Can’t we all just get along?

May 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

You see it again and again in the Canadian publishing industry: the suspicion and backbiting that accrues to a small (and inevitably somewhat incestuous) community whenever there’s the perception that some individual or group is trying to get a leg up unfairly. You see it in the knee-jerk assumptions of rampant conspiracies involving reciprocal back-scratching, even in instances where no such conspiracy theory could possibly be taken seriously. (“Oh look: two of the three books nominated for the Griffin Prize this year are published by the House of Anansi. Scott Griffin, who lends his name to the prize and puts up the money, owns Anansi. And Michael Redhill, one of the jurors, is published by Anansi. And Kevin Connolly, one of the nominated poets, edited Crabwise to the Hounds by Jeramy Dodds, another nominated title. The fix is in! Call out the inquisitors!”)

You also see it in the kind of suspicion that was voiced recently around The Globe and Mail Open House Festival, the inaugural iteration of which ran this past weekend and was apparently quite successful. According to Peter Scowen – who works for the Globe, and so clearly can’t be trusted – the festival raised $65,000 for PEN Canada and Frontier College. Not too shabby for a first-time book event.

Open House, which was based on The New Yorker‘s successful annual October event in Manhattan, is the brainchild of Scott Sellers, a vice president in the marketing department at Random House Canada. As James Adams wrote in the Globe last week:

Wholly owned by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann, Random House ranks as Canada’s largest trade publisher, home to such imprints as Knopf, Doubleday, Anchor, Vintage and Dell. It began to work on the Open House concept last year, driven by two impulses: a belief that the annual BookExpo trade show (and its predecessor, the Canadian Booksellers Association convention) was, after 50 years, on its last legs; and a need to have its roster of authors engage more directly and vibrantly with readers.

It’s the Random House connection, and the fact that the vast majority of authors appearing at this year’s Open House Festival – including Zoë Heller, Naomi Klein, and Adam Gopnik – are Random House authors, that have left a bad taste in some mouths.

Sellers has stated that the event will be repeated in 2010 in an expanded form, and has extended an invitation to other publishers to participate – an invitation that has been spurned by at least one figure within the Canadian publishing industry. Adams quotes House of Anansi president Sarah MacLachlan as saying that she doesn’t understand why Random House would “want to be generous” by sharing the spotlight at future Open House events with other publishers, “unless they want to buy pieces of all of us and run the world.”

“I don’t know how it serves Anansi as a company to say, ‘Sure, Random, take my writers and put them in a program with your writers,'” she said this week. “It just doesn’t feel great. I want to be able to show my writers that we can do things with them and for them. Why give our writers to another publisher to show them what they can do?”

This reaction doesn’t say much about the confidence MacLachlan has in her own publishing program, and it bespeaks a kind of institutional paranoia that is utterly deleterious to the promotion of literature and literacy, which is what we’re all supposed to be advocating (unless I’m missing something terribly significant).

True, publishing is a business, and individual houses need to make a profit in order to survive. And a certain amount of competition is healthy. No one wants a situation in which a single publisher holds sway over the entire industry. But this doesn’t appear to be the motivation behind Sellers’ enterprise. (He has even gone so far as to suggest an advisory board for future Open Houses, which would be composed of individuals from throughout the literary community.) MacLachlan doesn’t seem to realize that the only people who care about which house publishes which author are publishers. When Jane Q. Public ponies up her $15 for an Open House event, she couldn’t care less whether the author she’s seeing is published by Random House, Anansi, Turnstone, or Breakwater.

The bottom line is that Sellers had a good idea, one that, by all accounts, was a success, and raised a substantial amount of money for a couple of worthy causes. Why would any publisher not want to be associated with that?

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