As Canada emerges from the pandemic, the challenges for its publishers and booksellers remain much the same as for those in the United States: inflation is high, and supply chain issues mean books are harder and more expensive to produce. As a result, publishers have been limiting print runs and raising prices.
“Prepandemic, there were 8,000 new ISBNs issued each month,” says Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet. “Now that number is down to 6,000 to 7,000.”
As far as sales go, the first six months of 2022 were a relatively stable period, with sales up 2% over the first six months of 2019, before the pandemic, according to BookNet Canada, the organization that tracks English-language book sales across the country. “People are still buying books,” Genner says, “but they are starting to feel the pinch and sales are slowing.”
One of the key trends fueling book sales has been the opening of new independent bookstores across Canada (as in the U.S.), with the number of points of sale expanding as well. “In the past year, BookNet added 14 new stores, and we are seeing new stores open at a rate of about one per month,” Genner says. “Now, there are a little more than 200 indie stores in the country and a total of 3,000 points of sale.” Many of the new stores are in more remote parts of the country and are being opened by people who left the big cities during the pandemic.
In addition, indies are getting direct financial support from the government for the first time: the Canada Book Fund, run by the Canadian Department of Heritage, has earmarked C$32.1 million to support the growth of bookstores around the country. “This has the potential to be a game changer, as there is real potential to grow the business,” Genner says.
Sales of Indigenous-focused books rising
“Several stores have opened that are focused on Indigenous books,” Genner notes. One such business is the online store GoodMinds.com, which specializes in First Nations, Metis, Inuit, and Native American titles.
Another such store is Medicine Wheel in Langford, British Columbia, which opened in early September. Owner Teddy Anderson grew up in the Carcross First Nation, in the Yukon. The store is an extension of the Medicine Wheel publishing company, which Anderson launched six years ago in Victoria and which is focused on children’s books by Indigenous authors. Upon launching the bookstore, Anderson said he sees publishing and selling Indigenous books “as an act of reconciliation.”
In 2021, the bestselling book by a Canadian author and publishing house was 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality by Bob Joseph, published by Page Two Inc. The bestselling Canadian fiction title was Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians, from HarperCollins Canada.
Some have resisted the intense growing interest in Indigenous books, however. In early 2022, the Durham District School Board in southern Ontario pulled Cree author David A. Robertson’s children’s book The Great Bear from school shelves, claiming it portrayed too much “culture and ceremony.”
Though book bans are relatively rare in Canada and Robertson’s book was later returned to shelves, Robertson is troubled by the episode. “We don’t want to see that sort of censorship or book banning occurring in Canada,” he says. “We don’t want to see that stuff trickling up from the United States; I don’t think that’s who we are as Canadians. But a lot of people—authors, teachers, booksellers, librarians—stood up with me, and I think this was a testament to community building and what we can do together. As I understood it, we’re in the business of reconciliation. And that requires us to put books in the hands of kids that teach them about other cultures, other experiences, lived experiences. That helps us to learn about one another. It’s worth fighting these bans because kids deserve to read stories like that. It’s going to make us a stronger country.”
Frontlist sales are lagging
BookNet data shows that, starting in 2020, online book sales eclipsed sales in physical bookstores. Online now accounts for 55% of overall book sales, while sales in physical stores represent 45%. “Online sales favor backlist,” says Genner, which, along with inflation, may account for a slight drop in the market share of frontlist books, which fell to 24% in the first six months of the year, from 27% for the same period in 2021.
At Penguin Random House Canada, the country’s largest publisher, CEO Kristin Cochrane says that “the consumer shift to online sales stands out.” While the industry couldn’t fully have anticipated the speed of shift, with lockdowns forcing many physical bookstores to temporarily close at various points during the past two years, PRH Canada is responding to this shift with investments in sales, marketing, and publishing.
“We’re enhancing our metadata and SEO support,” Cochrane says, “and working with Indigo’s team to maximize our business in store and at Indigo.ca, supporting the indies that opened or enhanced their online business in the early days of the pandemic, and with Amazon to ensure our books and authors can be discovered there, all while continuing to support all physical and digital retail channels to ensure our books reach the widest possible audience. Overall, we’re reassured by what is shaping up to be a healthy marketplace, with consumers fully back in stores and people now more comfortable shopping online, so there are net new avenues for us to reach readers.”
Sales of e-books and digital audiobooks have slowed recently, dropping from 25% of the overall market during the pandemic to less than 20% for the first six months of 2022—though the share of audiobooks was one percentage point higher for the period than in the comparable part of 2021, rising to 7% of total share of sales.
Among new book trends, Genner says that comics and graphic novel sales are up 62% for the first six months of the year. This has been driven by a growing interest in manga titles. Other areas of growth include sales of titles promoted on TikTok, as well as romance, biography, and humor. Sales of children’s, middle grade, and YA books remain steady, and for the fourth year in a row, 40% of the books sold in 2021 in both the English- and French-language markets in Canada were categorized as either juvenile or YA.
Below, more on Publishing in Canada 2022:
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Small Presses Refocus on Sales
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Rupi Kaur Wants to Help Writers Heal
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Anansi's Publisher Charts a New Course
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Author Linda Trinh Seeks Authenticity
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Vivek Shraya On Representation and Canadian Identity
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Jen Sookfong Lee Finds a Book That Feels Like Fate
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A Half Century at Dundurn Press
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PRH Canada is Working to Decolonize Publishing
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Ashley Spires Is Magnificent, Again
The multichannel Kids Can children’s author returns with 'The Most Magnificent Idea,' a sequel to her 2014 bestseller 'The Most Magnificent Thing,'
HarperCollins Canada Opens the Inbox to BIPOC Writers
The editor-in-chief of HarperCollins Canada discusses an innovative new program at the house which aims to bring more diverse voices to Canadian readers and is publishing its first two titles next year.
Esmé Shapiro's Creative Transformation
The acclaimed author and illustrator describes how an internship at Tundra Books led to her publishing career and how the Canadian house gave her a creative home.
Ten Things Publishing Can Learn from the NHL
The authors of 'Business the NHL Way,' published by the University of Toronto Press, offer advice for the publishing industry derived from their observations of watching the fastest sport on ice.
HarperCollins Canada Works to Resolve Distribution Woes
This summer, booksellers across Canada have complained about long delays and other issues with book shipments from HarperCollins Canada. The company blamed warehouse upgrades, now complete, and said the situation is improving.
Canadian Booksellers Talk Shop
Speaking to Canadian independent booksellers across the country, it seems as if they have been feeling pinched and proud in equal measure as the country moves into a new stage of the pandemic.