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Small, local presses are the answer to fears about big conglomerates, such as Penguin Random House. (Darren Calabrese For the Globe and Mail)
Small, local presses are the answer to fears about big conglomerates, such as Penguin Random House. (Darren Calabrese For the Globe and Mail)

Russell Smith: How to publish a book in Canada Add to ...

Last weekend, Globe and Mail books editor Mark Medley published a long and thoughtful look at the new giant publishing company that has just formed in Canada: Penguin Random House, the conglomerate formed by at least five former independent companies. It will dominate the literary landscape. Well, it already does – it did when it was merely Random House/Doubleday/Knopf – but now it will dominate it completely. There are only two large, foreign-owned presses competing with it now (HarperCollins and Simon & Schuster).

People in the literary community have known about this merger for some time now and have not been particularly worried about it. It is just another example of consolidation that seems inevitable in facing the power of the giant retail chains. After all, the main retailers that one needs to sell one’s books to the general public – Indigo, Costco and Amazon – do not even self-identify primarily as booksellers. The whole landscape has changed and so corporate practices must, too.

We were all vaguely, emotionally sad about the absorption of the famous Canadian publisher McClelland & Stewart by the megahouse just a few years ago, but it has not had any noticeable impact on the quality or quantity of published Canadian art and thought. We shrug our shoulders at the global economic developments that lead to structural changes: Short of proposing some kind of alternative to globalist capitalism, what can we do?

But there was one statement made in last week’s article, from the CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, Brad Martin, that was instantly noted by every published writer in the country, and has caused waves of alarm in online discussions all week. “I’m not interested,” he said, “in a book that is going to generate less than $100,000 in revenue unless the editor or publisher has a compelling vision for the book and/or the author.”

Yikes, we all thought. That sounds awfully high. What does it mean in terms of numbers of books sold? The answer is: It depends on the price of the book. These things are notoriously complicated and fluid. So let’s take an example that would apply to, say, me. Let’s take a hypothetical Canadian novel, a book of literary fiction, published in “trade paperback” (i.e., a high-quality paperback, not a hardcover), because that is how most of them come out these days, and let’s say it is set to retail for $24.99, because many of them are priced around there. How many of those does a publisher have to sell to earn $100,000 in revenue?

The retailer will take between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of the cover price, depending on its size. Let’s be optimistic and say the retailer takes only 40 per cent. Say the author gets 10 per cent. So the publisher is going to get half of that $24.99 on each book – $12.50. So you would need to sell 8,000 of those to bring in your $100,000. If the retailer is one of the bullies taking half the cover price, then you will need to sell 10,000 copies. (As I said, there are a lot of other variables that can come into play – a hardcover book is priced higher and would need to sell fewer copies, for example.)

These are astoundingly high numbers in the world of Canadian literature. Ten thousand sold would be a major success for a work of Canadian fiction; it is rare even for books that are highly critically praised and taught in universities.

So what is Martin saying? That the biggest publisher in Canada is no longer interested in literary fiction?

Here’s where the second part of his statement comes in, the “unless.” A “compelling vision” for a book usually means some kind of whiz-bang marketing plan. Fair enough. What does a “compelling vision for an author” mean? Publishers will say it means we believe in your future: We believe you will have a long and profitable career even though this first book may not be the one that puts us in the black.

Writers experience those promises a little differently though: In practice, we find, a “compelling vision for the author” usually means, ‘Okay, we will take this short, clever novel or book of stories if and only if your next book is going to be a long novel with at least a death in it, and preferably a full-on vampire. (And hey, have you thought about non-fiction?)’

In reality, writers find that a belief in an author, as opposed to a particular book – an author as a long-term investment – tends to exist less and less. There is little loyalty. I know a half-dozen respected Canadian authors who have been breezily dumped in recent years by major publishers because their sales were just too low.

That’s fine: There are small, government-subsidized, local presses willing to take risks on not-immediately profitable work and it turns out they can put as much or even sometimes more effort into marketing their “small” books as the conglomerates can. Their books are increasingly rewarded in critical culture and in the awards lists. The mid-list authors will simply move en masse over to them. They are picking up the literary slack.

So the sky is not falling; the clouds are simply rearranging themselves. I have heard many responses to Brad Martin’s pragmatism over the past week, most of it despairing, much of it retreating into the naive and nihilistic Marxism that plagues the creative class here. Laments about neoliberalism, globalization, Americanization and the need for the great revolution that will destroy “late capitalism” itself are lazy and unproductive, for they provide no practical way forward. “It’s society’s fault, man,” is no coherent cultural plan. It actually would be very bad for all of us if any one of these giant publishers were to fail. And a purely government-funded system would end up giving us a carefully inoffensive and good-for-you national literature.

There will not be fewer difficult and challenging books published in the new economy – just fewer published by foreign-owned conglomerates.

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