Canada’s independent presses are figuring out how to traverse a landscape that has radically shifted in the past 18 months. For some, the required adaptations start at the staffing level. Elsa Johnston and the Saskatchewan-based University of Regina Press realized that Covid-19 meant they could look further afield when it comes to their team.
“With remote work, these geographical boundaries when it comes to the office environment have changed,” Johnston says. “Our marketing and publicity manager, she’s in Toronto; our sales and distribution manager, he’s in Winnipeg. We have someone else who works remotely in Regina. There’s been able to be that flexibility within the publishing industry.”
The same is true of Vancouver-based Arsenal Pulp Press. Brian Lam, the publisher, says a third of his six-person house now lives in another province. “Prior to the pandemic, I would have told you that, yes, we need everyone in the office,” Lam says. “But now two of our six staff people are actually located in Ontario. And there’s only two of us who are in the physical office on a regular basis.”
For other presses, the pandemic has led to a more international approach. Nimbus Publishing’s publicist and export manager Karen McMullin, along with general manager Terrilee Bulger, took part in the Trade Acceleration Program offered by the Toronto Board of Trade; as part of the process, McMullin joined a trade delegation that attended the Bogotá International Book Fair in April 2022. In October, McMullin and Bulger will attend the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Baraka Books president and publisher Robin Philpot reports that he experimented with international online launches during the pandemic. “The best was the  launch of Bigotry on Broadway: An Anthology, edited by Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank, which brought together contributors and participants on almost all the continents,” he adds.
At his company, which is headquartered in Quebec, Philpot says sales of new titles have dropped by 15% in 2022, both in Canada and the U.S. “Shipping is much more expensive and delays are frequent. Also, bookstores are ordering fewer books,” he explains. “But returns in the U.S. are down considerably, while in Canada they remain too high.”
Backlist history books have continued to sell, with David Vermette’s A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans doing particularly well. “It has sold well in the U.S. and now it is selling well in Canada, and a French-language edition of the book will be out by early 2024,” Philpot says.
For a number of the presses, digital sales have become a primary focus. At Toronto-based Coach House Books, the expansion of its digital operation meant investing in better infrastructure to support online ordering. According to sales and marketing coordinator James Lindsay, that meant mandatory adaptation. “I think it [the pandemic] really forced us to get better at online sales,” he says. “Because we have our distributors—Raincoast in Canada, Ingram in the United States—we have our bases fairly covered as far as physical and digital distribution. But when we were doing direct sales a lot more, all of a sudden we had to take that responsibility on.”
Lindsay adds that Coach House invested heavily into its online store. “We really wanted it to be a better experience,” he notes. Coach House has seen a spike in Canadian sales, but its U.S. sales are down from the heights of last year.
Lam says that after seeing a year-on-year sales jump of 70% in 2021, Arsenal’s momentum has continued into another 20% boost in 2022. That upward trajectory is due in part to having two CBC Canada Reads finalists in 2021—Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi and winner Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead—and another, Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez, in 2022.
Toronto-based children’s publisher Pajama Press saw last year’s awards and reading program season directly correlate with a spike in sales. Publisher Gail Winskill says that nominating titles for programs like the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading can mean a bump in sales. But with printing lead times lengthening, she’s had to make sure that she has enough inventory before she can even nominate a book. “You can’t go back to press on a dime like you used to,” she notes. “So that’s challenging. I’m not going to [submit] books that we have low stock of, because I know I’ll never be able to turn it around.”
Winskill says that she has been focusing on publishing books in the most durable format possible. “We’ve developed a product called Toddler Tough, which is our little hardcovers that are padded covers with heavy paper that work really well in the libraries. They love them. Then we just turn around a year later and we put them into a board book format, which is perfect because they’re usually 24 pages. And the bookstores are loving them.”
The return to in-person events
Even with an increase in digital sales, many presses, like other businesses in the world, are eager to return to in-person selling.
Linda Leith, director of her eponymous publishing company in Montreal, laments the lack of in-person events, noting that sales have not bounced back yet to prepandemic levels. “Supply chain issues persist, but return levels are improving,” she reports, noting that the company has had success with Tarah Schwart’s new memoir Can’t Help Falling: A Long Road to Motherhood and is seeing advance interest in Toula Drimonis’s We, the Others: Allophones, Immigrants, and Belonging in Canada (Oct.).
Saskatoon-based literary publisher Thistledown Press is excited at the prospect of more face-to-face contact with customers, after what editorial director and acquisitions editor Elizabeth Philips calls an “uphill battle.” That battle was complicated by a change of ownership in late 2020. Philips says that when she came aboard during that period, the slate was clean. “When we took it over, we had nothing. There were no manuscripts for us to look at. So we really had to hit the ground running in soliciting manuscripts, and worked really hard to get books.”
For Philips and her team, it is challenging to make in-person events work for authors at the moment. She says the Covid calculus that comes with planning events can sometimes limit where her authors can read and which events they can attend. In turn, that can limit the scope of the promotion the press is able to do. “I think sometimes it’s a little bit uncomfortable,” she says, “because different authors have different levels of tolerance for in-person events. And so sometimes you can’t just have a blanket plan for all the authors.”
Another complicating factor is limited options in terms of paper. Philips says she’s currently contemplating buying certain paper in advance and stashing it away for future titles because of its scarcity.
Johnston of UR Press is also feeling the weight of certain stock being unavailable. “What we’ve had to do is build in some extra lead time into our production schedule, and face the challenges just by planning further ahead and then being flexible with our printers,” she says.
Speaking to representatives of Canada’s independent presses, one thing becomes clear: they’re all focusing heavily on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion within their catalogs. For Arsenal Pulp Press, that means promoting this fall’s release of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s The Future Is Disabled. The book, a follow-up to bestseller Care Work, is a title that Lam says is expected to have significant success in the U.S. market, just like its predecessor. He calls disability “a growing genre for the press.”
Other titles Arsenal is leading with are In the Key of Dale by Benjamin Lefebvre, described as “a disarming coming-of-age novel about a queer teen music prodigy”; The Lost Century by Larissa Lai, “a historical novel about war, colonialism, love, and loyalty during Japan’s occupation of Hong Kong in World War II”; and Holden After and Before by Tara McGuire, a memoir that focuses on family, overdose, and grief.
At the University of Regina Press, fronting the publisher’s fall catalog is The Life Sentences of Rik McWhinney. In the book, McWhinney, who was incarcerated for close to 35 years and passed away in 2019, shares what it was like to live in prison.
At Coach House, Lindsay is keen to highlight Suzette Mayr’s The Sleeping Car Porter, which he describes as featuring a Black queer Canadian sleeping car porter who, when overworked, begins to have halucinations and see science fiction “bleed into reality.”
At Thistledown, one of the titles Philips is high on is The Elephant on Karlu˚v Bridge by Thomas Trofimuk. The book, which Philips describes as a “very large, imaginative, poetic, entertaining novel,” focuses on an elephant that encounters people as they are contemplating life and is narrated by the bridge.
Nimbus is promoting the work of author-illustrator Briana Corr Scott, who has two new books out this fall. The first, If You Could Be Anything, is a call-and-response picture book featuring striking images of coastal landscapes and oceanic animals. The second title, Twelve Days of Christmas: A Celebration of Nature, reframes the classic holiday song with a natural perspective, using a Victorian art style known as botanical maximalism in its ornate, lush illustrations.
Baraka Books has great hopes for two works of literary fiction set in wartime: Shaf and the Remington, Rana Bose’s fourth novel, and Foxhunt, a debut novel by Luke Francis Beirne.
Lastly, at Pajama Press, Winskill is excited about Berani, an upcoming novel by Michelle Kadarusman. The book is described as “an honest and stirring novel about the choices made by young environmental activists, and the balancing act between consequence and triumph.”
A fitting description of the Canadian book publishing landscape: a balancing act.