Book sales in Canada may be flat, with a paucity of new blockbuster bestsellers, but this has opened the market to a more activist brand of publishing with stronger points of view that have been embraced by academics, booksellers, and readers alike, both at home and abroad.
Through the first half of 2019, the three top-selling books by Canadian authors were published in 2018, according to BookNet Canada Sales Data, the organization that compiles sales and other data about Canadian publishing. These were led by the self-published cookbook Yum and Yummer by television chef Greta Podleski, the polemical self-help psychology book 12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson (PRH Canada), and The Gown by Jennifer Robson (HarperCollins). In the fourth slot is the perennial children’s bestseller Love You Forever by Rober Munsch (Firefly), which has been on the list, well, forever—it was first published in 1986. You have to go to the fifth slot to get a 2019 title, The Quintland Sisters by Shelley Wood (HarperCollins).
“There have been no new massive titles or authors pushed out so far this year, resulting in a pretty flat year,” says Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet, who adds that sales for the first six months of 2019 may be down half a percentage point compared to the prior year. This is similar to 2018, when the Canadian English-language print book market had sales of C$1.13 billion ($845 million), a drop of 0.1% from 2017. Nonfiction titles have dominated the overall bestseller lists in Canada in the first six months of 2019, and sales in the segment were up 1.4% in 2019 over 2018, with all other categories down from last year. That said, children’s and YA literature was the most popular category, representing 39% of overall sales, followed by nonfiction at 34% and fiction at 26%.
One positive area was—no surprise here—audiobooks. “We saw a big jump in the market in our annual consumer survey, with the audiobook format now accounting for 5% of the books sold in the market in the first half of 2019, compared to less than 4% in 2018 and 2% in 2017,” Genner says. One driver of this activity is an overall increase in the number of Canadian audiobook titles in the market, something that has been driven both by large conglomerate publishers and by smaller independent publishers, led by ECW Press, which has in the past several years helped establish an audiobook publishing workflow for some two dozen independent publishers, putting several hundred audiobooks into the marketplace.
When it comes to e-book sales in Canada, not much has changed from last year, and sales continue to hover at 17% to 18% of overall sales, as tracked by BookNet Canada. Nevertheless, Canada is home to e-book company Kobo, which began as a spin-off project of Indigo and is now owned by Japan’s Rakuten, and which is the only true global competitor to Amazon’s Kindle. The company, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, now services some 30 million customers in 25 different countries.
Canada’s Best-Known Writer
If there is one book that Canadian readers and booksellers alike expect to be a blockbuster in 2019, it is The Testaments by Margaret Atwood. The anticipation is that this sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale will be just the book to bring customers into stores; after all, Atwood is, according to a survey undertaken in 2017, during Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation, the country’s best-known writer among Canadians.
McClelland & Stewart, now part of Penguin Random House Canada, has been Atwood’s primary publisher for more than 50 years, dating back to the 1969 publication of The Edible Woman. It was the publisher of The Handmaid’s Tale some 34 years ago, and it had a key role to play in the publication of this new novel as well. All editorial work, publicity plans, marketing rollouts, and sales functions were a collaboration with Doubleday’s Nan A. Talese imprint in the U.S. and Chatto & Windus in the U.K.
Demand for the books has so far been extraordinary, and PRH Canada stands to benefit: The Handmaid’s Tale has sold some 265,000 in Canada alone since the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president and the debut of the TV adaptation of the novel in 2017.
“It has been enormously gratifying to see the worldwide excitement for Margaret Atwood’s new novel,” says Kristin Cochrane, Penguin Random House Canada CEO. “Margaret is now a global icon, of course, but we’re incredibly proud that she is first and foremost a Canadian one.”
PRH Pushes Ahead
Cochrane took over as CEO last year, and the publication of Atwood is just one in a series of notable successes, which include publishing Michele Obama’s Becoming in Canada, as well as seeing homegrown author Jordan Peterson sell two million copies of 12 Rules across all formats (PRH Canada was also the U.S. publisher for the print book). “We also saw strong performances from in-house favorite Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Doubleday Canada) and new works like Nazanine Hozar’s Aria (Knopf Canada) and Mona Awad’s second novel, Bunny (Hamish Hamilton Canada),” Cochrane says, noting that another homegrown author, Shari Lapena, hit number one on the Canadian fiction list with Someone We Know (Doubleday Canada) at the end of July. On the children’s side at Tundra, North American sales for Ben Clanton, author of the Narwhal series, has exceeded one million copies in print.
“On any given day in our offices, Penguin Random House Canada employees might bump into Margaret Atwood being interviewed in a meeting room, or Rick Mercer in our in-house [recording] studio, or Michael Ondaatje signing books in a boardroom,” Cochrane says. “We’re proud to be the largest Canadian publisher, and to be part of the global Penguin Random House family, on whose behalf we sell and market into Canada with the same integrity and focus we give our local publishing program.”
Some other forthcoming highlights from Canadian authors on the fall list include the cookbook Fraiche Food, Full Hearts by Jillian Harris and Tori Wesszer (Penguin Canada) and On Fire, Naomi Klein’s new title about climate change. Another likely bestseller is Sharon, Lois and Bram’s Skinnamarink by Sharon Hampson, Lois Lillienstein, and Bram Morrison (Tundra), which is based on a popular children’s television folk song. In addition, the company has launched the first titles in its new imprint Strange Light, for “boundary-pushing” books for adults.
Homegrown and Imported Hits
At HarperCollins Canada, the company benefitted in 2018 by publishing the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Esi Edudgyan’s Washington Black, which sold 117,000 copies. This was followed in sales by several titles from abroad, including The Perfect Girlfriend by Karen Hamilton, which moved 70,000 copies; The Secret Orphan by Glynis Peters, which HC did in print in Canada, selling 40,000 copies. “Peters’s book was an interesting case for us, because we knew we had a market for us here in Canada with the books and we opted to publish it in paper, when it was e-book-only in the U.K. and U.S.,” says Cory Beatty, senior director of sales and marketing for HarperCollins Canada. “Orphans are really hot here—another one of our number-one bestsellers last year was The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff, whose previous bestseller was The Orphan’s Tale.”
Looking ahead, Beatty says Peters’s next book, which will be published this fall, The Orphan Thief, is a likely hit. He’s also expecting good results from homegrown talent, such as Algonquin Anishnaabe writer Karen McBride’s Crow Winter, about a woman who returns to her First Nation reserve after her father’s death; historian Charlotte Gray’s Murdered Midas about a 1943 murder dubbed “the Crime of the Century”; and veteran novelist Emma Donoghue’s Akin, about a man in search of secrets from World War II on the French Riviera.
Politics and Publishing
At Simon & Schuster, CEO Kevin Hanson is most looking forward to publishing High School, the first-ever memoir from music icons and LGBTQ advocates Tegan and Sara, and Truth Be Told, a memoir by Beverly McLachlin, former chief justice of Canada, coming out at the end of September. “She has seen so much,” Hanson says. “I told her when we published her novel [Full Disclosure] last year, that what I really wanted was to read her memoir—and here it is.”
Hanson notes that, like the U.S., Canada has been riveted by political drama, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s ethics scandal in Quebec; the election of Doug Ford—the brother of the late drug-addled politician Rob Ford—as premier of Ontario; and the admission by rising political star Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, that he was sexually abused, something he first revealed in his memoir, Love and Courage, published by S&S earlier this year.
“There’s a federal election here at the end of October,” Hanson notes, “and as we all know, politics can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to selling books. Fortunately for us, our election campaigns only last a few months, which is not like in the U.S., where they never seem to end.”
One question that will be looming with the election is to what extent the new government will continue to support Canadian publishing with grants. “The election can change things quickly,” BookNet’s Genner says. At the moment, the Canada Book Fund, the government’s primary tool for investing in publishing, has remained stable with a total budget of C$39.1 million ($29 million) a year—a figure that hasn’t changed since 2001. “As always, we would like to see the government expand and invest more into the fund,” says Kate Edwards, executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers, “and we have continued to lobby for an expansion of the fund.”
One change that took place this year was the announcement in late August that the fund would make an investment of C$22.8 million ($17 million) over five years to support production and distribution of accessible books by independent Canadian publishers.
Canada Needs More Bookstores
When compared with the United States, Canada has relatively few independent bookstores. A recent survey of independent bookstores across Canada by BookNet received responses from a total of 69 stores, with 80 locations. One consequence of this dearth is that online book purchases surpassed purchases in bookstores, with 53% of customers surveyed by BookNet saying that they now primarily ordered books online, a trend that has flipped in Canada in the past two years. Amazon.ca and Indigo.ca—the online store of the dominant bookstore chain in the market—are taking up the vast majority of those online sales, though Indigo has said that one of out of every five searches in its online store ultimately leads to in-store purchases.
Nevertheless, Indigo, which has 202 locations throughout Canada (89 of them are superstores), has seen a small sales slide and decline in profitability in the past year. The company has nevertheless benefitted by updating existing stores to what the company calls modern “cultural department stores,” which greatly expand sideline and lifestyle nonbook items. Gone, though, is the chain’s iconic catchphrase that decorated many of the chain’s cash wraps, “The World Needs More Canada,” following Indigo’s expansion into the U.S. last year, though this appears stalled at just one store, in New Jersey. As a further concession to online competition, Costco in Canada has even opted to scale back book stock some 10% this year.
In Toronto, where real estate prices have been rising for years, some stores are being pushed out, such as the beloved Ben McNally Books, which is losing its charming downtown location next year due to building renovations. The owners have said they will find it difficult now to find an affordable location in which to reopen. Knife Fork Book, a poetry bookshop, is too being pushed out of its space in Toronto’s Kensington Market and relocating to an arts development nearby.
Challenging as it is to open a store, some booksellers are finding a way. One example is the Glass Bookshop in Edmonton, Alberta. After operating as a pop-up, it raised C$30,000 earlier this year to open a permanent location. “Glass Bookshop will be part bookstore, part wine bar, and all community space, where readers and writers can gather for readings, launches, and conversation,” said owners Jason Purcell and Matthew Stepanic in their Indiegogo campaign, adding, “We’ll be supporting queer writers, indigenous writers, black writers, and writers of color, as well as the independent publishers from across Canada who publish these voices.”
Literature and Justice for All
When it comes to indie publishers, one tends to think literary fiction first, but that is not exclusively the case. At Coach House Books in Toronto, editorial director Alana Wilcox notes that while the publisher produces award-worthy literature—its lead fiction title for the year, Days by Moonlight, is on the longlist for the Giller (which would be the second for author Andre Alexis, should he win it again)—the publisher’s Exploded Views series of short salvos on a variety of cultural subjects is doing very well. “This spring’s Exploded View was The Seed: Infertility Is a Feminist Issue by Alexandra Kimball, which got a lot of attention,” Wilcox said, and she expects the same for the 2020 titles, Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc and On Nostalgia by David Berry.
Fernwood Publishing, with offices in Nova Scotia and Winnipeg, has garnered a reputation for books that offer radical social critiques that are targeted equally at academia and the trade, such as Holocaust to Resistance, My Journey a memoir from author and activist Suzanne Berliner Weiss, and Thirty Years of Failure: Understanding Canadian Climate Policy by Robert MacNeil. In a similar vein, Portage & Main Press in Winnipeg focuses much of its effort on books concerning social justice, particularly when it comes to the indigenous community. A typical example is The Eagle Mother by Hetxw’ms Gyetxw (Brett D. Huson) and illustrator Natasha Donovan, the third in the Mothers of Xsan series, which offers a perspective on the life cycle of animals important to the land and to people. Prior books in the series include The Sockeye Mother and The Grizzly Mother.
Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press, which is best known for its commitment to LGBTQ work, has several significant, if not prescient nonfiction titles coming up, including The Cure for Hate by Tony McAleer. “It is about a former white supremacist who renounced his racist past and cofounded Life After Hate, an organization dedicated to getting white supremacists out of the movement,” publisher Brian Lam says. Firefly has a new collection of wartime letters compiled by the writer Marth Gelhorn, entitled Yours, for Probably Always. ECW Press is shipping 4,000 copies of Lost Feast by Lenore Newman, a book about “culinary extinction and the future of food,” copublisher David Caron says. House of Anansi too is shining a light on food trends and will be publishing a Cree cookbook, Tawâw: Progressive Indigenous Cuisine by Shane M. Chartrand. The title translates as “Welcome, there is room.”
Ed Nawotka is the bookselling and international editor of Publishers Weekly.