There was a time in the French-speaking province of Québec when illiteracy ran rampant and books and libraries were scarce and subject to moral censure. In those early days, one of the first Church-controlled publishing houses saw fit to issue a moral rating system for books. “For my part,” recalls Denis Vaugeois in his ode to books and publishing entitled L’amour du livre (For the love of books), “I would stop at the youth library every day and pile up on books for myself and some of the boarders at school; we devoured books. And I remember, I would always have to go to the principal’s office to have my reading material approved.”

Was it coincidence or fate that gave Vaugeois access to one of the only French bibliothèques in the province at a time when Québec was a literary wasteland? When he provided friends with books, offering knowledge to open minds, how was he to know—and at such a young age—that spreading words would be his mission for the rest of his life.

At first, Vaugeois dabbled in all facets of the book industry. “I was a bit of an author, a bit of a publisher, I even founded a distributor, Dimedia,” he recounts in an interview. “I bought a printing press because I wanted the pages of my books sewn, but the printer I approached told me it would be too expensive. They then asked me whether I would be willing to buy their company in order to print the book, so I did.” Then, on February 28, 1978, he got a call from René Lévesque, Québec’s legendary political figure, and Vaugeois became Minister of Cultural Affairs for the Government of Québec under the Parti Québécois.

“The newspapers said that the mountain had given birth to a mouse,” Vaugeois reminisces, “but the mouse had a few tricks up its sleeve, tricks like a law regulating books and an ambitious plan for developing public libraries.” The new Minister also passed a law in December 1978 to create the SDIC (ancestor of the SODEC), an economic development agency for the arts industry. These three axes of cultural development—the Book Law (or Bill 51), the library network, and the SDIC—changed the face of the book market in Québec.

During WW II, 27 local publishers popped up to fill the void left by the war-time interruption of trade with French publishing. When the war ended, so did the good times for Québec publishers, as French books inundated the Québec market once again and all but four of 23 Québec publishers lost their budding businesses.

In the 1960s, the Québec government, under Prime Minister Jean Lesage, made some laudable efforts to help the book industry, such as creating the first Ministry of Cultural Affairs, accrediting booksellers for the first time, and creating an official inquiry commission on books. But the Ministry of Cultural Affairs was severely underfunded and the reports of the commission were lost in bureaucracy. Québec publishers were thrown a bone in the form of the Publishers Loss Insurance Act, which committed the government to buy a minimum percentage of a publisher’s unsold books. But the law proved to be counter-productive, and, at the end of the 1960s, the situation for Québec’s publishers worsened when several American-owned publishers, such as McGraw-Hill, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and Prentice Hall, opened offices in Montreal and entered into direct competition with French-language publishers by translating their textbooks into French. Meanwhile, Hachette, a French publisher and distributor, opened a second bookstore and expanded, adding large-scale distribution operations. The competition was fierce and Québec publishers were struggling in their own province.

By 1978, the era of Catholic and Protestant committees picking morally righteous texts was a thing of the past, but Québec had failed to enter any kind of literary modernity, lagging far behind in the quantity and quality of its libraries, booksellers, publishers, and distributors. But change was in the air. With the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976 and the appointment of Vaugeois as Culture Minister, the table was set for a reversal of fortunes.

Armed with a team of young, competent bureaucrats, Vaugeois introduced Bill 51, which is known in Québec as “the Act respecting the development of Québec firms in the book industry,” giving birth to the made-in-Québec book supply chain and to the modern network of libraries.

Bill 51, passed in 1979, legislated an entire new accreditation process for Québec’s book industry. To qualify for this new accreditation, booksellers had to hold a minimum inventory of 6,000 unique titles, 2,000 of which had to be published in Québec. They had to receive standing orders of books from at least 25 accredited publishers and keep these standing orders of books on the shelves a minimum of 120 days. Booksellers also had to deal directly with accredited distributors. Furthermore, book sales had to represent 50% of total sales or be worth at least $300,000 if the bookseller was located in a town of more than 10,000 inhabitants or $150,000 if there were less than 10,000 inhabitants. But, above all else, booksellers in Québec had to be 100% owned by Québecers.

Bill 51 landed like a bombshell in the Québec, and French, book industry. “The law introduced accreditation and forced accredited booksellers to receive their supplies from an exclusive distributor who was also accredited. It meant the end of direct purchases of French books from France,” recalls Vaugeois with a smile. “When we came out with the law regulating books, there was a huge international reaction, especially in France. Their national publishers’ association said, ‘That’s not the way it’s going to go down.’ They accused us of protectionism and cried foul. The French wanted to stop Bill 51 because of its 100% Québec ownership rule. For my part, I would have been willing to go down to 80%, but my lawyers said, ‘Denis, if you accept 10% foreign ownership you wouldn’t be able to control it, you won’t know if it’s 10, 15, 30, or 50%. It’s 100% or you have a problem.’ So I said, ‘100%.’ ”

Practically overnight, the Québec book industry developed by leaps and bounds and an entire book supply chain was created and nurtured by its stakeholders. Says Gaston Bellemare, president of the ANEL (the association of Québec’s French-language publishers), “’It’s really inspiring that, with such a small population, we were able to take hold of such a share of the market. Right now, both in bookstores and libraries, about a third of the books are published in Québec, a third come from France, and the remainder made up of international translations.” Indeed, in Québec, the number of accredited booksellers jumped from 168 in 1983 to 211 in 2000—nearly half of the 450 book retail outlets in the province—with an annual growth rate of 8.4%. What is more impressive is the selling power of accredited booksellers: between 2004 and 2006, 75% of their sales were of new books.

Bill 51 also regulated business practices for accredited distributors by determining appropriate discounts between business partners in the book chain. For example, distributors were obligated to give at least 30% discount on dictionaries, encyclopedias, and educational texts, while a discount of at least 40% was required for literary books. On the other hand, accredited booksellers were obligated to sell books at the publisher’s list or net price. Just short of price fixing, these policies did in fact have a positive impact on inflationary tendencies and overblown discounting that characterize much of the new releases in the Canadian—and American—markets today. Vaugeois admits that, had Bill 51 passed a few months later, books in Québec would probably have fixed prices today. “When we announced Bill 51, the French on their side were working on fixed pricing. They came out with their policy six months later. Had they announced it six months earlier, it would have been in our law too. Fixed pricing would have avoided price wars between the mid-size bookstores that cost the livelihood of few small booksellers. It would have also protected accredited booksellers from big box stores.”

In the end, Vaugeois managed to rally the fiercest opponents to his Book Law, even the French, because it was successful in structuring the Québec book market through a vigorous made-in-Québec book supply chain and because it created a much stronger cultural economy. Vaugeois’s idea was always to build cultural industries. “For a book to reach the public, there are two networks: booksellers and libraries. That was the basis of Bill 51.”

Vaugeois believes that his now famous Bill 51 would have been all for naught if it hadn’t also properly funded Québec’s network of public libraries. By then, the province had to play catch up with the rest of Canada, and the Minister had to find a creative way to finance the ambitious project of building libraries across Québec: “I asked the Finance Minister if he thought that a library could be considered part of the municipal works. He laughed and said, ‘Of course!’ I said, ‘Problem solved, then. We will get the funding from the provincial-federal agreement on municipal works.’ A fund meant for sewers, aqueducts, and asphalt helped build Québec’s libraries!”

Reception in most cities was hostile at best. Citizens did not see the usefulness of the new libraries and saw them as a waste of public money. Local mayors had to convince their citizens by telling them that libraries would create jobs. “When we presented the development plan for public libraries in Montreal, the mayors didn’t believe in our plan,” remembers Vaugeois. “We told them there would be money to build a new library and if they chose to renovate an old building, there would be money to restore it. But we warned them not to build it out in the woods; we wanted it in the heart of the city, as part of the urban fabric, and within walking distance for most citizens. I guess I was thinking of how it was when I was a kid in Trois-Rivières.”

“The Vaugeois Plan gave birth to our present-day public library system,” says Louise Guillemette-Labory, director of the Montreal Public Libraries Network. “It combined financial assistance to build libraries, money to develop collections, and grants to hire professional librarians—it professionalized the system and propelled our libraries into modern times.”

Montréal’s public library system has never been stronger. “It was very difficult to give birth to this child, but now he is a teenager, the future is before him and he is doing very well.According to Guillemette-Labory, since 2004, Québec’s flagship library, the Grande Bibliothèque, “is a success that shows no signs of abating. It welcomes three million visitors every year, which makes it the most frequented French-language library in the world. The Montreal Public Libraries Network had 30% more loans between 2006 and 2010. That represents 10 million loans per year; it is an unprecedented success.”

Thirty years ago, Vaugeois imagined the library as a permanent place for popular education. Today, Guillemette-Labory’s vision expands that idea by sharing the vision of a familiar friend: “We want to use France’s idea of the library as the third most lived in community space for citizens. From storytelling for children to senior citizens’ activities, modern public libraries must be living environments from the cradle to the grave.”

Luca Palladino is a freelance writer living in Montréal. In 2007 he founded L’écorce fabuleuse (The Enchanted Bark), an ecological short story competition that has awarded up to 50 writing scholarships to high school and college students.

To the Fairs! To Québec Édition!

If you’ve ever been in Hall 6.1 of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Hall 29 of the Bologna Book Fair, or the main halls of the Guadalajara and the Paris Book Fairs, you may have noticed a distinctive collective stand. A stand full of activities, laughter, hugs; a collective stand where business is doing well and cocktails flow. You’ve arrived in Québec. [For more on Quebec’s international presence, see “The International Play,” p. 11.}

For the last 30 years, Québec French-language publishers, via their association, ANEL, have developed a committee—the Québec Édition committee—the mandate of which is to increase the international visibility of Quebec publishers and support export activities through collective stands at international fairs. Furthermore, the committee is mandated to set up both exploratory missions and missions to receive other delegations. The Québec government financially supports Québec Édition through SODEC (the Society for Development of Cultural Enterprises), as does the Canadian government via Canadian Heritage. “SODEC gave the Québec Édition committee the important mission of organizing the collective presence of Québec book publishers in fairs all over the world,” explains François Macerola, president and CEO of SODEC. “Québec’s publishers are very active on the international scene, as proven by the total revenues for book export—C$37 million in 2010, and for the sale of rights, almost C$5 million.”

The ANEL brings together approximately 100 publishers working in all publishing fields—from children’s books and school books to poetry, biographies, essays, and travel guides. Several of the publishers are active internationally and can be found at the Québec Édition collective stand during the coming months at Frankfurt, Salon du Livre de Blois (outside of Paris), Guadalajara, Brussels, Paris, Bologna, and Geneva.

Along with these, Québec Édition organizes exploratory missions. In August 2012, a mission went to São Paolo and, in December 2012 will go to Haiti. Besides these exploratory missions, Québec Édition also organizes activities in which Québec publishers receive foreign publishers, usually during events in Québec, in order to build business relationships. The next two events are the Salon du livre de Montréal (Montréal Book Fair) in November 2012, where Quebec publishers will greet British and German publishers, and the Salon du Livre International de Québec (Québec City International Book Fair) in April 2013, where American publishers will be hosted.—Stéphane Labbé

Book Bacchanal and Paperback Paradise

The word “salon” brings us back to the literary salons usually organized by well-to-do French ladies between the 16th and 19th century. In these salons littéraires, the aristocrats mingled with writers and philosophers, having epic debates that fomented a culture of knowledge and explosive ideas. Today’s salons du livre (book fairs open to the public) hark back to those ideals, but leave elitism behind. Québec’s salons are not for aristocrats and they’re not trade shows either; they are massive, over-the-top book bacchanals for the masses, and the masses come in droves.

“There are nine salons du livre in Québec, which covers the whole of the territory,” says Robin Doucet, director of the Salon du livre de Rimouski, the first of its kind, which celebrates its 47th event in 2012. “The salon du livre is an amalgamation of stands that present new releases and earlier works from publishers. To make the words come alive, publishers invite writers to meet and truly exchange with readers through one-on-one discussions or round tables on the main stage.”

In the days preceding a salon du livre, a media frenzy surrounds the event and readers start getting salon fever. In 2011, 120,000 readers invaded Montréal’s salon while Québec City’s salon hit the 60,000 mark, record years for both. People walk out dazed and confused, high on the smell of printed ink, their arms heavy with new books in large cotton bags.

“I always have a waiting list for exhibitors. The demand for stands outstrips the supply every year,” says Francine Bois, director of the Salon du livre de Montréal, confirming the popularity of the event. “People simply can’t wait for the salon to open its doors in November—it has made its place in the hearts of citizens.”

The salons run from October to May every year, providing authors and publishers with an extra means of promoting and selling their works. These events also encourage literary innovation by presenting the written word in multiple formats. One such example was the show Les bruits du monde (Whispers of the World) presented by the Mémoire d’encrier publishing house at the Salon du livre de Rimouski. This event mixed the sweet words of Québec, Caribbean, and First Nations authors with the sounds of Inuit throat singing and world beat drums.

These salons enable the written word to jump off the page and readers to fall into books. Take out your walking shoes, count your money (so you won’t spend too much), and take a deep breath: you are about to enter a paperback paradise.—L.P.