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The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada’s Writers

by Roy MacSkimming

If Roy MacSkimming wanted a pithy epigraph to begin his comprehensive history of the English Canadian publishing industry, he could always use the shopworn “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” Since the industry’s modest beginnings in the late 19th century, successive generations of Canadian publishers have faced the same obstacles: the country is too big and the population too small to financially support an indigenous literature, especially with well-established British and American corporations ready to flood the market with their cheaper-to-produce product. Canadians also have a notoriously shaky grasp of their national identity, making them a tough market to sell to.

Publishing insiders and observers of Canadian literature and culture will find plenty of ironies to ponder in MacSkimming’s The Perilous Trade. Take the case of Lorne Pierce, who joined the Ryerson Press after the First World War and quickly became its editor-in-chief. Then, as now, Canadian publishers relied on agency sales (and the education market) to support the few original trade titles they published each season. But the upswell of patriotism after the First World War boosted the demand for explicitly Canadian books, firing Pierce and a few other pioneers with the dream of a completely indigenous publishing program. The dream was realized in part – Pierce published 84 Canadian titles in 1930 – so much so that he optimistically opined in 1955: “As the years pass, we shall become a completely independent publishing house…. More and more we shall be free of the halter of the agencies.”

The dream has obviously not come to pass. Multinationals control an expanding share of the market and Canadian publishers still rely on a combination of agency lines, government grants, and commercial titles to make ends meet.

It’s not all bad news. The early chapters demonstrate just how much progress has been made, especially in regards to our national literature. MacSkimming details the rowdy early days of McClelland & Stewart, Macmillan Canada, Oxford University Press, and Clarke, Irwin and the ways in which those houses, and their often flamboyant publishers, nurtured Canada’s fledgling writers and their work.

The 1960s and ’70s saw the emergence of such innovative presses as House of Anansi and Douglas & McIntyre and, after intense and very creative lobbying efforts, the creation of government granting bodies. The success of these and other ventures makes for heartening reading, but MacSkimming leaves no doubt that the socio-economic forces that have always threatened the industry are stronger than ever, evidenced by the recent folding of The Perilous Trade’s originating publisher, Macfarlane Walter & Ross.

Readers looking for an insider’s exposé on the industry’s major players will be disappointed. There are occasional allusions to egos flared and feathers rustled, but MacSkimming’s tone is remarkably even-handed – perhaps too much so – giving the work at times the feel of a commissioned official history. MacSkimming is a committed cultural nationalist who fought in many of the campaigns written about here, and this perspective animates the better sections with a depth of feeling and analysis. (The chapters on McClelland & Stewart and the first wave of independent publishers are especially strong.) This sense of mission may have made MacSkimming loath to assign specific blame for some of the industry’s more recent disasters.