As an author I’m part of a much larger publishing ecosystem in Canada. It’s an ecosystem in which alarm bells have been going off for some time now. Recently an article in The Star brought it all to the fore. Pressure from Amazon on pricing has seriously eroded the sustainability of the independent bookstore, which is absolutely critical to the industry’s overall health. The policy of returns, essentially selling on consignment, has made planning cashflow very challenging for publishers. Many authors make most of their money teaching and presenting rather than selling books. Now add Covid-19 and . . . well . . . the industry could use a little help.
Chapters/Indigo’s recent results highlight the urgency. Last quarter it lost $30 million (before extraordinary items) and that quarter only included the initial two weeks of shutdowns. The second quarter will be absolutely brutal. And yet Covid-19 has shown Canadians how important reading still is to them.
I titled this article ‘Part of’ because I’m not a publisher or a retailer. I don’t know the whole of the sector and what’s profitable and what’s not. I do know that losses cannot continue when they are structural in nature as they are with Chapters and Chapters represents about a third of the overall market, with Amazon roughly being another third and the rest being divided by wholesalers, libraries and independents.
We don’t need a crystal ball to see that it’s likely that Amazon’s share has gone up with Covid-19 and everyone else’s has gone down. What’s more, the Chapter’s CEO has indicated that online sales are essentially breakeven for them, so we can’t expect online sales to save the day. Or even keep the lights on.
So, I’m worried. And I want to help. The immediate solution is obvious. We all have to stop buying books from Amazon. They sell at razor thin margins as part of a strategy to destroy ecosystems in order to create long term monopolies. Why would we want that? The long term impact will mean we have no retail system in Canada, and very little opportunity for Canadian publishers, and therefore Canadian books. The challenge is that it’s very difficult to ask everyone to pay more for the same product, unless we’re offering something better, something special.
I’ve been thinking about how we all have ideas, big and small, of how we can make the industry better and we need to put our heads together. There’s no question that the industry needs more government support. We’re a small cultural sector hitting way above our belt in terms of impact. Ask kids what they want to be when they grow up and a large percentage of them are going to say “be a writer”–I did. And I’m not prepared to stomp on their dreams.
So what can we do? I have two ideas. The key, I think, is to grow the market for Canadian books. New initiatives often divide the market further. We need to build. We need to encourage people to ‘Buy Canadian’ and I think the #IReadCanadian initiative is a great start. I’d like to take it a step further: To Subscribe Canadian.
A Made in Canada Subscription Service
What would you think of a subscription service for Canadian books? Perhaps as part of the #IReadCanadian push or to build with 49thShelf. Essentially, people/schools would subscribe to a ‘book box’ that they would receive on a quarterly (or book season) basis. The subscriber would fill out a preferences form and perhaps connect to review platforms so that the service knows what the subscriber likes. Every three months these selections would be sent to their closest participating independent bookstore who would create the ‘book box’ and either deliver it, or have it available for pickup. Selections would be curated by both the algorithm and bookseller/librarian recommendation. The box would have a focus on new releases. By subscribing, people are ensuring the profit margin goes to independent bookstores/publishers/authors while receiving a treasure box of curated content. The service would ensure diversity of authors and spread the love to publishers, helping to facilitate effective book launches and visibility without returns. For retailers, it’s a way of launching a local subscription service that they would not otherwise have the ability to create on their own. The key (and this is an important assumption) is that it should increase store sales rather than divide the market further. A lot of other subscription boxes offer additional items (sweets/bookish items) but I think the pitch here is that this is 100% Canadian. Not-for-profit. Not Amazon. Hand curated. Independent retailer friendly. I’d subscribe to that, would you?
Value our Intellectual Property
My second suggested push would be to integrate the book and broadcast sectors to a greater degree. I don’t think we as writers do a good job of mining our own intellectual property. I think for many publishers the consideration of ancillary rights is secondary to the book and we should be looking at them as a whole. There’s a tendency in the industry to look for bestsellers before going to market with screen rights, and, in my opinion, there’s no real correlation to best sellers equaling good TV. Given a bestseller in Canada is 5,000 books it hardly represents a built in audience.
I don’t have enough access to publishers really to know what they’re doing in the background, I can only say that my own efforts have been positive, even if nothing has made it to screen. In fact, I’d say I wouldn’t be writing still without it. Selling IP to a producer is exactly the same skillset as selling to a publisher. And the producers are far more accessible than the publishers, which suggests to me that there exists a gap in the market. One that could help Canadian publishers and authors alike.
I attended PrimeTime Ottawa in February, when the Broadcasting and Telecom Review Panel came back with their findings on the how to improve their industry. Over and over again, the CMPA talked about the importance of IP and that the future of Canada lay in its IP. There wasn’t a single mention of books the entire conference and nothing from the Heritage Minister. We need to do a better job of integrating with our Film and TV industry. Aside from the Page to Screen event each year, I’m not sure of any other formal marketing between the two industries (with the exception of Corus Entertainment which has their own book imprints). Here’s the thing; I think we’re the same industry. We create IP and the foundation of the entertainment industry in Canada could be publishing.
Content should and could go the other way as well. Books are the least expensive way for producers/streamers to test a product and create IP for a potential television show or movie. I think the future of Canadian TV could very well lie in the strength of its book industry. The market for screen based entertainment doesn’t trickle down to books the way it should. And the producers aren’t viewing the Canadian book industry as their first stop for IP, when it should. I haven’t heard anyone talking about any of this and it seems to me that if we’re looking for ways to make the literary industry more sustainable, we should be looking downstream to where the big money is.
What do you think? Have any more ideas on who to build the industry? I think it’s time for a townhall.