canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: The Literary Press Group of Canada

The Literary Press Group is an essential element of Canada's literary press publishing industry. Michael Bryson interviewed the LPG's Director of Sales and Marketing, Robert Kasher, in June 2002.

First, how about a little background on the Literary Press Group (LPG). What is your mandate? How many members do you have? What sort of work do you do day-by-day?

The LPG has been around for more than 25 years now and was designed to help promote literary publishing as well as help literary publishers in Canada. Our identity as an association of literary presses is an important one for us because we feel our mandate is directly related to helping develop a Canadian Literature not just publish books by Canadians. We sometimes forget with our current abundance of Canadian authored books just how barren and moribund the Canadian publishing scene was 35-40 years ago before the LPG was founded. That now flourishing literary scene is a direct result of our members' efforts over the years. Writers like Atwood, Ondaatje, Urquhart, Wharton, Carson, Clarke, the list could go on and on, all had their start at LPG presses.

When we speak of literary publishing we mean fiction, short stories, poetry, drama, literary criticism and literary non-fiction. Each of our members must publish at least 50% of their list in these genres and that genre requirement is one of the things that distinguishes the LPG from other industry associations. As a result the 43 LPG presses account annually for almost 700 new titles annually between them, 400-500 of which are literary. We account for the vast majority of plays, poetry and short story collections published by Canadian authors as well as first novels. These works are about the whole gamut of Canadian experience though content differs from book to book and includes works that are not necessarily 'Canadian' in theme. Our concern here is authorship not content. Our publishers also are regionally diverse and span the country. As such they give voice to many regional Canadian stories and authors that also wouldn't be documented or published otherwise.

A second key element to our organization is Canadian ownership. Member publishers must be at least 75% owned and controlled by Canadians. I'd like to underline controlled. This is an important distinction for us particularly in light of the recent history of publisher sales in Canada. These include that of McClelland and Stewart to Bertlesmann and the University of Toronto, the original sale of 49% of CDG Books/MacMillan to IDG Books, a sale that led to the recent complete absorption of MacMillan by Wiley and others. Ownership of shares is meaningless without real control and as these examples illustrate real control was not, is not being exercised by the Canadian shareholders. This is an alarming trend we feel needs to be addressed.

We also feel strongly that our mandate is to publish and keep in publication a wide array of Canadian literary voices, new and experienced, young and old, traditional and experimental, regional and national. LPG publishers continue to play an important role in publishing new voices as represented in our 'Almost Famous' promotion in the Fall of 2001. We are also becoming the place where established mid-list and classic Canadian authors like Michel Tremblay and Bill Bissett continue to publish. As well our publishers take the kind of chances on experimental literature like 'Eunoia' that the major houses have never and will never support or be interested in. By the way 'Eunoia' was the fastest selling Canadian poetry book in history even before it won its Griffin Prize with I think is a testimony to both our member publisher and our sales force. I'd like to see our competitors among the major publishers do that with a book like 'Eunoia'.

When we first talked about this interview, you made a point of distinguishing "small presses" from "literary presses", though many of your members are small presses. Could you clarify again your membership criteria? My impression is that small presses are most in need of your services. Is this the case?

While we encourage and work with many smaller literary presses we do not want to define ourselves by size but by genre. The LPG offers services that are just as important to our larger presses as to our smaller ones. By keeping a variety of presses, larger and smaller in our organization we help create an environment of self-mentoring and co-operation that allows publishers to share their experiences with each other. As well it allows us to act more effectively as a co-operative service provider making services like advertising, sales and marketing more affordable to all of our members.

I must say it irks me sometimes that people think that because our presses are smaller and more literary than most that they are somehow less professional, capable or business like than our major competitors. We have an extremely professional and competent sales force that regularly ranks among the best in Canada. Our publishers produce, discover and edit books with the best of them. The number of our authors regularly picked off by our major competitors is a testament to that. We publish on the cutting edge of where literature is going and we do this more consistently and successfully and with far less capitalization than our much bigger, much better funded competitors do. Our covers and book design win awards and are internationally recognized.

Many of our publishers have been around for 25 years or more. They are still publishing Canadian authors, still publishing about the Canadian experience, still keeping key Canadian books in print. That is not a testimony to amateurism but to the strength, tenacity and professionalism of our publishers.

The publishing world is always changing, but the past decade in Canada has seemed to be a particularly challenging one. I'm thinking of things like the influence of Chapters in the marketplace and the cash crunch many publishers are experiencing as a result of trouble on the distribution side of the business, including Stoddart's recent successful application for temporary bankruptcy protection. There has also been the arrival of the internet and e-publishing technologies. What are some specific initiatives the LPG has implemented to address these challenges?

Many of these issues are inter-connected and deal with what I think has been a basic fallacy in publishing for a long time - the notion that you can force feed books to the reading public. Books are not commodities as much as the major media companies would like to make it so. Authors aren't brands, they are writers and as such their work fluctuates and changes. The reading public, especially in Canada, prefers diversity and change. These basic facts do not lend themselves to 'industrializing' or 'rationalizing' publishing like any other industry. It remains unique, mercurial, unpredictable. This is what lies at the heart of the crisis of the last decade - attempts by highly capitalized media and retail companies to somehow channel reading taste and purchasing habits into more predictable behavior.

All of the issues we've faced from the collapse of Chapters to the GDS debacle relate to the attempt to impose this kind of model on our industry. What is most disheartening about it all is that its impact has continued to occur even after our publishers had successfully made many of the adjustments forced on them by these upheavals in the market these past few years. These included funding cuts, the advent of the big box superstore, the decimation of the independent book retailing sector the Chapters/Indigo merger and now finally the GDS debacle where we became victims as a result of our success. Sales were doing exceptionally well when it occurred and we were in the process of making some important inroads into the US market. Then the GDS situation hit and it has had a huge impact undermining our publishers' morale as well as their finances.

However in spite of it all we've survived. Part of that is because we've taken a more balanced approach to selling to the market than many of our competitors, trying to avoid being overly dependent on any one supplier. We're happy Indigo is supportive of our publishers but we try and keep that support in perspective and not get overly dependent on it. Our publishers have been careful about costs but also pro-active in their publishing and marketing efforts. We have embraced technology and tried to use it to our advantage from developing better bibliographic databases to using email and web-site marketing techniques.

We've also stayed away from sales and marketing efforts that force-feed books into the market. I prefer what I call a fuel injection approach where we try and get bookstores to give a broad array of titles a chance without trying to focus overly heavily on forcing bestsellers into the market. When the reader responds either through reviews or word of mouth we then try and move quickly to support a title if we see a book is beginning to do particularly well. By maintaining an active, geographically diverse sales force in constant contact with their stores we've shown this can be a successful method of selling books that increases net sales without increasing returns.

I still feel the Internet revolution holds tremendous promise for us in spite of the recent downturn in the sector. Certainly many of our publishers have seen substantial sales through over the years and we definitely felt the collapse of over the last year's transition. However is in better shape these days, is opening soon and there is talk of a Book Sense like web-site in Canada as well. These initiatives are especially useful for our publishers and authors by allowing customers access to books that they may not readily find in local stores. It also helps keep our backlist active.

We are also using targeted email marketing methods to libraries, schools, stores and other institutions to try and increase our sales and marketing presence in these sometimes difficult and expensive to reach but important markets. We plan on using these efforts to supplement and support more traditional sales methods in the US market as well. All of these efforts are aimed at increasing net sales to the ultimate customer, the consumer, not just gross sales to bookstores.

Do you see calmer future for the Canadian publishing industry? What other issues on the horizon are you anticipating?

The key issue we are very concerned about is keeping government support strong for Canadian owned literary publishers, maintaining their diversity and re-capitalizing them after the impact of years of private sector abuse from both the Chapters collapse and the GDS debacle. We are concerned that the success of the major international publishers in luring away well established Canadian authors from Canadian owned publishing houses as well as the very public failure of companies like Stoddart is weakening some support for these policies. The tragedy is that the current success of Canadian writers in both Canada and around the world is an indication of just what a resounding success our publishing support policies have actually been. The failures in our industry are not unique to Canada or in any way connected to those policies but are part of a broader worldwide crisis in how publishing is done and books are sold.

We feel it is important that the Canadian public understand just what a bargain their support for Canadian literature has been for them. This is not just in dollar and cents terms where revenues have certainly been generated by the worldwide success of Mistry, Atwood, Ondaatje etc. - but also in giving an important voice to our culture, our experience and our lives. This is a voice that took a long time to develop and that has only come into its own in the last 25-30 years with the advent of government support programs for Canadian Literature and Canadian Publishing. We think we would lose critical momentum for this effort if we were to somehow fail to recognize the key role our independent literary publishing sector continues to play here.

I do feel things will be calmer by year's end. Once the funding and distribution situation sorts itself out we are poised to be able to focus again on selling more books, increasing public awareness of Canadian literature and authors and dealing with some of the infra-structural challenges and opportunities coming our way. These include the improvement of supply chain management and the development of a unified Canadian bibliographic database - something that's long been needed in the industry. I also think the advent of BOOK-TV and other specialized digital outlets like PRIDE-TV, SEX-TV etc. will open up some new opportunities for marketing and promotion as will a reinvigoration of the institutional sector, particularly in libraries and schools

Some have argued that the Canadian publishing industry is increasingly competing in the global marketplace and this will make it more difficult for our small presses to support the small-scale regional literary cultures that they have been so strong at promoting. Is globalization changing the Canadian book business? Is this a threat to Canada's local literary cultures?

I think I've addressed some of this question in my previous answer but let me add one further thing. I firmly believe that given the right kinds and levels of support independent Canadian literary presses can compete with anyone in the world. We produce great writers and we have publishers who are passionate about publishing their literature. The LPG exists to help translate that passion and artistry into successfully marketed books. I think we have done that well in Canada for many years now and I think that as we get past these crises of the last couple of years we will be well poised to take on the challenge of presenting our literature to the world. I believe that as a co-operative association working together we can do that better than our global competitors. By conveying our own passion for our own literature and our connection to it I think we serve our writers and publishers better this way than by putting them into the hands of a global conglomerate. At the same time that the world is becoming more global people are also looking for voices and experiences that are more unique and regional. I think associations like the LPG and publishers like our many literary presses remain the best hope for insuring that these voices are heard and read.

Michael Bryson is the publisher/editor of The Danforth Review.




TDR is produced in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 

All content is copyright of the person who created it and cannot be copied, printed, or downloaded without the consent of that person. 

See the masthead for editorial information. 

All views expressed are those of the writer only. 

TDR is archived with the Library and Archives Canada

ISSN 1494-6114. 

Facebook page

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts. Nous remercions de son soutien le Conseil des Arts du Canada.