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On the uncertain future of Canadian publishing

Stephen Henighan’s latest column in Geist magazine, this one on the importance of Canadian-owned publishers, begins with the alarming prediction of a literary agent: that there will be no Canadian-owned publishers in 20 years, only “Canadians who write for American publishers.”

This has Henighan examining the possible causes and effects of such a development. He theorizes that, to compete with Indigo, small chains and independents have had to “reproduce the ‘Wal-Mart level of excellence'” to which Indigo CEO Heather Reisman aspires. Henighan asserts that, in doing this, small chains and independents, once bastions of literary diversity that stocked the entire backlists of writers, will stock only one or two titles from most given authors, leading to the demise of literary presses that depend on sales from independents to exist. Without the challenge of literary presses to contend with, big publishers’ standards will drop.

Henighan adds that the shallow stock of the dominant bookstore chains “train[s] servile intermittent readers rather than self-directed addicts. Their dominance sets in motion a downward spiral in which every year fewer young people are inducted into the reading obsession, leading inexorably to lower and lower sales.”

Just how bigger “Canadian-owned” houses factor into all this isn’t made clear, but given various issues for the “Canadian-owned” industry — such as editorial cutbacks at Raincoast and the partial foreign ownership of M&S, to name a couple — one would surmise that the future is not bright. And what could the agent’s prediction portend for Canadian writers? Henighan looks back and abroad for possible answers: back to the 1940s when “Sinclair Ross suppressed Canadian references from As For Me and My House in order to find a publisher in the United States, and Morley Callaghan’s short stories drained Toronto of its street names and history to satisfy U.S. magazine editors with a faceless Anytown,” and abroad to Angola, whose publishing industry was celebrated throughout Africa, Brazil, and Portugal during years of state sponsorship. A withdrawal of funding in 1990 led to the collapse of the Angolan industry, in which a handful of extremely popular writers continued to be published in Portugal, but young writers stopped emerging. Now that funding has been restored, Angolan writers, young and old, can find audiences.

Ultimately, Henighan revives the old but weighty argument of the effects of indigenous publishing on a country’s artistic life and national identity: “A nation without publishers cannot foster its own literary talent, record its distinctive experience of literary language, host aesthetic debates, thrash out its personal and collective demons, express its regional identities, teach its children their history or project its myths into the global ether. A nation without publishers loses the ability to define itself, and is destined to be defined by strangers and, ultimately, ruled by them. That is the sort of nation Canada may become.”

Related links:
Click here for Stephen Henighan’s essay in Geist