“Being Canadian mean[s] that we are comfortable with the idea that books are more than just things to be sold, more than just units or ‘content.’ They are the container of a country’s dreaming, its stories and arguments and history, its most dangerous suggestions and serious thought. Books live at the intersection of culture and commerce, with businesses, policymakers, and consumers all crossing paths, a source of pride, heritage, and identity with which we as Canadians are entirely familiar.”
This quote comes from Michael Tamblyn, CEO of Rakuten Kobo, the Japanese-owned Canadian e-bookseller. He was speaking at the Economist’s Canada Summit this past June. The theme of the conference was disrupting the status quo, and it is an appropriate theme—one that could just as easily be adopted by the entirety of Canadian publishing as the country prepares to celebrate, in 2017, the 150th anniversary of the establishment of the Canadian Confederation. Certainly some of the increased media attention given to the country has been prompted by the November 2015 installation of Justin Trudeau as prime minister: the hunky new head of the nation is generating international buzz.
Indigo, Canada’s dominant bookstore chain, has long displayed signs in several of its stores and in its headquarters reading, “The World Needs More Canada.” And, in an unruly presidential election year just south of the border in the United States, that may very well be true. “Canada is a bearer of hope,” says House of Anansi Press president Sarah MacLachlan, who jokes that there is probably Trudeau fan fiction being published on Toronto-based Wattpad already.
“The Golden Age of Independent Publishing”
Small press publishing drew national attention last year, with three of the 2015 finalists for Canada’s top fiction award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, coming from two independent presses: Toronto’s Coach House Books, which won the prize with André Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs, and Windsor’s Biblioasis, which touted two books on the shortlist.
“I’ve been saying it all over the place, but this really is the golden age of independent publishing in Canada,” says Dan Wells, publisher of Windsor-based Biblioasis. “We’ve had a long run of publishing great books—Kevin Hardcastle’s Debris just won the Trillium Award this summer—and it gave us increased visibility, and that helps us do a better job for our authors and makes it easier to get review coverage.” Last year was the company’s best yet, with sales up 20%–25% over previous years, which had averaged around half a million Canadian dollars annually.
What’s changed? According to Wells, since Penguin Random House said publicly that it is expecting higher profits from each of the books on its literary list, “we are getting some books they may have passed on.”
Alexis may have been just such an author. He was picked up by Coach House after being dropped by McClelland & Stewart several years ago.
With Alexis’s Giller win, Coach House Books had its best year ever in 2015, says editorial director Alana Wilcox. Fifteen Dogs sold 110,000 copies and attracted several foreign rights deals. The company even managed the immense pressure of fulfilling orders for the book (the indie continues to print and bind books in its downtown Toronto headquarters).
“This year will be a bit closer to normal,” Wilcox says. “We usually do about 18 books: six to seven poetry titles, four to six works of fiction, including some translations from the French, as well as some Toronto nonfiction and some drama titles. Our list is entirely literary. And we are proudly Canadian, down to the typefaces we use.”
Despite the success of the past year, the day to day can be a struggle for Coach House. “Managing human resources and competing for market share with firms that have much larger marketing budgets surely ranks among our biggest challenges as independent publishers, but the lack of access to capital is major,” Wilcox says. “It is very difficult for smaller houses to get substantial bank loans or any other kinds of credit.” She says publishers “feel fairly well-supported” by the government, but adds that, under terms set by the Canada Council for the Arts, a house remains an “emerging publisher” until it has released 16 books and, in the case of Toronto-based publishers, the province-level Ontario Media Development Corporation also requires several publications before offering grant support. The result is that you “really do need enough capital to bankroll yourself for a few years.”
Many in the industry are wondering whether the government will increase its annual fund to support Canadian publishing, which many small-to-midsize publishers depend on to balance the books. Kate Edwards, the executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), says the government is planning a sweeping review of the budget used to support publishing. “The overall budget dedicated to books is C$39.1 million per year—of which C$30 million goes directly to support publishers, says Edwards, whose organization provides support for 115 small and midsize publishers. “That may sound good until you realize that it has been C$39.1 million for 15 years.” Edwards says the ACP has actively lobbied to see that number raised and is currently asking for an increase to C$54 million.
Only Canadian-owned publishing companies have access to that money. Accordingly, Hachette, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster are excluded from soliciting these funds, though the Canadian Publishers’ Council (CPC) is working to revise that rule. “We are not asking for grant support in Canada,” says Brad Martin, PRH Canada CEO and past president of the CPC, “but we have floated the idea that the government could provide us with assistance for promoting our Canadian authors abroad.”
Big Publishers Equal Big Sales
In 2015, PRH’s Doubleday Canada published the country’s top-selling book, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. The other bestselling books were also no surprise: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Grey by E.L. James. Nonfiction got a boost from adult coloring books and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo.
Another publisher that had a good year in 2015 was Simon & Schuster Canada, which only started its domestic program two years ago. “You can still really make books in Canada,” says president and publisher Kevin Hanson. “Last fall on the domestic side, we had a strong list; we had a bunch of #1 bestsellers.” Those included Clara Hughes’s Open Heart, Open Mind, Bob Rae’s What’s Happened to Politics?, Jody Mitic’s Unflinching: The Making of a Canadian Sniper, and Shift Work by Tie Domi.
According to BookNet Canada, which covers 85% of the print trade market, the print book market in Canada had a 0.8% increase in units sold (52.6 million) in 2015 and a 1.6% increase in value (C$983.4 million) over 2014. Fiction unit sales fell by 0.9% (accompanied by a 3.5% increase in value), nonfiction unit sales were up 5.5%, and overall value rose by 2.8%. For the first six months of 2016, unit sales of print books were down approximately 0.2% compared with the same period in 2015, with the top-selling book being Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which gave the juvenile books category a 1.7% increase. Sales for print and e-books have remained relatively flat since 2013, while the share for audiobooks rose from 1.7% to 2% between 2013 and 2015.
“There’s a myth that you can hit the Canadian bestseller list by selling just a few thousand books,” PRH’s Martin says. “But that is just that: a myth. We routinely see bestsellers in the range of 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 books sold.” PRH’s Canada division shares the North American territory with its sister company in New York.
Coach House, which also distributes to the U.S., has struggled to gain traction in the States for its titles. “It is frustrating,” Wilcox says, “to have such a wonderful book be recognized in Canada, win the country’s most prestigious prize, and get so little attention from American reviewers and booksellers.”
MacLachlan, of House of Anansi, has a similar take. “So much is marketing driven in the United States, and the U.S. publishing world is driven by large sales,” she says. But MacLachlan adds: “Our numbers in the states are really good. We make our catalogues for the U.S. market to try and give ourselves an identity there.”
MacLachlan cites Anansi’s effort this fall to relaunch the works of the Canadian mystery writer Ian Hamilton in the United States as an example of works that a Canadian publisher might handle better than a U.S. publisher on the U.S. market. “He was at Picador for four books, and they sort of didn’t go anywhere, and we worked really hard to get him back,” she says. “We are going to see how it goes.”
Global Abroad, Canadian at Home
Several publishers we surveyed noted that it is important to be seen as Canadian publishers in Canada, but, in the United States and further abroad, many would prefer to be seen as global publishers. Export sales are particularly important for Canadian publishers, with many reporting between 60% and 80% of their sales coming from the United States. Ottawa-based Livres Canada Books is the nonprofit organization tasked with promoting Canadian books abroad, including rights and finished products for English- and French-language titles. The group puts out a rights guide for its 150-plus members prior to both the London and Frankfurt book fairs, where the organization runs the Canada stand and assists with the travel and housing allocations for some publishers. Executive director François Charette calls the organization a “force multiplier for Canadian publishers.”
“We are looking at selling rights abroad, for publication, translation, and licensing,” says Charette, who adds that several companies report having seen significant foreign rights sales with the increased activity. “We worked very hard to open markets in Asia, China, and Korea in particular, and it is now paying dividends.”
One of those companies is Orca Book Publishers, a children’s publisher in Victoria, British Columbia. “We have been working on it for years, but suddenly China has become our largest market for foreign rights,” Orca publisher Andrew Wooldridge says. “It seems like, suddenly, the market has matured, and they are buying books all across the board, from across our list, including books for struggling readers and ESL. Korea was, as of last year, our most active buying market.” Though Orca still does 65% of its business with the U.S.—enough to maintain a warehouse in Ferndale, Wash., from which it also distributes for a dozen other Canadian publishers, such as Second Story press and Nimbus—foreign rights are a growing opportunity, with Germany and the Scandinavian countries showing a lot of interest in Orca’s titles as well.
Overall, the top export markets for Canada have consistently remained the U.S., France, and the U.K., with China now taking the fourth slot—previously occupied by the Democratic Republic of Congo, which consumes many French-Canadian titles. “Our agenda is always to open as many new markets as possible,” Charette says. “We took a mission to Israel and will be taking another to Colombia next year, and we’re working on a market survey about Brazil.”
The Loonie’s Ups and Downs
One issue that continues to have an impact on publishers is fluctuations in the value of the Canadian dollar, which has traded at about 75 cents to the U.S. dollar since last year; just over three years ago, the loonie was at parity. “We really see the impact of the dollar fluctuations two and three years out,” Charette says, “but there is no denying that it was huge, with publishers making a lot of adjustments.”
Martin, of PRH, concurs: “The biggest problem we have is exchange rate. You can’t price or reprice quickly, and you can only price books to a certain level before the rules of elasticity start to blow things to pieces. We also do all our printing out of the United States—the cost of everything for us has gone up by 30%. That has put a lot of pressure on us. All the shipping comes out of the American warehouses too.”
Conversely, it can have a significant impact on exports, Charette says. Exports to the U.S. rose as Canadian books looked suddenly cheaper, he says, but they can also take a hit when the loonie strengthens against currencies, as it did against the U.K. pound in the wake of June’s Brexit vote. “This is something that was totally unexpected,” Charette says.
Livres Canada Books has worked to support publishers traveling overseas to sell books to such markets. It should be interesting to see what impact the loonie’s exchange rate with the euro has on a proposal to have Canada become a future guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is currently being reviewed by Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly. Though that could cost several million dollars and would be a big commitment in other ways, Charette says, “it would be very good for Canada and Canadian books.”
Books in Quebec
Québec Amérique publisher Caroline Fortin, who is leading the committee for Frankfurt, says the proposal is “more modest” than what some other countries attempt. “Prior to this new era, we had years of Stephen Harper, so we are used to doing things on a very tight budget,” she says.
Fortin points out that the relative weakness of Canada’s dollar hasn’t stopped the biggest publishers in France, such as Gallimard and Hachette, from dumping overstock and remainders into the Quebec marketplace. “We’re always facing down truckloads of books from them,” she says. “Though we have a tightly regulated market—and a strong indie booksellers association, with 30%–40% of the marketplace—they also control much of the distribution,” she adds.
Furthermore, Fortin says, the currency fluctuation has made printing locally more challenging. “We don’t print anything in the U.S., but now that it is cheaper, a lot of Americans are coming to Quebec, which means we can no longer get a good deal at our local printers—we need to order paper and confirm our orders well in advance. The printers are getting hungrier, and we are all suffering for it.”
This has all made for a more volatile situation at home, and it has become increasingly tough to get a sense of the market—even for veterans like Fortin. “That said, it is important for the world to know that we are publishing high-quality world-class work,” she says. “Unfortunately, outside of Canada it isn’t easy to communicate that. I had a trip to Germany and they didn’t know there was a market [in Quebec], yet we have to compete with the French publishers in Germany, which makes it hard to sell rights.” Fortin concludes that “Canada really needs a good opportunity to tell its story better.”
Below, more on the subject of Canadian publishing.