COVER

A Vintage Season for Readers

After last year’s dismal sales, the book industry has high hopes for this year’s outstanding crop

D’ARCY JENISH September 23 1996
COVER

A Vintage Season for Readers

After last year’s dismal sales, the book industry has high hopes for this year’s outstanding crop

D’ARCY JENISH September 23 1996

A Vintage Season for Readers

After last year’s dismal sales, the book industry has high hopes for this year’s outstanding crop

D’ARCY JENISH

Over the past few weeks, Mary Jo Anderson has had the odd restless night and the occasional white-knuckle day. Anderson is in the midst of renovating and expanding her upscale independent bookstore, Frog Hollow Books, located in a downtown Halifax shopping centre. She is also racing against the clock, anxious to get the job done in time for the fall book blitz, the 10 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas that can account for 80 per cent of a bookstore’s annual sales. But Anderson has more in mind than just the sound of jingling cash registers. She is eager to fill her shelves with what she and many of her counterparts across the country are calling some of the best Canadian fiction and nonfiction to be published in years. “It’s an incredibly strong list,” she says. “The quality is certainly there.” But for booksellers and publishers, the big question is: will the readers be there? The industry is hoping to rebound from disastrous sales in the fall of 1995 and a weak spring this year. Publishers are also reeling from the continuing decline in government financial support that has led some to trim the number of books they produce or to push back the release date of other promising titles. The cutbacks have already led to one casualty—Toronto-based literary publisher Coach House Press, which folded in July. And at least three other small Ontario publishers are reportedly teetering, largely because the provincial government has withdrawn its loan guarantees.

But despite the often dismal bottom lines, publishers and booksellers remain remarkably devoted to the business. “Canadian publishing is basically in a precarious situation,” says Richard Bachmann, owner of A Different Drummer Books in Burlington, Ont. “But I don’t believe people are going to stop writing or publishing because Mike Harris or Jean Chrétien decide to put their money somewhere else.”

If there is one title that will kick start the season, it is Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s ninth novel, which is already selling briskly, topping the Maclean’s fiction best-seller list for the second week running. Atwood will, however, be sharing the spotlight with several other established literary stars, most notably Timothy Findley, whose 1995 novel, The Piano Man’s Daughter, was a national best-seller. He is back this fall with a novella, titled You Went Away, about a wartime affair between an air force pilot and a married woman. And short-story writers Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant are releasing collections of previously published works that span their long careers and reflect their stature as international literary stars.

A number of established but less-celebrated writers have new works that provide ample evidence of the diversity and richness of current Canadian fiction. W. P. Kinsella, whose favorite subjects are baseball and Indians, goes to bat again with If Wishes Were Horses, while Susan Swan, who has a knack for outlandish publicity stunts, is releasing a collection of stories called Stupid Boys Are Good to Relax With. And in a field that is always cluttered with new and emerging talent, two distinguished journalists, John Fraser {Stolen China) and Charles Foran {Butterfly Lovers), are attempting to establish their credentials as fiction writers with novels that draw

upon their personal experiences in the People’s Republic.

While a few fictional gems may appear in the fall crop, the book trade is still buzzing with excitement over several dazzling first novels that appeared in the spring. Booksellers from coast to coast are confident that they have glimpsed the next generation of literary stars, the successors to Atwood and Findley, Munro and Gallant. The two leading candidates for future stardom, the booksellers say, are Toronto-based writers Ann-Marie MacDonald {Fall On Your Knees) and Anne Michaels {Fugitive Pieces), whose books are still selling well even as the fall titles are arriving. “It looks to me like there’s another generation of younger female Canadian writers that are really making a splash,” says James Munro, owner of Munro’s Books in Victoria.

For political junkies, publishers have offered enough hits to keep them revved up through the winter, and perhaps into the spring. Maclean’s Ottawa editor Anthony Wilson-Smith and his Globe and Mail counterpart Edward Greenspon have teamed up in Winging It: Backroom Stories and Liberal Blues to give readers an inside look at the Chrétien Liberals. Financial Post editor and Maclean’s columnist Diane Francis takes a run at Quebec separatists in The Fight for Canada. Anthony Manera, an engineer and civil servant who was president of the CBC in 1994-1995, offers an inside account of strife at the corporation in A Dream Betrayed: The Battle for the CBC. Former New Democrat premiers Dave Barrett and Mike Harcourt in British Columbia and Bob Rae in Ontario all have books out about their careers on the public stage. And for Canada’s beleaguered social democrats, academic-activist James Laxer has served up In Search of a New Left: Canadian Politics after the Neoconservative Assault.

Like old coaches who never tire of the dump-and-chase offence, Canadian publishers now make hockey books a standard part of their fall rosters. This year, they are offering in excess of 25 titles, many of them relying on game plans from seasons past. Although some booksellers contend that the public is becoming jaded and indifferent about hockey books, two intriguing new

titles suggest that there is plenty of pluck left in the genre. New Brunswick novelist David Adams Richards takes his first shift as a nonfiction writer with Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn’t Play. And Toronto novelist Paul Quarrington has assembled an eclectic group of writers to produce pieces for Original Six: True Stories from Hockey’s Classic Era, a book about the now-mythical years from 1943 to 1967 when the National Hockey League consisted of six teams.

There are several offerings for celebrity aficionados, most notably Marilyn: Hie Niagara Photographs, a collection of pictures taken of Marilyn Monroe during the 1950s by the late Jock Carroll. Toronto writer Martin Knelman is delivering Laughing on the Outside: The Life of John Candy, while comedian Dave Thomas offers SCTV: Behind the Scenes. A loftier take on culture is available in Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Culture Odyssey by Geoff Pevere and Greig Dymond.

Prominent Canadians from several fields are featured in a rich selection of biographies, autobiographies and memoirs. Former Chatelaine editor Doris Anderson tells her life story in Rebel Daughter: An Autobiography, while Mel Hurtig recounts his colorful career as a g bookseller, publisher and author in At Twilight in the I Country: Memoirs of a Canadian Nationalist. Linda g Frum has crafted a personal portrait of her famous § mother in Barbara Frum: A Daughter’s Memoir, and Ira I B. Nadel examines the private side of one of this coun| try’s most celebrated creators in Various Positions: A ° Life of Leonard Cohen.

Journalists with a nose for stories about conflict or col-

lapse dominate this fall’s selection of business books. S The CBC’s Theresa Tedesco wades into the murky * saga surrounding a Canadian hockey shrine in Offside: The Battle for Control of Maple Leaf Gardens. Rod McQueen assesses the demise of a venerable Canadian company in Life and Death: Who Killed Confederation Life? Two very diverse empires are explored in Paul Grescoe’s The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance, and Anthony Bianco’s Faith and Fortune: The Reichmann Family Saga. And there is an ample offering of books about economic trends: The Pig and the Python: How to Prosper from the Aging Baby Boom, by David Cork and Susan Lightstone; Naming Rumpelstiltskin: Who Will Profit (and Who Will Lose) in the Workplace of the 21st Century, by Ann Finlayson; and pollster Angus Reid’s Shakedown: How the New Economy Is Changing Our Lives.

Booksellers in various parts of the country often find that their customers want books by local authors, or about local subjects. Celia Duthie, owner of eight Duthie Books Ltd. outlets in the Vancouver area, predicts that science-fiction writer William Gibson (Idoru) and novelist-illustrator Nick Bantock (The Venetian’s Wife), two authors with international reputations, will sell extremely well in Vancouver this fall, simply because they live in the city. Similarly, Anderson says that she anticipates strong demand this fall for David Swick’s Thunder and Ocean, a book about the Halifax Buddhist community, and Stephen KimbeFs More than Just Folks, a collection of 20 short biographies about prominent or unusual Nova Scotians.

For authors, publishers and booksellers, the next few weeks will be a swirl of new releases, book tours, signings and readings. It is an exciting interlude when the industry’s perennial problems— small markets, high costs and precarious finances—are pushed aside, or forgotten, and optimism reigns. “There are an awftil lot of interesting books out there this fall,” says Jack Stoddart, chairman of Stoddart Publishing and president of the Association of Canadian Publishers. “I’m looking for a 25-per-cent increase in sales over last year.” Wishful thinking, maybe, but that is often the juice that keeps Canada’s struggling publishers in the business. □