Monday, October 10, 2011

Canadian v. US bookselling: ten generalizations

As of July 1, I’ve added Canada east of British Columbia to my Midwest US territory. Logistically this sounds ridiculous, I know, but the sad truth is that all reps are travelling more miles these days to see the last North American bookstores standing. The good news is that these survivors- on both sides of the border- are really great stores.

I’ve been a Canada fan since childhood and have visited bookstores all across the country on my own for years. But the prospect of representing our books to them gave me pause. I study Quill & Quire diligently every issue, and I keep up with new Canadian books and retail news; I subscribe to and read Canadian media, from Brick to Spacing to L’Actualité; I follow Canadian politics- not just national but provincial! (True, the bar is set pretty low when it comes to US citizens knowing anything about Canadian politics. If you asked passersby on State & Wacker in Chicago to name the Canadian Prime Minister you’d be standing there a long time to find ten who do.)

The point is- no matter how well-versed I may fancy myself about the Canadian book business, I’m an outsider looking in. To put it in Rumsfeldian terms, I know what I know and what I don’t know, but it’s the things I don’t know I don’t know that I feared might trip me up. Still, after spending the bulk of the summer calling on booksellers in Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Quebec City, Halifax, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton, Saskatoon, and a few other places, I’m ready to offer a few tentative generalizations.

One thing I learned pretty promptly is that “Canadian bookselling” is itself a tricky concept. Having repped for ten years from Seattle to Syracuse, I’m acutely conscious of the power of regional and local differences. True, there are common business practices and challenges that could collectively be called “US bookselling,” but it makes no sense to stay stuck at that conceptual level.

The same is is true of “Canadian bookselling.” As in the US book market, I encountered an enormous variety of bookselling styles, genres, and local quirks in Canada. Kingston does well with military books, Calgary with energy, Toronto with urban studies. Which leads to my first generalization about the biggest regional difference of all.

1) The Canadian book industry is really two parallel industries, one English, one French. The logistics and sometimes politics of stocking both English and French editions of many titles is a bilingual challenge that very few US stores- even in areas with huge Spanish-speaking populations- have taken on. It was fascinating to visit shops like Librairie Olivieri in Montreal, where the gorgeous design aesthetic of French language publishing (largely paperback) is so striking, and efforts are made to represent the most important titles in English too. Booksellers there gave me a mini-seminar on the origin of Quebec retail practices, which are more closely modeled on the French book business than on US or English Canadian.

2) Provincial governments can and do mandate that public libraries buy their stock from independent booksellers, not from chains, wholesalers, or publishers. This simple rule, which in effect directs tax dollars to support the existence of a domestic retail book trade, has been an incredibly powerful financial cushion for many independent stores. Needless to say, under the current reign of market-worship ideology, such a requirement is inconceivable in the US.

3) “American” in a title or subtitle can be the kiss of death at some Canadian stores. This is not to say there isn’t a huge interest in US history and politics. The University of Saskatchewan bookstore has a more robust US history section than many US college stores- a pathetic state of affairs. And try finding serious Canadian history and politics in a US bookstore. I’ve been made aware of how often and how superfluously the adjective “American” is dropped into a title as if it means “world.” We are not the world! We are not even Canada! An important new book on the US health care debate was skipped by most Canadian buyers, for whom this is a happily irrelevant subject. One bookseller asked me to explain what “pre-existing condition” meant exactly. Sigh.

4) The fact that Canada is a part of the British Commonwealth is reflected on its bookstore shelves. Yale has a stellar British history list, acquired by a team of whip-smart editors in London. These titles sell well in US stores, but they sell extremely well at Canadian shops. Since one of my visits to Ontario coincided with the visit of Prince and Mrs. William, I thought perhaps I was just reaping some Royals afterglow. But the strong advances continued throughout the summer, and more than made up for the tepid reception for the “American this, American that” books.

5) Canadian book media, and book coverage in mainstream media, is distinct. There’s a parallel universe of interesting Canadian books which get no attention in the US market, while the coverage of US books in Canada is surprisingly generous. I was stunned to hear Michael Enright devote an entire hour to a leisurely interview with Nicholas Frankel, the editor of Harvard’s annotated edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray one Sunday morning.

6) E-books? Digital? Not so much. This is a topic that is absolutely pre-occupying many US booksellers, but I was surprised to find a kind of sanguine, “out of our hands” attitude among many Canadian stores. This is not to say people aren’t worried, but the focus seems to be on doing what they know how to do (sell physical books) without madly throwing resources at e-book schemes in the hope that consumers will buy from their sites rather than Amazon. Then again, perhaps Canadians are just better at maintaining a state of denial. One bookseller told me to "give it time, everything that hits you hits us later.”

7) Used books? Not so much. Over the past decade I’ve seen loads of US new book retailers get into the used book game, with varying degrees of success. Some maintain separate used book sections, and others interlace second-hand books with new. I may be mistaken, but the wall between new and used doesn’t seem to have been breached as widely in Canada. Very few new stores do second-hand, nor do the excellent and quirky used dealers (like Monkey’s Paw) show any interest in new titles.

8) "The Canadian nice" stereotype? It’s true! There’s a herding cats quality to working out an itinerary each selling season, and the idea of scheduling 12 weeks of Canadian appointments with people I’d never met, who adored my (real Canadian) predecessor, was daunting. But with possibly one exception, my new buyers have been a collective dream. I’m reminded of a remark the late, great Texas iconoclast Molly Ivins once made during a CBC interview: “You Canadians are the nicest people, and it must be like living next door to the Simpsons!”

9) Obstacles to selling our books in Canada? Many. Freight is a nightmare. Rights restrictions and competing editions are a frustration. Customs is a hassle. And your inventory investment and accounts payable is hostage to an increasingly fickle exchange rate. I take the fact that booksellers across Canada eagerly stock our books despite all that as a real vote of confidence in the ideas they contain.

10) The classic, serendipitous bookselling career path is very similar on both sides of the border. When I had “getting to know you” conversations with Canadian booksellers, I often heard an instantly familiar autobiography with two variations: “I had a plan, but 25 years ago I started working in the bookstore and somehow I never left”; alternatively, “I had no plan whatsoever, but 25 years ago I started working in the bookstore and somehow I never left.” Our profession is loaded with smart, over-qualified book-lovers who rejected a life of chasing dollars for something more honorable. That’s one big and gratifying similarity.


  1. Thanks for this insightful post. It was especially interesting to me as a Canadian writer who publishes in the US. I'm interested to see how much press and Canadian sales I get, or if the University of Nebraska Press is just too far off the beaten Canadian path...

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