Penguin and Indigo see (RED)

December 1, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

December 1 is World AIDS Day, and to mark the occasion, the country’s largest bookseller has teamed up with one of the world’s most recognizable publishers to promote a new line of classic novels that will help battle HIV/AIDS in Africa. Indigo Books and Music has signed on to sell special (RED) editions of 16 Penguin Classics titles. Fifty percent of profits from the (RED) editions will go directly to the Global Fund to eliminate AIDS in Africa.

The special (RED) editions have been repackaged with newly commissioned cover art. The traditional black has been replaced with red, and the covers employ words and phrases taken from the books.

Indigo CEO Heather Reisman is quoted in a press release from Penguin Canada:

Penguin Classics have captured the imagination of millions of readers around the world for generations, transforming the way people think, feel, and read forever. The message of this campaign is that these great books still have power to change lives – and, literally, to save lives.

The sixteen titles in the campaign are:

  • Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
  • Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Lady with a Little Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
  • Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
  • The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
  • Sentimental Education by Gustave Flaubert
  • Silas Marner by George Eliot
  • Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence
  • Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola
  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackerey
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

Indigo has an exclusive licence to sell these titles until January 31, 2011. After that, the special editions will be rolled out to the trade, according to Yvonne Hunter, vice president, publicity and marketing at Penguin Canada.

Meet the new boss …

October 3, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

There is a story about Mordecai Richler that goes something like this: when he was young, Richler was asked what he wanted to do with his life, and replied that he wanted to be a novelist. His bewildered interlocutor reportedly responded by saying, “Yes, but how are you going to make money?”

It’s a good thing Richler didn’t start writing in the digital age. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Jeffrey A. Trachtenberg, reprinted in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, the advent of e-books is making it harder for untested writers to earn even a modest income from their writing:

It has always been tough for literary fiction writers to get their work published by the top publishing houses. But the digital revolution that is disrupting the economic model of the book industry is having an outsize impact on the careers of literary writers.

Priced much lower than hardcovers, many e-books generate less income for publishers. As a result, the publishers who nurtured generations of America’s top literary-fiction writers are approving fewer book deals and signing fewer new writers. Most of those getting published are receiving smaller advances.

In one sense, this is not news. It has always been necessary for novelists who don’t exist in the top tier alongside figures like Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, and J.K. Rowling to augment their incomes by taking other work. This is not a recent phenomenon: Chekhov was a doctor. Wallace Stevens was a lawyer for an insurance company. Anthony Trollope worked for the Royal Mail. And so on.

What is dispiriting, however, is the notion that the e-book format, currently the only publishing format that is experiencing growth rather than flatlining or declining, seems to privilege established writers over new voices, and populist genres over literary writing. Trachtenberg admits that Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom has done well in electronic format, selling “well over 35,000″ copies in its first two weeks of publication. Franzen is a literary writer, but one with definite populist instincts. Twice anointed by Oprah Winfrey, reigning queen of American popular culture (her endorsements of Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner notwithstanding), Franzen has written about his own ambivalence toward the literary and popular divide (which he refers to as Status writing and Contract writing, respectively) in his essay on William Gaddis, entitled “Mr. Difficult.”

Regardless, Franzen is not in a position to need sales, digital or otherwise. His popularity and reputation are already well established. It is newer authors without proven track records who will suffer from digital books cutting into publishers’ bottom lines. Trachtenberg acknowledges this discontinuity when he writes:

The e-book is good news for some. Big-name authors and novels that are considered commercial are increasingly in demand as e-book readers gravitate toward bestsellers with big plots. Unlike traditional bookstores, where a browsing customer might discover an unknown book set out on a table, e-bookstores generally aren’t set up to allow readers to discover unknown authors, agents say. Brand-name authors with big marketing budgets behind them are having the greatest success thus far in the digital marketplace.

In other words, e-books encourage readers to seek out familiar names and traditional approaches, and discourage exploration and experimentation. They are another step along the pernicious road to the kind of blockbuster mentality that has infected Hollywood for years. Which is undoubtedly good for Jonathan Franzen. It’s not so good for literature in general.

Indigo, on-sale dates, and the Stieg Larsson fiasco

May 19, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

Yesterday, yr. humble correspondent moderated a joint Book and Periodical Council/Book Publishers Professionals Association Ideas Exchange panel on the future of the bookstore (one reason among many for the lack of a short story post yesterday; there’s one coming later today, I promise). The panel discussion touched on the bookstore as communal space; the need for booksellers to pick up the slack from publishers in promoting books and authors; the way e-books and print-on-demand technology will change the appearance and nature of a physical bookstore; and issues surrounding parallel importation laws. Although the subject came up very briefly, no one said anything particularly substantive about Indigo Books & Music’s recent breach of protocol in deciding to release the highly anticipated final book in Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, a full 11 days prior to the publisher’s specified release date.

On Monday, Bookninja posted a piece asking readers to confirm e-mails that had started rolling in over the weekend stating that Larsson’s book was on sale in Chapters and Indigo locations, despite the fact that the book’s publisher, Penguin Canada, indicated that the book’s on-sale date was May 25. Readers quickly chimed in with additional information: apparently, there was no signed embargo on the book, but there was an understanding that Penguin’s on-sale date was May 25, and a general expectation (vain hope?) that booksellers would abide by this. In any event, Penguin’s director of publicity and marketing told The Afterword, “The book was not a strict on-sale,” meaning that there was no signed contract stipulating a one-day laydown. Regardless, if a publisher sets a specific on-sale date and a bookseller ignores that, there may be repercussions, such as restricted access to a publisher’s titles in the future.

The problem in this case is that many independents didn’t even have the book in their stores when Indigo jumped the gun, which means they lost out on the crucial first few selling days of the title. A Bookninja commenter from the Guelph indie The Book Shelf says that books were shipped to Chapters/Indigo warehouses a week prior to the specified release date, as per usual, but Chapters then couriered the stock to individual store locations, much to Penguin’s chagrin.

Even if there was not a signed embargo agreement, it was dirty pool for Indigo to release its stock more than a week before the publisher’s stated release date. As publishing moves further and further toward Hollywood’s blockbuster mentality, the first few selling days of a major release become more and more important, and independents that didn’t even have the title in their stores when Indigo put the book on sale lose out. One indie bookseller commenting on the Bookninja thread acknowledges that customers who had placed advance orders for the book called to cancel, saying that they had already picked up the title from Indigo over the weekend. Clearly, every lost sale hurts independent bookstores, which are already struggling in a highly inimical environment.

Penguin would be entirely within its rights to exact punitive measures against the big blue monster, such as restricting when (or even if) the chain receives stock of future titles. Naturally, Penguin will not do this. How can it? Indigo accounts for too large a slice of the bookselling pie in Canada. Penguin would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. It would be much easier to exact punitive measures against smaller independents, which may be ordering only 20 or 50 copies of a given title.

Interestingly, another independent bookseller on the Bookninja thread posted a screenshot of a letter from Random House Canada that reads, in part, “During 2009 we have witnessed a noticeable lack of respect from some of our customers in honouring the on sale dates assigned to our new title publications. For this reason we are implementing strict policies that will allow us to restrict shipments to those customers that choose to violate our on-sale dates.” The letter, which is signed by Duncan Shields, vice-president of sales, goes on to say, “We have been very lenient in the past but feel it is time to take such measures to ensure all of our customers have the same advantage when it comes to selling our books” (my emphasis). The letter was apparently sent in an e-mail with the subject line, “Fwd: Sensitive On Sale Dates letter for Independents” (my emphasis).

What is clear is that there is one set of rules for indies, and another for Indigo. Independent booksellers are being punished as a result of their relatively small market share. This highlights one of the dangers of a virtual monopoly in any industry, and should be a cause for concern among everyone who loves books in this country. As Lori Cheverie, a buyer at the Bookmark bookstore in Charlottetown, PEI, told Quill & Quire, “It’s such an unfair practice that the big guys are able to dictate when they sell a book and there’s never any repercussions about it, whereas if it were us, we wouldn’t get our next shipment [from the publisher].” It’s well past time that such unfair practices came to an end.

An open letter from Amanda Jernigan

May 12, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Seems Mount Allison University has decided to bestow an honourary degree on Heather Reisman, president and CEO of Indigo Books & Music. This has prompted a bit of a backlash. One of the most vocal critics of the university’s move is Amanda Jernigan, editor of The New Quarterly and a Mount Allison alumna. Jernigan feels so strongly that she sent an open letter to the university administration. The letter reads in part:

I studied English literature at Mount Allison University from 1997–2001, and have since returned (in 2009) to teach in the English department here. In the intervening years, I worked in the world of Canadian small-press publishing, and so had a front-row seat on the depredations of Chapters/Indigo in the Canadian book trade. A recent article in THIS Magazine paints the picture: “Some 350 indie bookstores closed across Canada in the past decade, and, according to Susan Dayus, executive director of the Canadian Booksellers Association, much of that had to do with the arrival of the Chapters chain. ‘Those closures happened very quickly when Chapters opened,’ Dayus says. ‘The leadership of Chapters was very predatory – they opened across the street or kitty-corner to successful bookstores. And those who didn’t have strong financial backing went under.’”

It wasn’t just the independent bookstores that Chapters threatened; small publishers felt the squeeze as well. It wasn’t that Chapters didn’t buy our books (I say “our” because I was working for Porcupine’s Quill, Printers & Publishers, in Ontario at this time): they did buy our books — and then returned them, in ruinous numbers.

The full text of Jernigan’s letter is online at Bookninja.

Vancouver’s Duthie Books to close

January 19, 2010 by · 15 Comments 

In what is becoming a depressingly familiar cycle, the iconic Vancouver indie Duthie Books has announced that it will close its last remaining location on 4th Ave. in Kitsilano, citing untenable competition from a combination of big box stores, Amazon, and e-readers.

From The Vancouver Sun:

Facing pressure from online bookseller Amazon and multi-national chains such as Chapters, owner Cathy Duthie Legate has decided to pack it in and close the last of eight locations on Fourth Avenue in Kitsilano.

The family-owned chain was founded in 1957 by Bill Duthie.

“I’m just not making it, so I’m going to close it down,” said Duthie Legate. “We are going to start our regular sale January 28, but it will be better, of course, with discounts of 40, 60 then 80 percent and I hope to have all the books out of here by the end of February.”

“Then I will tear down the store,” she said.

So, yet another independent falls victim to the price gouging online sellers, the tech evangelists, and the blockbuster mentality of the big box stores. And what really annoys me is that one day in the not-too-distant future, when the indies have vanished entirely, taking with them the most conscientious, knowledgeable, and dedicated booksellers in the business, all the people currently singing the praises of new technology and easier access to information will have no fucking idea what it is we’ve lost.

McNally Robinson closes its Toronto location

December 29, 2009 by · 8 Comments 

They say bad news comes in threes. On August 31 of this year, one of Toronto’s beloved independent booksellers, Pages Books and Magazines, shut its doors after 30 years in business. The very next day, TYPE books closed its Danforth Street location. And today, the Toronto Star is reporting that McNally Robinson has closed its Don Mills location as part of a larger restructuring. This is, to say the least, dispiriting news capping a year in which books and booksellers seemed to have been under a sustained assault.

A note on McNally Robinson’s website attempts to put a positive spin on things:

By now you may have heard that McNally Robinson has had to close two stores, one in Toronto and the other at Polo Park. Many jobs are lost and many customers will be disappointed. This has been a heart-rending process. However, Grant Park, our flagship store, has survived, as has our Saskatoon store. In addition we continue our wholesale division, Skylight books, and our website, www.mcnallyrobinson.com. These continue to reflect the quality of bookselling that has led to 7 citations as Canadian independent Bookseller of the Year since 1996. So while the potion is bittersweet, the glass is more than half full.

While it’s clearly important for McNally Robinson to keep its corporate chin up, it’s hard not to feel depressed about the Toronto store’s demise, a scant nine months after it opened. The news comes hot on the heels of a plea for financial assistance from yet another Toronto indie, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, which needs to raise $40,000 in order to avoid closing.

For all the optimism about digital books heading into 2010, those of us who are devoted to actual, physical books need to make a concerted effort to ensure that the trend of bookstore closings doesn’t continue apace. Support your local independent bookstores, people. Let’s try to ensure a happy new year, wot?

Esprit de l’escalier

November 5, 2009 by · 7 Comments 

Yesterday, I moderated a panel put on by the Book and Periodical Council. The session’s title was “What Rules Reading: Ranks or Reviews?” (I trust that frequent readers of this site will be able to divine on which side of the equation yr. humble correspondent falls.) While I was prepared for a healthy debate about diminishing review pages, the migration of criticism to an online environment and the concomitant rise of amateur “citizen” reviewers, precious little time was devoted to these issues. Instead, the panel focused more on the utility (or lack thereof) of bestseller lists in driving book sales.

In the course of the discussion, I floated the idea that bestseller lists created what are essentially self-fulfilling prophecies: if, as one of the panelists suggested, people consult bestseller lists to find out what books they should be reading in order to contribute to discussions around the water cooler at work, do such lists not simply create demand for books that are already selling in large(ish) numbers, leaving a whole raft of equally worthy (if not infinitely more worthy) books unnoticed by the general public? Ancillary to this, why do publishers and booksellers put all their effort into publicizing books that are already selling, as opposed to paying attention to other books that people might not be aware of due to budgetary restrictions for marketing, lack of visibility in bookstores, etc.?

The answer to these questions was illuminating. We’re all in the business of selling books, said one panelist, and if the bestsellers by people like Dan Brown are what the public wants, that’s what should be front and centre in bookstores. What interests me about this comment is not the idea that booksellers should heavily promote things that the public is already aware of; from a retail perspective it only makes sense to put your heavy hitters up front. (Although booksellers might want to take a cue from department store philosophy, which often counsels putting desirable items at the back of the store, so that customers have to walk past all sorts of other things they didn’t know they wanted in order to get to the one item they are actually looking for.) What interests me is the assumption, which I’ve come across with wearisome regularity, that books as products are equivalent to, say, toothpaste or dishwasher detergent.

This assumption is so wearisome, so apparently ingrained in our consumerist psyche that it prompted no challenge from the panelists or the audience, which was made up of publishers, librarians, and other industry players. It prompted no response from yr. humble correspondent, who should have had his wits about him. What I should have pointed out is that books are a product to be sold, and booksellers and publishers obviously need to make money to stay in business, which means moving units. But unlike toothpaste or dishwasher detergent, books are also cultural artifacts, records of our distinctly human heritage, and so should not (in the best of all possible worlds) be treated simply as line items on a P and L sheet. Books like The Lost Symbol and Twilight – the ones that frequently make the bestseller lists and find premium placement in bookstores – are entertaining diversions, but they are also flashes in the proverbial pan. What passes for today’s water cooler conversation will be forgotten next week, next month, or whenever the new big thing comes along. However, carefully crafted works of literature, works that often risk getting lost in the noise of our apparently insatiable blockbuster mentality, endure: why else are we still reading The Iliad, The Faerie Queen, or Dead Souls in 2009?

At their most sublime, the stories contained in works of literature speak to us about our common humanity, they help us understand how to be human. And that’s much more important than merely moving units.

What we’ve lost

September 1, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

Toronto’s Pages Books & Magazines closed its doors for the last time yesterday, 30 years to the day after it opened at the corner of Queen St. West and John St. Blog TO does a good job of summing up what the iconic indie bookseller’s disappearance means for the city:

The end of Pages is, ultimately, the end of the pre-digital counterculture that thrived on Queen West, before the chain stores and sushi joints, when good book and record stores were vital to the city’s loose but thriving Bohemia – the place where you went during the day, before the bars and bands and after-hour booze cans. As [proprietor Marc] Glassman talks about what he’s about to lose, it’s obvious that one of the things he’ll miss most of all is being a compere and matchmaker to that unruly community of writers, artists, designers, musicians, filmmakers, and journalists.

“I can’t tell you how many fantastic, beautiful, brilliant women I introduced to so many pretty okay guys,” he says with a grin.

For those Toronto denizens who face the prospect of being tossed to the maw of the Big Blue Monster with a kind of Beckettian resignation, there is one last blowout for Pages scheduled for September 8 at the Gladstone Hotel. It’s called The Afterword, which is appropriate, somehow.

RIP Pages, Seen Reading

July 9, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

It’s not a good day to be a book lover in Toronto. According to an e-mail press release that was sent out this morning, Pages Books & Magazines, the downtown institution that specialized in small press, cultural theory, avant-garde, and literary titles is shutting its doors as of August 31. This year marks the 30th anniversary of Pages’ debut on the corner of Queen and John Streets.

Skyrocketing rent is blamed for the closure, although the press release also mentions the character of the Queen Street neighbourhood, which is not what it was 30 years ago:

“When we opened on the corner of Queen and John 30 years ago, it was where artists lived and worked,” says proprietor Marc Glassman, who heads up the Queen West Business Improvement Association. “Now our neighbours are CTV, The Gap, and Club Monaco.”

Or, as NOW Magazine puts it:

The neighbourhood Pages will leave behind isn’t – and long hasn’t been – the one it helped forge. The store, which opened in 1979, is no longer part of a punk-inhabited art scene. The ’hood’s long been ultra-FCUK-ed.

Earlier this year, Pages received a six-month stay of execution when the landlord agreed not to raise the property’s rent, but that agreement expires at the end of August. Glassman had been scouting an alternate location for the store, but found nothing suitable. The loss of the alternative independent will be deeply felt by literary types in the city, who counted on Pages to stock the kind of edgy, idiosyncratic fare that big-box chain stores wouldn’t carry. Glassman says that he’s not ruled out reopening elsewhere should the opportunity present itself, but for now, it looks like the end of an era for the city.

Another Toronto-based institution, Julie Wilson’s Seen Reading, is also being shuttered, at least in its current incarnation. In a message on her site, Wilson said that after three years, she’s decided to wrap up her project in literary voyeurism, which has become a popular destination for online literary types. She plans to keep the site as a personal blog.

According to Wilson:

I’m renewing my efforts to craft a collection of microfiction loosely based on the over 300 sightings amassed here. This will be, I hope, the first in a series of such collections. I haven’t abandoned my novel; I’m simply allowing myself to own that this is voodoo that I do do (she said, doo doo) so well. That I should also enjoy writing it as much as I enjoy eating orange creamsicles and drinking french-pressed coffee is what makes life hella kinda cool.

The decision to shift focus comes a scant two months after expanding the site by bringing on writers from other parts of the country. Vancouver’s Monique Trottier, Montreal’s Saleema Nawaz, and Nova Scotia’s Ami McKay will publish their final Seen Reading posts in the first week of August.

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