Earlier this year, Canada celebrated its sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Canadian Confederation, an event promoted with celebrations across the country. The anniversary made for a big year for books, of various shapes and sizes, based on Canadian topics. HarperCollins enlisted its in-house designer, Paul Covello, to produce what has become a wildly popular alphabet board book, ABC Canada. It begins, “A is for Arctic, B is for Beaver” and culminates, naturally, with “Z is for Zamboni.” The book has sold some 80,000 copies so far this year. Covello, who also designed the cover for PW‘s Canadian publishing supplement this year, previously published Toronto ABC, which had sold 30,000 copies; his new board book, Canada 123, was just published in September and went out with a print run of 45,000 copies.
At children’s publisher Owlkids Books, My Canada: An Illustrated Almanac, has sold more than 46,000 copies so far this year. “It appeals to any reader in Canada—the book travels from Charlottetown in the east to Yellow Knife in the north to Victoria in the west,” says Karen Boersma, publisher of Owlkids Books. Dundurn Press, on the other hand, opted for a book looking south of the border to commemorate the anniversary: a C$75 slipcased hardcover called With Faith and Goodwill, 150 Years of Canada–U.S. Friendship. The book, edited by Arthur Milnes, was published in collaboration with the Canadian American Business Council. Even some niche gift books have sold particularly well, such as Second Story Press’s 150 Fascinating Facts About Canadian Women, which has made an impact at point of sale at retailers.
Still, November is when one of the most eagerly awaited titles commemorating the anniversary comes out, What’s Your Story, a dual-language yearbook that collects profiles and portraits from across the country. A partnership between Mosaic Press and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Radio Canada, “The book is planned as the culmination of a year of Canada 150 celebrations and reflections,” says Matt Goody, managing director of Mosaic Press. “The publication in November will be our biggest of the year and have a big marketing campaign behind it. We’re partnering with Canada’s largest book retailer, Chapters-Indigo, so they can be the exclusive brick and mortar retailer of the book.”
For its part, Indigo Books, which has some 25% of the Canadian book market, even jumped into the publishing game, putting out its own coffee-table book entitled The World Needs More Canada by Indigo CEO Heather Reisman—a slogan often seen in the company’s bookstores—which brought together commentary and photography from more than 100 cultural personalities and celebrities. The chain bookseller also promoted its own list of the “Top 10 Canadian Books of All Time.” The top five are published by Penguin Random House Canada and offered in a special, Indigo-branded slip-cased edition; they are some of the classic Canadian titles promoted and reprinted in new editions for the occasion by PRH.
Reading the Story of Canada
BookNet Canada—the government-sponsored organization responsible for tracking book sales and statistics—conducted a study, “Canadians Reading Canadians.” which shares book buyers’ attitudes about Canadian authors, as well as their reading habits.
The report, updating a similar effort conducted in 2012, found that in the past year 44% of Canadian book buyers read a book by a Canadian author. This is up from 24% of respondents who said they had in 2012. Furthermore, 41% of book buyers had read at least one book on a Canadian subject, nearly double the 22% who said they had in 2012.
The survey also revealed that Canadians are still apt to buy books, with 82% of readers acquiring books by purchasing them. Receiving books as a gift (43%), borrowing from friends and family (43%), buying used books (42%), and borrowing from the library (41%) were also significant ways in which readers acquired books.
A more recent survey from BookNet, one that looks at how Canadians spend their leisure time, found that 82% of respondents said they had read or listened to a book in the last year; among all respondents, 38% said their reading had increased this past year.
All this would seem to be good news for publishers, retailers and others associated with the industry. However, from January to June this year Canadians bought C$398 million worth of English-language print trade books, down 2.7% from the same period last year, according to BNC SalesData. Where the revenue is rising is in digital publishing, with Canadians expressing a slight increase in interest in e-books, with purchases up 3% over last year. According to the most recent data available, e-books represent 20% of the market, behind paperbacks at 51% and hardcovers at 23%.
Furthermore, online sales were up 2% from the same period last year, and have so far accounted for 52% of books sales this year. Chain bookstores, represented primarily by Indigo, have 25% of the market.
Defining the Story of Canada
“For us, being a Canadian publisher means that we present Canadian voices,” says Rick Wilks, director of Victoria-based Annick Press. “The themes that Canadians want to write about are universal. We live in a very multicultural country, so our writers have global experience with all kinds of engaging topics. This allows them to tap into a global zeitgeist that resonates internationally.” The sentiment was echoed by Alana Wilcox, editorial director, of Toronto’s Coach House Books: “Being a Canadian publisher means that we prioritize working with Canadian authors and publishing books for Canadian readers. More than that, it means making sure that Canadian books are a part of the international literary conversation.”
Publishers have played a key role in shaping the story of Canada through the choices in books they have made. Before WWII, publishing in Canada was primarily driven by the country’s relationship with the United Kingdom. A shift toward the U.S. happened during the postwar years, when the publishing industry made a concerted effort to define a distinctive Canadian identity. Such authors as Margaret Atwood, Mavis Gallant, Farley Mowat, Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, and Mordecai Richler became international “CanLit” celebrities and defined a body of literature that was distinct from those of other Anglo cultures. They became international celebrities. A second wave followed in the 1980s and ’90s, which included authors Anne Carson, Barbara Gowdy, Ann Marie MacDonald, Anne Michaels, and Carol Shields.
By then, the term CanLit had come under fire. Douglas Coupland, for one, wrote caustically—and most would say misguidedly—about it for the New York Times in 2006: “CanLit is when the Canadian government pays you money to write about life in small towns and/or the immigration experience.”
As for CanLit, the question of whether it is still a viable moniker is all but moot. “The fact is the 150th anniversary of Canada is an arbitrary date, considering the lands there have been occupied for 14,000 years,” says Rosalind Porter, deputy editor of the U.K. literary magazine Granta, who has overseen the editing and forthcoming publication of an issue specially dedicated to Canada. Porter, who hails from Toronto but has lived in London for 25 years, observes that there is no discernible “third wave” of CanLit authors: “The CanLit label is quite limiting, and literary fiction likes to experiment, to not stay in its own literary bubble.”
The Canada issue of Granta, Porter notes, was a challenge to put together, not least because of issues of language and inclusion: Canada has two official languages—English and French—as well as Inuktitut being an official language in Nunavut and the Northwest Territories and more than 60 other indigenous languages and dialects. “It was fascinating to read so many writers from so many cultures in Canada that I had never heard from before, such as France Daigle, an Acadian writer, who wrote a nonfiction piece in English about trying to avoid using the Acadian dialect in her novels,” she says. “Or Falen Johnson, an indigenous writer who’s written a wonderful short play for us. They were eye-openers.”
Porter’s conclusion after reading through more than 1,000 submissions from all corners of the country: “Maybe it’s time to redefine or do away with the term CanLit altogether.” Coupland—who contributed a photo essay to the Canada issue of Granta—would surely concur.
Financing the Story of Canada
One remnant of the CanLit legacy that remains largely intact is the government’s support for publishing Canadian books, something even Coupland would agree is worthwhile. (“I think the Canadian government ought to be hurling 10 times as much cash at literary arts in general, CanLit as much as anything else,” he wrote in his Times essay).
Indeed, the government continues to take care of publishing quite well. The Canada Book Fund, administered by the Department of Canadian Heritage, has a budget of C$39.1 million with C$30.5 million allocated to the Support for Publishers program—although, notes Kate Edwards, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, “the budget has remained static since 2001.” Edwards, whose organization provides support for 115 small and midsize publishers, has lobbied to see that amount raised and is currently asking for an increase to C$54 million.
Another organization, the Canada Council for the Arts, offers as much as C$250,000 to book publishers in support per year. But drawing funds from that group can be tricky, and the Council reserves support until a publisher has released 16 titles, which can be a difficult milestone to reach. Also, the Canada Council caused much consternation this year when it replaced 140 grant categories with six broad ones, covering such areas as projects, organizations, professional development, and travel. Many publishers, already discontented with the new application process, were also thwarted by outages that seemed to prevent forms from being filed.
This year, to mark the 150th anniversary, the Canada Council added a special grant program to provide one-time funding of between C$50,000 and C$500,000 to individuals or organizations with projects that will “encourage public engagement in the arts and will promote outreach locally, nationally, and internationally.” The idea is to spread the word about Canadian literature and publishing abroad and thousands of applications have been filed for the grants.
For publishers in Ontario, the province-level Ontario Media Development Corp. (OMDC) also offers substantial grant support. The organization is an agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport, which facilitates economic development for Ontario’s cultural media industries, including book and magazine publishing, film and television, music, and interactive digital media industries. Successful applicants are eligible to receive up to C$150,000 depending on eligible sales revenue, capped at 75% of the total project budget. Among the organization’s most important roles has been administering the Trillium Awards, given in the categories of English-language books, French-language books, poetry, and children’s books.
“In June, OMDC hosted the 30th Trillium Book Awards,” says Erin Creasey, manager for industry initiatives at the OMDC. “English-language winners included Melanie Mah for the Trillium Book Awards [The Sweetest One, Cormorant Books] and Meaghan Strimas for the poetry category [Yes or Nope, Mansfield Press]. It was a wonderful celebration of decades of the award, with many of Canada’s biggest writers as winners in attendance.”
The OMDC has also been instrumental in helping to foster books-to film projects in Ontario. Each year the OMDC hosts a page-to-screen matchmaking event for Ontario publishers and filmmakers. “One of our recent successes in helping a book get translated is The Breadwinner,” Creasey says. “Published by Groundwood Books, the option was bought by Aircraft Pictures after meeting with Groundwood at the event. Subsequently, the film became an international coproduction with Ireland and Luxembourg, and Angelina Jolie came on as executive producer. The film itself, just released at the Toronto International Film Festival, was supported by OMDC’s Film Fund. Groundwood Books is busy promoting a movie-tie-in edition and is also producing a graphic novel adaptation.”
Exporting the Story of Canada
Some of the most heavily supported projects for government initiatives have been those focusing on topics that emphasize diversity, inclusion, and tolerance, many of which might never get published without government support. Sarah MacLachlan, president and publisher of Toronto’s House of Anansi Press, says, “The way we work with the Canada Arts Council and OMDC allows us to publish books without solely having the bottom line in mind, and because of the kind of funding we can get, we can take a risk on books that are important and may not appear to be commercially viable.”
The upside is that, often, they prove to be commercial indeed. Matt Williams, Anansi’s v-p of operations and past president of the Association of Canadian Publishers, says: “There has been renewed attention on indigenous people and publishing with more respectful attention to those cultures. We have found, with a handful of writers from those backgrounds, those books are going beyond Canada.”
One title Anansi has its sights on exporting is The Break by Katherena Vermette, which has already sold 50,000 copies in Canada. The novel is about a community of people of mixed indigenous and settler descent north of Winnipeg dealing with the fallout from a shocking crime. “We sold it all over the world, except for [the U.S.]. Unfortunately, we could interest editors in it, but they couldn’t get it past their sales and marketing teams,” Williams says. Anansi, which derives 20% of its revenue from U.S. sales, is releasing the book in the States in March 2018.
Coach House Books, distributed in the United States by Ingram Publisher Services, has signed up with Cursor, a new services company to handle publicity and marketing in the U.S. “Right now, about a third of our book sales are to the United States,” says editorial director Alana Wilcox. “We’re hoping that [Cursor’s] better access to American media and bookstores will help us grow our sales there.” Two titles she says might resonate with U.S. readers are Curry: Eating, Reading, and Race by Naben Ruthnum, an extended essay on “everything brown people eat, read, and do,” and If Clara by Martha Baillie, a novel about a woman who receives a mysterious manuscript about a Syrian refugee and is asked to pose as its author.
U.S. authors do still sell in Canada. Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp books has “had successes from U.S.-authored titles including Conflict Is Not Abuse, a nonfiction book by Sarah Schulman, now in its fifth printing in less than a year, and the cookbook Chowgirls Killer Party Food by Heidi Andermack and Amy Lynn Brown,” says Brian Lam, publisher of Arsenal Pulp. The company now calculates that as much as 65% of its business is in the U.S.
At Toronto’s Second Story Press, publisher Margie Wolfe reports sales to the U.S. are up 25% this year and now account for 34% of overall sales, resulting from what might be called a “Trump bump.” “An emboldened anti-immigrant policy, racism, and general intolerance within the United States and elsewhere, and a refugee crisis impacting a broad spectrum of countries, has led to a deepening interest into the kind of social justice and women-focused books that we do,” Wolfe says. “Similarly, a heightened awareness of indigenous struggles and history has had a dramatic positive impact on sales.”
Wolfe pointed to books such as I Am Not a Number by Jenny Kay Dupuis and Kathy Kacer and three books that have come directly out of the company’s Indigenous Writing Contest: The Mask That Sang by Susan Currie, published in 2016; Stolen Words by Melanie Florence; and The Water Walker by Joanne Robertson. The books benefited from online promotion through the hashtag #ownvoices, which aims to draw attention to authentic indigenous voices.
“It would be the misperception that some still have that a Canadian publisher’s books won’t appeal to readers in the U.S.,” Wolfe says. “But this has been changing, and we’ve heard more and more how Canadian books are being sought out by U.S. trade buyers in particular. They appreciate our perspective, and the fact that so many Canadian publishers have been making diversity, own voices, and social justice a central part of their mandate. That we are a relatively small country, made up of a very diverse population, means that we are often looking outward as much as inward, which opens up your mind.”
Still, it’s not all positive news for Canadian publishing when it comes to Trump. Particularly troubling are Trump’s repeated threats to alter NAFTA, which maintains a “cultural exception” that includes books. Despite export sales to the U.S. accounting for a significant percentage for some Canadian publishers’ annual revenues, the balance of trade in books between the two countries is strongly in favor of the U.S. Books imported to Canada from the U.S. contribute to a trade deficit with the U.S. book industry of approximately C$375 million each year. “For us, the independent Canadian publishers, the cultural exception in the existing trade agreement has been critical to the growth and development of the domestic industry, given our relatively small market size,” says Kate Edwards of the ACP.
While the government of Canada is not on record supporting the “cultural exception,” it does sponsor Ottawa-based Livres Canada Books, a nonprofit organization to support the export of English and French Canadian books abroad. François Charette, executive director of the organization, is tirelessly promoting Canadian efforts abroad and has led trade missions to several countries, including Colombia, earlier this year. In February, Canada was the Guest of Honor at the Havana International Book Fair and a delegation of 45 authors and publishers traveled to the island; in 2020 Canada will be the Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Below, more on the subject of Canadian publishing.