Publishing

BOTTOM LINE ON BOOKS

M&S’s new head comes with a fiscal mission

B.B. April 26 2004
Publishing

BOTTOM LINE ON BOOKS

M&S’s new head comes with a fiscal mission

B.B. April 26 2004

BOTTOM LINE ON BOOKS

M&S’s new head comes with a fiscal mission

B.B.

THE SKY CONTINUES to fall on Canadian publishing after years of consolidation in a tough retail market. Last year, returns of unsold books to publishers from Indigo, the giant chain that moves well over half of the books sold in Canada, ran at more than 50 per cent. Macfarlane Walter & Ross died, supposedly the victim of declining interest in nonfiction. But fiction isn’t selling at home or abroad like it used to either, say weary publishers, who complain—as though they had no part in the phenomenon—that too many books are being published. And now McClelland & Stewart publisher Doug Gibson has been eased from his position by a bottom-line focused board of directors. Things are awful, with no relief in sight.

Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell in a closeknit and secretive trade where insiders go off the record just to say “no comment.” Doug Pepper, the New York City-based Canadian editor-publisher named as Gibson’s replacement, clearly doesn’t think the situation is so grim. “I wouldn’t have left New York if I believed that. Far from Canadian publishing thrashing about, I think it’s turned a corner.” As for declining interest in nonfiction, Pepper’s Midas touch in that area is precisely why M&S sought him out. “Look at his list at Crown Publishing,” notes Roy MacSkimming, author of The Perilous Canadian Trade, title on “There’s an the a M&S-issued publishing. lot history of comof mercially successful non-fiction on it.” David Davidar, Pengum Canada s new publisher and an old friend of Pepper’s, agrees. “With Ellen on fiction,” he says, referring to M&S’s highly regarded fiction editor, Ellen Seligman, “and Doug on nonfiction, M&S will be a powerhouse.”

Davidar is also impressed by his friend’s “exceptionally good poker face.” He dropped into Pepper’s New York City office a few weeks ago and asked him if he had any plans to come back to Toronto. “He adroidy ducked that one—I didn’t get a hint.”

Literary non-fiction has been surprising publishers lately with its popularity, leading some to think it the source of future profits, given the slowdown in fiction sales abroad. (Canadian fiction in the U.S., “once so sexy they were lining up for it,” says one insider, is no longer so hot.) “Who would have thought Margaret MacMillan`s Paris 1919 would sell 120,000 copies?" asks Random House of Canada COO Bard Martin."Our idea of it doing well was 3,500 copies"It`s not easy to pick winners in publishing’s biggest genre, one in which books are often time-sensitive and unappealing outside their home markets.

Fiction does travel better, Pepper acknowledges, and in an era when prize glamour has become the engine that drives novel sales, “Canada is probably underserved in non-fiction—we could do with better nonfiction prizes, like the U.S. Pulitzers.” He’d also like to see more non-fiction blockbusters—works like Richard Clarke’s politically loaded Against All Enemies. “Think of the power of that book to change the landscape. More of that in Canada would be a very healthy thing.”

Cultural impact is all well and good, but Pepper is frank about his mission. “I’m going in with certain fiscal goals. Random House, a part owner of M&S, is involved in that— and I’m very much in touch with their thinking, having worked for them for 17 years. Publishing is all about making your numbers.” Still, M&S remains “fully autonomous,” Pepper insists, “or, again, I wouldn’t have taken the job. I want to build on the traditions of the place. It’s got the name, it’s got the authors, and like everyone else in Canadian publishing I want it to thrive.”