A bullish market for Canadian writers

ANN WALMSLEY February 29 1988

A bullish market for Canadian writers

ANN WALMSLEY February 29 1988

A bullish market for Canadian writers


In June, 1986, Linda McQuaig, a 34year-old reporter for the Toronto Globe and Mail, sent shock waves through the Canadian publishing world when she won an $88,000 advance for her first book. Authors and publishers seemed incredulous that a text by a first-time author-and on the seemingly dry subject of the country's tax sys

tem—could command such a startlingly high sum. Now, as publishers begin taking stock of how the books they released last fall fared in bookstores at Christmas, McQuaig’s publisher, Penguin Books Canada Ltd., acknowledges that it may not earn back the advance. The company’s likable, high-energy president, Morton Mint, who signed the deal on the basis of a 10-page outline and an aggressive pitch from McQuaig’s agent, Peter Livingston, says that bookstores have to date sold roughly 13,000 copies of the 24,000 printed. He adds that that places pressure on the coming paperback edition to sell well.“I am surprised, because I thought the book had tremendous potential,” said Mint, staring glumly at some of the 2,000 remaindered copies piled on skids in Penguin’s Markham, Ont., warehouse. “I wish you could tell me what to do with them, because they sure as hell won’t sell.”

For months observers have been anxiously awaiting the verdict on McQuaig’s publishing venture, which until recently represented the highest advance for a new Canadian author. Her book has come to symbolize the recent explosion of generous advances for domestic writers—especially new or littleknown ones—which has brought a new element of risk to the notoriously volatile Canadian publishing industry. Indeed, in recent months numerous new authors have won advances that just five years ago would have been considered outrageous: over $100,000 for

Elaine Dewar’s book on the Reichmann business dynasty, the biggest advance ever for a first-time Canadian author; more than $70,000 for journalist Ian Brown’s upcoming book on Canadian Tire Corp. Ltd. (William Collins Sons & Co. Canada Ltd.); and $105,000 to Lawrence Martin for two books on the Soviet Union (Doubleday Canada Ltd.). And just last week James Fleming, managing editor of The Globe’s Report on Business Magazine, sold his second business book for more than $88,000.

The trend has sparked furious debate in Toronto, the capital of Canada’s book world. “If an author has a track record, then a high advance makes sense,” said

Malcolm Lester, president of Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd. “What I do object to is high advances to first-time writers. It has absolutely nothing to do with reality.” Avram Bennett, president of McClelland and Stewart Ltd., says that some of the gambles are not paying off. “The writers are getting spoiled,” he added. “They no longer want to take a cut in pay when they take time off to write a book.” And some publishers say that they are perturbed Canadian authors are getting advances that are pro-

portionately two or three times greater than what their American counterparts are getting, considering the size of the two markets. Their view is supported by Robert Asahina, vice-president and senior editor of Simon & Schuster Inc. in New York City. “I find $88,000 to be a lot for a book on tax,” he told Maclean’s, “especially proportionate to the size of the Canadian audience.”

Some publishers of costly books that have not broken even in hard-cover say that they hope to earn their money back through paperback editions. In one instance, novelist Gary Ross’s book Stung (Stoddart Publishing Co. Ltd.), about Brian Molony, a Toronto banker turned gambler, so far has sold only 25,000 of the 32,000 copies it needs to sell in hardcover to earn back the $100,000 advance.

Said an optimistic Ross, who is now weighing offers for a film version: “The book will now have to sell about 60,000 to 70,000 in paperback.”

Still, enough advances are earned back that the trend is likely to continue. Two weeks ago Macmillan of Canada learned that Edward Greenspan’s The Case for the Defence, an autobiography by one of Canada’s top criminal lawyers, earned back its $160,000 advance in just five months. Said company president Arnold Gosewich: “We

breathed a sigh of relief.”

Industry leaders say that an important factor in the increased cost of obtaining book deals is the emergence of literary agents, most notably Livingston, Toronto’s Colbert Agency and Lucinda Vardey. Typically, they keep for themselves 15 per cent of the advances they negotiate for their authors. Livingston, in particular, has excited editors’ interest in young, talented writers. The 38-year-old American-born agent, a selfstyled maverick who sports cowboy boots and rolled-up jeans, succeeds through his keen market instinct, literary sense and a gift for highlighting an author’s salable qualities.

Livingston recalls that, when he took on Ian Brown, the journalist hoped to write books on either overly ambitious

topics or such odd phenomena as vegematics and the mail-order business. “Instead, for Ian we chose the perfect starter book, like a starter house,” said Livingston. “Canadian Tire was an icon and could sell well.” Then, Livingston, who has perfected the art of the auction, began taking bids by telephone from five interested publishers. The offers started at $35,000 and ended at more than $70,000 at the end of the day.

Advances have also been pumped up during the past four years by foreignowned Canadian publishers moving into the contracting and publishing of Canadian books. With their international capital base, such firms as Collins and Penguin can assume a higher risk than smaller Canadian firms. As a result, they have gained a reputation as big spenders

on big books—and as companies that are willing to overpay simply for the privilege of establishing or acquiring an author’s name. Indeed, Penguin paid $500,000 to Peter C. Newman for a multivolume history of the Hudson Bay Co.—the highest advance ever in Canadian publishing for a nonfiction project and an amount that Mint says has already “earned out” with only two books published. Still, Mint describes his firm’s authorrelated costs as “horrendous.” He added:

“We sold close to $7 million of Canadian-authored books in 1987. But we paid $1 million that year in royalties and advances.”

Most of the first-time authors winning big advances are producing nonfiction books. And those who specialize in business or political writing are making the most money of all—a fact that reflects current public

tastes. By comparison, first-time fiction authors routinely get advances of less than $10,000. According to Stoddart president Jack Stoddart, it was rare five years ago for a nonfiction title to sell 15,000 to 20,000 copies. Now, the top nonfiction books often sell that much. But while business books have made a strong showing in the past several years, McClelland and Stewart’s Bennett says that some of them falter because they are perishable and are “boring by the time they come out.” As well, many observers say that the vicarious thrill the public derives from reading about successful entrepreneurs is begin-

ning to wear off. But political topics continue to fascinate readers. Indeed, last fall readers snapped up 47,000 copies of Toronto political columnist Claire Hoy’s second book, Friends in High Places: Politics and Patronage in the Mulroney Government (Key Porter Books Ltd.).

The new high price tag for authors has already begun to seriously hurt smaller companies and could, some industry insiders argue, begin to harm authors. Some publishers privately complain about writers defecting from smalland medium-sized firms to companies that are known to pay well. Denis Deneau, publisher of Deneau Publishers & Co. Ltd., says that smaller firms are “in danger of becoming farm teams for the larger publishers.” Den-

eau added that his company reorganized and went into an association with the University of Toronto Press last year in order to lower its overhead and offer more competitive advances. Meanwhile, literary agent Vardey says she worries that authors who peak too soon will inevitably suffer. “I try to build an unknown author rung by rung, because if they get $100,000 on the first book and only $50,000 on the second, the second is perceived as a failure.”

But McQuaig and other writers argue that high advances make better books. In fact, the average advance is still only $10,000—up from $1,500 a decade ago.

Not expecting the high advance she eventually won, McQuaig had originally intended to spend only three months on her project. But the advance allowed her to fly frequently to Ottawa for research during the 14 months she was working on the book. “I got the time to produce a lively political story, not just a flat recitation of the facts,” she said of her account of how the wealthy have taken control of the country’s taxation system. Adrienne Clarkson, editor-in-chief at McClelland and Stewart, is also a supporter of the trend toward larger advances. Said Clarkson: “I am very glad that writers are earning good livings. They should not starve in garrets.” Other publishers are toiling to adapt to the era of more well-heeled authors. Some are seeking joint ventures with paperback publishers or initiating projects inhouse to avoid the auction process. And many companies are putting more effort into imaginative marketing campaigns.

But despite the uncertain rewards of pursuing first-time authors, publishers are continuing to pay good money for new writers. Undeterred by the sluggish sales of Behind Closed Doors, Mint— who says his company’s marketing of the book is partly to blame—wants McQuaig to produce another book. Said the publisher: “Linda is a superb writer. If you do not take risks, you are nowhere.” He is among the many Canadian publishers who, like high-stakes gamblers, are clearly hoping that a big risk today will yield a best seller tomorrow.