One of the great pleasures of being a journalist from the United States browsing in a Canadian bookstore—be it Type Books in Toronto, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, or maybe Woozles in Halifax—is the realization that there are so many new books in English that I’ve never seen before and that I must read now.
Books this fall that are all likely to prove more popular above the 49th parallel than below it include DK’s recently updated Our Great Prime Ministers, about Canada’s past leaders; Fernwood Publishing’s Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times by Graham Reynolds, about the Nova Scotia civil rights activist who adorns Canada’s new C$10 banknote; Dundurn’s Riding into Battle: Canadian Cyclists in the Great War by Ted Glenn; Portage and Main’s series of indigenous YA supernatural thrillers by David Robertson; and S&S Canada’s gossipy literary memoir In Other Words: How I Fell in Love with Canada One Book at a Time, by former publisher Anna Porter.
That said, one of the themes of this year’s supplement is the strong relationship Canadian publishers have with the rest of the world, and with the U.S. in particular. This holiday season, one can expect to see plenty of copies of House of Anansi’s The Kids in the Hall: One Dumb Guy by Paul Myers, about the wildly popular Canadian comedy troupe of the 1980s, and Miriam Toews’s latest novel, Women Talking from Knopf (to name but two books), wrapped up for gift giving under American Christmas trees.
Next year, we can look forward to a wide variety of new works from Canada, including Death Threat, a graphic memoir by multidisciplinary trans artist Vivek Shraya, illustrated by Ness Lee, coming from Arsenal Pulp; Days by Moonlight, the fourth novel in Giller Prize–winner André Alexis’s quincunx, published by Coach House Books; and I Become a Delight to My Enemies by Sara Peters, the inaugural title from Penguin Random House Canada’s new Strange Light imprint.
“Sometimes, we fear the rest of the world thinks of us as a giant Idaho,” says Leo MacDonald, senior v-p of sales and marketing at HarperCollins Canada. “As a company, we push back on that perception. Just look at a book like Forgiveness, the memoir by Mark Sakamoto that won the 2018 Canada Reads contest. That book is a very Canadian story—but, as it involves his family’s experience during World War II, is very relatable. And the theme of forgiveness is, well, universal. And it is about a family divided, which makes it very timely.”
As a nod to Canadian understatement and modesty, I’ll just say it as plainly as I can: there’s a lot of action happening north of the U.S. border.
Exploring Canada’s Literary Culture
For this year’s Canada publishing supplement, Publishers Weekly asked publishing professionals from across the country to share their experiences and points of view on what are the most salient issues in the industry in 2019. In return we got back some wonderful editorial contributions, covering a range of topics: the publisher of Kids Can Press writes about how a trade mission to China led to the publication of a groundbreaking atlas of Canada as seen through indigenous eyes; the publisher of OwlKids explains why it is important to revisit historic stories with every new generation of readers; the copublisher of ECW discusses how the industry collaborated to kick-start Canada’s audiobook industry; the newest independent bookseller in Toronto talks about opening her store; the administrators of the Giller Prize look back on 25 years of awarding Canada’s most prestigious award for fiction; a globe-trotting executive from the Toronto-based social reading and writing platform Wattpad looks at how machine learning is predicting what topics will become popular; we get a sneak peek at preparations for Frankfurt 2020, where Canada takes its turn as the guest of honor at the world’s biggest book fair; and much more
Canada Is a Nation of Readers
Earlier this year BookNet, the Canadian organization that compiles sales and other data about Canadian publishing, conducted a survey on reading habits and found that 81% of people responding had read or listened to a book in the last year, with 33.5% saying their reading or listening had increased over the previous year. What has sparked a change? It is likely the combination of several factors, including a boom in locally produced audiobooks and the popularity of homegrown international bestselling authors such as pop poet Rupi Kaur, controversial self-help polemicist Jordan Peterson, and literary icons Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje—and even an increased awareness of the availability of free-to-read material from libraries. To wit: half of Canadians have checked an item out of a library in the past year, and the Toronto Public Library, which is one of the largest library systems in the world, saw 3.7 million e-book loans, nearly one million audiobook loans, and nearly 25 million print-book loans last year. When it comes to print books, that is nearly five books loaned for each resident of Toronto, a city the same size as Chicago. And that is good for authors; Canada has a program, the Public Lending Right, which compensates writers for these library loans (alas, not publishers).
Overall, Canada’s publishing market is the 12th largest in the world and is valued at approximately $2.1 billion, according to the latest statistics released by BookMap. It’s a strong showing for a nation of 37 million people that, in effect, represents two wholly separate publishing industries: one in English and one in French. For 2017, BookNet Canada counted a little more than C$1 billion, or $750 million, in physical retail trade sales for English-language books (BookNet captures sales data from approximately 85% of the total English-language trade market). When factoring in e-books and education sales, as does Statistics Canada, the national reporting body, this surpasses $950 million (as of 2016); in comparison, the French-language business represents approximately $190 million.
Though the two industries often work in isolation from each other, they sometimes overlap—as in the case of numerous literary translations that cross the linguistic divide. English-language publishing dominates most of the country, save for Quebec, which contains the majority of French-language publishers.
Sales Are Steady-ish
In 2017, sales of print books in Canada fell 4%, compared to 2016, according to BookNet. “But, when you include e-books, sales have been generally flat for the last seven years,” said Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet, during a presentation on the industry at the organization’s annual TechForum event. In total, the Canadian book industry sold approximately 51.5 million copies in 2017. The organization tracked some 700,000 ISBNs in 2017 and saw, as had been the trend in previous years, more books being published but each title selling in fewer quantities. In 2017, 60% of all print book sales were for backlist books, which was up 2% over 2016, BookNet reported.
The generally flat sales trend is one of the reasons so many publishers have poured resources into pushing harder and harder into the American book market. Those who attend industry events in the U.S. (such as Winter Institute, the American Library Association annual meeting, or BookExpo) have noticed more booths from Canadian publishers, be they Second Story Press or Coach House Books from Toronto, Talon Books or Arsenal Pulp from Vancouver, or Biblioasis from Windsor. For many publishers, U.S. sales can account for as much as 50% of sales, and for many children’s publishers, it is even more. Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press credits the U.S. with 55% of its annual sales, while at Groundwood Books the U.S. amounts to 65% of sales. In all, export sales accounted for 19% of the overall book market in 2016, rising 11.8% for the year to C$260.5 million, according to Statistics Canada. This success is enabled in part by Livre Canada Books, the organization responsible for promoting export and rights sales abroad.
The Political Threat
The Trump administration has unsettled many people in the book business with its continued threats to alter or end the North American Free Trade Agreement, which has included a “cultural exception,” covering books, among other items.
“NAFTA is of critical importance to Canadian-owned book publishers,” said Glenn Rollans, president of the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP) and co-owner of Brush Education in Alberta, last year. The ACP, which represents Canadian-owned indepenent publishers, has lobbied extensively to maintain the “cultural exception,” pointing out that the balance of trade in books between the two countries heavily favors the U.S.
The ACP reported in a press release in 2017 that “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.” It went on to state, “Without the government programs and policies the cultural exception makes possible, this deficit would grow and limit the domestic industry’s capacity to publish new Canadian-authored books and educational resources.”
What’s more, it’s not just Canadian publishers who need be concerned about the relationship between Canada and the U.S. Some 245 publishing companies are Canadian-owned, but several of the 15 conglomerate publishers in the country are not. In fact, the foreign-controlled companies accounted for 53.8% of revenue in 2016, while 46.2% was generated by Canadian-controlled firms. All this means that Germany’s Bertelsmann, which owns Penguin Random House Canada, as well as U.S.-owned HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster (both of which have large Canadian operations), are paying attention to what happens in Washington and Ottawa.
But if there is one company that needs to keep an eye on the relationship between Trump and Trudeau, it is Indigo. The dominant Canadian bricks-and-mortar retailer is opening its first store in the U.S. in New Jersey later this year, and it has expressed ambitions to open three to five more in the near term. The company has also been rumored to be a possible buyer for beleaguered Barnes & Noble, something that the company will not address.
All said, Canada itself has not gone unscathed by political turmoil. Earlier this year the province of Ontario elected Doug Ford, a bombastic conservative businessman, as its premier. Ford is the brother of the ignominious late Toronto mayor Rob Ford, and he has cast himself in the mold of Donald Trump. And elsewhere in the country, the premiers of Alberta and British Columbia are especially beleaguered.
Though many publishers rely to some extent on provincial government funding bodies for support—Ontario Creates (the recently rebranded organization that was formerly known as the Ontario Media Development Corporation) is one such organization—their main source of support is at the national level, where the Canada Book Fund provides about C$39 million in support, and the Canada Council for the Arts offers some C$11 million in grants.
Below, more on the subject of publishing in Canada.
This article was updated to correct the percentage of the Canadian English-language market reporting to BookNet.