This article is part of Next, The Globe's five-day series examining the people, places, things and ideas that will shape 2013.
Given the pressure to reduce costs, something had to give in the formerly genteel world of book publishing, and it’s not the publishers. Rationalizing with mergers, capitalizing on global fads and making up in digital sales some of what they have lost in print, the big houses are stubbornly resisting their oft-foretold extinction.
The true dinosaurs of the new age are authors. Once happily enclosed in the “stables” of publishers willing to nurture and develop their talent, even if they never wrote a major bestseller, droves of so-called “mid-list” authors now find themselves roaming among the ever-present throng of wannabes flogging unpublished work in an indifferent market. And that throng is most likely to produce tomorrow’s bestsellers, even if they begin life as obscure, self-published digital texts that, onloy after they find a following, are taken up and heavily marketed to mainstream prominence by major publishing houses.
Many mid-list authors have fallen victim to increasingly sophisticated, widely available sales data, according to agents and publishers. Publishers can now assess every author’s lifelong sales thanks to such services as Nielsen Bookscan in the United States and BookNet Canada.
And once reduced to pure numbers, those track records determine the fate of proven writers looking for cash advances to begin their next books. “Everybody knows the numbers now,” Toronto literary agent Denise Bukowski said in an interview. “You can’t lie about the numbers.” Retailers don’t order books from authors whose previous work sold indifferently, she added, so publishers respond by cutting them loose.
The upheaval is such that an author like Dan Brown “would never get published now, because his first three books sold nothing,” Bukowski said. But as everybody knows, Brown’s fourth novel, The Da Vinci Code, has sold more than 80-million copies.
Even when they agree to publish the fourth book of a mid-list author, publishers today hedge their bets by paying minimal advances based on past sales of the author’s work. In that respect, Bukowski said, it is better to be a beginner. “At least a first novelist doesn’t have a track record,” Bukowski said.
In Canada, the mid-list squeeze contributed to the bankruptcy of two independent publishers, most recently Vancouver’s Douglas & McIntyre. At its demise, the company was out more than $2-million it had paid authors in advances against royalties on sales that had not materialized by the time the company failed. “They ended up with mid-list authors, hoping there would be a breakthrough,” said Rowland Lorimer, director of the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing at Simon Fraser University. What happened instead was collapse.
More casualties are expected as foreign-owned multinationals merge and pare their lists, leaving mid-list authors in the hands of small presses with limited marketing power. Although Esi Edugyan’s little-known first novel was handsomely published around the world by the top houses, its indifferent sales consigned her second novel to Toronto publisher Key Porter, which quickly went bankrupt. Half Blood Blues was ultimately brought out by boutique publisher Thomas Allen – just in time to win the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
Thomas Allen also inherited Tamas Dobozy’s second book, Siege 13, when the author’s former publisher, HarperCollins Canada, declined to publish it. Siege 13 went on to win the 2012 Rogers Writers’ Trust Prize for fiction and was nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award.
Other Canadian authors who began in the top tier and who now are publishing with independent presses include Susan Swan, Noah Richler, Robert Hough, John Fraser and Lyn Crosbie. Even more find themselves unable to find any publisher.
“The professional authors are the ones who lose out,” Lorimer said. “They’re professionals, they’ve established themselves, but they’re not top-tier so they’re not going to have a runaway bestseller. They are going to find it very difficult.”
Moving to an independent press incurs a severe financial penalty, according to Bukowski: “You get nothing, and those small presses are all really bad at publicity and marketing. They don’t sell any books, they just live from Canada Council grant to Canada Council grant.”
To replace Canadian authors they once supported with long-term, multi-book contracts, multinational publishers increasingly fill their lists with so-called “buy-ins” – pre-paid, pre-edited books supplied directly from head offices in London or New York. “So more and more of their list is from those imports, and less and less is from Canada,” Bukowski said. “They need to do that, but now the pressure is to do it more and more – and to only buy books that are sure things.”
But what hurts orphaned Canadian authors also can help their new publishers, according to Cynthia Good, head of the Humber College publishing program. “There’s no doubt that the mulitnationals can no longer really afford to maintain writers who aren’t performing at a certain level,” she said. “But those people represent a much higher sales level than smaller houses could have expected in the past.”
Small presses may not have the resources to pay advances, Good added, “but I think they have the creativity and the resources to do good marketing in a digital age.”
While major publishers pursue celebrity tie-in books and generic knockoffs, small presses can maintain the nurturing tradition. “It’s a very different landscape in smaller houses,” Good said. “There’s more equality among the writers, and they’re looked at more as a stable.” Publishers can establish distinct identities based on “the kind of people they attract,” she added.
Even the decline of advances is positive, said Good, former head of Penguin Canada. “It means that everybody’s basing what they pay on history and reality rather than hype and stars in your eyes,” she said.
But as many an orphaned author can attest, today’s reality bites.
WHAT REALLY SELLS
There was a time when only her publisher knew for sure. But today, anybody can pay to find out exactly how many copies of any book that any author has ever written have actually sold – basic information that some now blame for hollowing out literary culture. For better or worse, these are the top-10 bestselling books by Canadian authors since 2005, according to records gathered by the non-profit industry group BookNet Canada, followed by the title’s rank on the sales list of all books sold in Canada in that same period.
1: A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle (10)
2: The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill (17)
3: The Shack, by William Paul Young (19)
4: Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda (22)
5: Love You Forever, by Robert Munsch (23)
6: The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle (34)
7: Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen (46)
8: The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell (52)
9: Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell (53)
10: Bloodletting & Miraculous Cures, by Vincent Lam (62)
SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL
More than 100 small presses fly largely beneath the radar in Canada, but that obscurity could change as multinational publishers offload talent and top Canadian writers look for new publishers. Among the likeliest beneficiaries are:
House of Anansi, the best-known surviving independent, and one of the few capable of publishing to an international standard. It thrives in part by buying Canadian rights to internationally published books by Canadian authors.
Thomas Allen Publishers, which has enjoyed success over the past two years by picking winners (Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues, Tama Dobozy’s Siege 13) out of the multinationals’ slush piles.
Biblioasis, a tiny publisher in Emeryville, Ontario, which has consistently outperformed its peers with well-published books by Clark Blaise, Russell Smith and Mark Kingwell.
Goose Lane Editions of Fredericton publishes nationally marketed titles from such authors as Noah Richler, John Boyko and Joan Thomas.
Cormorant Books, whose current list includes books by Susan Swan, Cary Fagan and Susan Glickman.