On Tuesday afternoon, Sarah MacLachlan stood in front of a class of creative-writing students at Humber College in Toronto. A couple of hours earlier, the president and publisher of House of Anansi Press had been notified that the HarperCollins warehouse in suburban Toronto, where her company's stock is both stored and shipped from, would be closing in the summer of 2015. The storied independent publisher, which has survived a novel's worth of challenges, from near-bankruptcy to the rise of ebooks, had a new issue to confront.
Anansi is one of several publishers that rely on HarperCollins to distribute its titles across Canada. Distribution, Ms. MacLachlan told the students, is not the most glamourous part of the industry. Rather, it's an often invisible element in the publishing ecosystem; after all, readers don't browse for the latest bestseller in the mammoth warehouses stocking tens of thousands of titles.
"I said, 'This is the nuts and bolts of publishing,'" recalled Ms. MacLachlan in an interview Wednesday. "You, as a writer, want to make sure your books are in the stores. And a good warehouse is what makes sure your books are in the store."
Starting next year, all warehousing, picking, packaging and shipping of HarperCollins Canada titles will be moved to a Plainfield, Ind., facility operated by American printer RR Donnelley. Whether the affected publishers will follow HarperCollins remains to be seen.
In an e-mail, Rob Firing, HarperCollins Canada's senior director of communications, wrote, "The first step was notifying our clients. Now we need to work with each one of them to determine what the best arrangement is based on their needs – whether that's moving them to RR Donnelley or assisting them in finding a different solution."
It was the first in a one-two punch that one literary agent called "Black Tuesday in Canadian publishing." The same day, Martha Sharpe, editorial director at Simon & Schuster Canada, along with associate publisher Alison Clarke both lost their jobs.
Even with the rise of ebooks, digital sales account for less than 20 per cent of the Canadian market. Therefore "you need a distributor," Ms. MacLachlan said, "so that when you go to publish a book, when you set a [publication] date for it, you are confident that those books are going to be in Indigo, in the independents, in Costco, in Wal-Mart … and Harper is very efficient."
The sentiment was echoed by publishers and booksellers across the country. Toronto bookseller Ben McNally said "anytime any publisher came to me talking about distribution, I would tell them to go to HarperCollins." Howard White, co-owner of Douglas & McIntyre, another affected publisher, said that "of all the distributors I've ever had … they're by far the most satisfactory." Sandra Kasturi, the co-publisher of ChiZine, a small indie horror outfit based in Toronto, called the warehouse staff "terrific."
"Since the news has broken we've been getting various e-mails from other distributors … asking for meetings," she noted.
There aren't that many left in Canada. Besides Raincoast, remaining distributors include University of Toronto Press Distribution, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, and Heritage Group Distribution. In September it was announced that starting in February, Penguin Canada titles will be distributed not out of its Newmarket, Ont., warehouse but from multiple locations in the United States.
Jim Allen, president and CEO of Thomas Allen & Son, one of the surviving distributors, said firms like his led to the rise of Canadian publishing in the first place.
"The business in Canada began by people like my great-grandfather, and John McClelland, and others, signing agreements with American publishers to distribute their books in Canada," he said.
"A lot of Canadian publishing has grown out of the revenues that have come from distribution."
Now the trend is reversing.
"There aren't many of us left," Mr. Allen said.