Books Too Dear? No, Miss Graham!

A Canadian publisher defends his industry, blames book costs on our small population

JOHN MORGAN GRAY December 1 1947

Books Too Dear? No, Miss Graham!

A Canadian publisher defends his industry, blames book costs on our small population

JOHN MORGAN GRAY December 1 1947

Books Too Dear? No, Miss Graham!


General Monager, The Macmillan Co. of Canada

AN ARTICLE in Maclean’s Sept. 15 — “Why Books Cost Too Much,” by Gwethalyn Graham —should have ended like the old movie thrillers, “Come next week—and find out why books cost too much.” Because, in some 4,500 words, the author fails to show either why they do, or, indeed that they do. This dramatic failure is achieved in spite of enough generalization and innuendo to make the Whispering Gallery of St. Paul’s Cathedral ring like a bell.

The article says Canadians don’t read books because—you know what. But it doesn’t say that in the years between 1939 and 1945 Canadian book production increased from $1,770,059 to $5,013,876;or that from 1937 to 1945 the value of textbooks imported into this country rose from $1,128,442 to $2,166,769; or that publishers are doing about double the business they did before the war (although book prices have increased less than 30%). It makes one wonder, since Canadians do not read, just what they are doing with all the books they buy-—and can’t afford.

This kind of article, being easy to write and hard to answer without becoming too technical for the general public to follow with interest, has appeared before. It and its predecessors have in common the dashing opening and the sticky end; and in the middle a striking resemblance to the wise men of Indostan who went to see the elephant “though all of them were blind”:

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!

No one can doubt the sincerity of purpose of novelist Gwethalyn Graham. But there is plenty of reason to doubt whether she believed at the end of her task in the existence of dragons which she obviously set out to slay. The only argument against Canadian publishing, which she does not blow down as fast as she sets it up, is that we are a colony. But American books which are distributed (without being printed and bound) in England cost more there than in the country of origin; and the reverse is true. Also, Canadian books which are distributed in the United States without being printed there are advanced more in price than are American books imported into Canada. So who is colonizing whom? Was the battle of Bunker Hill fought in vain?

Additionally, the author cites two

cases of books which certainly appear to have been overpriced. But she does not know—and I do not—the price at which they were purchased in their country of origin, and whether, therefore, they were overpriced or not. Neither does she appear to know—as I do—that any Canadian publisher who consistently overpriced the books he handles in this country would soon lose his agencies. If the principal abroad permits a considerable markup (which must penalize his books) in Canada, it is because he has sold the books on terms which make that markup inevitable and he knows it.

Common Ailment

The simple and dull truth is that the Canadian publishing business is subject to the same ills as all other aspects of Canadian trade. It suffers from a high cost of doing business in a vast, thinly populated country. Because our reading population is drawn from every part of the English-speaking world, there is some limited demand for the books of all English language publishers. The result is that some 75 Canadian publisher-jobbers attempt to represent the lines of some 475 British and American publishers in this country. (PIven this works out to something less than 10 agencies apiece.) Undoubtedly most Canadian houses have to carry more books than they can properly service. Undoubtedly under this arrangement there is considerable loss from unsaleable books, a waste which increases the over-all cost of doing business.

Yet during the period 1939-1947,in which all prices have increased alarmingly, it can be demonstrated that (at 25%; - 30%) books have increased less than almost any standard commodity. Equally, there is a greater markup from the country of origin to Canada in other consumer lines than in books.

And while books have been increasing by under 30% in price, the cost of their production has risen by approximately 40% - 50% in the United States and approximately 40% in Canada. If this is highway robbery then I’ll take pie.

Hurdles Ahead

Canadian publishing is unsatisfying because so much of it is merely selling or jobbing of British or American books instead of helping a little to create our own. But it is not necessarily any less honest or worthy on that account. Until as a people we can produce a body of writing which will satisfy a larger proportion of Canadian cultural needs, we might better be grateful for the existence of a system which provides for the distribution in Canada of all worth-while current and standard books in English. The collapse of the

A Canadian publisher defends his industry, blames book costs on our small population

present imperfect, but nicely poised, system would be more disastrous intellectually and artistically than handing the country back to the Indians.

And the evidence is that the system will have to serve for a long time, in spite of the remarkable and exciting forward strides of the past five years. The creation of a Canadian literature still faces formidable obstacles. Greatest and ever-present, of course, is our small population. If Canadian consciousness split its chrysalis tomorrow and were met by a spate of good Canadian writing (two remote possibilities) , we should still find it necessary to import most of the books required by readers in this country and to price them above levels in their countries of origin. Only a doubling or trebling of our population can change the basic facts of over-all demand and cost. And even with great population increases there would be a lag of some years in

the building up of plant facilities and craftsmanship standards, to provide Canadian editions which in price and quality would compare favorably »with the products of the United States and Great Britain.

It is the forlorn hope of seeing those stimulating days which keeps most Canadian publishers staxxding by, though they can neither bring them to pass nor hurry them materially. At the present time a Canadiaxx publisher who consults the best interests of his authors must dix-ect them to London or New Yox'k for the original publication of all books with real sales potential and take what is left over. In this situation there is a bitter and unconscious humor to articles about Canadian publishing which cheex-fully echo the old jingle:

Said the doctors, as they took their


Thex-e is no cure for this disease. ★