The late Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who died in 2000, is credited with saying that what differentiates Canada from the United States is that instead of being a cultural melting pot, “Canada is a cultural mosaic.” It’s a descriptive term for a country of 37.6 million people that has been growing at a rate of 500,000 people per year, with much of that growth fueled by immigrants. In a cultural mosaic, cultures remain distinct and intact but also coexist peacefully. As seen from a distance, it is a work of singular art, and looking at Canada’s cultural industries, one can see a concerted and concentrated effort to promote literary diversity.
Take the annual Canada Reads debates held by the CBC each March, which features a slate of celebrities who each defend a single book in a contest in which one title is voted out each day over the course of the week. It’s a popular battle-of-the-books-style event, one that is televised each day, thus reinforcing the importance of books to the overall culture. This year saw Alayna Fender, a YouTuber who focuses on LGBTQ issues, defending Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club (House of Anansi) by Newfoundland native Megan Gail Coles; Akil Augustine, the courtside announcer for the Toronto Raptors, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, defending Radicalized (Tor), a collection of speculative fiction novellas by Canadian-British writer Cory Doctorow; Kaniehtiio Horn, a Canadian actor from Kahnawake, the Mohawk reserve outside of Montreal, defending Son of a Trickster (Vintage Canada) by Eden Robinson, a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations from Kitamaat, B.C.; and Nova Scotia–born country music star George Canyon defending From the Ashes (S&S), a memoir of homelessness and redemption by Jesse Thistle, a Métis-Cree, from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The contest was won by Quebec-born African-Canadian actor Amanda Brugel, who championed We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib, a memoir of her experience as a queer-identifying Muslim woman, published in 2019 by Penguin Random House Canada.
But like with any mosaic, there are cracks. This this year saw the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd across the border in Minneapolis in late May. As has been the case in the U.S., books on the topic of racial justice have sold extremely well since then. One such title was Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present by Robyn Maynard (Fernwood). David Caron, publisher of ECW, which released the audiobook version last December, says Policing Black Lives became “a big, big title for us.”
This latest iteration in the fight for racial justice prompted numerous publishers to react, both personally and professionally. This reaction is evident in the following pages, where a range of voices from the Canadian publishing industry reflect on the dramatic events of 2020 so far: Scott Fraser, president and publisher of Dundurn Books, discusses on his unique position of leadership in the industry (see “BLM, Dundurn, and Diversity,” p. 14); Anika Holder, vice president and director for of human resources for Penguin Random House Canada, writes about overt racism she has experienced and the industry’s need to do better (see “A Reckoning,” p. 20); and Ian Williams, a Canadian novelist, examines his reaction to social media responses to the recent BLM protests (see “So Many Statements,” p. 10).
Williams won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Reproduction (Vintage Canada), a multiracial, multigenerational family saga, and will publish a nonfiction book, Disorientation: The Experience of Being Black in the World (Random House Canada), in the fall of 2021. In addition, he’s an award-winning poet, whose latest collection, Word Problems, will be released this month by Coach House Books. He was born in Trinidad and teaches creative writing at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
Asked if he has felt supported by the publishing business, Williams says, “Generally speaking, the answer is yes, but there is lots of room for improvement in terms of diversity, equity, money, and who makes the decisions, from interns to the executives. At the same time, the industry is itself made of people, and just as you can have friends and family members who aren’t perfect, so it is in publishing. As a writer, I don’t think it is possible to step into an ideal publishing situation. Whether you are publishing poetry with a small press or something about the conscience of the nation with a large publisher, audiences still need many ways of getting their material, and each publisher and retailer serves a purpose.”
Coping with Covid-19
The recent experience of Williams’s poetry publisher Coach House Books can easily stand in for that of several smaller publishing houses around Canada that have been coping with the challenges of Covid-19 (a topic also explored by the Association of Canadian Publishers executive director Kate Edwards in “Keeping It Local,”). Alana Wilcox, editorial director of Coach House, says that central to the survival of the industry has been the Canadian government, which committed early in the pandemic to providing wage subsidies and small business loans. “We were also given the same grants that we would have typically gotten, just earlier in the year,” she says.
Coach House, whose offices are in Downtown Toronto and house a printing press, has been physically closed for much of the year. “So let’s just say how 2020 started is not how it is proceeding,” Wilcox notes. “We went into it thinking about diversity issues, thinking about improving infrastructure and marketing—and by March we had to reconfigure our whole business model.”
This entailed finding new ways to engage with customers, whether through direct sales from Coach House’s website, via virtual events, or with retail partners. “There is a lot of noise and not a lot of ways to cut through it with new titles when all the mechanisms we would have previously used to do that are shut down,” Wilcox says. “It’s a lot to ask of an industry to change the entire way you work in a seven-month period, from the way you pay bills to managing authors and their expectations, suddenly everything is different.”
Coach House has seen some sales pop this year, with Disfigured by Amanda Leduc, a disquisition about disability and fairy tales, and poet Lisa Robertson’s debut novel The Baudelaire Fractal. Looking ahead, Wilcox is excited about publishing Uncle by Cheryl Thompson (Feb. 2021), about the evolution and meaning of the term “Uncle Tom,” and the anthology Indigenous Toronto (Mar. 2021); in the near term, climate fiction thriller Fauna by Christiane Vadnais, translated from French by Pablo Strauss, publishes this month, as does Ian Williams’s aforementioned book of poetry.
Another publisher that is banking on poetry to sell this fall is Simon & Schuster, which will publish Rupi Kaur’s third collection, Home Body, in November. “Rupi is from the South Asian community in Brampton [suburban Toronto], and is very much identified as a Canadian writer,” says Kevin Hanson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Canada. “She has sold more than 10 million books around the world, and we have very successfully published her in Canada. We expect this book to be just as popular as her previous two books were.”
Another title Hanson expects to find book buyers this holiday season is Extraordinary Canadians: Stories from the Heart of Our Nation (Nov.), by former CBC broadcasters Peter Mansbridge and Mark Bulgutch. “It spotlights individuals who have overcome adversity and broken down barriers to champion the rights and freedoms that are shared by everyone who calls Canada home,” Hanson says. “We’re proud of it.”
The book business rebounds
Hanson notes that when Covid hit, people were nervous “that sales were going to disappear”—but, he adds, “it certainly seems consumers have been buying a lot of books.” This sentiment is echoed by BookNet Canada, which reports that sales have rebounded significantly from a huge decline in March and April.
“I’m much more optimistic than I was earlier in the year,” says BookNet CEO Noah Genner, who notes that lockdowns and bookstore closures resulted in a 34%–40% drop in retail sales during the first few months of the pandemic compared to the same period in 2019. “I couldn’t see how we would find a way out of it back then. But over the last several months sales have been up. They have even been 12%–15% better than the same period last year.”
Genner attributes this bump to consumers’ eagerness to return to stores and shopping after pent-up demand from the closures and lockdowns. “What is really interesting from my standpoint in talking to the retailers and publishers and booksellers is they all got entrepreneurial pretty darn quickly,” he says. “We saw the small indies pivot and make sure their websites were up and running in big ways. That all happened much more quickly than was expected.”
Genner notes that the current sales trend is encouraging, but overall sales for the year are still down. Print sales for the first six months of 2020 were down by at least three million units and C$63 million from 2019.
Bookselling chain Indigo, in particular, has struggled. So far in 2020, it has closed 15 of its smaller-format stores. CEO Heather Reisman has been vocal about the need for the Canadian government to continue supporting the chain of nearly 200 stores, lest there be more closures. In the second quarter of 2020, Indigo says it lost C$171.3 million, compared with a loss of C$23.8 million for the same quarter in 2019. Same-store sales fell by 7.9%. In addition, the chain had a store in Toronto vote to unionize after employees complained about being forced to clean customer bathrooms, a practice they saw as dangerous to their health.
However, not all the news in Canadian bookselling is glum. In July, a new Canadian Independent Booksellers Association was formed, with a board of 12 booksellers from across the country. Further, there have been no announcements of major indie stores closing, and at least one new store has sprung up: Upstart & Crow in Vancouver, which opened in August.
Children’s books drive sales
According to BookNet, children’s and YA titles led sales for the first six months of 2020 and accounted for 41% of all print book sales in the Canadian English-language trade market. At Toronto’s Annick Press, which specializes in children’s books, director Rick Wilks says, “I believe that with fewer discovery options in the online world and with booksellers very carefully curating their stock, a smaller number of titles will make up a larger percentage of sales. I think it’s possible that publishers will even more carefully review their publishing programs to focus on the books that will gain prominence in the marketplace. Also, we’ve observed that our percentage of backlist sales has grown by 7%, which suggests that buyers are seeking out titles or authors that they are already familiar with.”
The exception, Wilks says, are books on timely subjects, which include books suitable for homeschooling or use in the classroom (see “Fun Reading Equals Academic Success,”
p. 30), such as CRISPR by Yolanda Ridge and Alex Boersmaas (Sept.), about gene-splicing technology. An Annick title about the pandemic, Patient Zero: Solving the Mysteries of Deadly Epidemics by Marilee Peters, which was originally published in 2014, has sold 30,000 copies this year and is being updated with a new chapter on Covid-19 and released as an e-book.
Others have looked to cater to demand for pandemic-themed children’s books, as well: in June, Orca in Victoria, B.C., published Eric Walters’s Don’t Stand So Close to Me, a middle grade novel about a group of preteens forced to isolate, just 41 days after it was first pitched.
Children’s books on diverse and inclusive topics remain in high demand as well, Wilks says. Annick just published Day with Gong Gong by Sennah Yee and Elaine Chen, an #OwnVoices picture book about Toronto’s Chinatown and the generational relationship between a girl and her grandfather.
In September, Owlkids published The Paper Boat by Thao Lam, a wordless picture book about the author’s family’s escape from Vietnam. “Despite the events of the year, we are pretty satisfied so far,” says Karen Boersma, publisher of Owlkids, which tends to focus on the school and institutional market. “One book we saw school boards ordering was A Likkle Miss Lou [by Nadia L. Hohn, illustrated by Eugenie Fernandes], which is about the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett Coverley, who wrote in patois. Seeing that take off has been gratifying.”
This fall finds Owlkids with another potential hit about a literary immigrant: Maurice and His Dictionary: A True Story (Oct.) by Cary Fagan, illustrated by Enzo Lord Marian, is a graphic novel that tells the story of Fagan’s Belgian father, who fled the Nazis and went to Toronto by way of Jamaica, having taught himself English through the use of a very special dictionary.
Second Story Press has a book that focuses on immigration, as well: Snow Doves by Nancy Hartry, illustrated by Gabrielle Grimard, is a wordless picture book about Sami, a recent arrival, and his neighbor Joy, and how they make the most of a fresh snowfall.
Pajama Press created a new imprint, Toddler Tough, to publish a series of padded hardcovers and board books for parents who were looking for ways to entertain children during the pandemic. The publisher also released Music for Tigers, a middle grade novel by Michelle Kadarusman, in the thick of the shutdown in April. “It was critically acclaimed and turned out to be a huge success, despite everything,” says Laura Bowman, sales and marketing manager. “It helped that Michelle was quick to adapt to doing virtual events.”
Expanding opportunities for education
The University of Toronto Press has spent the last several years enticing readers with new trade-oriented titles and this year launched a new trade imprint called Aevo UTP, and attended the American Bookseller Association’s Winter Institute for the first time. The investment paid off. “Among our first titles for the imprint is Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis by David Miller [Oct.],” says Chris Reed, publicist for UTP Press. Attending Winter Institute “really helped us build relationships and support for the new imprint among independent booksellers,” Reed says. Other titles in the inaugural list, which is largely focused on climate change, include Rae Andre’s Lead For the Planet: Five Practices for Confronting Climate Change (Sept.) and The Story of CO2: Big Ideas for a Small Molecule by Geoffrey A. Ozin and Mireille F. Ghoussoub (Jan.).
In Saskatchewan, the University of Regina Press installed Kris Luecker as its new director last year, and she almost immediately had several timely titles come out under her watch. “In 2019, we published Black Writers Matter, an anthology of Black Canadian writers,” she says. “Then in February this year we published Until We Are Free, an anthology that reflected on the Black Lives Matter movement in Canada. By the end of the summer it had sold 2,300 copies.” She adds that the press will continue to do what it has done so well for many years: “publishing books that make big ideas accessible to a general audience.”
Publishing across the provinces
As should be obvious, passionate publishers exist in nearly all Canadian provinces. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, Portage & Main has made a strong push recently with a popular list of middle grade graphic novels, including Reckoner Rises: Breakdown, the first in a new series by David A. Robertson, illustrated by Scott B. Henderson, that is a continuation of his earlier Reckoner trilogy. It is just one of three books Robertson is publishing this fall, the other two being The Barren Grounds (Puffin Canada), the first in a new middle grade trilogy, and Black Water (HarperCollins), a memoir about his Cree family.
At Vancouver’s Talon Press, publisher Kevin Williams says readers have found May’s Orwell in Cuba: How 1984 Came to Be Published in Castro’s Twilight by Frédérick Lavoie, translated by Donald Winkler, to be “particularly relevant in this age of disinformation.” He also says poetry has been “especially hot” all year and cites Fred Wah’s Music at the Heart of Thinking, published in July, as popular. “It’s a book he took a lifetime to write.”
Also in Vancouver, Brian Lam, publisher of Arsenal Pulp Press, says that while the pandemic took a chunk out of his company’s retail sales, its direct-to-consumer sales have skyrocketed. “I have been spending two to three hours a day fulfilling orders,” he notes. The company’s big bestseller for the year has been Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, originally published in 2019, which has sold nearly 30,000 copies. September’s Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, an anthology edited by Joshua Whitehead, is also attracting attention.
Back east in Montreal, Baraka Books has just published a pair of provocative titles. The first, Stolen Motherhood: Surrogacy and Made-to-Order Children by Maria De Koninck, translated from French by Arielle Aaronson, looks at the complicated implications of surrogacy on the lives of women and society; the second, Still Crying for Help: The Failure of Our Mental Healthcare Services by Sadia Messaili, documents a mother’s quest for the truth about her son’s suicide.
The holidays and beyond
Many publishers are hoping a strong holiday will help offset losses during the lockdowns. ECW publisher David Caron is focused, at least in part, on promoting the company’s audiobook line, which has grown in recent years. “While publishers have been not been able to return to their offices,” he says, “studios that produce audiobooks have been open—they naturally promote social distancing since readers and producers are always in separate booths—and we have been able to add to our catalog all year long. In fact, we are producing more audiobooks than print.” Among those titles is the just-released A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency by Seth Keith.
Firefly is staking a lot on a book with a rather unusual title. “It’s called Eat Sh*t and Die by Mark Linder,” says Firefly president Lionel Koffler. “It doesn’t mince words and has strong feelings about how our diet shortens our lives.”
Koffler notes that, due to the pandemic, the publisher was forced to defer numerous books scheduled for this year to 2021. Printing delays forced him to move publication of two key titles from October to November, NBA 75: The Definitive History by Dave Zarum and NFL Heroes: The 100 Greatest Players of All Time by George Johnson and Allan Maki, both of which he expects will be popular gift books for the holidays.
House of Anansi Press had strong summer sales of its list of BIPOC authors, but Lost Words by Robert Macfarlane, illustrated by Jackie Morris, was the company’s bestseller, moving more than 3,000 copies in the U.S. this summer. The art book offers whimsical illustrations of different words from the natural world. “I think that right now people are getting more connected to nature, because one of the only things you can do right now is just go out for a walk or go to the country,” says Karen Brochu, Anansi’s v-p of sales and marketing. “The natural world is providing a lot of comfort for people, and this book can help with that.” A sequel to Lost Words, titled Lost Spells, is coming in October.
At HarperCollins, v-p of sales and marketing Leo MacDonald admits the initial dip in sales that came with the start of the pandemic was “alarming” but adds that, though booksellers were largely closed, the publisher saw big increases with the retailers that stayed open, such as Costco. As of the end of summer, “sales at nearly every account are above the pre-lockdown level.”
Titles that took off for HarperCollins this year are The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel and Hillary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light. “We have always thought books are resilient and recession proof, and they have proven to be so during this time,” MacDonald says. “We’re really excited for the fall and feel we have a great list.”
Caroline Fortin, publisher of Éditions Québec Amérique in Montreal, notes that English-language publishers aren’t alone in facing the difficulties of 2020. French-language publishers, which are well-supported by the province of Quebec, also had their challenges, not the least of which were some of the most rigorous lockdowns in the country. “It’s true the pandemic turned customers into a moving target, and it has forced us to rebuild and rethink the way we work,” Fortin says.
And Canada’s turn as Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, a program that Fortin championed, was largely delayed until next year, with just a streamlined number of events taking place this October. “Still, we are looking forward to 2021 when we can really show off,” she says. “We know Canada will surprise the world!”
Below, more on publishing in Canada.