The pandemic that has swept the world for nearly two years has led to some unanticipated positive changes. For example, Canada was slated to be the Guest of Honor country at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2020, with more than 70 authors scheduled to attend the fair and dozens of cultural events planned. The Guest of Honor program, which cost millions of dollars and had been in the works since 2017, was curtailed and a full program of presentations was bumped to this year instead. The organizing committee, Canada FBM2021, initially hoped to see 200 books translated into German, but given the extra time, more than 350 books have been translated and are on sale or will soon be. It’s a small but meaningful silver lining to the dark cloud of the pandemic.
What’s more, this will likely make interest in Canada’s presentations at the book fair, whether in-person or virtual, all the more meaningful. See our special section of excerpts from Canada FBM2021’s publication Singular Plurality—Singulier Pluriel, a magazine produced for the Frankfurt Book Fair, starting on p. 28, which includes a look at Canadian literature’s relationship to the wilderness; a discussion of diversity and identity with authors Esi Edugyan, Catherine Hernandez, and Kim Thúy; and an interview with Canada’s most famous writer, Margaret Atwood.
CIBA takes off
Another consequence of the pandemic was the unexpected revival of Canada’s independent bookselling scene. In June 2020, a group of booksellers came together to form the Canadian Independent Booksellers Association and, with the approval and financial support of the government, the group officially launched in January 2021. Now, a little more than a year after its conception, CIBA has a membership that includes 115 bookstores, 50 associate publishers, and 15 affiliated institutions. “Went from zero to sixty very quickly, largely as a result of the pandemic, and it has been a huge success so far,” says executive director Doug Minett, whose family owns the Bookshelf in Guelph, Ont.
One of CIBA’s first projects was to help the bookselling community navigate the pandemic and ensure customers knew they had an alternative to shopping at Amazon or Indigo Books & Music, Canada’s dominant chain bookstore. CIBA collaborated with Bookmanager, the company that produces Canada’s most popular point-of-sale bookstore software, to launch Shop Local. The portal allows customers to search for books online and find out which nearby stores have stock available; they can then place orders for delivery or pickup directly.
“It’s like a distributed version of Bookshop.org,” Minett says. He adds says that the pandemic has also made booksellers more innovative and competitive. His own store has started selling wine and now packages books and wine for same-day delivery. Munro’s Books in Victoria, B.C., started participating in a program to offer low-cost deliveries in a local business improvement area, and Mosaic Books in Kelowna, B.C.—which is owned by Bookmanager—has been instrumental in testing new features of Shop Local, which benefits all booksellers, Minett notes.
CIBA also has some members in Quebec, where there are several dual-language bookstores, including Brome Lake Books outside Montreal. As such, CIBA has partnered with its fellow organizations in Quebec, Association des libraires du Quebec and Librairies indépendantes du Quebec, to lobby the government for support for bookstores. These efforts, together with those of Indigo’s CEO Heather Reisman and other industry leaders, have resulted in the government committing C$31.4 million to support bookstores through these challenging times. The money has been held up by an election taking place this fall but is widely expected to be distributed before the end of the year.
Publishers help indie bookstores
Indie bookstores may account for as much as 25% of the sales of Canadian-produced books, Minett estimates. It is a market channel that the biggest publishers are supporting, including Penguin Random House Canada (see “Supporting Booksellers” by PRH Canada COO Robert Wheaton, p. 10). For its part, HarperCollins Canada has launched the IndieBookFest, a national virtual event series, presented in partnership with Canadian independent bookstores.
“We have had hugely successful events with stores including A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, and McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg,” says Cory Beatty, senior director of marketing and publicity for HarperCollins Canada. Recent featured authors include Zoe Whittall (The Spectacular) and Kamal al-Solaylee (Return: Why We Go Back to Where We Come From).
“Something we saw throughout the pandemic was a return to reading,” says Beatty. “Last year saw a shift in the way people shop. When stores closed, Shoppers Drug Mart, Costco, and Walmart benefited at first, since they were still open. Then shoppers shifted to buying online from Indigo and Amazon. But when stores reopened in July this year, customers came back and sales shifted, with 25%–50% going back to physical stores.”
Kristin Cochrane, CEO of PRH Canada, also praises the role of bookstores in carrying the industry through the pandemic and, perhaps more importantly, reacting to the times. “After 16 months of lockdown in Canada,” she says, “customers were eager to return to stores. What the pandemic underscored was just how important stores are in providing publishers a connection to community.”
One of the ways PRH Canada supported stores was to direct attention toward them through its social media channels, including on its Instagram page. And in addition to author events at bookstores, the company has also presented online events at which authors interview booksellers and share stories about the importance of booksellers to their careers. In one, Giller Prize winner Ian Williams interviewed Itah Sadu, co-owner of A Different Booklist in Toronto, as part of PRH Canada’s #IndieFeatureFriday promotion. PRH Canada’s National Indie Event series, launched last fall, has offered readers entry to virtual events with in-demand authors such as Kazuo Ishiguro and Souvankham Thammavongsa. More than 1,700 people registered for the first 14 events by purchasing the featured authors’ books from participating indie retailers.
“We’ve always supported our bookselling partners, and have done everything possible during the pandemic to ensure they remain healthy as we come out the other side of this,” Cochrane says. “Our independents and local Indigo bookstores play such an important role in their communities and are a vital link between authors and readers.”
Booksellers are also finding that current events—such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the discovery of nearly 1,000 unmarked graves believed to contain the remains of Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families—impact sales and what customers are seeking out. Bookstores such as Iron Dog Books and Massy Books, both Indigenous-owned stores in Vancouver, serve their Indigenous community and other Canadian readers, many of whom are seeking answers—often in books—as to how oppression of Indigenous people has been tolerated for so long.
Writing by Indigenous authors about indigeneity has been on the rise for many years among Canadian publishers, particularly those catering to children. Adult titles from Indigenous authors have also made waves. The bestselling Canadian-authored book of 2020 was Jesse Thistle’s From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way, a memoir published by Simon & Schuster Canada that has sold more than 100,000 copies in Canada. (See “From ‘Ashes’ to Accolades,” the new preface to a special edition of the book, p. 26.)
In 2021, another memoir by an Indigenous author is selling well: Cree author Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians (HarperCollins), which offers a fictional account of five First Nations children who were taken from their families and put in residential schools. Since its publication in April 2020, the book has sold 60,000 copies, according to its publisher; has spent 36 weeks on the bestseller list; and has won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, the Governor General’s Literary Award for English-language fiction, and the Kobo Emerging Writer Prize for literary fiction.
Overall, book sales for the first six months of 2021 were much stronger than 2020 but have not yet reached the level seen in 2019, according to BookNet Canada, which compiles sales and other data about Canadian publishing. Print sales for the first six months of 2021 were up 11.2% over the same period in 2020, rising to C$463 million ($370 million). The bestselling Canadian title in 2021 so far is The Push by Ashley Audrain (Viking), a thriller about the dissolution of a family.
“This year, to the end of August, the market is up by 9% in units over the similar period from 2020, and just slightly above the same period in 2019,” says Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet. “We haven’t quite had the same huge bump that we saw last summer after lockouts ended, but things have been pretty consistently okay. There are definitely some concerns with regards to book supply for the remainder of the year—primarily around printing and shipping constraints—and, of course, the Covid impact on physical shopping that remains to be seen for the remainder of the year.”
Children’s and YA books accounted for 42% of all print book sales in the Canadian English-language trade market for the first six months of 2021, up from its 41% share for the same period in 2020. This was followed by nonfiction, at 30% of sales, and fiction, at 27%. Frontlist titles accounted for 27% of sales—up three percentage points from 2020—and several categories showed strong growth, including comics and graphic novels (up 92%, with manga seeing a 145% increase), poetry (up 81%), and psychology (up 84%).
One of the fastest-growing categories in the same period, according to BookNet, was YA fantasy, which was up 129%. Publishers are increasingly focusing on this category with Canadian-authored titles that have international breakout appeal. One title is Penguin Teen’s Iron Widow by Xiran Jay Zhao (see “The Past Meets the Future,” our q&a with Xiran, p. 21), a work of speculative fiction that incorporates elements of Chinese history and mecha (robot) fighting. Simon & Schuster is publishing The Bones of Ruin by Sarah Raughley, a historical fantasy novel about an immortal African tightrope walker who gets involved in a deadly gladiatorial tournament in Victorian London. For middle grade readers, Pajama Press published the fantasy novel Cuckoo’s Flight, the third Bronze Age novel from Wendy Orr, in which a young disabled girl must help protect her town from raiders who seek to destroy it. Another Pajama Press title gaining attention is A Sky-Blue Bench by Bahram Rahman and illustrated by Peggy Collins, a children’s picture book about an Afghan girl with a prosthetic leg who builds a bench to enable herself to attend school.
“Middle grade titles are in high demand,” says Karen Boersma, publisher of Owlkids Books. She notes that 2020 was a surprisingly good year for the publisher that saw sales rise 30% over the previous year, citing strong interest in books like Thao Lam’s The Paper Boat, which has sold than 10,000 copies. Owlkids is publishing several notable titles this fall, including Meranda and the Legend of the Lake by Meaghan Mahoney, which the publisher describes as “Anne of Green Gables meets Song for a Whale, with a touch of Nancy Drew.” It was picked as a Junior Library Guild Selection. Then there is Amazing Athletes: An All-Star Look at Canada’s Paralympians by Marie-Claude Ouellet, which was made available just in time for the Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
When it comes to nonfiction children’s books, KidsCan Press has seen tremendous success with its CitizenKid series focusing on current events and activism. The latest title in the series is 100 Ways to Make the World a Better Place, by Karen Ng and Kirsten Liepmann and illustrated by Mona Karaivanova, which is being published in October. The publisher is also producing its first CitizenKid workbook, as well as a follow-up to One Well, by Rochelle Straus and illustrated by Rosemary Woods, which has sold 500,000 copies.
At Groundwood Books, publisher Karen Li says, the priority is to “tell the side of stories that are not really told.” Among the titles for the coming season are Burying the Moon, a picture book about public sanitation problems in rural India by Andrée Poulin and illustrated by Sonali Zohra, and Aquí era el paraíso/Here Was Paradise, a dual-language poetry book by the Guatemalan author Humberto Ak’abal, one of the best-known Indigenous poets in the Americas. At Groundwood’s parent company, House of Anansi Press, two notable titles are forthcoming: China Unbound: A New World Disorder by Joanna Chiu, in which a foreign correspondent documents the global expansion of China’s cultural influence, and The Hunter and the Old Woman by Pamela Korgemagi, a debut novel about a mythic mountain lion and the man who hunts her.
The focus is on mindfulness at Nimbus Publishing with its publication of Christina Crook’s Good Burdens: How to Live Joyfully in the Digital Age. Stephens Gerard Malone’s novel The History of Rain traces the life of a nomadic landscape gardener as he travels from war-torn Europe to Hollywood.
Linda Leith Publishing is returning to the past with a reprint of No Crystal Stair by Mairuth Sarsfield, a classic novel about the jazz age in Montreal that has been out of print for 15 years. Publisher Linda Leith says the challenge of the past year “has been the reliance on online book sales and the many returns.”
At Firefly Books, fully 80% of sales in 2020 were of backlist titles, says president Lionel Koffler, pointing to The Night Sky Almanac, which has sold some 30,000 copies. Koffler notes that, with the price of shipping skyrocketing (the price of shipping a container from China rose from C$4,000 to C$22,000), he will be publishing fewer books this year and in smaller quantities. “Still,” he says, “while the price of shipping may have gone up, we also saved $200,000 in travel expenses since the start of the pandemic.”
Arsenal Pulp Press is offering its own reprint of a classic: Gord Hill’s The 500 Years of Indigenous Resistance Comic Book (Revised and Expanded). The book, a seminal 2010 work by the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation cartoonist, covers Indigenous history from first contact with foreigners to the present day and will now be published in full color for the first time. Arsenal also continues its focus on thought-provoking memoirs with This Is My Real Name by Cid V. Brunet, which addresses sex work and stripping from a queer, feminist perspective.
Overall, it may be Kevin Hanson, CEO of Simon & Schuster, who summed up the past year most succinctly: “Generally speaking, things have been robust,” he says. “More time being at home, and working remote, has led to more readership. And despite the challenges of supply chain and logistics, the business has been able to sustain the demand, so that’s good. The truth is, we’re lucky.”
House of Anansi’s Karen Brochu, v-p of sales and marketing, emphasized the importance of community. Referencing both the business of book publishing and the pandemic, she says, “We are all in this together, and we need to make it out together too.”
Below, more on Publishing in Canada 2021.
Robert Wheaton on supporting booksellers
Penguin Random House Canada has launched a variety of efforts to back bookstores.
Kate Edwards on Challenges in Publishing
PW talks with Kate Edwards of the ACP about helping indie publishers face the ongoing pandemic, supply chain issues, and the PRH–S&S merger.
Scott Fraser on Expanding Diversity
Dundurn Press launches a new imprint, Rare Machines.
Chris Reed on the Future of Publicity
UTP’s Chris Reed explains how publicity at the University of Toronto Press has pivoted online during the pandemic, and why it’s not going back.
Jen Albert on Speculative Fiction in Canada
ECW aims to give readers what they want: new voices in science fiction and fantasy.
Novelist Xiran Jay Zhao on Blending SciFi and Chinese History
Xiran Jay Zhao crafts science fiction novels inspired by Chinese history.
Journalist Omar Mouallem on His Journey as a Muslim Reader
Journalist Omar Mouallem reflects on his evolution as a reader.
Margie Wolfe on Truth over Trauma
At Second Story Press, Margie Wolfe reveals narratives depicting normalcy are as important as those about trauma.
Translator Rhonda Mullins on Bridging French and English
Translator Rhonda Mullins discusses bringing her country’s literary cultures together.
Rick Wilks on Mentoring Underrepresented Authors
A new program from Annick Press aims to break down barriers.
Bestseller Jesse Thistle on Finding Sudden Stardom
The following is the prologue for a new edition of 'From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way' by Jesse Thistle, originally published in 2019 by Simon & Schuster.
Canada FBM 2021: Canada’s Literary Wilderness
Canadian literature explores the relationships between people and the land.
Canada FBM 2021: Innovative Margaret Atwood
The author of 'The Handmaid’s Tale' reflects on writing in a time of crisis.
Canada FBM 2021: We Contain Multitudes
Canadian authors Esi Edugyan, Catherine Hernandez, and Kim Thúy talk identity and writing.