Every book and publishing venture requires some kind of a leap of faith, but this year Canadian publishers are investing more than ever in new efforts to reach out to readers. Those efforts include initiatives being undertaken by individual houses as well as an extraordinary collective effort to stage a new consumer book fair in Toronto this fall.
With some notable exceptions, publishers are generally reporting that the spring season in Canada was a cool one in terms of book sales. BookNet Canada CEO Noah Genner says those anecdotal reports fit with his company’s information that the market was down slightly, or almost flat, in the first part of the year. “It’s starting to pick up again now for the fall,” Genner says, adding that nine of the top 10 bestselling print books so far this year are YA titles. He notes that John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars “was big,” as was Veronica Roth’s Divergent series.
The Divergent series helped make HarperCollins Canada one of those happy exceptions this year. “We had a great spring,” says president and CEO David Kent. “There was no one single factor,” he adds, but he points to sales of “hundreds of thousands” of copies of the Roth books, along with more than 100,000 copies, respectively, of other titles, such as Mitch Albom’s The First Phone Call from Heaven, Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, and Todd Burpo’s Heaven Is for Real, which got an added boost from a film adaptation, as contributing to HarperCollins’s brighter outlook for 2014.
Dundurn Press president Kirk Howard is also upbeat, saying his company’s sales were up by 6% or 7% over last year. Sales were also up for the University of Toronto Press in the fiscal year that just ended, notes marketing manager Brian MacDonald. Kevin Williams, publisher and president of Vancouver’s Talonbooks, says that great sales of They Called Me Number One, aboriginal chief Bev Sellar’s memoir of surviving Canada’s infamous Indian Residential Schools, and of new editions of the two volumes of the Modern Canadian Plays anthology helped lift 2013 sales up about 33% over the previous year. “I’m not really hoping for the same result again this year,” he says, adding that “it would be nice” if sales increases are in the same vicinity.
But whether their sales were up, down, or flat, publishers are all facing some common challenges in retail, starting with deep discounting. Robin Philpot, president of Baraka Books in Montreal, says that Amazon’s discount and co-op fees force publishers to increase book prices. “You have no choice but to sell through Amazon, and yet they take so much. The result is that book prices go up. It hurts everybody. It hurts authors because if people are price sensitive then they don’t buy the book and publishers have a harder time making it.” He thinks that regulated book prices might be the answer, noting that book prices are regulated in countries such as France, Germany, Italy, and Mexico. “It’s only in the English-speaking countries where you don’t have a regulated price for new books.” In France, he notes, discounting is limited on books for a number of months after they’re released. There, the large online retailers can’t discount new books by 30%, “because when they do that, they force a higher discount on the publisher and the distributor, and then the small bookstore that needs those new books and bestsellers just doesn’t fill them anymore,” Philpot says. “Sooner or later, in Canada and the United States, in my opinion, if you want to maintain a viable book industry... you are going to have to deal with this idea of regulating new book prices.”
Loss of Independents
Although it’s difficult to get a full accounting, there is little debate that the number of independent bookstores in Canada is dwindling. For example, in the last 18 months, Toronto has lost Nicholas Hoare, the World’s Biggest Bookstore, Theatre Books, the Cook Book Store, and the flagship Book City location. Halifax lost Little Mysteries Books and United Bookstore this summer. “I think people are getting less used to going into bookstores because there are so few left,” says Linda Leith of Montreal-based Linda Leith Publishing.
“The loss of independents is the loss of advocates for authors,” says Kevin Hanson, president and publisher of Simon & Schuster Canada. “When you lose retailers, the opportunity to create word of mouth is diminished.”
Philpot notes that there are simply not enough bookstores in the English Canadian market. This spring, Baraka published The Raids, the first book in Mick Lowe’s trilogy about mining and international political intrigue that did well in the mining city of Sudbury. “In Sudbury, you have 160,000 people but only one bookstore,” Philpot says. He adds that the Quebec government has a policy that requires institutional buyers, such as libraries and schools, colleges and government departments, to buy books from accredited bookstores.
One reason statistics on the total number of bookstores in Canada aren’t readily available is that the Canadian Booksellers Association dissolved in late 2012 and just began officially reconstituting itself within the Retail Council of Canada (RCC) in January 2014. Lesley Fletcher, manager of book industry services for the RCC, says that membership is growing exponentially, but it is starting from the ground up. Fletcher says the new start has given members a boost, and they are happy to connect via phone meetings every month or so, at which they share their successes, discuss what’s working, and talk about challenges, such as “showrooming” for Amazon and other online retailers.
In spite of lower sales numbers, one publisher says that an increased focus on independent booksellers is paying off. Biblioasis is a small press that operates in the back offices of an independent bookstore of the same name in Windsor, Ontario. The publisher is celebrating its 10th anniversary in October. “We’re doing a huge amount of independent bookseller outreach, and our independent orders in the States, but also in Canada, have seen a dramatic upturn, just because we have decided that these are the places where our books really fit,” says Biblioasis publicist Tara Murphy. She notes that one employee now devotes half of his work hours to independent retailers, and she believes that has paid off—one Biblioasis title (Alphabet by Kathy Page) recently received nominations for an Indie Next list from several members of the American Booksellers Association.
Murphy points to the important role that indies play in helping readers discover new books and authors. “Stephen Sparks at Green Apple Books is a great example, because he is an influential figure. He’s not a reviewer per se, but he’s well connected, and when he comes out on behalf of a book people pay attention,” she says, noting that Sparks wrote a blurb for Eucalyptus by Mauricio Segura, one of Biblioasis’s spring fiction titles. Murphy points to Words Worth Books co-owner David Worsley as another influential bookseller—Worsley sometimes writes his own reviews for a university newspaper.
Big box nontraditional retailers, such as Walmart and Costco, continue to grow in importance as a sales channel, but Target’s entry into the market in spring 2013 fell far below the sales that were anticipated. “We were very excited when Target came in because Target has a very good history of finding readership and expanding readership, certainly in different categories,” says Hanson. “We didn’t get exactly what we were hoping for, but I remain optimistic that we’re going to find a readership with their customers.”
Indigo Books & Music occupies a unique place in Canadian bookselling. Publishers often refer to it as “the chain,” with both affection and frustration, because it is the only nationwide chain. As such, it wields the power to dictate its own terms, such as charging co-op fees to publishers for every book sold—currently at a rate of 5% of list price for in-store sales and 7% for online sales. Those sorts of issues aside, publishers have also been grateful for the stability that Indigo has provided in the Canadian market, while the U.S. industry suffered through the turbulence of Borders’s bankruptcy and liquidation.
Consequently, many publishers were worried but quite sympathetic when Indigo announced its plans two years ago to diversify its inventory into designer gift and lifestyle products. CEO Heather Reisman says diversifying was essential to the company’s sustainability, but it has also meant that space for books and the company’s book inventory was reduced to make room for candles, pillows, picture frames, dishes, and toys.
A strong first-quarter report for fiscal 2015 (which ended June 28, 2014), in which Indigo posted a 5.4% year-over-year increase in revenue, could be a sign that the plan is working. Online sales were up, and Reisman says sales of Kobo devices and e-books were also strong. “What we’re seeing early signs of is that enriching the product assortment is actually creating a new vibrancy in the physical stores, and so it is lifting all the business,” she notes. Although Reisman can’t say much more before the second-quarter results are announced, she adds that “we are seeing a ‘happy-making’ trend right now across all of our businesses.... We’ve put a lot of energy into this, but it is early in the transformation. We’re feeling very positive at this point, but there’s a long journey still go.”
If Reisman is right, publishers can hope that Indigo’s other product lines will draw people into its stores, where they will find books that appeal to them. Reisman says that Indigo is focused on giving visitors to its stores a unique experience. “We bring the authors, we give them real presence in the stores... we create tables around it... we’re doing videos with [authors]. It’s part of our one to one communications with customers.”
Indigo closed four small-format and three large-format stores this year, citing high rental costs. But Reisman insists that the closures were not “a contraction move”: “This was a natural real estate move, and in every one of those markets, we are looking for additional [space].” She adds, “Retail rents are going up, and so the need to be productive in stores is absolutely essential.” Reisman says Indigo continues to have a “deep and long-term commitment to bookselling and storytelling.”
In spite of that commitment, the company’s diversification means that it has less space for books and fewer books on its shelves, which doesn’t help the discoverability problem. S&S’s Hanson puts it in a nutshell: “How do we find readership? That space that publishers used to be able to count on for discoverability for readers isn’t there, so we’re looking for new ways [for readers to encounter books].... That’s why we’re spending a lot of time on marketing schemes that have online aspects to them.... And that’s why we’re embracing things like Inspire!”
A New Book Fair for Toronto
If you build it, will they come? That’s the question, now that the Inspire! Toronto International Book Fair has sold more than 90% of its booth space at the Metro Convention Centre and announced more than 300 hours of programming on its eight stages for the weekend of November 13–16.
Canada used to have its own counterpart to BookExpo America, but over the years, Canadian publishers found that its timing in June was not right, and it did not offer a good return on investment for the costs of setting up and manning a booth and bringing authors to Toronto. BookExpo Canada’s owner, Reed Exhibitions, closed the fair in 2009.
At the time, some in the industry suggested that BookExpo Canada ought to be converted from a business-to-business trade show to a consumer/reader-focused show. The idea didn’t get off the ground then, but that was the idea proposed last year by Rita Davies, who is the former culture chief for the city of Toronto, and John Calabro, an educator, author, and former president of the independent press Quattro Books. They showed their research to Steven Levy, a consumer expo producer, who says he was “perplexed that Canada did not as yet have a large trade and consumer show—one that would feature the best of Canadian and international authors, publishers, booksellers, graphic designers, printers, media.”
Levy joined Davies and Calabro as joint executive directors, and they began working to get the publishing community on board to create a new reader-focused show, and to line up some government funding. “Our objective is to bring more eyes to books and to reading, to support sales, and to expand the whole book business,” Levy said at a press conference in August. “To do this, we created a multifaceted event. Our next job is to bring tens of thousands of people to Inspire!”
Publisher Linda Leith, who founded and ran the Blue Metropolis International Literary Festival in Montreal, says she thinks the event “is potentially of huge importance” if it can grow into the kind of public celebration of reading and literature that the Salon Du Livre has become in Quebec. “The public is obviously key, but they seem to be on the right track in terms of the way that things are working so far.”
Kristin Cochrane, president and publisher of Random House of Canada, says, “When I first met with the organizers one of the things I was intrigued by was how grand their ambitions were, in a good way—that all the taxi drivers will know that they are taking people to Inspire! They have that kind of goal in mind—that the thing they are creating will be a much-sought-after, much-talked-about event.”
Brad Martin, CEO of Penguin Random House Canada (PRHC), adds that the timing seems good. “It’s also a great weekend because it is after the Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Award winners have been announced, it’s before all the Christmas parties start, it is after cottage season, it is a weekend that begs for a festival.”
The whole undertaking requires big commitments from the publishers involved, during a hectic fall season that already includes the Word on the Street festival in several Canadian cities, and the International Festival of Authors. For example, Kirk Howard, president of Toronto’s Dundurn Press, says his company will be bringing 31 authors to Inspire! “We want to do what we can to help it succeed. If it is a success, then we can look forward to future years of this kind of thing. And it is a way of showing our authors that we support them in whatever ways we can.”
Martin says support in this inaugural year is key. “If we don’t support it in the first year, it is not going to happen, and if don’t put our best efforts into it, then we’ll never know whether it was a potential possibility at all.”
Publishers hope to draw crowds with some of their bestselling authors, including Margaret Atwood, Sylvia Day, Lisa Genova, Kathy Reichs, Anne Rice, William Gibson, Kelley Armstrong, Peter Robinson, and Amanda Lindhout, all of whom are slated to appear on the main stage. Star children’s authors include Mélanie Watt, Dav Pilkey, and Jeff Kinney, as well as all seven authors of Orca Book Publishers’ Seven series.
There will also be a children’s stage that will spotlight popular authors such as Geneviève Côté, Gordon Korman, Barbara Reid, Ashley Spires, Kevin Sylvester, Eric Walters, Cybele Young, and Deborah Ellis, as well as winners from the TD Canadian Children’s Book Centre Awards. TD Bank is sponsoring the children’s stage as part of its efforts to support literacy, and those attending will have the opportunity to donate funds to provide children in high-needs areas with books to read, through First Book Canada.
A Discovery Stage will focus on Canadian independent publishers and their authors, including ECW’s Catherine Gildiner, who will talk about the third book in her bestselling memoir series, and Robyn DooLittle, author of Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story, who will discuss Toronto’s infamous mayor. The stage will also feature panel discussions on such topics as self-publishing, picture books, horror, romance, human rights books for young readers, and Quebecois literature. Meanwhile, in a culinary zone, readers can meet chefs and food and health writers, such as Elizabeth Baird, Matt Dean Pettit, Rose Reisman, Tosca Reno, and David Sax, and see cooking demonstrations. Inspire! will be a bookselling fair focused on consumers. Indigo is partnering with the organizers to sell books at the main stage events. When asked if the fair’s book sales might hurt holiday sales for other retailers in Toronto, Davies responds, “I can’t pretend that there hasn’t been some of that expressed, but we believe there’s room for both. We think we’re going to attract people who weren’t going to their local bookstores in part because for many of them, they no longer have a local bookstore.” She predicts that people loyal to their local bookstores will buy books there as well as at the fair.
Inspire! will also have an international component, with a pavilion of exhibitors and authors from Europe, India, Latin America, and the Caribbean. International authors will appear on panels alongside Canadian authors. Calabro notes that there is interest from international publishers, such as Italy’s Mondadori, which will be sending representatives.
PRHC is planning to have a big presence at the fair, says Tracey Turriff, senior v-p and director of corporate communications. “It’s not that often that a major new initiative that’s focused for the readers happens around books, so... we decided that it made sense for us to be supportive of this, that we wanted to give it a try, and that it was a great opportunity for us to have some interaction with consumers.”
Participating in the show requires resources beyond the cost of booths—publishers must bring authors, books, and staff. Penguin Random House is partnering with Indigo, and the booth will be cobranded. Indigo is designing the show space along the theme of a house, using its nonbook merchandise to set the scene. Attendees can see cookbooks and authors in the kitchen, there will be a lifestyle area, and a kids-focused area, and fiction titles will be in the den and living room. Turriff says the hope is that the look of an Indigo store will draw in those attending the show. “They may not know the names of publishers, but they will know the name “Indigo,” and they’ll be familiar with those experiences, so if we give them this wonderful-looking booth... when they see that presence, we think that will be welcoming to them.”
S&S Canada’s Hanson says, “I’m not cautiously optimistic, I’m wildly enthusiastic. Back when we had BookExpo Canada... I was pushing to try to get the industry to move into an event where we could invite consumers to engage with authors and publishers, so this is exactly what I had hoped for seven years ago.” He adds that he expects there to be a lot of media focus. “That, in turn, will cascade, not just for purchases on the floor but for retailers across the broader [greater Toronto area] and Ontario.”
Despite the excitement, some publishers are staying out this year. HarperCollins Canada is one to the largest to sit out. “After meeting with representatives from the fair, reviewing the opportunities for our authors and customers, and considering the investments which would be required of us, we decided to [continue] directing our resources and efforts toward promoting our authors in local bookstores, public libraries, and existing venues across Canada,” the company said in a statement, noting that it is open to participating at some point in the future. The House of Anansi likewise said it will sit this year out.
Finding Readers Where They Are
In addition to enticing readers to visit them at Inspire!, Canadian publishers are also reaching out to readers where they are. And some say this approach is yielding very good results as well.
If you want to find Canadians of all descriptions, look no further than the local Tim Hortons coffee shop. Lionel Koffler, president of Firefly Books, is hoping to convince some of those coffee drinkers to pick up Canadian Geographic: The Biggest and Best of Canada, which Firefly is publishing with Canadian Geographic magazine. “There are going to be Canadian Geographic moments shown on-screen in Tim Hortons,” Koffler says, adding, “It is a cooperative venture between Cineplex and Tim Hortons and Canadian Geographic to provide content for people who are waiting for their coffee. It will alert people more to the magazine... but it will certainly help our book.” Firefly is similarly reaching out to potential readers of its wildlife, nature, and natural sciences books by advertising in the Nature Conservancy magazine, which has a circulation of about 600,000. Whether it is through social media or more traditional advertising, Koffler says, “what we want to do is talk to people... six months before the book is published, so that when it comes out, there will be a presence in people’s minds.”
Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press is sending two of its authors out on a 12-city North American tour to reach a niche market. Leanne Prain’s new book, Strange Material, is all about storytelling through textiles, and she will tour with Betsy Greer, author of Craftivism, about activists who use crafts, and Kim Worker, whose book Make It Mighty Ugly was published by Sasquatch Books. Together, they will conduct panel discussions and launch events at venues such as the Textile Museum of Canada and the Smithsonian.
“Because we do so many different types of books, I’m always thinking of how the books will get the most attention, online, in print, and in person, and for some of the books, touring makes a lot of sense,” says Arsenal Pulp Press marketing manager Cynara Geissler. In this case, the tour seemed right because the authors have already built up their profiles and followings. “It is a way to get different art institutions and venues to carry the book that maybe wouldn’t otherwise. Tours become important in that way, but the success of them just depends on partnering with other like-minded groups, like the Textile Museum of Canada and some of the other societies we’re working with.”
Events and direct outreach may be more important than ever in the era of dwindling shelf space and channels of discovery. Sarah MacLachlan, president of House of Anansi Press, says, “We’ve been doing social media for a long time, and we’ve been doing outreach to consumers for a long time. Do I think it is more important than ever? I think it is just as important as ever. The truth about books is that they sell by word of mouth.” She adds, “What you need to do is get books into the hands of influencers and readers who will talk about your books to other people, who will [in turn] want to go out and buy them and read them.” This year, Anansi’s Adrienne Clarkson will reach tens of thousands of readers directly on their radios as she delivers the prestigious annual Massey Lectures on CBC Radio.
HarperCollins Canada’s recent success with Simsion’s The Rosie Project suggests that persistence pays off. The author said Canada was one of the best markets for his book, according to HC Canada marketing director Cory Beatty. The publisher ran a lengthy social media campaign, primarily with its 122,000 Facebook friends, supplemented by some television and print ads. “Really, what’s different about that is that we haven’t stopped,” says Beatty. “A typical publisher has a three-week window after a book is on sale, and then they move on. We’ve really been working on that book for about 15 months now.” Never surrender.
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