According to BookNet Canada, which compiles statistics about Canadian publishing, books by Canadian authors accounted for less than 10% of the country’s C$1.1 billion market last year. Unsurprisingly, Colleen Hoover was the bestselling author up north. But Canadian publishers are looking to change all that by promoting more homegrown talent.
McClelland & Stewart, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada, is getting behind the two-volume historical novel The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle: The True and Exact Accounting of the History of Turtle Island (Nov.) by Kent Monkman, a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation in Treaty 5 Territory, and his longtime collaborator Gisèle Gordon. A critically acclaimed visual artist, Monkman is best known for his paintings of Indigenous people and white settlers in conflict at key points in Canadian history, and of shameful true events such as the abduction of Indigenous children by priests to be put into residential schools. Appearing throughout his oeuvre is his alter ego Miss Chief, a genderfluid character typically portrayed with male genitalia, red lipstick, and modern high heels. The cover of volume one shows Miss Chief nude, being carried off into a stormy landscape by a trapper on the back of a rearing steed, while that of volume two shows Miss Chief in a toreador’s jacket waving a Hudson’s Bay blanket in a fight with a dying buffalo that has the face of an animal from Picasso’s Guernica.
Monkman and Gordon argue the books are filling a gap. “Even though there are historical exceptions like Pauline Johnson, and contemporary authors like Tomson Highway, Eden Robinson, and so many other great Indigenous writers,” Gordon says, “the majority of historical fiction in the CanLit canon is a bit like the European paintings by Beirstadt and others of empty landscape in North America: their stories contain no Indigenous people—they’re mostly about white people in isolated windswept rural homesteads.”
Monkman adds, “With The Memoirs of Miss Chief we are trying to fight myth with myth by exposing the hypocrisy and lies in colonial historical narratives and giving a unique Indigenous perspective on North American history—one imbued with Cree worldview, but with a distinctly Miss Chief twist.”
The Memoirs of Miss Chief Eagle Testickle are among McClelland & Stewart’s lead titles for the fall and have one of the largest initial print runs of the year, and with Monkman’s celebrity, the books should sell.
Concerns about Indigo
At Indigo, Canada’s dominant bookstore chain, Canadian books are often labeled “Made in Canada” to highlight their local provenance. With 170 small- and large-format bookstores, Indigo has long promoted Canadian books with slogans such as “The World Needs More Canada” and “Read the North,” as well as with Heather’s Picks, a selection of titles chosen by Indigo founder Heather Reisman, many of which have gone on to become Canadian bestsellers.
Earlier this year, it looked as if the Heather’s Picks program was gone forever, and the company appeared to be in trouble. A board of directors reshuffle in June saw four members leave, one citing “mistreatment.” In August, Reisman announced her retirement from Indigo and four new board members were added, including former Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle, who is serving as chair.
Then abruptly, in early September, Indigo CEO Peter Ruis resigned. Ruis, who had joined the company in 2021, had been in the post for little more than a year. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that Reisman would return as CEO and would rejoin the board as well.
The management machinations at Indigo came as print sales softened in the overall Canadian market. Sales in the first six months of 2023 are almost $10 million lower than in the same period in 2022, according to BookNet.
Indigo blamed its poor performance on the lingering aftermath of a ransomware attack that crippled the bookseller’s website and back-office systems throughout February and March. The company estimates that the disruption cost as much as C$50 million. Furthermore, it led to an undermining of confidence in Indigo. Several publishers drew comparisons with Borders in the U.S., which had similar management shifts prior to its demise.
Kristin Cochrane, CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, the country’s largest publisher, is sanguine about Indigo’s ability to overcome its challenges. “The cyberattack on Indigo has been extremely difficult for them, and the impact has been felt throughout the entire Canadian book industry,” she says. “We worked closely with them at every level, every day, to serve readers across Canada and support their return to regular business. Each month since the attack we’ve seen improvements in many key areas like backlist inventory and online sales, with their team’s support of many important authors. And we share their optimism for a robust fall season and lots of momentum for books going into the holidays.”
Cochrane points to the success of several PRH titles, including Meet Me at the Lake by Carley Fortune and Gabor Maté’s The Myth of Normal, which has sold more than 140,000 copies in Canada and half a million worldwide. She says one recent highlight in the Canadian book market has been the resurgence of indie bookstores, which have been “buoyed by a strong ‘shop local’ sentiment, the efforts of the Canadian Independent Booksellers Association, and the astute use of a government funding package to aid with the costs of online bookselling.” She adds, “We continue to support our vital independent booksellers on a number of fronts including through supply chain improvements and through our close work with CIBA.”
CIBA now counts 157 stores as members, and mentioned an additional 14 prospective members in its most recent annual report, released in September. The organization, like the vast majority of those working in Canadian publishing, sees itself as tied to the land and honors the Indigenous communities whose territory that land is. CIBA’s annual report begins thusly:
“As Canadians, we are deeply indebted to past and present Indigenous peoples. We encourage our members to acknowledge the traditional territory upon which they reside, to educate themselves on the history and treatment of Indigenous peoples in this country, and to reflect on their relationship with Indigenous communities today. Our active work toward reconciliation includes celebrating the depth and breadth of the work of Indigenous writers. It is our honor and responsibility to support Indigenous literature in this country, and we aim to do so through learning opportunities, partnerships, and community building.”
Hopefully, this is a sentiment Miss Chief Eagle Testickle would approve of.
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