Crisis and Renewal in English-Canadian Book Publishing, 1970-2004 (1)

Article excerpt


Au Canada anglophone l'edition a subi des crises successives depuis 1970. Malgre cela elle demeure productive tant au plan de la creation qu'a celui de la culture. Les fonds publics ont joue un role important pour ce qui est de faire profiter l'industrie et d'en assurer la stabilite de maniere significative. Quoiqu'il en soit la situation etait telle pour les livres canadiens qu'il en est resulte la perte de nombreuses et importantes maisons d'edition. Cet article brosse un tableau des forces qui ont joue contre l'industrie, notamment des changements fondamentaux et imprevus dans le domaine de l'achat des manuels, les politiques gouvernementales, l'economie et la vente de livres au detail. Pour contrebalancer ces defis, des forces ont joue en faveur de l'industrie, notamment l'excellence au plan de la creation, la diversite au plan des regions et des genres, ainsi qu'une adaptation fructueuse dans le domaine des ventes a l'etranger et de la distribution au pays. Soulignant le devouement des editeurs canadiens en tant que facteur crucial, cet article conclue avec optimisme en soulignant leur capacite a faire face a de futures crises.

   I doubt that any Canadian publisher is strong enough far any great
   adventures in original publishing even if the market conditions hem
   the possibility of reward far such adventures, which they don't.
   The picture is much less feverish, much less dangerous, much less
   promising than elsewhere.

   -- John Gray, Writing in Canada (3)

To the objective observer, English-Canadian book publishing seems to operate in a perpetual state of crisis. (4) It was not always that way. For many decades, the industry was modestly profitable, largely due to a captive market: students in Canada's elementary and high schools.

The industry's apparently chronic financial precariousness began in 1970 and has continued ever since. That was the year when two of the industry's longest standing pillars, the Ryerson Press and Gage Publishing--the one dating from 1829, the other from 1880--were taken over by American publishers. Almost immediately afterwards, the late Jack McClelland announced in early 1971 that a similar fate could soon befall McClelland & Stewart, the country's flagship trade publisher. (5) Together, these three firms represented a substantial portion of English-speaking Canada's publishing establishment. At the time, a sense of crisis gripped virtually everyone concerned about out society's cultural identity. (For simplicity I'll henceforth use the terms "Canada" and "Canadian" when referring to the country's Anglophone culture.)

The 1970-71 crisis represents a watershed in our publishing industry and our cultural politics. In the thirty-four years since then, several other crisis points have occurred. (I am defining "crisis" here as a general state of financial difficulty menacing the survival of not just one publishing house, but a significant portion of the industry under Canadian control, resulting in one or more company failures.) Ironically, this timeframe has coincided with the richest period in Canada's literary history--an era of extraordinary productivity and excellence, giving us a literature now acclaimed around the world. How to reconcile these apparently conflicting trends?

The Context for Crisis

By "context," I mean the environment that makes it difficult for Canadian publishers to operate profitably. And if "crisis" seems melodramatic, let's review the roll call of culturally important, independent Canadian publishers that have disappeared since 1970: Ryerson Press (1970); Clarke, Irwin (1983); Hurtig Publishers (1991); Lester & Orpen Dennys (1991); Western Producer Prairie Books (1991); Summerhill Press (1991); Coach House Press (1996); Macmillan of Canada (2002); Stoddart Publishing (2002); Irwin Publishing (2002); Macfarlane Walter & Ross (2003); Gage Publishing (2003).

Specific causes of these disappearances vary case by case. …