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Books Canadians reading fewer domestic books, report shows

Alice Munro books for sale at Munro's Books in Victoria, B.C. on Oct. 10, 2013. Munro was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 2013, the first Canadian to win the honour.

John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail

English Canadians are buying and reading fewer Canadian books, according to a new report.

It warns the domestic publishing industry is losing out to the marketing muscle of foreign firms and being left behind by some of the same technological changes that are swamping Canadian films and television programs.

More Canada, a report from an ad-hoc think tank of industry veterans that included publishers, librarians, broadcasters and booksellers, says the English-language share of sales of books by Canadian authors in this country fell more than 50 per cent in a little more than a decade: to only 13 per cent last year from 27 per cent in 2005.

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The report, which is being released Thursday morning, notes that the drop comes even as Canadian publishers have remained in the black, making up for lower domestic sales by going deeper into foreign markets.

It makes 65 recommendations, though its authors say the document is intended as a starting point for discussion rather than a final prescriptive.

Suggestions include government funding for independent bookstores to support author appearances and other marketing efforts; a new program that would channel publicly-funded purchases of books – such as those of school libraries or public libraries – through “accredited bookstores,” similar to an acclaimed scheme in Quebec; government funding for enhancements to inventory software to enable Canadian books to be more accurately tracked and promoted; municipal tax breaks or subsidies for independent bookstores, in recognition of the cultural role they play within a community; and an expanded role for the CBC in creating greater awareness of books and authors.

The report puts some hard numbers on the experiences of Canadian authors, many of whom have seen sales of their individual books diminish even as publishers are putting more titles into the marketplace.

A customer takes a picture of his dog against Alice Munro's latest book Dear Life at Munro's Books in Victoria on Oct. 10, 2013.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Globe and Mail

In 2017, first-year sales of Canadian-authored books published by multinational-owned companies averaged 2,241 copies for a retail value of $55,414 a title; books published by Canadian-owned companies averaged a mere 343 copies, for a retail value of $8,110 a title. That same year, multinationals released 851 new titles and Canadian-owned companies published 2,551 titles, for a total of 3,604 new titles by Canadian authors. (That represented only 4.6 per cent of the total number of new titles published in Canada, with books by foreign authors totaling 77,721.)

Government programs “are successfully supporting the creation of Canadian books and the publishing of Canadian books, but the books aren’t getting through the distribution system,” said James Lorimer, a Toronto- and Halifax-based publisher who was one of the three co-authors of the report. He spoke with The Globe this week alongside co-author Jeff Miller of Irwin Law. The other author was Philip Cercone of McGill-Queens University Press.

The report diagnoses multiple reasons behind the troubles, including heavy discounting by foreign publishers and their marketing might.

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But it also points to a cause members of the think tank said surprised them: U.S.-made inventory software that doesn’t include a field to denote whether a book’s author is Canadian. That single oversight precludes a bookstore or library system from easily surfacing Canadian books for their readers, or even from tracking their own Canadian holdings. Lorimer and Miller noted that most library systems across the country do not target certain levels of their loans to be Canadian. But even if they did, they would have difficulty tracking those numbers because of the shortcomings of the software.

The lack of a Canadian digital tag also means the algorithms behind most online bookselling do not automatically link Canadian authors. So someone buying Esi Edugyan’s Giller Prize-winning novel Washington Black may be more likely to be recommended Khaled Hosseini’s Sea Prayer by an online site than Miriam Toews’s Women Talking.

“You work with the tools that are there,” Lorimer said. “The slow decline in visibility has occurred because people have used tools that were great in a lot of ways. But for an American software supplier, building in a tool that allows for a Canadian book to be identified is not a high priority.”

Canadian readers, he said, “like Canadian books, and they’re not seeing the books that they’re paying for, through all of the [government] programs of support. This doesn’t make sense to anybody.”

The report recommends funding for a software overhaul.

It also suggests the CBC adopt a policy – inspired by Canadian content regulations dictating a certain percentage of music on radio stations be Canadian – that would see 50 per cent of its books coverage “be Canadian in content or authorship.” It’s one of a number of proposals the report makes for CBC Radio that, together with the CBC’s online platforms, is seen as an important driver of awareness among readers.

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The report notes that independent bookstores are key channels for Canadian-authored books – representing 18 per cent of their sales, according to the industry data aggregating service BookNet – and that, contrary to popular belief, those shops are thriving amid competition from online and big-box stores. With that in mind, the report recommends measures that could lead to the opening of 50 new independent bookstores across the country within five years, including the creation of an accreditation system.

People browse through books at the Word on the Street book fair on Queens Park Circle in Toronto on Sept. 23, 2012.

J.P. MOCZULSKI

That scheme, a version of which exists in Quebec, would see bookstores choose to dedicate a certain percentage of their shelf and display space to Canadian books, in exchange for which they would become the preferred retailers for publicly funded purchases, such as schools and public libraries.

“That is perhaps the most important thing to come forth from the report,” said Morty Mint, a long-time publisher who now works as an agent. “That would definitely increase the awareness and the access, and the number of books that are sold.”

“Canadian publishing needs to be saved. The question is: Is there political will?”

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