Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for the Canadian publishing industry (as usual)

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (18/03/12)

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The statement that the Canadian publishing industry is hanging by a thread is nothing new -- indeed, fearing the demise of Canadian culture seems to be almost as important to Canadian culture as the creation of Canadian art and literature itself. The bell has tolled for the future of Canadian literature so often that we've learned to tune it out. And through all those warnings, the Canadian publishing industry has found a way to survive.

This time, however, things are different. We've seen a growing number of book publishers go under in the last decade: Stoddart Publishing, Macfarlane, Walter & Ross, Altitude Press and the Canadian textbook publishers Gage and Irwin. Other companies have been bought or amalgamated, and are being forced to move out of their home provinces.

The trend shows no sign of slowing. There isn't just one challenge this time -- many issues are surfacing simultaneously and creating what publishers say is a critical moment for their industry. The emergence of online publishing, for example, is a major concern: we're buying fewer books printed on actual paper, and more e-books. That may not seem ominous, but the growth of digital sales has major implications for publishers as they struggle to figure out how to make enough from sales of e-books to keep going. Add to that the cost of doing business with the biggest book retailer in the country (Chapters-Indigo) and the gradual disappearance of independent bookstores across the country, and publishers are facing a perfect storm.

Publishers Scott McIntyre (Douglas & McIntyre), Patsy Aldana (Groundwood Books) and Margie Woolf (Second Story Press) joined Michael Enright on the March 18 episode of The Sunday Edition for a panel discussion about the alleged impending death of the Canadian book industry.

"The death of everything is greatly exaggerated, but this is a different time," said McIntyre. "But it's still about the writers and their books, and we can't forget that." Aldana, who is the Co-Chair of the National Reading Campaign, is concerned that reading rates are falling in our present age of distraction. She cites a recent statistic gleaned from the literacy tests all schoolchildren are given in grades 3, 6 and 10, which always include the question about whether they like to read. "We've learned how to teach children how to read quite effectively, but in the 12 years that this test has existed, they're reporting 'liking to read' has dropped from 75 per cent to 50 per cent," Aldana said. "If we're turning out good readers...who don't find joy in reading, that is a dangerous situation."

Woolf said that the lack of resources for book promotion is a major problem. "Marketing Canadian books has always been a challenge -- 65 per cent to 75 per cent of what you see in any bookstore is not Canadian," she said. "We can't market our books as well as we might...at the same time, we are succeeding in many ways in that Canadian publishers are hugely successful in the international market."

But what of the ubiquitous e-book? Is it a threat to real books, or will it be literacy's saviour? Neither, thinks McIntyre. "It's the wild west; nobody knows anything. [Sales of] eBooks, for us, have gone up 10,000 per cent. The [profit] margins on them are good...but it's not a business model yet," he said. "It's not replacing the dropping unit sales of real books on paper. But I think e-books are the new mass paperbacks -- they're going to get to 25 per cent of the market. But nobody I know of has been able to figure out are e-books are cannibalizing other books."

Woolf agrees that e-books are not necessarily competition, but simply another format to distribute literature. "We are now releasing simultaneously in print and e-book format. But we need to realize that at this stage, except for bestsellers and some genres, e-books have not been a huge success for most publishers yet," she said. "Right now, print is paying for the development of e-books."

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