Books

The commodity between the covers

Mari Jackson September 3 1979
Books

The commodity between the covers

Mari Jackson September 3 1979

The commodity between the covers

Books

Mari Jackson

The store was The Albert Britnell Book Shop in Toronto, where Mackenzie King once bought his books. A 19th-century air of decorum still persisted—a touch of the 20th confined to the back of the shop where new paperback best sellers were propped like foundlings in their ready-for-display cardboard prams. The saleswoman was middle-aged, with a kindly face, a finger-wave and a bosom like a bookshelf. The customer was about 17. He took a piece of paper out of the back pocket of his jeans and asked, “Do you have Baby Let Me Follow You DownV’ The clerk’s response was impeccable. “Anna,” she asked, turning to another member of Britnell’s loyal, bibliophilie

staff, “do we have Baby Let Me Follow You DownV’ The tone was that of a British Museum librarian researching a certain monograph on Trollope. Five minutes later, after a thorough look through shelves and catalogues, the saleswoman assured her customer that such a book existed, in a Doubleday paperback, and they would be pleased to order it for him.

So. You can actually wander into Britnell’s and order Baby Let Me Follow You Down or even the new Mork & Mindy video novel, as if nothing had really changed in the world of books. At Britnell’s, the fact that there are four new Alien paperbacks tied into the movie has not yet eclipsed the idea of a book as a thing in itself. Not a “property,” or a potential blockbuster movie, or

a former TV mini-series, or a commodity between covers. A good bookstore projects the sense that every book on the shelf reflects some kind of choice—not just volume buying of the latest best sellers. But while an independent bookstore—Duthie Books in Vancouver, Toronto’s Bob Miller Book Room, Mary Scorer Books in Winnipeg—may delight book readers, it scarcely reflects what is happening to the book business, which has become less bookish and more businesslike.

Publishers can no longer afford to act like custodians of culture, without reference to the commercial market. There are obvious economic reasons: just as the rising costs of paper, printing and shipping are sending the price of books up, the reading public is wondering whether it can afford to pay upward of

$15 for a hard-cover novel—or $2.95 for a paperback that two years ago cost $1.95. As more publishing houses are being bought by large corporations (Gulf and Western bought Paramount and Simon and Schuster, a sign also of the new cosiness between the film and book industries), the mood is commercial, competitive and corporate—movie novelizations, mass paperbacks that come and go like so many soft-cover Big Macs and marketing techniques are now at the centre of the book trade.

The list of books for the fall looks solid but safe: Life Before Man, a novel by Margaret Atwood, an autobiographical book by Farley Mowat, another extravaganza from wildlife artist Glen Loates. Booksellers are hoping that Emily Carr ($40) will be the big Christmas art book. Market-tested writers also dominate the American book season, with new works due in print from Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and Philip Roth. Doris Lessing has a new novel; Dalton Camp will be on the stands. In the wake of last year’s runaway novelty book Gnomes (the third

best-selling nonfiction title in Canada last year, after Peter C. Newman’s Bronfman Dynasty and The Wild Frontier by Pierre Berton) comes a swarm of angels, faeries, dragons and succubi. A certain formulaic calculation is evident, suggesting that the perfect 1980 title would be something new but rather déjà vu: The Joy of Gnomes Playing Hockey for Big Bucks.

At a promotion party for the fall McClelland and Stewart books, President Jack McClelland divided his fiction titles into the commercial-literary (including the new Atwood and The Mangan Inheritance by Brian Moore); the commercial (such as Needles by William Deverell, winner of the $50,000 Seal First Novel Award); and the commercial-serious, books by established authors such as Naim Kattan and Marie-Claire Blais. The literature-for-itsown-sake category was missing. “We don’t have room for publishing strictly literary titles,” explained McClelland, who is neither a heartless book mogul nor an unintelligent businessman.

“The people doing well these days are the paperback houses, the new book packagers such as Allan Stormont of Jonathan-James [who design, hire writers and then sell their books to publishers here and in other countries], and the literary agents. I don’t see any brave, daring moves on the part of the publishers,” says Susan Walker, editor of publishing’s trade paper Quill & Quire. The rise of the literary agent (Toronto has three busy ones—Lucinda Vardey, Bella Pomer and Nancy Colbert, who has even found it necessary to hire an assistant, Mary Adachi—three more than it had as little as six years

ago), points to a new presence in the book business, that of the deal-maker: the agent who auctions a Canadian manuscript to a New York publisher for $150,000; the story editor on the prowl for good film properties.

A certain crassness is unavoidable when a novel is viewed as a potentially good movie vehicle—also an untroubled confidence about what works (sells)— and what doesn’t. In an article on Hot Books in Take One film magazine, a New York story editor employed by a film studio declared that “the only thing you can’t go wrong with is the contemporary romance, with two people falling in love with or without conflict, getting some yucks along the way.” Yucks? War and Peace and Yucks?

What the new commercialism will mean is that first novels, poetry, plays and the unconventional books accustomed to riding on publishers’ coattails will get left behind in the search for the blockbuster book. Some Canadians in the book biz see such pressure as a good thing, reasoning that Canadian writers ought to prove their mettle in the marketplace, along with everyone else— that the so-called Golden Years of Canadian publishing (now declared over) were just a sweet subsidized mirage. Is culture what the grant-givers support or what readers want to buy? Others fear that the desire to sell will threaten the Matt Cohens of Canada, forcing them to write market-tailored novels instead of following the contours of their own creative development—Matt Cohen himself being one of the fearful. “As far as I’m concerned,” says Beverley Slopen, woman-about-the-bookscene and part-time literary agent, “the new commercialism will only be hard on the pretentious. The out-and-out commercial and the excellent will still sell— John Cheever and Trevanian are on the same best-seller list. What will be hardest hit is whiny art—and the mediocre.”

Mixed blessings. As Roy MacSkimming, literary officer with the Canada Council, says, “On the one hand, Canadian authors now have a chance to capture a huge market, to become household names. But things are really tight; getting into print in the first place is difficult. The two big guys—Macmillan and McClelland and Stewart—are publishing books by Judy LaMarsh and saying no to West Coast novelist Audrey Thomas. There is just no development time or capital. Oberon will publish Audrey Thomas, but the literary presses are really feeling the pinch.”

The best-seller syndrome has forced the small presses to see themselves as specialists—as small presses, in fact. “The chain stores show no interest in our books,” says Karl Siegler of Vancouver’s Talonbooks, the country’s ma-

jor publisher of Canadian plays, “but we’ll continue to print what we believe in. Distribution is the big problem; we’re cultivating a mailing list of names and thinking about a more direct relationship to our readers.” New marketing strategies and alternate distribution schemes, mail-order catalogues and plain brown-wrapper routes: the result may be a mainstream/underground split in which literary supermarkets—the chain stores—sell the best sellers and the independent bookstores deal with the rest.

The House of Anansi is one example of how things are changing. A small press that not only responded to Canadian writing—publishing books by George Grant, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje—but developed it, Anansi has survived, barely. It’s clear that the days when a small, three-person press could dream of cornering the national market are gone. “Our real problem is access,” says president Ann Wall. “In Canada there are about 10 or 15 booksellers who are both financially stable and willing to stock poetry. But any publisher who wants to last is cutting his throat by not publishing a few books for the lasting market—if you only aim for books that sell, you can kill yourself. We just deal in a different time span. We can sell 50,000 copies over a period of years, not in the first few days.” Her voice has that calm realistic tone acquired by any book lover long in the business. “Our latest strategy is selling books to American universities for their CanLit courses.”

If the avant-garde literary novel is becoming an endangered species, so is

the independent bookstore that still wants to sell them. Bill Roberts, past president of the Canadian Booksellers Association, went to L.A. recently on business and was asked what he did. “Fm a dinosaur,” he said. “I run a general bookstore.”

“I’m still trying to stock first novels,” says John Richardson, co-owner of A Different Drummer Books, in Burlington, Ontario. He sounds a bit like a restaurateur swearing, “No, our wine prices won’t go up.” “But it’s hard. Our big sellers right now are vegetarian cookbooks. Fantasy is booming, children’s books sell well and we could probably triple our travel section. Poetry? Forget it. I love the new Doris Grumbach novel, Chamber Music, but there’s only about two or three customers I can really sell it to. It’s the other stuff that pays the light bills.”

Can a bookseller sell what he wants to and still survive? The answer in Canada is a strangled, going-down-for-the-second-time “yes.” Generally, book sales are healthy; the book market in Canada increased nearly 13 per cent in the 1977 season and Canadians bought about $850 million worth of books. And if New York City continues on its five-yearsahead-of-Canada timetable, there are signs there that literacy may come to be regarded as an elegant new skill—a form of intellectual racquetball for the middle class. Knowledgeable collectors of fiction will gather like antique rug dealers in stores where the dealers talk about the “smell” of a good book.

This new overlap of literary taste and fashion can already be found on upper Madison Avenue in New York, where Burt Britton and partner Jeanette Watson have opened Books & Co., in a city riddled with competition. Britton only

wanted to sell “real books”—fiction, poetry, art books and the classics. Open one year, Books & Co. has not only survived, “it’s been like a fire sale every day,” according to Britton, an ex-Marine of considerable charm who wears reading glasses and likes to lead customers to special books like a solicitous maître d’.

Books & Co. combines uptown chic with the cluttered poke-around serendipity of traditional bookshops. With its wooden shelves, gallery lighting and soft music, it suggests what fluorescent chains don’t—the seduction of reading. William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, is said to have walked in, looked around and announced, “I want to live here.” Dustin Hoffman came by and read D.H. Lawrence at one of the Tuesday evening poetry readings upstairs. Bernard Malamud, Brendan Gill, Truman Capote—on a good day the store resembles a salon with a cash register. One entire side is known as The Wall. Only great and lasting writers (in Britton terms) are invited onto the shelves. Britton rattles off the Canadians on The Wall, some of whom even warrant the distinction of being displayed face out: Robertson Davies, Margaret

Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Mavis Gallant.

But one distinction needs to be made. In the U.S., where chain stores account for 15 per cent of retail sales, independent booksellers still dominate. In Canada, the chain stores have cornered more than 40 per cent of book sales. Could The Wall ever stand in Canada? Or in many places?

In 1946, novelist Malcolm Lowry got a letter from his publisher, Jonathan Cape, who had received the manuscript of his novel, Under the Volcano. The first reader had liked it, but the second reader had criticisms. Lowry, he felt, was “given to eccentric word-spinning and too much stream-of-consciousness stuff.” He noted admiringly, however, that the “Mexican local color was heaped on in shovelfuls.” “Thank you very much,” Lowry wrote back, “but if you will excuse my saying so, I did not heap the local color, whatever that is, on in shovelfuls.” His letter defending the length and structure of his novel was almost another novel in itself, and in it he argued that “there is something about the destiny of the book that seems to tell me it just might go on selling a very long time.” High-flown stuff, from a non-blockbuster novelist to his patient publisher. What would an editor say to Under the Volcano today? “Change the title to Volcano!” Or, “I see Lee Marvin cast as the Consul.” Or a letter of rejection saying, “Personally, I would love to publish your admirable novel, but at this point in time it is not right for us.”