhicule Press’s owner and publisher. He continues: “In the beginning, none of these organizations received any funding from the Québec government, unlike their French counterparts, so we requested a meeting with the Culture Minister. At the time, the buzzword in the province was ‘respect,’ and we told her that we too needed respect. Francophone writers and publishers were getting their organizations, and we wanted to be dealt with the same way.... The strength of the industry today is a real proof of how important it is to have institutions and this structure to support writing and publishing. I think what’s really great is that we work collaboratively.”
Collaboration, it appears, is something that Québec publishers value highly: “This is the advantage of being a small group,” adds Dardick. “I think that there’s a real sense of community among the writers, and people find that there’s less back-stabbing.” But Robin Philpot, owner and publisher at Baraka Books, believes that more collaboration is still necessary.
“One of the problems is that the industry is very Toronto-centric,” Philpot says. “If you’re not in Toronto, the industry won’t necessarily see your book or hear about it. They don’t know who you are as a publisher. It’s very hard to get attention, especially if you’re trying to bring out a new author. That’s why I think that it’s in our interest to work together with the overall publishing industry. I don’t think we’ve done it enough.”
Collaboration with French-language publishers is just as important. Philip J. Cercone, publisher at McGill–Queen’s University Press, Québec’s largest English-language publishing company, established in 1960 and one of AELAQ’s founding members, explains: “We do feel a strong collaboration with our French-language counterparts, particularly Les éditions du Septentrion with whom we have a strong trading relationship, both buying and selling rights. Being very close geographically enables our editorial and rights departments to meet with other Québec publishers on a regular basis. We notice that the French-language public prefers intellectually stimulating reads, and we have titles that have worked well in translation for the Québec market.” It’s not uncommon for most English-language publishers to have a particular trade relationship with one or two French-language publishers.
While publishing in English in Québec has its share of disadvantages, it also has quite a few advantages. On the one hand, “the English-language market in Québec is very small and so, by necessity, much of what we publish is of national and international interest,” says Cercone. “An English-language publisher in British Columbia or the Atlantic region has an easier time exploiting regional interest titles,” Dardick concurs. “There has to be a universal aspect to whatever it is you’re selling, and it’s important for Québec publishers to target the U.S. market. For us, it’s another English-language market right next door to us. There is some really good quality writing in fiction and nonfiction that is coming out of this province, both in French and in English.”
This, explains Philpot, is also the solution to the problem of bookstores closing. Though the problem isn’t quite as acute in Québec thanks to the Book Law, or Bill 51, publishers still cannot rely on the local market, which is limited, nor can they rely on the Canadian market alone, because the number of bookstores is plummeting. “The Canadian market is dominated by one chain,” Philpot concludes, “so you have to be able to reach other markets, and the American market is big.”
Another disadvantage is the entire distribution process. While French-language publishers print, sell, and distribute their books without leaving the province, English-language publishers have to use a sales force and a distributor located in Toronto. In short, English-language publishers in Québec use the English-language system to get books to their readers. A French-language distributor wouldn’t know the English-language market and wouldn’t have contacts in the rest of Canada. A bookseller from Winnipeg, Manitoba, would never buy a book from a French distributor. The relationships required for such transactions simply do not exist.
On the other hand, the Québec government offers a tremendous amount of support in the form of grants and a progressive e-book conversion program. “The Québec government understood that the program was useful and that it could help publishers deal with the book industry crisis,” says Philpot, “so they provide good support.” Although most of the English-language publishers in Québec indicate that the Québec Book Law doesn’t directly affect their sales, they still benefit from it because there are more independent booksellers in the province—particularly in Montreal, where most of the English-language market resides—to buy their books.
It could be said that these publishers have the best of both worlds: they get to be in Québec, with all the government funding and the independent bookstores, while they publish in the continent’s dominant language, which enables them to easily sell their books to the United States and the rest of Canada. “And we have the advantage of living in Montreal,” laughs Dardick.
Mélanie Grondin, editor at the Montreal Review of Books, served as project manager for this supplement.