This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.
BOOK PUBLISHING IN CANADA*
THE representative of a book publishers' association which appeared before this Commission thus referred to his profession: "The Book Publisher becomes, in a sense, the architect of the mind; he guides writers into certain channels, supplying the formulas and the frame without which many authors would be helpless".1 We quote this statement to show that publishers recognize and respect the great responsibility which is theirs; we suppose, however, that some authors might enter a mild protest, summoning historical evidence to show that writers had produced books and even very good books before the age of printing, to say nothing of publishing.
2. Obviously, however, no one can deny the immense importance of the Canadian publisher in the development of Canadian letters. We have heard with concern of the insecurity of his position and of its possible effect on Canadian literature and Canadian culture. First, he cannot count in Canada on production sufficient in volume and in quality to permit him to acquire and to maintain a steady market. Second, our population is too small and dispersed to provide mass sales. There are also several financial reasons peculiar to Canada which complicate the business of a publishing house.
3. One principal cause of the publishers' difficulties appears in a table showing the literary output in Great Britain, the United States and in Canada for the years 1947 and 1948. This table, from the special study presented to us, shows the discrepancy between the number of books published in Great Britain and in the United States and in Canada during the same period.
4. We were told, however, that the quality of Canadian books materially affects the business of book publishing in Canada. According to a Canadian publisher: " . . . Individual Canadian books sell reasonably well in Canada where factors of interest, literary quality, price and production are relatively the same as those of foreign books in the same season. . . . The real failure must still rest with the failure to date of any large group of Canadian authors to express this country to the Canadian people in any really arresting way".2 He went on to point out that a comparison of sales figures in Canada of four American and British best sellers with the sale of four successful Canadian novels, reveals that in three instances the sale of the Canadian book in Canada was greater than that of the American or British; in the fourth, the sales in Canada of the American best seller exceeded only slightly (by about two hundred copies) the sales of the Canadian best seller. His conclusion was that what is really needed is more good Canadian books; if our publishers could offer to the public a greater number of novels of outstanding quality, the publishing business in Canada would undoubtedly be more prosperous.
5. On the other hand, a critic in Montreal has said to us that too often our publishers, through lack of courage or imagination, neglect an opportunity to launch a good Canadian author and thus increase their business. We were reminded that it was an American publisher who undertook to translate and publish in English Bonheur d'Occasion by Gabrielle Roy, easily the most successful Canadian book internationally since the war. The Canadian publishers also missed their chance with Edward Mead's novel, Remember Me. It was published by a British firm in London and ten thousand copies were sold in a few months in Great Britain alone. We learned that Canadian book sellers ordered only fifteen hundred copies for sale in Canada, and that no Canadian publisher has undertaken to issue a reprint. Canadian publishers are, of course, not alone in this matter; since publishing began the history of literature is marked by similar miscalculations. In Canada, no doubt as in other countries, the publisher may sometimes with justice complain that the writer wants inspiration, while the writer may retort that the publisher lacks acumen.
6. Much more important, it seems, are the material problems of the publisher. A large country and a scattered population make for high advertising, transportation and distribution costs. In not more than twenty-five book shops in Canada, we are told, is it unnecessary to sell other merchandise in order to stay in business. At the same time, many Canadians fail to acquire the habit of buying books because they live in centres too small to maintain any kind of book shop. It must be recalled that there is a fixed minimum number of copies of any book which must be sold before the publisher does more than meet his expenses. This minimum, we are informed, is about four thousand for books in French
and three thousand for books in English. Even if novels are included, it seems that the sales of few books in any one year exceed these numbers, so critical for the publisher.
7. During the recent war, it is true, the French-Canadian publisher, greatly prospering, could forget about the question of minimum sales. At this time the importation of books from France was practically stopped; except for a few works published in New York or South America, the French-Canadian publisher had to assume the task of his colleagues in France and issue reprints on a great scale of text books, scholarly works, books for children and a very considerable series of contemporary works which French-speaking Canada used to import from France.
8. The impressive figures which are offered may be misleading, but there seems to be no doubt that the war gave an extraordinary stimulus to publishing in French Canada, which sold its products in fifty-two countries abroad. But with the end of the war, business fell off very sharply, and in Montreal there was a series of bankruptcies on the resumption of publishing in France, under more or less normal conditions, and the consequent renewed sale of French publications in Canada and elsewhere.
9. English-speaking publishers did not share the extraordinary wartime prosperity of their French-speaking colleagues but they did enjoy an increase in business which reflected the general expansion of our whole economy. At the end of the war there was no appreciable decline. In English-speaking Canada the book publishing industry seems to be stabilized at a level rather higher than the pre-war, but at a level which does not yet quite satisfy the publishers. It is stated that their readers read three American or British books for every one Canadian.3 The figures are probably more disproportionate when applied to the number of books from France in comparison with publications of French Canada read by French-speaking Canadians.
10. Book publishers, with optimism and enterprise, are trying to stimulate the circulation of books in a variety of ways. A publisher from France who has been living in Canada for some years has organized, under the name of Le Cercle du livre de France, a French Book of the Month in Montreal. The organization has more than five thousand readers (including American subscribers) who receive at least four books in French each year. Of these, one is a book from French Canada, the prize novel resulting from an annual competition for Canadian writers instituted by the directors of the Cercle. The publisher responsible for this undertaking maintained in a brief presented to us that the establishment of a Canadian book club which would publish only Canadian books would give to our publishing industry a badly needed stimulus. It has been suggested that it would be advisable for an English-speaking publisher to collaborate with a French-speaking colleague in such an undertaking, so that subscribers
to a Canadian Book Club might have the advantage of reading our best books in both languages, either directly in the original or in translation. We infer from the views expressed before us that such a project would provide a desirable complement to the various American Book of the Month clubs and associations. It would then be possible for Canadians to subscribe to an organization whose main purpose would be to circulate good Canadian books.
11. The popularity of American Book Clubs, we were told in Toronto, has probably helped to stimulate the habit of reading in Canada. At the same time, it appears that the American Book Clubs have seriously affected in Canada the sales of Canadian books. We have learned that there are some eighteen American organizations of this kind operating in our country. The advantages and merits of the American Book Clubs were not discussed in detail; but two of their main disadvantages for Canadians were pointed out to us. First, since their introduction in Canada, the once prosperous and efficient system of mail-order distribution of books, operating on the initiative of Canadian publishers twenty-five years ago, has disappeared. Second, since they are owned and directed by Americans, the Book Clubs are designed to appeal to American readers and do not take into account the particular needs and interests of Canadian readers.
12. The publishers' associations mentioned certain special disabilities under which they operate and made a variety of suggestions for reform. They urged that the government should cancel the eight per cent sales tax, which is a barrier both to the publication and to the importation of books but which is not applicable to magazines and newspapers. This would lower the cost of Canadian books and would permit book sellers to lower the prices of imported books. It was suggested too that there be established in Canada a preferential postage rate for books such as exists now in the United States and in France. In Canada the preferential rate applies to periodicals and newspapers only. The publishers would also like to see a reduction in the express costs on books, in order to reduce the cost of the circulation of books at all points on the network extending from the publisher to the reader through the printer and the book seller. Special rates for the air transport of books should, it was thought, be considered. Finally, the publishers suggested to us that the Canadian Government should demand reciprocal treatment in the commercial exchange of books with all foreign countries. These measures, we are told, would assist Canadian book publishing to find and to maintain a proper level. They were pressed with some urgency on the ground that the progress of Canadian book publishing is an essential condition to the existence of a Canadian literature.
* From: Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences. Report. Ottawa : King's Printer, 1951. By permission of the Privy Council Office.