canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Publishing: What the &%!@ is going on?

April 2005

by Michael Bryson

Last month, I was talking to a senior editor at a Canadian small press, and I asked him the $60 million question: "Why do Canadian publishers release more poetry titles than short fiction collections?" 

To be clear, as a writer of short fiction, I have a lot at stake in the answer to this question. I've received more than one rejection note from a publisher turning down my current manuscript because "as you know, short fiction is a hard sell right now." 

I don't dispute that short fiction is difficult to sell. All small press titles are, generally speaking, difficult to sell (a book like Eunoia being the pleasant exception). About ten years ago, The New Quarterly held a night at the Rivoli on Queen Street in Toronto to celebrate Pocupine's Quill editor and writer John Metcalf. Metcalf noted that the average small press title in Canada sells between 500 and 1,000 copies. At that rate, publishers don't make back their investment. In order for Canadian small press publishers to remain in business, government funding is required to keep these operations afloat.

(Of course, on that night, Metcalf also reaffirmed his long-standing belief that governments should not fund writers. Government grants for writers only ensures that bad writing gets published, etc. See Metcalf's An Aesthetic Underground and earlier Kicking Against the Pricks for a full report of the man's views . . . . )

In any case, apparently the reason why Canadian small press publishers release more poetry titles than short fiction collections is because the Canada Council funds "books." Thus, a publisher can finance a 90-page poetry title much easier than it can finance a 200-page short story collection (less paper, fewer expenses, lower break even point).

Do Canadian small press publishers really publish fewer short story collections than poetry titles? 

  • Consider that the list of titles submitted for 2004 Governor General's Award includes 183 fiction titles and 138 poetry titles. More fiction titles than poetry titles, for sure. However, without even reviewing all 183 of the fiction titles, I'm confident that more than 47 of them are novels -- and, therefore, fewer than 138 of them are short story collections. See the list yourself on the Canada Council website.
  • Further, you should check out the Relit Awards. In 2004, the Relit awards long list included 45 novels, 56 poetry titles, and 29 short story collections. In 2005, the Relit long list included 32 novels, 51 poetry titles, and 30 short story collections.
  • Also see TDR's informal survey of this issue.

Now you might say: But that Metcalf event was a decade ago! Yes, it was, which leads to the obvious suggestion that maybe things are better now. Except that the past decade has been replete with tremendous shocks to the publishing, book distributing, and book selling businesses. Exhibit 'A': Chapters/Indigo. Exhibit 'B': The collapse of Stoddart. Exhibit 'C': Increased consolidation of media companies worldwide. See TDR's 2002 interview with the Literary Press Group's Director of Sales and Marketing, Robert Kasher, particularly this question.

A quick summary: Chapters/Indigo, it has been widely reported, make up roughly two-thirds of the bookselling business in Canada. That means they have tremendous purchasing power -- which they use to leverage deals from publishers which are financially beneficial to the bookseller. These deals cut the margin of profit that publishers can count on and, thus, publishers have been negotiating tougher contracts with writers. Chapters/Indigo has also caused much financial trouble to small publishers by returning unsold books by the hundreds. Booksellers have a right to return unsold books, within a limited timeline; what makes Chapters/Indigo unique is the volume of books they order/return. The middle-man between the publishers and the book sellers is the book distributors. Stoddart acted as a publisher and distributor. Chapters/Indigo set up its own book distribution company. This fact, along with other financial pressures, led pushed Stoddart into bankruptcy -- and left many publishers with books in warehouses, book shelves, other unknown places. In other words, the small press industry nearly slipped into chaos. Some of it did slip into chaos. Some publishers closed shop. Some were sold. At one point, ECW Press didn't pay its staff for three months.

Last month, when I spoke the senior editor I mentioned earlier, he told me that the small press industry had stabilized "as long as we take into account the current realities of the marketplace." When I asked what that meant, he said, "Basically, we need to acknowledge that we're going to be selling fewer books, and we're going to be selling different books -- fewer literary titles, more mass-market titles -- because that's what we need to do to survive."

And more poetry titles than short fiction collections, I couldn't help remarking.

Which was when he explained why.

And then I noticed on BookNinja that Porcupine's Quill, where John Metcalf has been editor for many years, has announced that it will be cutting its number of titles and staff by half in 2006 -- and that the publisher has said he's not sure the press can survive past 2007. BookNinja quoted the following from The Globe and Mail report:

[Tim Inkster, the publisher] says that last year Indigo cut its orders dramatically, ordering only 2,797 units of his press's 11-book list, which included critical favourites So Beautiful by Ramona Dearing and Emma's Hands by Mary Swan. Meanwhile, Indigo's returns of unsold books were 1,415, more than 50 per cent of its order. By comparison, Inkster says that, in 1998, Indigo and Chapters (absorbed by Indigo in 2001) ordered 13,293 copies of the press's books and returned 4,052, or less than 30 per cent.

Other links from BookNinja were also discouraging. In an article ostensibly about the University of British Columbia's creative writing program, Toronto literary agent Denise Bukowski was quoted as saying "Publishers are running scared right now because fiction isn't selling." A posting on the blog Moby Lives said something similar, and the Globe's Martin Levin wrote in one of his weekend columns that literary agents were encouraging novelists to write memoirs (why? fiction isn't selling). Meanwhile, TVOntario cancelled its long-running book show "Imprint," which led Gordon Lockheed to note on the Dooney's Cafe website "a fundamental shift from literature as a crucial cultural conversation to a low-prestige consumer commodity".

Incidentally, the March/April 2005 issue of This Magazine includes an article by Tim Falconer about how 80-90 per cent of the fiction bought in Canada is bought by women; the reading habits of men lean towards non-fiction:

It’s no coincidence that most people who work in publishing—including the editors—are women. Desperate for sales, they pursue the biggest market: suburban book clubs. “That tells men that fiction has nothing to do with them and is just for their mom’s book club,” says [Russell] Smith, who notes that publishers reinforce the problem by putting out so many books about “family, memory and loss” and giving them titles and covers that could only appeal to women.

. . . “A lot of guys think, and I do blame the publishing industry for this,” says Smith, “that if they read fiction it’s going to be like having that long conversation with your girlfriend that she always wants to have about the relationship and where it’s going.”

Hmm. I'm not sure what I think about that.

In conclusion, then: What the &%!@ is going on in publishing? I really haven't a clue.

If you find out, could you do me a favour? Let me know.


April 14, 2005 - Update

An article in today's Globe and Mail reported that Anna Porter is stepping down as the publisher of Key Porter Books. The article includes some quotes that provide details to what I was writing about above, such as:

"I sold the company last year after the most trying three years of my more than 30 years in publishing," [Porter] said. "I was tired, really, really tired and I thought I might feel a little less tired as time went on." That wasn't the case. She is still suffering from the financial, emotional and psychic aftershocks of the bankruptcy of General Distribution Services Ltd., Jack Stoddart's publishing and distribution conglomerate.

"I did not expect that Jack's company would go down," she said. "Our books were in his warehouse and our receivables were in his computer and we ended up losing a very, very, substantial amount of money," she added, explaining that she had had to buy her own books back from the defunct distributor.

The article also highlighted another significant factor in the Canadian publishing industry at present: how power will be transferred from one generation to the next. The article noted: "The generation of literary nationalists that came of age in the culturally euphoric years after Expo 67 are all now heading for their old-age pensions" and quoted Porter saying, "Succession is the most serious problem facing the industry today."

Who did Porter sell the controlling interest in her company to? H. B. Fenn, the largest Canadian-owned book distributor in the country. The Globe reported: "Harold Fenn, founder and president of the company, confirmed that his son Jordan will become publisher of Key Porter Books."

Succession issues are "the most serious problem facing the industry today"? Hardly.

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.







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