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Noah Richler: imagining if the publishing industry was cross-checked by professional hockey

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(illustration: Gart Darley)

(illustration: Gart Darley)

The resignation of Larry Vettman, commissioner of the National League of Hockey, was a big surprise; his appointment as first president of ABC, the Association for Books in Canada, more so.

Already, changes that the combative executive introduced at the Moncton Conference have radicalized Canadian publishing. In particular, the NLH-style salary cap that required all of Vettman’s wiles to introduce is now a barometer of the industry’s success.

“The free market is a lunatic notion that cannot be enforced,” said Vettman in the wake of the Moncton reforms. “The only markets that work are cartels and highly protected. The NLH. Big Oil. Quebec. Doing nothing was not an option.”

Of the 195 Canadian publishers listed in 2014, 18 remain. The 177 publishers not awarded national franchises are still permitted to produce books, but only in a print format to be sold in bookstores within a 100-kilometre radius of the issuing press. Where, previously, a plurality of publishers was operating in metropolitan markets of less than 100,000 households, all but one have been relocated, and foreign editions of books may only be imported in the original language.

“Average book spending per household in 2011 was $109,” said Vettman. “Factor in that only one per cent of book buyers actually pay anything near full price and you can see that the league – sorry, the association – had no choice.”

After some initial resistance, authors have come around. This year, the salary cap (calculated as a percentage of total gross sales of books, ebooks, and merchandise sold by or under licence to the association’s exclusive store, Rainforest, plus user fees from the library branches) has seen a four per cent rise. A broadcast agreement stipulating that all appearances on television, radio, or in online forums are payable by the networks has also augmented writers’ salaries.

“The belief that interviews sell books and so are good for authors is codswallop,” said Vettman. “Money is good for authors.”

Concomitantly, a rigorous application of books’ copyright disclaimers – backed up by a sequence of punishing ABC lawsuits – has enforced the association’s prosecution of what Vettman has described as bloggers’ and mainstream media’s “freewheeling culture of devastating libel and slander previously known as ‘book reviews.’”

After last month’s successful court action, the terms “CanLit,” “fine,” “compelling,” “harrowing,” “darkly funny,” “page-turner,” and the phrases “original new voice,” “impossible to put down,” “I read the book in one sitting” and “most extraordinary writer(s) working in Canada / the English language / the world” are among a list of 101 phrases that may only be used under licence.

Net book sales are up and unit prices are rising. Each of the association’s 18 publishers now has a salary cap of $7.8 million  and the annual authors’ draft is a nationally televised calendar moment that brings new hope to producers at the bottom of the BookNet Canada standings.

In further exciting news, only two of the year’s top-10 draft picks are foreign, three are aboriginal, four write fantasy, and two are more than 60 years old.

“Novel writing’s not just about a pretty face,” said House of Anansi Press president Sarah MacLachlan, facing a barrage of media criticism after the Toronto publisher’s blockbuster “Giller” trade of Rawi Hage, Lynn Coady, and two second-round poets for Penguin Canada’s Joseph Boyden.

In other ABC moves, McClelland & Stewart dealt veteran Margaret Atwood to Cormorant Books for two graphic novelists on entry-level contracts and a 2017 draft pick.

“Atwood’s given a lot to the game and it would have been great to see her play out her career here,” said Random House of Canada president Kristin Cochrane. “But it’s hard to build for the future when you have several blockbuster writers already. We needed salary room. We’re not ruling out having Peggy back in the organization, maybe as coach.”

This year, 782 Canadian books will be published (down from 10,000 titles in 2012), retailing for an average of $109 before tax.

“For the price of a book you can eat at five restaurants in this town,” said industry ombudsman Jack Rabinovitch. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”