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80 years of Q&Q: CanLit gets down to business

Rise of the agents

Imagine a small fishing village that endures for generations, quietly selling its wares for modest, but predictable, returns. Then one day, people from the outside world discover the village’s fare, and are willing to spend real money to procure more. Before they know it, the villagers are besieged by middlemen who overturn generations of tradition, promise (and often deliver) unheard of amounts of money, and turn some obscure fishermen into seafood stars, seemingly overnight.

That was the situation in Canadian publishing in the 1990s, starting around the time Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Fall on Your Knees and Anne Michaels’ Fugitive Pieces became surprise worldwide bestsellers. An aggressive new breed of agents – such as Bruce Westwood, Anne McDermid, and Denise Bukowski – shook up a staid industry by doing unthinkable things like demanding headline-worthy advances, yanking established authors away from their long-time editors and publishers, making foreign and film deals by the cartload, and pushing a whole generation of new faces into the spotlight.

The big-advance rodeo didn’t last, and even the most cutthroat domestic agents have been settling more and more for long-tail earnings over buzzworthy deals, but there is no going back to the old fishing village ways. – Nathan Whitlock





Peter Gzowski

Peter Gzowski

The CBC effect

Just as George Martin was the fifth Beatle, for decades CBC Radio has been the book trade’s second publicist. It’s said that during the glory days of Peter Gzowski’s daily Morningside radio show, booksellers nationwide asked in advance what authors he planned to feature so they could stock their shelves accordingly. An appearance on any CBC Radio program (especially the one formerly hosted by Jian Ghomeshi) can shave a few digits off a book’s Amazon ranking. Today, the heavyweight champ for creating instant homegrown bestsellers is Canada Reads, the Survivor-style “celebrity” panel show that lit snobs love to hate, but that most authors would pledge their everlasting souls to have their book appear on.


 Library books hit overdrive

During the 2010 holidays, an unprecedented number of Canadians unwrapped e-readers, while a lucky few scored the new Apple iPad. Many tested out their toys by logging on to their local library websites and downloading ebooks via a service called OverDrive.

In just a few years, OverDrive has become the king middleman for library-lent  ebooks. But the U.S. company, which provides more than 1,200 Canadian public libraries with ebook access, had a tough time balancing the needs of both cash-strapped libraries and publishers.

In 2012, Penguin cut ties with OverDrive for nearly two years, citing security issues (some speculated it was also a jab at Amazon and its Kindle e-reader). The year before, HarperCollins had put a cap on the number of times an e-title could be checked out before its licence needed to be renewed. And in the U.S., the American Library Association published an open letter criticizing publishers for keeping their ebooks out of libraries. Although things didn’t get quite as testy in Canada, a Nova Scotia library system did boycott Random House e-titles after the publisher doubled, and in some cases tripled, its prices.

While the multinationals seem to have made peace with libraries and OverDrive (the last two holdouts, Macmillan and Simon & Schuster, joined in 2014), the question remains: will there ever be a Canadian program? In 2013, eBound Canada and the Canadian Urban Libraries Council announced they are developing a system, but until that project is realized, readers will have to fill their devices elsewhere.