Welcome to Northern Exposure, my newsletter about politics, culture and the media. Please click on the BLUE subscribe button to receive the weekly post in your inbox.
Subscribe now by googling "Northern Exposure"
Does culture matter as much as dining out?
copyright Joyce Wayne
Does it surprise you that there’s so much anxious talk about the death of restaurants and so little conversation about the declining arts scene during COVID? There was hardly a mention of it in the new Ontario budget, although I’ve included a link to the beneficiaries of the recent “Rescue Fund” from this government. To be fair, the provincial government also announced a new “Magazine Fund” on budget day, March 24th.
Under the auspices of the rescue fund, the Stratford Festival, the National Ballet, the Canadian Opera Company, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Shaw Festival received $1-million or more in rescue support, well-deserved after an entire year of darkened stages. Yet if I remove the big five’s grants from the total support package, everyone else is left with considerably lesser amounts, perhaps just enough to keep small to medium organizations above water until the fall ---or perhaps not.
Across Canada, restaurants, retail stores, including big-box Costco and Wal-Mart, are allowed to stay open (within certain limits), throughout the pandemic, as theatrical stages, galleries and museums remain shuttered. Don’t get me wrong. In no way am I suggesting that cultural venues remain open when they pose a danger to community health. Still, I’m thinking of how government-sponsored technology and delivery methods could help bring the arts into our homes. The only way independent bookstores are surviving the pandemic is by delivering customer’s book orders to their doorstep.
The fact remains: very few consider bookstores an essential service, not like Costco and Wal-Mart that also sell skids of books. As CTV reported in January, “Retail stores like Wal-Mart and Costco are excluded from many of the new rules surrounding the state of emergency in Ontario. If a store sells a full complement of groceries, it is considered essential. The problem for some smaller business owners – these big box stores can also sell everything else. “
As for publishers, I can’t think of more than a handful of independently-owned book publishers whose future is not in peril. It’s not only the pandemic’s economic devastation; it’s also about galloping corporate concentration in the industry that could not be descending on Canada’s publishers or writers at a more inopportune time.
The red flag is Penguin Random House, the world’s largest trade publisher that registered its successful bid to purchase Simon & Schuster for $2-billion U.S. from entertainment conglomerate ViacomCBS last November. Let’s begin with the fact that Random House is owned by the German giant Bertelsmann media and investment corporation that also owns the broadcaster RTL, the magazine publisher Gruner + Jahr, the music company BMG, the service provider Arvato, the Bertelsmann Printing Group, the Bertelsmann Education Group and Bertelsmann Investments, an international network of funds.
By wrapping Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster inside its capacious arms, not only will the new company be publishing 40 per cent or more of the trade book titles in Canada, but it could also dominate the market in the U.S. and Britain.
While Canada dithers, the Guardian reports, “The U.K. competition watchdog has launched an investigation into Penguin Random House’s $2bn (£1.45bn) takeover of Simon & Schuster, a deal rivals have warned will create a ‘behemoth of books’ with too much power in the global publishing industry.”
In her Globe and Mail article, Anna Porter, author and founder of Key Porter Books, explains why we should be concerned about this merger:
“Here is why it matters: the combined publisher would dominate the Canadian market in a way that has so far not been possible. Authors would have fewer options for publishing their books, jobs will be lost – and with those lost jobs, there will be less diversity of interest in subjects and literary tastes. With the mergers, some of the editors and publicists in each of the acquired firms will lose their jobs, and we will lose their selections of books that make it to the marketplace.”
Let’s be honest with each other. Penguin Random House’s domination of the book trade in Canada started in 2011 when McClelland & Stewart, the last large, well-recognized Canadian-owned publishing house, was as Porter describes it, “swallowed up by Random House.”
What happened to McClelland and Stewart is a story that demands re-telling as it paved the way for the extensive multi-national control of Canada’s reading habits. Here’s what happened. Publisher Jack McClelland was an inspired media maven with a taste for good books, a nose for talented writers and an indefatigable desire to instil a national book culture in the Canadian soul. He kept his company afloat for as long as he could. How he did it was a magical mix of management “hutzpah,” his irresistible charm, which kept such bestselling authors as Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, and Michael Ondaatje in his stable, along with inspired government support from Pierre Trudeau’s government and the Ontario government.
McClelland couldn’t continue forever. Market conditions for Canadian books were becoming increasingly precarious. When First Plazas Inc. founder and strip mall developer Avie Bennett offered to rescue the company in 1985, Jack McClelland folded his hand.
Bennett, who demonstrated a compelling desire to be an active member of the cultural and academic elite in the country, managed M&S for 15 years, all the while bleeding considerable amounts of money. At first, he believed that his business acumen could turn the company around. Then in 2000, in a slick deal pasted together by Bennett and his legal team, the University of Toronto, the Federal government and Random House, he donated 75 per cent of his shares in M&S to the University of Toronto, while Random House acquired 25 per cent ownership in the company. Eleven years later, M&S completely merged with Random House. (Read publisher Ken Whyte’s succinct description of what actually happened). For Bennett’s earlier generosity, Maclean’s reported that he was awarded up to a $15-million reduction of taxes owed to the Feds.
Jack McClelland and Avie Bennett
In her meticulously researched book The Handover: how bigwigs and bureaucrats transferred Canada’s best publisher and the best part of our literary heritage to a foreign multi-national, journalist Elaine Dewar describes the transaction and its fallout in detail. I urge you to read it.
Since this merger, Canadian book publishing has faced ever more obstacles as it struggles along during an era of galloping corporate concentration and new media competition in the entertainment business. Canadian-owned publishing’s operating revenues have tanked every year since 2006. Canadian-based authors who do publish with independently-owned houses seldom receive the media attention of those published by large multi-national presses. A small house simply doesn’t have the resources to throw at editing, promotion, publicity and marketing that a company like Penguin Random House regularly exerts.
You might ask if that matters. I think it does. It means:
1. Books that are geared to larger markets than the Canadian market are more attractive to multi-national publishing houses located here.
2. Books intended expressly for Canadian readers are often buried under the advertising weight exerted by multi-national book publishers.
3. Independent Canadian-owned publishers have come to rely increasingly on grants from the federal ministry of Heritage Canada, the Canada Council or provincial granting sources.
4. Canadian book culture, which exploded during the 1970s, is no longer the major force it once was as book sales continue to plummet and U.S. books overwhelm our bestseller charts.
As the pandemic drags on, the government’s overarching role in supporting book publishing is more important than ever. We need more sophisticated and more active government intervention if Canada is to maintain its own book culture. Unfettered market conditions will not be enough to keep a wide variety of Canadian authors and their Canadian-owned publishing houses in business in a country of 37-million. Publishing ought not to be a matter of adeptly filling out grant applications for the Canada Council or Heritage Canada’s Canadian Book Fund.
The political vision ought to be grander, more intentional, and based on strictly enforced Canadian ownership requirements, generous tax incentives, implementation of new technologies in schools and universities to favour Canadian books, and bookstore policies that honour independent bookstores as they do in Quebec where schools, libraries and other government institutions can only purchase their books from accredited retailers.
Without creative, bold measures implemented at the federal and provincial level, Canadian book publishing is doomed to continue to fade as mergers such as the one between Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster dominate our literary landscape.
Like you, I hanker for a delicious meal in a first-rate restaurant, but what I care about more is the resuscitation of the unique book culture authors, publishers and booksellers built brick by brick in this country from 1970 until the handover of McClelland & Stewart to Random House. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, it’s time for new beginnings.
Leave a comment