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Will Ottawa move to protect Canadian publishing?

A book on display with the penguin logo. in Cirencester, England. Pearson PLC will merge its Penguin Books division with Random House, which is owned by German media company Bertelsmann, in an all-share deal that will create the world's largest publisher of consumer books, it was reported on Monday, Oct. 29, 2012.

Tim Ireland/AP

They did it for Canadian potash, and they did it for Canadian oil. But will the federal government move as promptly to protect the nation's writers from the menace of foreign ownership in the embattled Canadian publishing industry?

Based on the merits cited in those other cases, the case for protection is rock solid. When the proposed Random Penguin colossus appears next year, a single company will control as much as 40 per cent of the Canadian market for books aimed at a general readership, according to publishing expert Rowland Lorimer of Simon Fraser University. The incipient demise of Canadian publisher Douglas & McIntyre will only increase that market share.

Meanwhile, the three multinational firms currently responsible for half of all Canadian book sales are already squeezing Canadian authors out of their catalogues, according to literary agents, cutting costs by giving slots once reserved for homegrown books to prepackaged content from New York. Further industry concentration will only speed that trend, they say, with potentially disastrous effects on the culture at large.

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It was a Conservative government that bolstered rules to protect the Canadian industry by restricting foreign investment almost 30 years ago, and fought hard to maintain them in the country's first free-trade agreement with the United States. So can we expect to see the Mounties once again ride to the rescue of this damsel in perpetual distress?

The answer is likely no – and not just because the Harper government shows little interest in such frivolous causes, having continuously delayed a long-promised review of its increasingly ineffective book-protection policies. A more compelling reason to let the protections lapse is that agents representing the most successful Canadian writers have come to see more foreign investment, not less of it, as key to the survival of Canadian literature.

"I think we would get an immediate benefit culturally by having more viable options for Canadian writers," said Toronto agent Jackie Kaiser, who represents Yann Martel among other internationally successful authors. On the other hand, she added, the loss of one of the last independents and the merger between the two largest multinationals is bound to reduce opportunities and income for Canadian writers.

Like many other authors and their representatives, Kaiser is keen to see U.S.-based Simon & Schuster establish a Canadian publishing program. The company has regularly expressed interest in doing so, but is prevented by regulations that prohibit new investors from owning more than 25 per cent of a Canadian publisher. (The three multinational incumbents that currently dominate the Canadian market were already present when the rule came into force, and have been permitted to operate on condition that they demonstrate "net benefit" to Canadian culture.)

"For Simon & Schuster to set up a Canadian publishing program here would definitely benefit Canadian writing and Canadian culture," she said.

Even so, few see national salvation from such unlikely sources. An open-border policy could easily speed up the rationalization that is already threatening to erase Canada as a distinctive market in the publishing multiverse – further reducing opportunities for Canadian writers and choices available to Canadian readers.

Just as easily, it could accomplish nothing at all: Hopes for greater completion rest on the shaky assumption that foreign companies are eager to invest in what remains of the Canadian publishing industry.

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But one thing is clear: The dream of creating commercially sound, Canadian-owned publishing companies – a major goal of Mulroney-era protectionism – is dead.

"It was a very attractive notion," Lorimer said. "But the difficulty with it is that you're competing with behemoths – multibillion dollar vertically integrated conglomerates – and they have pockets as deep as they need to get any title they want."

Including those of exclusive interest to Canadian readers. "You can't compete," Lorimer said, adding that believing otherwise was a "pipe dream."

As a result, the task of sustaining Canadian literature will fall increasingly into the hands of small domestic publishers who operate at a non-commercial scale with the aid of government grants. Their existence is "a very positive cultural story," according to Lorimer.

Meanwhile there is little hope of the government riding to the rescue of an independent, commercially viable Canadian publishing industry. Long dreamed of but never quite realized, that phoenix is now officially extinct.

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