Column

The big-box conundrum

Charles Gordon April 3 2000
Column

The big-box conundrum

Charles Gordon April 3 2000

The big-box conundrum

Column

Charles Gordon

The House of Commons standing committee on Canadian heritage has now heard from just about anyone who has anything to say about the woes of the Canadian bookselling industry. Booksellers, large and small, librarians and publishers addressed the committee in recent weeks. Last week, the writers spoke. The reader, the consumer, speaks every day at the cash register.

The committee was told by Chapters that the consumer is happy and more readers are being created. Independent booksellers told the committee that Chapters has put many of them out of business. The larger Canadian publishers, perhaps wanting to avoid offending their biggest customer, expressed their concerns more cautiously, avoiding the question of whether it is a good thing to have a giant retailer dominating the market.

Published writers have so many conflicts of interest on the question that the only hope is that they will cancel each other out. We want our Canadian publishers to prosper. We also want the independent stores to survive, since their support of Canadian writers has been strong. At the same time, if Chapters doesn’t take an interest in our books, they will sell less.

As Christopher Moore, chairman of The Writers’ Union of Canada and best-selling author, pointed out, Chapters’ ability to move and market best-sellers can enrich those authors fortunate to have written one. At the same time, authors have a fondness for the independents, who can create the word-ofmouth buzz that helps a non-blockbuster book take off.

Writers enter Chapters diffidently, then see their book displayed. Not only their newest book but the one before that. Hmm, they say. Maybe this place isn’t so bad. Then there is the famous cappuccino and comfy chair thing, which writers are suckers for, as much as anyone else. Still, there is this nagging feeling. “There is now substantial evidence,” Moore told the committee, “that the big store goes hand in hand with the big publisher and the big author, until a diminishing number of superstar authors commands an ever larger share of book sales.” Booksellers stock only best-sellers, which soon become the only types of books off the presses of the publishing companies. That is not the situation now, because there has been a degree of enlightenment among both publishers and retailers, but it is the prospect that worries publishers and writers.

The worst fear of publishers is the pressure a retail giant can exert either by buying or not buying. The committee was told of a book sold out at independent stores last Christmas, the independents unable to persuade the publisher to print more

because the publisher anticipated a flood of returns from Chapters after Christmas. The result: publisher, author and independent bookseller all lost sales. An added complication: the publisher may have underprinted in the first place after getting a ho-hum from Chapters.

The smaller publishers, who give new writers their start and take risks that larger publishers won’t, feel the loss of the independents more acutely. Talonbooks publisher Karl Siegler, representing the Literary Press Group of Canada, told the committee that the growth of Chapters has not made up for the decline of his sales through the independents. This matters because a nation’s literature is not valued in sales figures. Authors whose work now sells in large numbers, writers who have helped to define us—the Atwoods, Laurences and Ondaatjes—reached the top because somebody took a chance on them, a publisher or bookseller who wasn’t thinking 30-per-cent off. The outcry before the heritage committee reflects a fear that we will not always have such people.

What can the committee recommend? Here it gets hard. Smallish measures were suggested—ending the GST on books, more support from the Canada Council for writers and independent bookstores, helping libraries. But nothing dramatic seems imminent. The government has allowed Chapters to happen and, if past history is any indication, is unlikely to see a threat to competition in the combination of Chapters and its distributing arm, Pegasus. The publishers, for their part, show no sign of wanting to combine in opposition to the retailing giant. The writers could do little more than ask the government to keep doing what it has been doing, and hope that the independents come back.

Maybe they will, although the committee also heard that the trend of retailing in this country is against it. That trend, in many other sectors than books, is to fewer stores and bigger ones. Whatever we may think about big-box stores, they would not succeed if people stayed away from them. Which is why the heritage committee should be talking to consumers, too. Peter Woolford, a senior vice-president of the Retail Council of Canada, described today’s retail situation as even tougher than it was a decade or so ago when the corner grocery and hardware stores were under siege. Add new competition from Internet retailers and it gets even tougher, especially since consumer loyalty is another casualty. “The Canadian consumer is absolutely ruthless,” Woolford told the committee.

So it appears. It is difficult to believe public infatuation with the impersonality and free parking of the big-box store can last. But it is also difficult to see how anybody other than the consumer can change it.