There are a lot of ways to describe a year that included a global economic meltdown and as much turbulence as the publishing industry saw in 2009, but "a tough act to follow," probably doesn't spring to mind. Yet so far, in 2010, many publishers in Canada are finding that might just be the case. For some, it is because last year was, in fact, such a healthy year that it is hard to beat. For others, it may be because last year's difficult business conditions have continued into 2010 and U.S. economic problems have had more time to seep across the border.
Both may even be true for the same publishers. "I think this year is unexpectedly tougher, although we are on plan," says Brad Martin, president and CEO of Canada's largest house, Random House of Canada. He speculates that in a delayed reaction to the economic meltdown, consumers are being careful, buying one book instead of two or three. "We expected that after what happened last year, this year would be easier. As it turned out this year, we are having to work harder to meet our objectives, but we are successfully doing that," he says. What happened last year was a shaky economy. But last year also provided some big bestsellers for the company such as the Scotiabank Giller Prize winner The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre (Random House Canada), which was up to 150,000 copies in hardcover and a newly released paperback. And then there was Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol (Doubleday Canada).
By most accounts, it was a slow or flat spring. Indigo Books & Music's president, Joel Silver, attributes some of the sluggishness to a rebound from megasellers. "There was a bit of a Stephenie Meyer hangover at the beginning of the year," he says. "There was a bit of that with Dan Brown, too.... That one... came in, was huge, and then became a normal book. The Stephenie Meyer thing was more of a longer-term phenomenon, so those are tough benders to kind of sleep off sometimes." But Silver points to a C$10.7 million rise in revenue in Indigo's first-quarter results over the same quarter in 2009 as evidence that the slow start to the year was quickly remedied, at least within Canada's biggest book retail chain.
Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy has emerged as this year's hit and certainly helped re-energize book sales across the country. That also means that Penguin Group Canada is one publisher that won't have any trouble topping a healthy year. It's a fortunate moment for new president Mike Bryan to arrive, appointed to replace David Davidar, who was asked to leave the company in the spring following sexual harassment allegations. "We're excitingly in a boom period," says Bryan. "The first quarter of the year was tough, but we've been in the rather wonderful position of having #1s in every category in the Globe and Mail for over 15 weeks now," he said in early September. Bryan says the company expects to sell two million copies of the three books before the end of the year. "But even apart from the Stieg Larsson, we're having a great year: #1 in nonfiction is Eat, Pray, Love, which is selling like the proverbial hot cakes, and the awesome success of The Book of Awesome" by Canadian author Neil Pasricha, whose thoughts on simple pleasures have made him a bestselling author.
Even aside from Penguin, Canadian publishers surveyed for PW's annual Canadian supplement are reporting that sales are picking up from the spring and advance orders for fall are good. So whether they are trying to find ways to thrive in difficult economic conditions or to overtake their own successes, they seem to be up for the challenge and optimistic about the important fall season ahead. We take a look at what they are up against and their strategies for growth in 2010. (The challenges of entering the digital realm are a story in themselves; see p. 10.)
The Canadian Climate
HarperCollins Canada can still feel the afterglow of last year's success, since that fiscal year didn't end for the company until June 30. The challenge for 2010, president and CEO David Kent says, is to top sales of last year's bestsellers such as hockey star Theo Fleury's memoir Playing with Fire, Gail Vaz-Oxlade's Debt-Free Forever, not to mention the continued sales and success of Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes, which has now sold about 500,000 copies in hardcover and paperback.
But HC Canada is off to a very good start, with Emma Donoghue's Room shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, as well as a list that includes Changing My Mind, a memoir from Canada's most famous political wife, Margaret Trudeau; Richard B. Wright's new novel, Mr. Shakespeare's Bastard; and Fragments by Marilyn Monroe.
Aside from the particular economic challenges of 2010, Kent says that publishing in Canada has some ever-present challenges that are often overlooked when comparing it to other markets. He describes it as "the single most crowded book market on the face of the earth." Canada's small population, about one-tenth of the U.S., is well-known, but Kent points out that the retail market for English books is, in fact, smaller than that because about one-third of the population is French-speaking and an almost entirely separate market. "At best, we are 5% to 7% of the U.S. market," he estimates. "But the other thing that skews that number is that we are dealing with more than twice the number of available titles," due to a large number of British titles that come into the Canadian market. And then there's the dollar. "Exchange rate for us is like weather is for farmers. It affects everything. It affects the price of paper. It affects the price of transportation. It affects where you are going to put the book, what your competition is going to be like."
Lionel Koffler, owner and publisher of Firefly Books, agrees that it's complicated. "We buy rights sometimes in euros and the fluctuations between euros, sterling, American and Canadian dollars, the price of paper, the recession... [all make] for a lot of variables in the pricing formula." Has it been getting tougher with time? "Actually it's been getting easier for us," he says, "because we're getting better at interpreting all these signs and understanding where the price points are. We may sell some of our books for less than we used to, but we sell far more of them."
Book Prices and Retail Market
Increasing the volume of books sold has been essential in the Canadian market because book prices have been coming down in the past five years, says Kevin Hanson, president of Simon & Schuster Canada: "We've had an exchange rate that's moved from a 1.45 markup, maybe a little higher, to parity" since the early 2000s. After the Canadian dollar first neared parity with the U.S. dollar in 2007, books with dual prices became an easy target for consumers demanding that prices reflect the new exchange rate, and the industry got a lot of bad press. Since then, some publishers moved to par pricing and those that didn't have been careful to keep their pricing close.
"There's all kinds of pressure and it's all downward," says Scott McIntyre, publisher of Douglas & McIntyre, who says D&M now generally puts one price for North America on books that will sell in the U.S. "E-books and the strength of the Canadian dollar are both putting real pressure on book prices in Canada."
Hanson says hardcover prices in Canada have decreased 25% in recent years, but he says the lower prices have contributed to higher volume in sales. He also attributes publishers' ability to cope with the pricing pressures in part to a relatively stable retail market. Although there have been some closures of prominent independent bookstores such as two McNally Robinson locations in Toronto and Winnipeg and Duthie Books in Vancouver this year, there has not been the kind of uncertainty there has been in U.S. retail. "That's given publishers the ability to look optimistically about growing the market, even while prices are coming down," says Hanson.
And while it may not be a comfort to struggling booksellers, publishers say nontraditional retailers, notably Wal-Mart, expanding book sections in Canadian stores has helped increase volume, reaching a segment of consumers who perhaps weren't shopping in bookstores. "We watch the proportionality of Canada to U.S. a lot because we're trying to identify, how far do you go, how far can you grow?" says Hanson. "Typically, we were contained in a box, Canada as 6% or 7% of U.S.; in literary fiction it used to be you could outperform U.S. proportionally, [say] 15% to 20%, [but] that's true in a whole range of categories [now]."
Looking beyond Canada's borders, McClelland & Stewart president and publisher Doug Pepper says that emerging markets are increasingly important, and the company's new system for reaching them is bearing fruit. Last fall, just before the Frankfurt Book Fair, McClelland & Stewart and Random House of Canada shook up the Canadian scene when they announced they were cutting their respective foreign rights departments and contracting the work out to the Cooke Agency International (TCAI). "It's a unique arrangement and it was a little controversial with certain people, but all the reasons why we did it still hold completely true and I think we're feeling bullish about the future," Pepper says. At first he defended the move, which was criticized by other Canadian agents, by saying that the motivation was not just cost cutting but giving those representing M&S and Random House of Canada more draw and clout in the global sphere. The only concern at the moment, which is not particular to TCAI, is that the market for foreign rights is flat due to global economic troubles, he says. "You're just not seeing the level of advances that you would from places like the U.K., Germany, the United States, with the exception maybe of Asia, where I think we're seeing a lot more interest, especially in our general nonfiction and [self-help]," he says, mentioning China, Korea, Japan.
Several publishers in Canada are focusing on branding, making a name for themselves in particular genres with new imprints.
Penguin Canada's approach is part of Penguin's global strategy. This month, Penguin Canada launches its high-end nonfiction imprint, Allen Lane, with the first book in its History of Canada series, which will be co-edited by prominent Canadian historians and authors Margaret MacMillan and Robert Bothwell. President Mike Bryan says the strategy had good results when he launched Allen Lane in India 18 months ago with six of the top 10 nonfiction bestsellers coming from the imprint last year. "Allen Lane is an imprint... for publishing books of ideas, of big ideas, of great ideas, across lots of genres," he says. Dan Snow's Death or Victory, about the 1759 battle on the Plains of Abraham outside Quebec City during what the U.S. knows as the French and Indian War, will be the first and only 2010 title in the 12-book series, but another stand-alone history book, Tim Cook's The Madman and the Butcher, will also be a fall Allen Lane title. Next year will see the official launch of Penguin Canada's business and management Portfolio imprint, but this fall's business list will also include Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams's Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World.
In the spring, HarperCollins Canada launched its own imprint for commercial fiction that didn't really fit as Harper Perennial: HarperWeekend is for the books people take away with them for the weekend. "People loved the [square] format. That was a completely in-house idea," says president David Kent. "It's done beautifully, and sold incredibly well." The inaugural season included Michael Crichton's Pirate Latitudes, Glenn Cooper's Library of the Dead, Tish Cohen's Town House and Inside Out Girl, Martin Walker's Bruno, Chief of Police and Isabel Wolff's A Vintage Affair.
House of Anansi Press is also planning to launch a new imprint devoted to crime and noir fiction. "We have a series we're going to be selling at Frankfurt for a writer named Ian Hamilton," says president Sarah MacLachlan. The series is yet to be titled, but the protagonist is named Ava Lee.
Crime and noir is a hot genre this fall and will even be spotlighted at Toronto's International Festival of Authors in October (p. 4). Louise Dennys, executive director of the Knopf Random House Group in Canada, says that five new Random House Canada titles for fall from authors Giles Blunt, Scott Thornley (both Canadian), Arnaldur Indridason (Iceland), Lisa Marten (Sweden), and C.J. Sansom (England) are "a measure of our commitment to being the best crime publisher in the world."
Finding a Niche
Robert Kennedy, president and publisher of Robert Kennedy Publishing, says that in his experience the how-to market focused on diet and fitness is nearly recession-proof. "I don't see any sign of people not buying books in this market even when the economy is down," he says. Of course, diet and fitness is a crowded market, too, but Kennedy's approach of "optimization"—paying a bit more to get top-quality writers, editors, photographers, designers and paper in order to produce a top-quality book—may have something to do with his success.
Kennedy's top author also happens to be his wife, diet guru Tosca Reno. And their winning combination has not gone unnoticed in the broader publishing world. Last year, Kennedy recounts, Warner Books offered to buy all of Reno's books for its new imprint for half a million dollars plus continuing royalties. The next day, they offered a million. After that offer was turned down, several big publishing companies entered into a bidding war for just one Reno title. The winner was Harlequin, who wanted Reno as a marquee author as it made a foray into the fitness and wellness genre. "Although with us, she's sold almost two million books, we thought this would widen her appeal and get to retail outlets that we didn't get into," Kennedy says of his reasons for accepting the deal; as he walked into BookExpo America and saw that the sign for Reno's book was the biggest one in the place, he decided he'd made the right choice.
Coming from a somewhat different angle, it looks like many publishers are finding comfort through tough economic times in cooking and eating. Bob Dees, president of Robert Rose, which specializes in books on cooking and health, says there was flatness in the spring, but business was picking up in the late summer. "Cooking as a category has had more resilience in difficult economic times," he says. "People with some reasonable skill in the kitchen can make an excellent dinner at home using a cookbook as inspiration and spend far less than they would if they went to a restaurant." He has also observed a trend of people being more interested in knowing where their food has come from, which he thinks may partly explain the popularity of last year's hit The Bernardin Complete Book of Home Preserving, published in the U.S. under the brand name Ball instead of Bernardin, which sold 200,000 copies in North America. This fall, he is expecting good things for The Zwilling J.A. Henckels Complete Book of Knife Skills by Jeffrey Elliot and James P. DeWan and 650 Best Food Processor Recipes by George Geary and Judith Finlayson.
Other publishers favor books from celebrity chefs. Knopf Canada has Nigella Lawson's Nigella Kitchen. Douglas & McIntyre has a new book from the renowned Indian cuisine husband and wife team Vikram Vij and Meeru Dhalwala, Vij's at Home. Penguin Canada is also making a new foray into cookbooks after staying out of the kitchen for a number of years. The new venture will feature books this fall by two chefs, who are also restaurateurs and television hosts: Mark McEwan's Great Food at Home and Marc Thuet's French Food My Way. Key Porter Books will also publish Gordon Ramsay's World Kitchen throughout North America in November.
Meanwhile, McArthur & Company is carving out a niche in translation. McArthur has long been the publisher for Canadian-born novelist Nancy Huston, who lives in France and whose work is well-known there. Huston is bilingual and translates her own works into English, but president Kim McArthur has been building other French connections, which paid off this year when she signed a deal to publish a novel from one of France's bestselling authors, Marc Levy. "I'm thrilled to have him on the list," says McArthur. "Every book of his sells 700,000 copies in hardcover in France and then a million in paperback. And he's been sold to 24 countries. He sells like crazy in Italy and Germany. He just has never really gained a foothold in the English market."