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Canada Book Fund’s support for booksellers makes a difference to indies

(credit: Drew Shannon)

Although the amount of funding independent bookstores received this year as part of Canadian Heritage’s new two-year Support for Booksellers component of the Canada Book Fund varied significantly from store to store, the money provided a much-needed boost that allowed indies to address shipping costs, upgrade their websites, and extend their social media campaigns.

In November 2022, Canadian Heritage announced that 180 booksellers would receive funding through the new program, which it calls a “temporary recovery initiative.” That $12 million in funding marks the first time booksellers have received support from the federal government. The 180 booksellers who received funding in the first phase operate a total of 467 bookstores across the country. Amounts were based on a bookstore’s 2019 sales of Canadian-authored books, and ranged from $1,000 to $150,000 for small chain and independent bookstores. Large chain bookstores Groupe Archambault, Librairie Renaud-Bray, and Indigo Books and Music received $608,617, $1.89 million, and $3.5 million, respectively. 

The two-year program was first announced in the 2021 budget, with funding allocated for 2022–23 and 2023–24. Applications for the second year of funding closed on April 24. Allocations for next year’s funding will be based on booksellers’ sales of Canadian-authored books in 2022 and have not yet been announced. 

Vancouver indie Iron Dog Books received $3,000, the modest sum owing to the store’s status in 2019 as a book truck that operated part-time. 

“We were open in a brick-and-mortar [store] for the last month of 2019, so I was quite pleased to get any grant,” says owner Hilary Atleo. “I’m grateful.” 

Atleo put the funding to work by spending a portion on wages and expanding Bookmanager access to more staff to improve the store’s inventory management. Atleo also used the funding to conduct research to ensure the store is using 100 per cent recyclable packaging when shipping online orders, and to purchase a new scale so larger packages can be weighed in store. If Iron Dog receives funding, and a larger amount, for the program’s second year, Atleo plans to hire a web developer to audit and improve the website’s user experience.

Part of the $7,178 Halifax’s Woozles received went to a similarly practical item: a store cellphone.

One could say, ‘Well, what on earth does that have to do with online selling?’ It meant that more than one staff person could use the phone to take pictures and do social media posts,” owner Liz Crocker says. 

Before the purchase of the store cellphone, one staffer was using her personal phone to post to social media for the store, and those posts only happened when she was working. The funding also allowed the children’s bookstore to pay for shipping costs. Online orders increased during the pandemic, and although the store charged customers for shipping, they covered the cost of packaging themselves. Woozles hired someone to do free deliveries within a 30-minute radius of Halifax, and Crocker says the funding helped to subsidize the wages of that delivery person. The store also started a monthly e-newsletter in which it features Canadian books since receiving Canada Book Fund support, Crocker says. 

For Saskatoon indie Turning the Tide, the $6,154 funding the store received has meant that the store was able to hire someone to do the online marketing and promotion of the webstore.

“Having that funding available has been a relief in terms of, okay, we’ve got money that we can earmark to go towards this, and we can hire somebody to help us with marketing,” owner Peter Garden says. “[Our social media] is more consistent now.”

For independent chain McNally Robinson, which has two stores in Winnipeg and one in Saskatoon, owner Chris Hall says the effect of the $150,000 it received is “huge.”

“It’s allowed our [website] budget to increase by six or seven times what we would normally be able to invest,” Hall says. “It feels as if we’re doing six or seven years of investment all at once.”

McNally Robinson has used the money in three different areas: to subsidize shipping, to pay for social media ad campaigns and online marketing, and to undertake a significant update to the store’s website, starting with an analysis of how customers use the website so it can be improved in a targeted way. The website improvements are underway, and will go live next year, Hall says. 

Canadian Heritage’s initiative has been helpful, and all booksellers Q&Q spoke to are grateful for it, but some see continued support for indies as an integral part of maintaining a robust Canadian publishing industry.

The marketplace for indies has changed dramatically in recent years – not just because of competition from online retailers such as Amazon, but because of the rising overhead costs of running a brick-and-mortar store. Rents in Canadian cities have risen significantly, and urban real estate markets can pit small independent businesses like bookstores against multinational chains, or juggernauts like Dollarama, in competition for a retail lease. Atleo says it would be helpful if Canadian Heritage moved beyond simply recognizing the importance of independent bookstores to supporting them accordingly. 

You can get a grant to write a book, you can get a grant to publish a book, but from my perspective as a bookseller, there is absolutely no care given to whether or not that book is well distributed, whether or not there is significant uptake or sales of that title – there is no investment in where the book is going,” says Atleo. “It’s always been a bit bizarre to me that we consider publishers folks who need and are deserving of public funding, but bookstores are businesses that have to sink or swim on their own.”