Features  The small print

The Daily examines how literary presses and grassroots initiatives are keeping Canadian book publishing afloat

Books are in big trouble – or so we’ve been led to believe by the abundance of gloomy reports about the demise of the publishing industry. Major Canadian and North American publishing houses have laid off hundreds of employees, revenues have been down – HarperCollins’s dropped $100 million, or 25 per cent this past quarter – newspapers have drastically downsized or axed book review sections, and shifts toward digital reading have been worrying traditional presses. The truth is, for an industry that has never turned much of a profit, things are going pretty badly.

But much of the mainstream media has failed to point out that amidst the floundering publishing giants, grassroots groups have adapted to the landscape by re-imagining Canadian publishing.

The recession is certainly one of the main factors contributing to the difficulties facing publishers. But literary, or small, presses have actually fared pretty well throughout the economic downturn. “It’s been so far, so good for us,” says Alana Wilcox, editor-in-chief of Coach House Books, a literary press based in Toronto. Wilcox argues that for small presses, “Profit is never a concern – breaking even is a concern. We like to say we’re not-not-for-profit, as opposed to for-profit…. Our demographic is not the same as Random House – we’re not accustomed to selling millions of copies, and we don’t need to.” Whereas mainstream presses have relied on large consumer bases, smaller publishing houses tend to operate in a niche market, and thus don’t expect to generate huge financial returns. When national book sales drop, small presses are impacted less – their sales, though modest, generally don’t fluctuate according to larger consumer trends.

Simon Dardick, publisher and general editor of Montreal’s Véhicule Press, takes a more cautious stance. “I have a theory that for literary publishing, [because] we’re always operating so close to the bone, it takes us a while to figure out if things are worse,” he says. “We’ve had a reasonably good fall, but we won’t know what our returns are until April or May.” Although Dardick cannot yet tell whether the recession has had an effect on Véhicule’s sales, he points to other aspects of the industry that are harmful to small presses – specifically, dealings with Chapters/Indigo. The retail monolith’s book-ordering policy allows it to return orders after a 90-day freeze. According to Dardick, Indigo often orders indiscriminately – even full print runs of some titles – spiking presses’ initial sales, but putting them in a bind when most of the books are returned three months later. Still, negotiating with corporate booksellers is nothing new for small presses, and has always been an uphill battle.

Small Canadian presses are also in less trouble than major publishing houses because they have adapted quickly to changes in print media – changes that have otherwise been perceived as threats to the industry. Traditional channels for book publicity – namely, newspapers – are narrowing, and publishers are sparing less and less cash for book promotion. As a result, locating venues to publicize authors and their work is proving increasingly difficult, especially when literature is not something a majority of the population normally seeks out. Many literary presses started looking for alternatives long before the larger companies began having trouble. “It’s true,” Dardick concedes, “the field has gotten very narrow in terms of where books get talked about. The old way of traditional print media is disappearing. We still send review copies to student newspapers, because student papers aren’t going out of print. We send out a lot of review copies to specialty publications, blogs, websites – we’re still sending out books, but I guess it’s the way we’re informing people [that’s different].”

“It’s a different way of marketing, a much more grassroots and guerrilla approach,” Wilcox adds. “That’s why [publishers such as] Random House would be hurting more. We’ve had to be like that anyway. Taking out a $50,000 ad in The Globe has never been an issue for us.” Publicizing books through more community-based, grassroots channels such as blog reviews and website banners has played an important role in maintaining sales for literary presses. While major publishers will need to catch up with these new marketing strategies, smaller presses have always had to seek out alternatives to traditional publicity in order to survive.

But when it comes to talking about books, the Internet is more than an advertising tool. George Murray, creator of Bookninja, Canada’s top books site, explains that, “Sites like Bookninja act, ideally, as a conduit for ideas and discussion. They’re communications machines serving no corporate masters, but rather a group of like-minded individuals…. The site acts as a taste-maker to an extent, by cutting through the spin, and offering editorial opinion in a way the traditional media can’t really swallow.” The web is a fertile ground not only for publishers to get the word out about their titles, but for readers and those with a stake in literary culture to share thoughts and ideas.

Bookninja and similar sites should be ideal forums for pushing against stagnant traditions in the publishing industry and spoon-fed, mainstream book coverage; however, Murray suggests that although “occasional book deals have been brokered through connections made on the site, [he doesn’t] know that it’s changed the industry as a whole.” Considering that many people who follow sites like Bookninja deal with books in a professional capacity, Murray hopes that some of his opinions will eventually “trickle down…into the policies and strategies [these professionals] implement from time to time.” Still, he acknowledges the importance of smaller scale projects in reshaping certain aspects of the industry when necessary. “When a void exists, a grassroots movement will fill it. That’s a good thing. Those movements then go through a legitimization process and become self-sustaining businesses. The International Festival of Authors used to be held at Hart House Library at the University of Toronto. Now it’s a huge international event. Eventually big projects might collapse, but someone always fills the void if there’s a need,” he says.

Indeed, when Reed Exhibitions announced on February 2 that BookExpo Canada, a major books trade show, had been cancelled, online communities were immediately buzzing with speculation as to what this meant for Canadian publishing, and what kinds of events could possibly appear in its wake. Hugh McGuire, a Montreal writer and web developer, saw this as the perfect opportunity to make public what he and a few other collaborators had been planning for about a month: BookCampTO, an “unconference” scheduled for June in Toronto, geared toward discussing the future of publishing in Canada. “We decided to flick the switch, and let people know we were going to do this,” McGuire says. “The main Canadian book conference was getting cancelled, [and we thought] ‘let’s let people know that there is another venue to discuss the future, and innovative ways of thinking about the industry.’”

Unconferences likely owe their existence to the Internet – unlike their corporate counterparts, unconferences are participant-driven, thus requiring a great deal of communication among a large, geographically scattered group of people. For BookCampTO – inspired by London’s BookCamp in January – McGuire and co-organizers Mitch Joel, Mike Bertils, Erin Balser, and Alexa Clark, set up a Wiki page for participants to register, and to plan and discuss sessions. The event reached its 150-person registration cap in a matter of days, and there are already nearly 50 suggested sessions, including “Digital Platforms for Authors,” “Podcasting Your Fiction,” and “Myths and misconceptions about the print/web relationship.”

The excitement and mobilization around BookCampTO point to the value of grassroots organizing when corporate or institutional models fail. But it’s not just a matter of replacement – in many ways BookCamp has nothing to do with BookExpo. “I think the approach of something like BookCamp is very different,” McGuire says. “BookExpo is a big corporate conference, BookCamp is free – there is discussion going on about publishing, rather than a showcase of products.” For the group of people concerned by problems facing the publishing industry, it’s not only a question of filling in a void, but of taking a critical look at what created the void in the first place, re-evaluating how the industry works, and imagining new possibilities for its future.

Jay MillAr, publisher of Toronto’s BookThug, sees small presses as playing a vital role in ensuring that the industry doesn’t stagnate. “I see the small and literary presses as means by which to advocate for smart publishing,” he says. “Just as we can’t have a healthy book industry with large box stores that sell safe expectation-books – the only way to have a healthy book industry in North America is to have many smaller independent booksellers scattered across the country who specialize – this needs to be reflected at the publishing level, too. A healthy publishing industry is not controlled by giant media publishers who are all owned by the same person. Small is possible.”

And as the publishing giants collapse, small may not just be possible, but could be the most viable option for keeping Canadian publishing alive and well. “I don’t think it’s the death knell of publishing,” Dardick says. “Some of the larger publishers are going to have to cut back – some might even go out of business. But I think small literary publishing has existed because we’re resilient. So I’m optimistic despite the pessimism.”