It was one of the longest death rattles in Canadian publishing history. Van-
couver’s Talonbooks, foremost publisher of Canadian plays, reluctantly prepared its own obituary early this month, finally succumbing after a relentless, grinding battle against production and retail book costs, which have doubled in the past five years, and advertising expenses, which have spiralled up by 1,600 per cent since 1975. Even though Talon’s crisis prompted the Canada Council to swoop to the rescue just before Christmas with a $20,000 grant—conditional upon the tiny publishing house’s generating matching funds—many in the industry fear that Talon, still struggling 12 years after its founding, may be the first in a domino reaction of Canadian publishing failures caused by The Crunch of ‘79—a crunch severe enough to alter the nature and style of the $600-million Canadian publishing industry in the 1980s.
After a decade of relative buoyancy, Canadian publishers in the past year have been buffeted by the twin bogeys of ever-growing interest rates and a fickle retail market. This fall Jack McClelland, president of McClelland and Stewart, laid off 10 per cent of his staff. Montreal’s Tundra Books, Canada’s foremost juvenile book publisher, has ceased publication of its children’s line and Breakwater Books in St. John’s is in danger of slipping into the sea if the Newfoundland government doesn’t soon respond to its pleas for assistance, in the same way as Talon’s request has gone unanswered by the B.C. government. “The Canadian publishing industry is about to go through one of the most incredibly tough times it has ever seen,” says Macmillan of Canada trade publisher Doug Gibson.
Much of the pressure is coming from booksellers burdened by high interest rates themselves. Unable to keep large inventories on their shelves, many were sending Canadian best sellers back unsold to publishers before the Christmas season had even begun. “The number of returns this year is absolutely unprecedented,” says McClelland. The three major chains—Coles, Classic and W. H. Smith—now control 45 per cent of Canadian book sales. Their successive price wars have all but squeezed most independent book stores out of competition, thus spoiling the market for small literary publishers whose specialized publications often don’t interest the chain stores. In addition, production costs, particularly the price of paper, have skyrocketed, forcing retail prices up; books have become a luxury.
As a result, even McClelland is responding to the entertainment element, announcing that he will concentrate on commercial rather than literary publishing in the near future. The appearance of four new Canadian paperback houses during the ‘70s helped tip the scale in favor of light reading, the overall result being a demand for pop fiction, thrillers and disaster books in the order of Balls!, Needles and Icequake. Young Canadian writers with a more independent turn of mind often feel defeated by the struggles to get published.
Even though the federal government will have distributed an impressive $8.4 million in aid to publishers in the next year, many realize this is a Band-Aid solution at best, with no guarantee that it will be repeated in subsequent years, and, ideally, no reason why it should have to be. Indeed, many bright young publishers, now 10-year veterans, are tired of the struggle. Says Scott McIntyre of the Vancouver-based Douglas & McIntyre and chairman of the Association of Book Publishers of B.C.: “This year some are saying, ‘Scr^w this. Life is too short.’ ” Ellen Godfrey of Toronto’s Press Porcépic says if conditions do not change Canada’s five largest CanLit houses—Talon, Breakwater, Oberon, Anansi and Simon & Pierre—will be gone in five years. Clyde Rose of Breakwater Books is looking not only to government grants but an entry into the lucrative educational market, almost monopolized by foreign publishers in the Atlantic provinces. In fact, of approximately 270 publishers operating across Canada, only 190 are Canadianowned.
For all the economic doom and gloom, the number of books sold in Canada has never been greater and many houses are boasting strong spring lists even though the bread and butter for many houses is non-Canadian titles. Nationalism notwithstanding, several publishers are convinced the crunch may even be a bracing slap in the face for the industry. “With the current economic situation, it’s no longer good to just be a Canadian book,” says McIntyre. “Now it has to be a good Canadian book. The discipline will be good for the industry.”
In this odd conflict between flinteyed economics and literary idealism, putting out noncommercial books is irrational, says Porcépic’s Godfrey, “like a love affair.” Many feel that idealism will inevitably lose the fight, and for champions of Canadian fiction of the 1980s perhaps the most chilling comment on the current state of publishing is McIntyre’s comment on Margaret Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman: “If she had written it today, I’m afraid it would never have been published.”
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