It had been a long and tiring day at the year’s most important book fair for Karl Siegler, president of Vancouver’s Talonbooks. Still, the publisher was ebullient last week, despite the exhausting hours he was putting in at the big international event in Frankfurt, Germany. After several years of underwhelming reception from the world’s book buyers, Siegler reports, “Now, I have people seeking me out to distribute our books.” With the publisher’s European distributor finding eager markets for 80 per cent of Talonbooks’ 208 titles, and a long-sought deal for distribution in New Zealand and Australia just a signature away, he adds, ‘We can hardly contain our glee.”
More than half a dozen B.C. companies (out of a total of 40) made the expensive trek to Frankfurt, an indication of the regional industry’s emerging profile. The province’s 21 largest publishers had sales of more than $25 million last year, up by nearly 40 per cent from 1989. Still, the industry remains only marginally profitable: without government grants of nearly $2 million, B.C. book publishers would have lost money last year. The average volume published in the province earns a meagre $4,500 for its author and about the same for its publisher. “Books here,” says Alan Twigg, publisher of the quarterly B.C. BookWorld, “are being subsidized by the people who make them.” And Howard White, president of Harbour Publishing, based in Pender Harbour, north of Vancouver, notes, We’re holding our own. I’ve finally got out of my 11-year-old Volvo. I’m now driving a [used] Toyota.”
Yet many B.C. publishers and bookstores are benefiting from the demand— on the part of both locals and tourists— for homegrown fare. In the flagship downtown Vancouver outlet of Duthie Books, one of the country’s largest independent booksellers, B.C. titles are prominently featured, books covering everything from geography to pioneer women to forester folklore. We are terrifically chauvinistic in British Columbia,” acknowledges owner Celia Duthie, whose enterprise expanded last year to six outlets.
The energetic support of independent booksellers is one explanation for the growth of B.C. publishing. Another is a conspicuously literate public. Federal statistics compiled in 1991 showed that B.C. residents typically spent almost six hours a week reading books—well above the national average of 4.4 hours. “It goes back to the kind of people who have come here,” suggests White, reflecting more than a little of that provincial chauvinism. “They’re more imaginative, more engaged, more intellectually curious. They’re just into it” When it comes to the question of provincial support, however, there are gripes. White, for one, complains that B.C. funding for companies like his “is a scandal.” And both those who publish books in the province and those v who sell them proi test against the domi5 nance of Toronto< based competitors who, they say, often ignore promising regional authors. Unthe situation in Ontario and even neighboring Alberta, educational textbook publishing is virtually non-existent.
Such discontent, however, cannot mask the evidence of growth. White’s Harbour Publishing has seen its annual list grow from four titles to 20 in the past decade. Talonbooks’ sales in the United States doubled in 1993, and the company expects a similar increase this year. Duthie, meanwhile, has launched a radical new “virtual bookstore” on the worldwide Internet computer network, where shoppers can browse electronically through a catalogue of 50,000 international titles. “It’s being accessed from Peru to Finland,” boasts the innovative bookseller. Thin though the profits may be for some, British Columbians are successfully putting their books before the world.
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