If you search the Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale on Amazon.ca, the online bookseller concludes you are interested in dystopian fiction and also recommends 1984 and Brave New World. If you search Esi Edugyan’s Giller-Prize-winning Washington Black, the other titles you are apparently most likely to purchase are two American memoirs, Michelle Obama’s Becoming and Tara Westover’s Educated. A few other Giller Prize nominees, such as Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, only start to show up lower down the page.
Are Canadian books getting lost in the digital shuffle?
It would seem so, according to a new report from a publishing-industry working group that uncovered a shocking drop in the English-language market and attributes it partly to a discoverability problem. In 2005, a major survey by the Department of Canadian Heritage estimated that 27 per cent of the English-language books sold in Canada were written by Canadians. Today, numbers drawn from BookNet Canada sales data show that market share is only 13 per cent.
What’s happened? According to the report’s three organizers and authors, publishers James Lorimer, Jeff Miller and Philip Cercone, Canada’s literary culture is healthy: Writers keep writing and Canadian-owned publishers are publishing as many Canadian titles as ever, while independent bookstores are also stable. But somehow the industry’s link with Canadian readers has broken. The voluntary group of cultural professionals behind the More Canada report had sensed that; anecdotally, everybody was selling fewer Canadian books (even if more Canadian titles were being published.) So they got together to see if they could find hard evidence of a drop – which they did – and to discuss why it might have occurred.
They stress their findings are preliminary; while there are BookNet numbers on which books people buy, statistics on which books Canadians actually read are much harder to compile. I asked Lorimer and Miller this week if this was not simply a case of everybody reading less because they are spending more time on social media or peak TV. They pointed out that the Canadian book market had not shrunk; rather it is the share that belongs to English-language Canadian-authored books that has dropped.
They point to problems in distribution and marketing, painting a picture of inadvertent losses caused by systems that discriminate against Canadian books. That includes everything from U.S. industry software that doesn’t offer a field for the country of origin so buyers don’t know which books are Canadian, to well-intentioned librarians and teachers who say they want Canadian books but buy more foreign ones because the discounts are steeper. Books are still mainly physical objects – e-book sales, not included in this report, peaked at around 20 per cent of the market in 2017 and are now in slight decline. But the distribution and marketing of books depend on digital systems, and that’s where Canada seems to be losing ground.
Although the More Canada report also identifies an absence of cultural policies as a problem, it doesn’t point fingers. Still, it’s hard not to conclude that Ottawa has dropped the ball here. Canada has had strong book-industry policies developed in the 1970s and strengthened by the Brian Mulroney government in the 1980s. Yet it was another Conservative government, that of Stephen Harper, that simply abandoned the field in the 2000s, rather than engage in tricky political debates about national ownership of publishing houses and bookstores. One of the most dramatic results, as Elaine Dewar pointed out in her 2017 book The Handover, is that the most prominent Canadian publisher, McClelland & Stewart, was sold to a foreign multi-national, Random House of Canada, in 2011. Since the Liberals came to power in 2015, they have done little to address the simmering issues in the book industry: the cultural policy review completed by former minister of Canadian Heritage Mélanie Jolie last year had little to say about books and publishing.
The More Canada report is full of suggestions to improve the situation, from adopting a Quebec system that encourages schools and libraries to buy from independent bookstores to increasing the prominence of Canadian books in university classrooms and on the CBC. It also suggests that Canadian Heritage publish an annual report of the industry data it already collects. Certainly, this report’s findings, drawn from various sets of data, make it clear that Ottawa needs to move swiftly to take a consistent measure of the problem.
After all, governments, both federal and provincial, do spend money to make sure that authors write and Canadian publishers publish them. What is the point of creating all those books if Canadians aren’t finding them?
Canada will be the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2020, part of a federal push to promote Canadian literary culture abroad. Sounds like it’s time to look to our own house first.