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Opinion: We need a bestseller list of titles from Canadian-owned presses, not just Canadian authors

Back in July of 2021, I was looking at the Toronto Star’s Canadian bestseller list, noting the fine books that were on it, when a title I didn’t recognize caught my eye. While it’s an old industry truism that no one remembers the publisher of a book, they just remember the author, that’s not true for me. When I’m in a bookstore, I have a terrible tendency to check spines and copyright pages to see who published the books that catch my attention even before reading the back cover copy. I’m always interested in who has released which books and the publishing choices they have made in doing so, and I think most people who work in publishing are the same.

Wondering who had published this new title, I looked it up and discovered an imprint of a multinational had released the book. Curious, I started checking every title on that particular Canadian bestseller list, and I learned that Canadian-owned presses had published none of them. So, where were our books? The ones published by so many people I know and respect in our industry, written by authors I also know and respect? How were they doing? We tell new authors to measure themselves against the work of writers at a similar point in their careers – not against the latest book to win an award. Why should we measure the sales of independently published Canadian books against those of publishing conglomerates?

I started looking through BookNet Canada data to see what I could find and there they were, buried underneath the marketing weight of multinationals. At that moment, I decided we needed a bestseller list of titles from Canadian-owned presses, not just Canadian authors. As a publisher, I will never be able to compete on a level playing field with multinationals, but I would like to know how good of a job my press is doing getting the word out about our titles as compared to similar presses. I would like to celebrate our successes and those of other publishers, and to let our authors know their books are reaching readers.

I floated the idea on social media and there was an enthusiastic response, particularly from authors. I approached the Hamilton Review of Books to host a monthly Independently Published Bestseller List, and their editorial committee was likewise thrilled with the idea. As I was unable to acquire the data from BookNet Canada, I’ve gone directly to independent bookstores and have asked them to share their data with me. I’ve been delighted with the response and, as of last November, nine stores across four provinces are sharing their monthly sales figures with me. As more people become aware of the Independently Published Bestseller List, I’m hoping to have stores from every province take part in the project to get a better sense of which Canadian-published books people are reading across the country.

It’s been fascinating to comb through the information given to me each month by bookstores and see which books are hitting and where. I know I have only a small sliver of the data to work with, but it’s enough to see trends, and to see how regional our book sales are. The books that show up on my list rarely cross over with the Canadian bestseller list we see promoted across the country. Poetry and plays make it onto the independent list. The nonfiction bestsellers show a wonderful diversity of publishers and ideas. Regional stars shine out for us to admire.

It is very difficult for Canadian-owned publishers to get the word out about books right now, but they are working hard at it, and often they succeed regionally before they succeed nationally. This list captures some of these successes and reinforces them. There are few places where we step out of the shadow of multinationals and see which books published by Canadian presses are doing well. We need to lift up these books, which are an important part of the fabric of our literary world, and to let the authors and their publishers see themselves shine in the company of their peers.

Noelle Allen is the publisher at Wolsak & Wynn. She is the past chair of the Literary Press Group and of GritLit: Hamilton’s Readers and Writers Festival. Currently, she is also the essays editor for the Hamilton Review of Books and works with Supercrawl to bring literary programming to Hamilton’s largest outdoor festival.

By: Noelle Allen

March 23rd, 2022

11:31 am

Category: Opinion

Issue Date: March 2022

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