They say you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover. But when it comes to judging the Harper government on its policy of investment in the book publishing industry, the cover is all we can see.
Last month, Heritage Canada gave the go-ahead to the U.S. house Simon & Schuster to set up a program in this country to sign and publish Canadian authors. S&S needed the federal government to weigh in because the Investment Canada Act, a Mulroney-era piece of protectionist legislation, limits the activities of foreign publishers here: They can distribute imported books, but may not originate them here.
To get around that barrier and sign Canadian authors, some publishers had resorted to Keystone Kops levels of absurdity: Simon & Schuster developed a stable of Canadian authors, including Andrew Pyper, Robert Rotenberg, and Brad Smith, by signing them out of the company's New York office. Prime Minister Harper himself is an S&S author, even though his book on the early history of hockey will likely be of, um, mild interest to American readers.
The prohibition on multinational publishers signing local authors stems from a fear that the behemoths can throw around their financial muscle, to the ultimate detriment of Canadian readers, authors and the smaller domestic publishers. "It means they have big clout in the retail environment," said Carolyn Wood, the executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers. And while a few bestselling Canadian authors might benefit, most of everybody else will lose, she added.
Others beg to differ. "Foreign ownership is not the question," the veteran agent Denise Bukowski said. "The question is how well people publish."
Even Sarah MacLachlan, a noted champion of Canadian literature and the president of the independent publisher House of Anansi Press, said she wasn't really in favour of the policy: She just wants the government to be consistent and transparent in its dealings with the industry.
"We have a policy, and that policy should stand. However, when it suits – and I don't know how the determination is made when it suits – the policy is disregarded," she said in an interview. "What's the point of having a policy if you're not going to stand behind it?"
After Heritage okayed Simon & Schuster's move to expand last month, Douglas C. New, a lawyer in the Toronto office of Fasken Martineau, wrote a blog post on the firm's website noting that investors are confused by the lack of transparency, "as the Government is making decisions that on their face appear inconsistent with the current policy, a policy that the Government had expressly stated that it would strictly enforce."
Ms. MacLachlan added: "This sort of backhanded stuff I think is ridiculous, and kind of senseless."
Three years ago, the Department of Heritage opened a review, reaching out to booksellers, agents, publishers and other interested parties about whether the policy should be changed. And then? Nothing.
In the meantime, it has adopted an approach to policy that appears surprisingly ad hoc. In April, it approved the merger of the Canadian operations of Random House and Penguin Group, mirroring regulatory approvals in other countries where those two publishers operate.
When Simon & Schuster was granted permission to operate, a Heritage spokesperson sent an explanatory e-mail to my Globe colleague John Barber, which read: "Simon & Schuster Canada has met its obligations under the Investment Canada Act and may now launch a book publishing business in Canada."
On Wednesday, I sent an e-mail to Heritage (like most departments in the Harper government, it prefers its spokespeople don't conduct conversations over the phone) asking what, exactly, those obligations were. The reply read as follows: "Non-Canadians wishing to establish new cultural businesses in Canada, including book publishing businesses, are required to notify the Minister of Canadian Heritage under the Investment Canada Act. Simon & Schuster Canada has fulfilled this obligation. The new business will publish and promote Canadian authors, participate in Canadian book industry initiatives, expand its internship program with Simon Fraser University and Humber College, as well as develop a course for future book industry leaders with Simon Fraser University."
While the e-mail outlined some of the laudable contributions S&S will be making to the Canadian publishing scene, it did not actually answer the question: What, exactly, are the obligations of a foreign-owned publishing entity wanting to set up a Canadian publishing program in Canada (other than, er, notifying the government)? So I sent a follow-up e-mail to Heritage.
By deadline on Thursday, I was still waiting for a response.