Reaction to Douglas & McIntyre filing for bankruptcy protection

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A selection of books published by D&M Publishers, courtesy their website.

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First aired on On the Coast (23/10/12)

Vancouver-based publisher Douglas & McIntyre, whose roster of authors includes Wade Davis, Wayson Choy and David Suzuki, has announced that it's seeking creditor protection. A notice on its website says that the company is restructuring, and working to find an investor or buyer of its assets. These are tough times for the Canadian publishing industry, and  On the Coast talked to Vancouver novelist Jen Sookfong Lee, author of The End of East, and Sean Cranbury, organizer of BookCamp Vancouver and a speaker on publishing and technology, about what this development means for the art of writing books, and the business of selling them.

Lee told host Stephen Quinn that the news came as a huge surprise to her. "I knew that there was something was going on at Douglas &McIntyre, but I didn't think for a minute that it would be [a need for bankruptcy protection] or anything like that. "

Asked about the company's status as a B.C. publisher, Lee described D&M as "really important in the development of West Coast literature. They've been instrumental in establishing sort of a publisher's voice on the West Coast, because there are very few publishers here," she said, adding, "And I think that they have always strived to find the kind of voice that would mean something to Western Canada, but also new Canadian voices as well. So I think this is quite a blow for writers in Vancouver."

Sean Cranbury declined to speculate about what's behind the publisher's financial problems, but he cited a letter that D&M had sent out to its authors, which described the challenges the company had been facing -- challenges that the Canadian publishing industry is facing as a whole. "They mentioned some of the real challenges that are affecting the industry and that we've all seen for the past five to seven years, and longer," he said. "The Web, the internet, Amazon, changes to the industry and how readers access books. It's putting a lot of pressure on the business model."

People are still buying books, but the growing popularity of e-books has had a big impact. "We're going toward a much lower price point, while still maintaining high costs in terms of editorial, promotion and marketing for books, including royalties and advances and all the others parts of the business plan that are being challenged by a lower price point," Cranbury explained. He also pointed out that there's more competition now from young, independent publishers, and many authors are self-publishing their work through Kindle.

Lee recently attended the Surrey Writers' Conference, along with Cranbury, and in talking to writers there, she found that there are more authors who are considering self-publishing because electronic formats make it so easy. But she added that "a good 90 per cent" of the writers she met who were looking to make a career of writing "were still looking to go with traditional publishers."

Lee believes the central issue isn't what form the book will take, but how to make sure that writers can earn a living. "I think that writers need to focus on the material and worry less about the distribution at this point. Because we don't know how it's going to go," Lee said. "When people are posting free fiction on Wattpad or wherever, how do we turn that into money for us? We still have to eat."

When asked if the traditional publishing industry has been caught flat-footed by the shift to e-books, Cranbury acknowledged that "the advent of Amazon and emergence of the big box booksellers in the mid '90s was a signal, you know, that maybe the response wasn't quite quick enough. But you can't really worry about that stuff." At the Surrey conference, Cranbury advised authors on using social media and taking responsibility to connect with their publisher and their readers in a way "that's a markedly different model that I'm representing from the way it's been traditionally done."

All is not lost in terms of the traditional model, though. Lee quoted an agent from New York who gave a keynote address at the Surrey conference, who said that social media accounted for only 0.18 per cent of pre-purchase awareness by the reader. "Most readers do not hear initially about books on social media before they buy them," Lee pointed out. "Readers are still looking to bookstores to find out about books."

Lee went on to suggest that the loss of Douglas & McIntyre would be very bad news for West Coast writers. "I think that for a lot of writers who are writing very sort of idiosyncratic, almost I would say very Canadian types of things, the potential absence of D&M is a real blow," she said. She cited two examples, Darwin's Bastards edited by Zsuzsi Gartner and The Divinity Gene by Matthew Trafford, which she described as books that "may not have found a home with other multinational publishers like Random House or Penguin. " Lee speculated that they might be forced to self-publish, or to change what they're writing to fit what a publisher wants. "That kind of sucks."

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