Via Rail is Canada’s Amtrak, a coast-to-coast passenger train as well as a commuter service in the populous eastern markets. The cross-country run is mostly for tourists—a pure delight for those who love train travel. Spun out from freight rail networks, passenger trains are condemned to share the same tracks, while assigned a lower priority, leading to frequent delays. Don’t take long-distance trains if you’re in a hurry, particularly during a cold and snowy winter.
My train, the Canadian, travels twice a week between Vancouver and Toronto, covering the 2,800 miles in four days and four nights. There are 65 stops along the way—55 of them in small towns, those stops made only if there’s a passenger at the station who wants to climb aboard.
You can cover the same distance with a five-hour flight. But I wanted slow, even very slow. It had been a busy fall at work, and I looked forward to sitting still, reading, and reflecting on the year during my trip. The train was due to depart from Vancouver on the afternoon of December 23, but a mechanical problem on the incoming train pushed the departure to 8 a.m. on December 24. We were 17 hours late before the train had even left the station.
I didn’t board without trepidation. The TripAdvisor reviews tend to be raves or roars, the best trip ever or among the worst. There are frequent complaints about the condition of the train cars, the staff, and the near-inevitable delays. My experience was just the opposite: great personal service, stunning views, and fine meals in the old-style dining car. Not to mention the return-to-childhood pleasure of being rocked gently to sleep each night.
The slow pace gave me plenty of time to ponder the publishing year, 2019. Was it in some way exceptional, or was it just a year just like the others? Some things stood out.
We haven’t got the final tally, but overall industry sales for 2019 look like they’ll be solid, up slightly in most categories, flat or down in a few (most notably higher education). Genre preferences keep shifting. For example, sales of adult fiction decreased by 16% from 2013 to 2017, and then another 4.6% in 2018. There’s also a longtime trend away from the midlist toward frontlist bestsellers, such that fewer authors can make a living just from writing. Without advances for midlist titles, it’s hard to see how the supply can be maintained.
As usual, the top 10 books lists for the year heavily favor the Big Five publishers, who routinely capture eight or nine of the slots on any given list. Is it possible that all the good books published each year come from the Big Five—that none of the independents or university presses publish books of comparable quality? I don’t think so. So why do the list makers never get called out on their bias?
At Kamloops the train turns north, passing through Craigellachie, British Columbia, where the “last spike” of the original Canada Pacific Rail line was driven into the track in 1885.
After years of declining fortunes, slowing sales, digital missteps and management shake-ups, Barnes & Noble was taken private by Elliott Management, a hedge fund better known for once picking a fight with the country of Argentina. Elliott already owns the U.K. chain Waterstones, whose CEO, James Daunt, is now responsible for more than 900 retail locations in two countries (separated by more than an ocean). After Christmas, word emerged that Waterstones’ December sales had been essentially flat, while Daunt tempered short-term expectations for B&N, pointing out that the merchandising plans for fall 2019 were already in place when he took over in September.
One of the highlights of a cross-country train trip is time spent crossing the Rocky Mountains. The winter days are too short to properly enjoy this segment of the journey, though we traversed the eastern approach before dark on the first day. By early on in the second day we had passed into Alberta, stopping first in Edmonton, the capital and second-largest city in the province. Fresh snow had fallen, covering everything in sight. When it snows, I think of the French-Canadian poet and singer Gilles Vigneault, who famously wrote, “Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver” (“My country is not a country, it’s winter”).
Library e-book lending was a hornet’s nest in the second half of 2019. Macmillan codified its antipathy to libraries by instituting price shifts amid harsh new restrictions on e-book lending. I can’t remember the last time a major publisher took an action so widely and loudly reviled by customers and readers alike.
I’ve always felt that libraries are a net benefit to publishers, one of the top sources for book discovery. But it’s safe to assume that Macmillan CEO John Sargent is no fool, nor is he deaf to the complaints. It’s frustrating that neither the libraries nor the publishers appear to be investing in definitive research that could establish whether libraries help or hinder e-book sales—this doesn’t have to remain shrouded in mystery and anecdota, sparking bitter disputes.
Speaking of hedge funds, libraries, and e-books, a big surprise at Christmastime was KKR’s purchase of library e-book and audiobook supplier OverDrive, captured at a price estimated near $750 million. KKR (formerly Kohlberg Kravis Roberts), with total assets of $200 billion, had purchased audiobook publisher RB Media in 2018.
After the majestic Rocky Mountains come the Canadian Prairies, the northern version of the U.S. Great Plains. They start east of Edmonton, ending past Winnipeg, Manitoba—a distance of nearly 1,200 miles. Many travelers find the journey tedious, but the sameness induces a Zen-like trance, well suited to contemplation.
The proposed merger of Cengage with McGraw-Hill Education captured most of the headlines in textbook publishing in 2019—a merger not yet consummated by year-end. Textbook publishing has gone from bad to worse over the last five years; the proposal was not a shock.
The towns dotting the Prairies are small in population: Viking, Alberta, 1,083; Unity, Saskatchewan, 2,573; Melville, Saskatchewan, 4,562. Few Americans appreciate that Canada’s total population, just under 38 million, is smaller than that of California.
The train makes a stop at Watrous, about 85 miles from Mozart, Saskatchewan. Mozart has a population of 25; five streets run through the hamlet, each named for a composer: Gounod, Haydn, Liszt, Schubert, and Wagner.
Book printing was another sad tale in 2019, following on 2018’s news of company bankruptcies and industry consolidation. As Quad tried to complete its merger with LSC (spun off from the former R.R. Donnelley), the Justice Department blocked the effort, and LSC shares now trade for about 20¢. This is a company with 22,000 employees and 2018 sales of $3.8 billion. A billion dollars of those sales were books; LSC is the largest producer of books in the U.S.
Scholarly publishing seems to be facing tougher challenges than trade publishing, though the situation is less dire than what textbook publishers are facing. Scholarly books are selling fewer copies per title, mainly because of declining library purchases. Libraries are also cutting back on journal subscriptions, while individuals can access most journal articles gratis (if not legally) via Sci-Hub. Simultaneously, there’s a growing trend toward open access both for journals and for books.
On the last day of the journey, the train made a scheduled stop at Hornpayne, Ontario (population 980), where it picked up a handful of passengers. One of them, a schoolteacher who teaches grades six, seven, and eight in the town’s one schoolhouse, sat opposite me at lunch. We compared reading notes. She told me that she was in the middle of a great new book: Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tale of the Troubles. I showed her the copy on my phone—I’d begun reading the same book the night before.
Audiobooks are the good news story of 2019; sales are up again some 25%. In a Pew Research Center survey in 2019, one in five Americans said that they listen to audiobooks (vs. 65% reading print books). The consultancy Deloitte believes that 20%-plus growth will continue for the next few years. The enabling technology for listening continues to improve; sales of smart speakers and in-ear headphones are off the map.
The train arrived in Toronto after midnight on December 28, by then less than half a day late. Snow, which had been plentiful there earlier in the season, did not fall again that year.
Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing analyst and author, based on the West Coast and at his website, The Future of Publishing. He is a founding partner of Publishing Technology Partners.