It’s not satire, per se, that is a problem for audiences, but a particular kind of satire: the kind that stings and bites and very frequently withholds happy endings. The kind Jonathan Swift, one of the form’s most impressive practitioners, famously characterized as “a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.”
Riche’s satire, by contrast, is amiable and often overly broad. The California religious cult with members who walk around in shoes made out of loaves of bread are unlikely to inspire a frisson on the part of readers, nor is the ex-talk show host now living as a derelict in the ravine that runs beneath the tony Toronto neighbourhood of Rosedale. Elliot meets this latter character after tumbling down a hill into the ravine while in the process of stealing a coveted bottle of wine from his new boss’s cellar, a scene that has more in common with slapstick than satire.
This is particularly ironic in a book that spends so much time bemoaning our culture’s inability to appreciate art that is nuanced or uncomfortable. On numerous occasions, Elliot lectures his interlocutors on the subtleties of complex wines and the deeper pleasures these can yield over lesser vintages. A wine that is easy to like, for Elliot, is not as ultimately satisfying as a wine that divulges its riches only gradually, requiring patience, dedication and a sophisticated palate to fully appreciate. Finally, that is perhaps the central problem with Riche’s novel: It’s easy to like.
– Steven W. Beattie, National Post, September 9, 2011
“It’s easy to like.” – National Post
– Paperback reprint of Easy to Like, July 2012
Roy MacSkimming referred to publishing as “the perilous trade,” but it becomes even more perilous when what you’re trading is tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of illegal drugs.
The Smoking Gun is reporting that two parcels of marijuana originating in San Diego were earmarked for shipment to the New York offices of St. Martin’s Press, one of the biggest publishers in the United States. Apparently, a California postal worker alerted authorities when two packages from “ABT Books” were deemed to have a “distinctive scent.” ABT Books was later determined to be fictitious; when the packages were opened, inspectors discovered the marijuana, which had been bundled beneath Styrofoam chunks and dryer sheets (commonly used to mask the odour of pot while in transit).
According to TSG:
Both packages were addressed to “Karen Wright,” which appears to be a fictitious name. A company phone operator said that nobody by that name works at the company, which is one of the country’s largest publishers (and a division of the Macmillan conglomerate). St. Martin’s roster of authors includes Robert Ludlum, Augusten Burroughs, and Frederick Forsyth.
Apart from seizing the marijuana – which, depending on its quality, could have had a street value approaching $70,000 – federal agents do not appear to be seeking to determine whom at St. Martin’s was expecting to receive the pot.
How do we know this could never happen here in Canada? Apart from most of the industry being way too staid and uptight to even contemplate such a thing, practically no one in Canadian publishing could afford to front $70,000 worth of weed, at least not without help from a government grant.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice indicated that it was looking into the possibility of filing suit against Apple and five of the country’s largest publishers – Macmillan, Simon & Schuster, Penguin Group, HarperCollins, and the Hachette Book Group. The DoJ is alleging collusion and price fixing in the area of e-book sales. At issue is the publishers’ agreement with Apple to adhere to an agency model for e-books, which allows the publishers to set prices and prohibits Apple (and other sellers) from discounting them.
The agency model is opposed to the wholesale model, which allows sellers to set prices, and has resulted in steep discounts from Amazon, an online retailer that has parlayed losses on lower e-book prices into a virtual monopoly in the area of e-book sales.
The conflict between the two business models, and the possibility of action on the part of the DoJ, prompted Scott Turow, best-selling author and president of the U.S. Author’s Guild, to issue an open letter decrying the potential legal action. By selling e-books at a loss, Turow contends, Amazon is actually engaging in a practice of predatory pricing meant to drive competitors – including bricks-and-mortar bookstores – out of business. The agency model, Turow argues, promotes competition, which is essential to a vibrant literary culture:
Two years after the agency model came to bookselling, Amazon is losing its chokehold on the e-book market: its share has fallen from about 90% to roughly 60%. Customers are benefiting from the surprisingly innovative e-readers Barnes & Noble’s investments have delivered, including a tablet device that beat Amazon to the market by fully twelve months. Brick-and-mortar bookstores are starting to compete through their partnership with Google, so loyal customers can buy e-books from them at the same price as they would from Amazon. Direct-selling authors have also benefited, as Amazon more than doubled its royalty rates in the face of competition.
Let’s hope the reports are wrong, or that the Justice Department reconsiders. The irony bites hard: our government may be on the verge of killing real competition in order to save the appearance of competition.
The vitriolic responses from proponents of cheap books and digital publishing were as swift as they were predictable. Writing on Joe Konrath’s blog, author Barry Eisler takes Turow to task for foolishly suggesting that Amazon is killing bookselling by selling a metric shit-tonne of books:
Watch the linguistic dodge: Scott is implicitly arguing that the only model that counts as “bookselling” is the current model, built and maintained by legacy publishers and brick-and-mortar stores. That is, “bookselling = physical bookstores. Online bookselling doesn’t count as bookselling.” He’s arguing as though physical booksellers are the only legitimate organisms in the forest, while Amazon is some sort of exotic interloping alien species rampaging through a healthy native ecosystem. This is the only way to make sense of an argument that states, “Amazon is destroying bookselling by selling so many books.”
Well, actually, that’s not what Turow is implying, although that is clearly what Eisler is inferring. What Turow is actually arguing has less to do with the volume of Amazon’s sales and more to do with the reason behind them. It’s the artificially depressed prices Amazon offers that are the problem, at least in Turow’s conception, and it is this point that often gets lost in these arguments.
One side-effect of the steep discounts Amazon offers – discounts that, at the risk of being repetitive, mean Amazon takes a loss on sales because they sell their e-books at a price point lower than their own cost – is that they condition consumers to expect books to be so cheap. The consumer advocate will argue that he or she should not pay more than what the market will bear, but this conceals a basic fallacy. Amazon’s prices do not reflect what the market will bear, and they sure as hell don’t reflect fair market value. Professionally produced books – whether they be digital or otherwise – require editing, type design, marketing, and sales support. None of this comes for free. (In point of fact, most people performing these tasks in any publishing house in North America are likely being paid much less than their skills are worth.) Other booksellers don’t artificially mark their prices up; Amazon artificially marks its prices down. This is what has convinced consumers that $30 is too pricey for a hardback novel, and it is also what has contributed to Amazon’s monopoly over the e-book marketplace.
The problem, as The Washington Post‘s Steven Pearlstein points out, is that breaking this monopoly will result in higher prices for consumers.
So which is better: a market in which Amazon uses low prices to maintain its e-book monopoly and drive brick-and-mortar bookstores out of business, or one in which the major book publishers, in tacit collusion with Apple, break Amazon’s monopoly and raise prices?
Pearlstein’s own answer is, at least provisionally, the latter:
[T]he danger of regulators and judges focusing solely on short-term price effects is that it can mean turning a blind eye to business practices that temporarily lower prices even as they drive competitors out of business, lock in customers or limit entry into the market by new firms with better products.
Or to put it another way, it’s great to be able to buy e-books for $9.99, but maybe not if the alternative is accepting an Amazon monopoly that drives Barnes & Noble and your local bookstore out of business.
The only really safe mechanism for setting price is open competition, says Andy Gavil, an antitrust expert at Howard University, and anything that prevents that ought to be viewed with suspicion.
Meanwhile, Konrath reprints a letter author Suzanne White sent to the Author’s Guild in response to Turow’s own missive, in which she criticizes the guild for not working on behalf of authors, but rather trying “to protect what is obsolete”:
Where in the traditional publishing industry can an author command 70%? Where can an author have utter dominion over cover art? Formatting? Content? Illustrations? Impact? Marketing? The answer is Amazon. And a little bit Pubit and sometimes Smashwords or Apple as well. Where in the standard publishing industry can an author revive a book that he or she wrote in 1982, sold to a publisher who printed it, didn’t sell very many and took it right off the market? Amazon, that’s where. Author gets rights back, re-formats the book, slams it up for sale on Kindle and in six months is making money with that book.
Where? Tell me. Where can an author do better?
Why does a Guild for Authors rail on about monopolies and decry the demise of old-fashioned publishing as we knew it? Dinosaurs still prowling the streets of Manhattan want their good old boy industry back. Give it up already.
Any publisher worth her salt knows that in many cases, giving authors “utter dominion” over things such as cover art, formatting, and marketing is a recipe for disaster. By the same token, no publisher worth her salt is currently resting on her laurels, hoping to exploit authors and consumers by raising prices above all reason, or acting like a “dinosaur” prowling the streets of Manahttan or Toronto. Indeed, most of Konrath, Eisler, and White’s despised “legacy publishers” are bending over backwards in an attempt to innovate. ECW Press now offers free digital copies of their frontlist books when customers purchase a hard copy. Coach House Books has done the same. Penguin Canada has recently experimented with modestly priced e-book “singles” publishing. None of these is the action of so-called “dinosaurs.”
Perhaps the time has come for both sides in this debate to tone down their rhetoric, to shelve the righteous indignation on the one side and the frequently paranoid defensiveness on the other and try to find some common ground. Of course, in order for this to happen, each side will have to admit that the other has some valid arguments. In my experience, the “legacy publishers” have historically been much better at this than the upstart digital evangelists.
A new policy instituted by PayPal, an offshoot of eBay, has prompted online self-publishing service Smashwords to revise its terms of service and has sparked calls of censorship from a diverse group of organizations representing publishers, writers, and Internet advocates. On February 18, according to a Reuters article reprinted in today’s Globe and Mail, PayPal sent a letter to Smashwords founder Mark Coker indicating that access to PayPal services might be “limited” should Smashwords continue to host writing that featured “obscene” content, including incest, bestiality, “underage erotica,” or “rape-for-titillation.”
In response, on February 24, Coker sent a letter to all “authors, publishers, and literary agents who publish erotica at Smashwords,” redefining what is and is not allowable for publication. According to the letter, prohibiting “underage erotica” is “not a problem” for the administrators of Smashwords, even though a strict reading of this term would disallow Nabokov’s Lolita. Similarly, Coker writes, “We do not want books that contain rape for the purpose of titillation.” This sounds reasonable, although it would arguably prohibit the works of the Marquis de Sade and the pseudonymous erotica of Anne Rice. Bestiality is also a no-brainer, although Coker is quick to clarify that “this does not apply to shape-shifters common in paranormal romance provided the were-creature characters are getting it on in their human form.” So the Twilight crowd can breathe a sigh of relief. Whether Marian Engle’s novel Bear would pass muster is another matter altogether.
Only when it comes to incest does Coker acknowledge the “slippery slope” that is created when one starts to set artificial boundaries on imaginative works:
The legality of incest is murky. It creates a potential legal liability for Smashwords as our business and our books become more present in more jurisdictions around the world. Anything that threatens Smashwords directly threatens our ability to serve the greater interests of all Smashwords authors, publishers, retailers, and customers who rely upon us as the world’s leading distributor of indie e-books. The business considerations compel me to not fall on the sword for incest. I realize this is an imperfect decision. The slippery slope is dangerous, but I believe this imperfect decision is in the best interest of the community we serve.
Meanwhile, the Reuters article indicates that a number of groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Authors Guild, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, and the Association of American Publishers have signed a letter protesting PayPal’s new restrictive policies:
PayPal “is now holding free speech hostage by clamping down on sales of certain types of erotica,” the groups said, according to a draft of the letter sent to Reuters. “We strongly object to PayPal functioning as an enforcer of public morality and inhibiting the right to buy and sell constitutionally protected material.”
They are right and they are wrong. The American constitution only protects speech that is infringed by the government; it does not protect speech that is infringed by private enterprise. PayPal is perfectly within its rights to decline any transaction it sees fit. Writing on the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog, Rainey Reitman elucidates this point:
Frankly, we don’t think that PayPal should be using its influence to make moral judgments about what e-books are appropriate for Smashwords readers. As Wendy Kaminer wrote in a forward to Nadine Strossen’s Defending Pornography: “Speech shouldn’t have to justify itself as nice, socially constructive, or inoffensive in order to be protected. Civil liberty is shaped, in part, by the belief that free expression has normative or inherent value, which means that you have a right to speak regardless of the merits of what you say.”
But having a right to speak is not the same as having a right to be serviced by a popular online payment provider. Just as a bookseller can choose to carry or not a carry [sic] particular books, PayPal can choose to cut off services to e-book publishers that don’t meet its “moral” (if arbitrary and misguided) standards.
When Heather Reisman decided that her chain of Indigo bookstores would no longer carry Mein Kampf, people who wanted to access the book simply went elsewhere. One problem with PayPal’s move is that they are, if not the only game in town, at least the most visible and influential. Their new mantle as moral arbiters of what gets published online may be legally sound, but it sets a dangerous precedent in what should be a free and open marketplace of ideas.
Over the past two days, news broke that two heavyweights on the CanLit scene are releasing new work online, in the increasingly popular “single” format, as spearheaded by companies such as Amazon and Byliner.
Yesterday, Penguin Canada announced that activist and author Judy Rebick has launched a new e-book entitled Occupy This!, about the Occupy Wall Street movement, a grassroots uprising the author finds as significant as the social revolution of the 1960s. The 74-page book is available through online retailers such as Kobo, or direct through the Penguin Canada website.
Meanwhile, Margaret Atwood, arguably Canada’s most Internet savvy canonical author, has released a new short story, entitled “I’m Starved for You,” via the San Francisco–based digital publisher Byliner.
The Rebick title is selling for $3.99, and the Atwood is priced at $2.99.
At the beginning of the year, Quill & Quire published an article about the rise of “singles” online publishing, which numerous commentators have suggested could be the salvation of long-form journalism. In the Quill article, Jason McBride writes:
What has become known as the “singles” model – advertising-free, tablet- and smartphone-friendly, book/magazine hybrids designed to be read in one sitting – could be the silver bullet that writers and print media, long beset by declining ad revenue in print and a fickle, penny-pinching market online, have been waiting for. “It’s really a frontier,” says Mark Bryant, the former editor of Outside magazine and one of Byliner’s co-founders.
Bryant likens his company to Random House’s Vintage Contemporaries fiction imprint, and, indeed, the distinctive branding of Byliner Originals, which sport digital “covers” featuring a signature bright yellow and consistent typefaces, appears to be the product of a traditional publisher. Byliner has now published more than a dozen titles by writers such as William T. Vollmann and Ann Patchett, and plans to eventually offer a new Byliner Original, ranging in price from $0.99 to $5.99 (U.S.), almost every week.
Writing in The New York Times, Dwight Gardner calls Amazon’s version of the idea – Kindle Singles – “probably the best reason to buy an e-reader in the first place.” The long-form journalism contained in the singles format, Garner says, hits “the sweet spot between magazine articles and hardcover books.”
Moreover, Garner points out, there are significant incentives for authors to publish in this format:
For writers, there’s money to be made here. Amazon offers 70 percent of the royalties to its Singles authors. The all-time best-selling Single, a short story titled “Second Son,” by Lee Child, the British-born thriller writer, was originally published by Delacorte Press; it is priced at $1.99 and has sold more than 180,000 copies.
So far Amazon has issued more than 160 Singles, at a rate of 3 per week. It has fairly strict rules for the nonfiction it selects. No excerpts from books. Generally no expanded versions of articles that have appeared elsewhere. Barnes & Noble offers similar material in its Nook Snaps series, and Apple has Quick Reads on its iBookstore, but neither is offering original material.
As an avowed advocate of short fiction, it would be foolish of me to criticize any vehicle that allows for more stories to get disseminated to more readers. And the singles idea is not new: it’s merely a digital version of the kind of long-form journalism once found in general-interest magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and The Atlantic. And while the two former publications still regularly feature short fiction, other magazines have been scaling back on their fiction in the last decade, so this new venue seems to be a good way to fill that void.
And yet, I remain conscious of the experience of the music industry in the wake of Apple’s iTunes. All of a sudden, $0.99 singles were in, and full-length albums were, if not out, at least exponentially less popular. The rise of Kindle Singles, Byliner, and a similar initiative launched by The National Post at the end of last year offer bite-sized works of fiction and non-fiction that can, in most cases, be consumed in one sitting. With luck, these newly popular formats will constitute one part of the literary ecosystem, without cannibalizing longer works, such as full-length novels or works of non-fiction.
Dissident Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, who came to Canada to escape the 1968 Soviet invasion in his home country, has died from cancer. He was eighty-seven years old.
Despite winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for his 1984 novel The Engineer of Human Souls, Skvorecky was not as well-known in his adopted country as he (arguably) deserved to be. Fans of the Glen Hansard/Marketa Irglova band The Swell Season might be surprised to discover that duo took their name from the title of one of Skvorecky’s novels.
In addition to his own writing, Skvorecky was the founder, along with his wife, Zdena Salivarova, of 68 Publishers, a Toronto-based house dedicated to publishing the work of Czech and Slovak writers who had been banned in their own countries. (The name of the house was a reference to the Prague Spring of 1968.) Among the writers whose work Skvorecky published were Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel, the former Czech president who himself died just over two weeks ago.
In 1990, Josef and his wife were awarded the Czech Republic’s highest distinction, the Order of the White Lion, by Havel.
The independence of the Czech Republic allowed writers to be published freely in that country, sparking a surge in new publishing houses. Four years later, the Skvoreckys shut down 68 Publishers after having published at least 200 books, including novels, poetry and books on history, philosophy and autobiographies.
In a tribute to the couple’s work prior to the country’s independence, Havel wrote: “By publishing in our own language books that cannot be published in our motherland, you are in fact helping to preserve the spiritual identity and continuity of our nation. The long term effect of your work, which is simultaneously humble, but at the same time absolutely essential for our nation’s future, is almost impossible to fully appreciate.”
The National Post quotes novelist Ivan Klima as saying, “It was nice that the books were published in Czech, beautifully done, then smuggled here for thousands of people to read.” Skvorecky, whose own early novels were banned in his home country, was named to the Order of Canada in 1992.
In addition to his novels, Skvorecky also published poetry, autobiography, and non-fiction on jazz and cinema. His novel The Republic of Whores was adapted for the screen (as The Tank Battalion), and three other works – Sins for Father Knox, The Swell Season, and Murders for Luck – were adapted for television.
Joyland, the “hub” for short fiction spearheaded by writers Brian Joseph Davis and Emily Schultz, is branching out into the realm of print books. Joyland Retro, a biannual print-on-demand journal that includes material from the site, is being produced in conjunction with the self-publishing service Create Space, a subsidiary of Amazon. The first volume of Joyland Retro, which features stories by Zoe Whittall, Andrew Hood, Jim Hanas, Nathan Sellyn, and others, is available now via Joyland and Amazon, and retails for $10.95.
“We spent six months researching the most ethical way to print and distribute two issues a year for really cheap,” Davis wrote in an e-mail to TSR, “… and this is the best for now.” Because Create Space employs local printers in different markets, Davis says, the service is “a lot more ‘locavore’ than you would think.”
Bookstores can order Joyland Retro through Create Space or directly through the Joyland website, and Davis says that he will ship bookstore orders wholesale. He points out, however, that Joyland Retro is “technically” a magazine, “so we’re going to concentrate on reaching our readers directly, as you have to with a subscription-based operation.”
The new print-on-demand venture is being run entirely through the Joyland website, and is not affiliated with Joyland eBooks, which are produced in partnership with Toronto publishers ECW Press. The e-book series has slowed down a bit in the past six months, because husband-and-wife team Davis and Schultz have been concentrating on their new baby. But Davis says there is a new collection from Toronto journalist David Balzer due for release in spring 2012. Davis describes the e-book program as a success, “in that we’ve kept alive the tradition of breaking new authors with short-story collections.”
So, is the retreat into “analog” book production the beginning of a digital apostasy on Davis’s part? “Just the opposite,” he says, calling the combination of digital and traditional publishing “the hybrid future.” Davis goes on:
We’re just being ecumenical now. One thing I thought about while putting the collection together is that digital reading and print reading are developing into discrete operations in our minds, in the same way that listening to music and making music are controlled by different parts of the brain. On the one hand, the world needs less “stuff,” and I’m glad the website is this temporal, weekly, ecstatic experience. On the other hand, authors really like being on paper and that can’t be reduced to “nostalgia.” If anything, it adduces something about how the brain works in processing text, truth, and its own consciousness. This might be the only publishing interview that ends with the statement: Digital is Dionysian. Print is Apollonian.
If you’re casting around for a definition of irony, you could do worse than point to a lawsuit against the peer-to-peer file sharing company BitTorrent instigated by a publisher whose backlist includes an instructional book called BitTorrent for Dummies. Although it seems counterintuitive, the publisher of that volume, John Wiley & Sons, has filed suit in New York claiming that 27 individuals “have engaged in the illegal copying and distribution” of titles in the company’s popular Dummies series of books, using the BitTorrent software.
The complaint, a copy of which was obtained by the website TorrentFreak, alleges that between October 12 and October 19 of this year, twenty-seven individuals illegally downloaded copies of Wiley titles including Day Trading for Dummies, Calculus Essentials for Dummies, Dreamweaver CS5 All-In-One for Dummies, and WordPress for Dummies. While the identities of the twenty-seven individuals are currently unknown (they are identified in the complaint as John Doe 1–27), their IP Addresses are listed, and they all reside in New York State. “That tidbit is quite relevant,” writes a poster named “etdragon” on the website Myce, “considering recent mass lawsuits have been thrown out of other courts due to the fact that all the defendants did not reside in the state in which the claim was filed.”
Myce also points out that the Wiley suit marks a precedent: previous lawsuits claiming copyright infringement against BitTorrent have involved producers of movies, music, and video games. This is the first time a major multinational publisher has filed a mass suit against users of the file-sharing site.
In the complaint, Wiley alleges that the defendants “knowingly and purposefully infringed, and induced others to infringe, Wiley’s copyrighted works.” It goes on to state:
Although Wiley cannot determine at this time the precise amount of revenue that it has lost as a result of the peer-to-peer file sharing of its copyrighted works through BitTorrent software, the amount of that lost revenue is enormous. For example, BitTorrent users on a single site, demonoid.me, have downloaded one of the works that is the subject of this suit, Photoshop CS5 All-In-One FOR DUMMIES, more than 74,000 times since June 6, 2010.
The complaint also suggests that Wiley stands to suffer damage to its corporate reputation as a result of inferior versions of its books proliferating among file-sharing online users:
The damage to Wiley includes harm to its goodwill and reputation in the marketplace for which money cannot compensate. Wiley is particularly concerned that its trademarks are used in connection with unauthorized electronic products, which could contain malicious viruses.
The suit requests an injunction preventing the defendants from further disseminating Wiley’s titles or using Wiley’s name or associated trademarks. In addition to court costs, the suit also asks for “treble damages and/or treble defendants’ profits from their willful infringement, couterfeiting, and/or false designation of origin of Wiley’s trademarks,” as well as punitive damages.
The Wiley suit once again pits the holders of copyright and those who profit off the creation of copyrighted works against the denizens of the Internet who believe that information should be free and that copyright infringement is inevitable in a digital world. This debate is of particular salience here in Canada, where the Conservative government is currently considering Bill C-11, the Copyright Modernization Act, which would, in at least one instance, side with the copyright holders by criminalizing activity that circumvents digital locks placed on copyrighted materials.
If the history of the music and movie industries is anything to go by, the piracy proponents may indeed have the upper hand in this argument. And Wiley’s claims for damages may be futile: the vast majority of cases involving other media have resulted in out-of-court settlements.
However, Wiley is to be commended for taking a stand on the principle of intellectual property ownership, which helps ensure fair compensation for creators of the very content digital pirates seem so anxious to consume and share among one another online. What the piracy advocates tend to ignore is the fact that should these content creators decide it is no longer worth their while to create the content, there will be nothing left to pirate.
The Canadian publishing industry was dealt another body blow yesterday, as the country’s largest book distributor, H.B. Fenn and Company, announced that it had filed a Notice of Intention to Make a Proposal under the provisions of Canada’s Bankruptcy and Insolvency Act. The filing allows the company 30 days’ breathing room to come up with a restructuring plan. If no viable plan is reached after this period, the company can apply for an extension with the courts. According to D.J. Miller, a lawyer quoted in The Globe and Mail, “The purpose of the proposal will be to compromise the existing debt and allow the company to move forward with less debt.” In theory, Miller said, this does not necessarily signal that the company will go bankrupt. In practice, according to Fenn publicist Lisa Winstanley, speaking to the National Post, “We’re ceasing operations effective immediately.”
Winstanley was laid off, along with the other 124 employees of the company, after a meeting at Fenn’s offices in Bolton, Ontario, yesterday morning. In a brief press release, founder and CEO Harold Fenn said that they “have worked extremely hard to build the Company and keep it going even under today’s adverse conditions.” The press release stated that Fenn “has encountered significant financial challenges due to the loss of distribution lines, shrinking margins and the significant shift to e-books, all of which have significantly reduced the Company’s revenues.”
Although many industry watchers reacted with shock to yesterday’s announcement, there were indications that all was not well with the company. Last September, Fenn shuttered the offices of Key Porter and laid off the bulk of its staff. Fenn became controlling shareholder in the Canadian-owned publishing firm when it bought out co-founder Anna Porter in 2004. At the time, Fenn claimed that despite the changes, it remained committed to Key Porter’s publishing program, which operated under the aegis of vice-president and publisher Jordan Fenn, Harold’s son. Just last month, Fenn announced that Key Porter would be suspending its publishing operations indefinitely.
The writing was on the wall, at least with the benefit of hindsight.
A number of people have compared Fenn’s downfall to that of General Distribution Services/Stoddart Publishing in 2002. While there are no doubt similarities, Fenn’s troubles do not signal a seismic shift for the domestic publishing industry. GDS represented a significant number of Canadian independent presses; by contrast, outside of its own publishing line, Fenn Publishing, and Key Porter, the only Canadian-owned publisher Fenn distributed is Whitecap Books. Bad news for Whitecap, but not a huge blow to the domestic industry as a whole.
At least, not in the short term. Looking into the future, things might appear murkier.
Fenn suffered financial pressure resulting in part from one the departure of one of its largest clients, the Hachette Book Group, which opened a domestic office in 2009 and took over all responsibility for publicizing and marketing their titles. They also moved fulfillment to their office in Indiana. In addition to depriving Fenn of one of its major revenue sources, commentators at the time suggested that Hachette’s move contravened Canadian foreign-ownership laws, but the Department of Canadian Heritage never investigated the matter. For those who insist that a certain amount of cultural protectionism is necessary to keep our indigenous book industry alive, allowing a major multinational to ship directly to Canadian bookstores was an ill omen, and it may get worse.
Fenn handled distribution for approximately 90 clients, by far the largest of which was the publishing behemoth Macmillan, which is now effectively without representation in Canada. Should Macmillan decide to follow Hachette’s route, it would mean yet another major multinational will have co-opted distribution and marketing responsibilities for its titles in Canada. This is dangerous, because it removes a significant revenue stream from Canadian distributors on the one hand, and on the other, cements the idea that multinational publishers should be allowed access to the Canadian market without providing a net benefit to Canada.
Quoted in Quill & Quire, publisher Kim McArthur questions the rationale for the government’s non-intervention:
“The Canadian publishing industry operates on razor thin margins at the best of times, and these are not the best of times,” McArthur said on Thursday. “Perhaps the Canadian government, the Minister of Heritage, and the Foreign Investment Review Agency will wake up to the fact that – by not saying a word as Hachette U.K. and U.S. quietly decamped and removed all of their sales and distribution to the U.S., and by not demanding that Hachette provide any net benefit to Canada at all – they have endangered the entire Canadian-owned industry.”
Carolyn Wood, president of the Association of Canadian Publishers, disagrees. Speaking about Fenn’s announcement yesterday, Wood told the Toronto Star, “This is an extreme example of what can happen with some of the challenges that the industry is facing right now, but I don’t think it’s the tip of the iceberg or the first domino or anything like that.” Wood takes the long view, which tends to see industry fluctuations as peaks and valleys over the course of decades, not months or even years. Indeed, we may be on the cusp of a renaissance in Canadian publishing: the accelerating encroachment of multinationals into the Canadian market could be the spur required for talented entrepreneurs to revivify domestic independent publishing.
Personally, I’d rather side with Wood than with McArthur. Yes, we are facing a time of narrow margins and scanty readership, but it was always thus. As Roy MacSkimming points out in his book on the domestic publishing industry, The Perilous Trade, in Canada “the margin of error is narrow.” However, he asserts, “A harsh environment breeds resourcefulness and cunning.” The difficulties faced by H.B. Fenn are not pleasant, but they need not signal the incipient downfall of the industry.