On November 4, 2014, HarperCollins Canada announced that it was closing its Scarborough warehouse and moving its distribution to the United States. This move will affect approximately 150 workers in the plant. The corporation also announced that it was laying off president and CEO David Kent. This follows on Penguin’s announcement in September that it was closing its warehouse and distributing from the United States. Random House, given its merger with Penguin, will likely do the same in the near future. As Carolyn Wood writes in her piece for the National Post, this is yet another blow to Canadian publishing. Kent was a high-placed advocate for homegrown writers, so his departure means that authors must rely more heavily on editors, publicists, and other staff to go to bat for them. As for beleaguered booksellers, getting stock from the United States is yet another lag in the supply chain.
Canadian publishing was for a long time a branch-plant industry (see The Perilous Trade by Roy MacSkimming) until the 1970s when a number of small presses were established to publish Canadian authors. In the ensuing years, many of those houses were swallowed up by the big houses. Now we see those big houses swallowing each other. Many reasons are given for this, the predominant one being Amazon. So the big houses are bigger and fewer and seem, at first glance, to control the business. But big doesn’t win. Canadian publishing isn’t about size anymore; it’s about agility; it’s about how quickly publishers can respond to change. Smaller houses are nimble and creative. Many picked up authors left floundering after their publishers went bankrupt. Others, such as ECW, Biblioasis, and House of Anansi have had books on long and short lists for major prizes. They are poking through the apparent rubble that is American-owned Canadian publishing—which is why there is hope
That hope, however, can only flourish if we alter our expectations. Advances, royalties, print runs, formats, sales numbers, prince points, bookselling—all these things must change. Canadian distribution hasn’t disappeared: UTP, Thomas Allen & Sons, and Literary Press Group are still around. Furthermore, we have to stop trying to compete in a game we cannot win. Biblioasis and its ilk cannot go toe to toe with Penguin Random House on the same terms. So don’t. Simply publish good books, grow great authors, pay everyone, and make a profit. There is no need to be the biggest or the wealthiest or the most controlling. Easier said than done, I know.