A Wake-up Call on the State of Canada's Publishing Industry, by Linda Leith

The latest kerfuffle in the literary press is over the news that Douglas & McIntyre has sought bankruptcy protection on the very day that industry veteran Scott McIntyre was supposed to receive an award recognizing his passionate contribution to Canadian publishing.

Writing in The Globe and Mail, John Barber quotes industry observer and author Roy MacSkimming saying that “D&M had such a strong program you have to believe there is some future for it. This story is not finished.”

“But the same cannot be said for the dream of an independent Canadian publishing industry,” Barber comments.

Another industry insider he quotes is author and former Key Porter publisher Anna Porter, who describes the D&M news as “a major catastrophe for Canadian publishing. What it demonstrates is that all the measures governments have come up with over the years to help the industry survive haven’t been successful. Nothing has worked. It’s sad.”

The pessimistic tone of Barber’s article has prompted House of Anansi Vice-President Matt Williams to question the value of “reporting” like this. “There are more than 100 active publisher members of the Association of Canadian Publishers,” he protests, in an open letter on the Anansi website, and they are working “like hell to publish books by Canadian authors and illustrators for Canadian readers”

He acknowledges that “this business is getting more challenging.”

The litany of vanquished publishers is now starting to be familiar even to a casual observer: Stoddart, Key Porter, McClelland & Stewart, and now perhaps D&M. But that is certainly not the whole story, and it is shocking that someone reporting on the Canadian publishing industry would equate “independent” and “Canadian” with “finished.”

His words have been echoed by online comments, on social media sites, and by Andrew Steeves of Gaspereau Press in a letter to the Globe published this morning. Canadian firms are not the only ones who are “scrambling,” Williams writes, citing Random House of Canada and Simon and Schuster as examples of other companies laying off staff. “The shift to digital in this business has been seismic, and it has been fast.”

The fact that non-Canadian houses are also scrambling is cold comfort to the perilous trade here in Canada. Describing the industry as “finished” is certainly an exaggeration, and it’s clear that major international publishers are also finding the business more challenging, but Porter is right to describe this latest casualty as “a major catastrophe" in Canadian publishing.

She is not alone. Thomas Allen and Cormorant Books publisher Marc Côté is appalled by the D&M news. In a National Post story http://arts.nationalpost.com/2012/10/23/canadian-publishing-industry-reacts-to-dm-bankruptcy/ he is quoted as saying, “I’m horrified, it is tragic, and it’s the end of all the major players in Canadian publishing. When I started in the industry 25, 26 years ago, we had Clarke, Irwin, we had Deneau, we had Lester & Orpen Dennys, we had Macmillan, we had McClelland & Stewart as a Canadian-owned company, we had Key Porter Books, we had H.B. Fenn, we had Douglas & McIntyre. We don’t have any of them anymore.”

Matt Williams is quite properly doing his bit to keep morale up in the industry, but the D&M story should also be a wake-up call to Canadians. Canadian literature has thrived nationally and internationally thanks to measures put in place to support Canadian writing and publishing. The measures currently in place, though, were designed for a bygone era. It’s time to revisit those measures, and fast.

© Linda Leith 2012

Montreal writer Linda Leith created Linda Leith Publishing in June 2011, and last week launched the seventh and last of its 2012 titles, Peter Kirby's The Dead of Winter.

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