Heather Reisman on The Sunday Edition

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First aired on The Sunday Edition (15/4/12)

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Heather Reisman is arguably the most influential person in the Canadian publishing business. The founder and CEO and Indigo Books & Music landed on the book scene in 1997, when she opened her first store in Burlington, Ontario. From there, the social-worker-turned-businesswoman went on to win a hostile takeover of her biggest competitor, Chapters, taking control of that chain. Now, 15 years later, Reisman runs an empire that consists of more than 240 stores and more than 7,000 employees across the country. These days, she's making another big change. Recently, Indigo has rebranded itself as a lifestyle store for booklovers and expanded into a wide array of non-book products, everything from bubble bath to cashmere throws.

Thanks to her dominance in the publishing industry, Reisman has been heralded as an important cultural player in this country, but she has also been criticized by publishers for running a monopoly that squeezes every single dollar out of Canadian publishers. This is a claim Reisman strongly rejects. She does not see Indigo as a monopoly. "We are no more a monopoly than any multifaceted company in this country," she told The Sunday Edition host Michael Enright in a recent interview in CBC's Toronto studio. "It just isn't true."

Many cite the big-box dynamic (a model Indigo has used to great market advantage), coupled with the rise of e-books, as factors that have led to the recent closure of many independent bookstores across Canada, including Nicholas Hoare stores in Ottawa and Montreal. Reisman says that, as a book lover and entrepreneur, she is troubled by this trend. "I always feel empathy for that situation," she said. However, she added that "from a strict business perspective ... some [businesses] grow, some wane, some thrive, some die. That is the general cadence of what happens in business."

Why are so many bookstores closing in Canada? Reisman argues that consumers "are voting with their wallets" and what they've shown they want are books quickly and cheaply from big-box stores like Costco, Wal-Mart and, yes, Indigo. "We might have this romantic notion about the small bookstore, but what consumers are telling us, in general [is] they don't share that romantic notion," she said.

As a result, Reisman doesn't see a problem with being "big." Indigo is giving book lovers what they want. "Lots of people are locked into a paradigm that assumes big is bad, small is good. Rich is bad, poor is good," she said. "And that dichotomy found its way, sometimes, to people's concerns about me and Indigo."

Another concern booksellers have is how Indigo is changing the way consumers access and buy books. Indigo has substantially reduced the amount of floor space dedicated to books in recent years, making room for more lifestyle offerings. This move, Reisman explained, was made because "people no longer shop the stacks the way they used to" and are instead relying on what Indigo has "merchandised on tables" and "curated and selected" in their stores. According to Reisman, this "is a massive trend that is happening and, by the way, not just in book selling."

The book business is tough, and Reisman has had to make tough decisions in order for Indigo to survive. Some of these decisions have been controversial. For example, Indigo recently increased its co-op fee by 25 per cent (the fee publishers pay to have their book stocked and sold) and decreased its evaluation period for books from 90 days to 45, two practices Reisman argues are largely misunderstood. She says that the "traditional" co-op model is "long gone," and when the topic of returns came up, she issued a challenge to publishers to point out any book that had been stocked in a store and not kept for at least nine months. "Because I am personally not aware of that ever happening," she added.

Through it all, Reisman stands by her company and says she knows others involved in the book industry do as well. "We have publishers who visit us every day who say, 'thank goodness you made the decision you made and are making because when you look around the world at the [publishing] landscape, it's pretty sad.'"

On March 18, 2012, The Sunday Edition hosted a panel about the future of Canadian publishing with Scott McIntyre (Douglas & McIntyre), Patsy Aldana (Groundwood Books) and Margie Wolfe (Second Story Press). You can listen to that discussion here.

Heather Reisman, poses for the media with a wizard at an Indigo Book Store in Toronto on Wednesday July 13, 2005. (CP Photo/Tobin Grimshaw)