Authors and Their Milieu | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Authors and Their Milieu

Contemporary Canadian writers have won prestigious awards and honours at home and abroad. Among the most publicized of these events was Prix Goncourt awarded to Antonine Maillet for Pélagie-la-Charette.

Authors and Their Milieu

Contemporary Canadian writers have won prestigious awards and honours at home and abroad. Among the most publicized of these events was Prix Goncourt awarded to Antonine Maillet for Pélagie-la-Charette. Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood, and others have received honours in the United States. Mordecai Richler won the Commonwealth Writers' prize in 1990, as did Rohinton Mistry in 1992 and 1996, and Austin Clarke in 2003. Margaret Atwood was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters of France, as were Timothy Findley and Michael Ondaatje. Recipients of the $50,000 Canada Council for the Arts Molson Prize include Michel Tremblay, Alice Munro, and Mavis Gallant. Carol Shields won the Pulitizer Prize in 1995 for The Stone Diaries. Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient won the Governor-General's Award for English-language fiction and the Booker Prize in 1992, and the film version of his novel garnered nine Oscars at the 1997 Academy Awards. Vincent Lam's Bloodletting and Other Cures won the $40 000 Scotiabank Giller Prize in 2006. Such awards, as well as media interviews, readings at festivals such as Harbourfront in Toronto, even fictional portrayals of writers in films, suggest that writers live glamorous and wealthy lives. But thousands of Canada's writers work alone and in obscurity and exist on poverty-level incomes.

Few writers win major awards, and one of $10 000 is hardly enough to live on for one year. In fact, only a handful of professional writers in Canada survive on the royalties from their books, a situation documented in the first survey of writers undertaken by Statistics Canada for the year 1978. Of 3144 individuals sampled, 853 of them were full-time writers whose income from writing averaged $14 095, while their total income from all sources averaged $19 825. By the time of the 2000 Statistics Canada survey, the average employment income for writers had increased to $31 911, just behind the national average of $32 123 for all workers. The average income for journalists in 2000 was $37 473. By contrast, a 2006 survey of freelance newspaper and magazine writers, conducted by the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, reported that their average annual income was about $24 000, an amount unchanged since 1977. Authors are not motivated by profit alone, yet the payment they receive for their intellectual labour encourages them to remain in their profession and to contribute to our cultural life. And payment is determined by their relations with publishers, the reading public and the state.

Whether commercially successful or not, professional writers must be devoted to their craft, for a book manuscript can take a year or longer of full-time work to complete. Because an unsolicited manuscript may be hard to place with a publisher, most professionals now employ literary agents or make advance arrangements with a publisher or editor. If the publisher's readers respond favourably to the manuscript, the publisher then determines the retail price of the book by estimating expenses for editing, design, printing, binding and distribution. Distribution costs include a 20-50% discount to jobbers and retailers. Sometimes these expenses are shared with another publisher when foreign publication is being arranged at the same time. The author, whose royalty may be 5-15% of the retail price, is usually the last to profit from such ventures but is paid for each copy sold, excluding those copies sold as "remainders." Occasionally an author's contract stipulates an agreed payment in lieu of a royalty based on sales. Publishers normally expect to break even when about 70-80% of an edition is sold.

The process for publishing articles is somewhat different. Staff writers for newspapers and magazines operate under a tight schedule, and their work appears within the same day, week or month of its composition. Freelance journalists may experience longer waits before they see their work in print. In neither situation, however, does the journalist share directly in the profits of publication, and payments for freelance material may be based on the number of words in the article(from .20 to over $1 per word), on set rates for contributions or on the prestige of the author's name.

A handful of writers do well by their books. For decades, a best-seller in Canada was a title that sold over 5000 copies, which is still the norm for literary titles. Occasionally a literary work may approach mass market sales: Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride and Jane Urquhart's Away both sold over 50 000 copies in hard cover, and Ondaatje's The English Patient over 100 000. Ann-Marie MacDonald's Fall on Your Knees has sold more than 350 000 copies in Canada, over a million copies in the United States, and has been translated into at least 18 languages. International award winners like Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces and Yann Martel's Life of Pi have likewise had huge sales at home and abroad. These large figures are more common for popular non-literary (and non-fiction) books like David Foot's Boom, Bust & Echo, which sold over 300 000 copies. Non-fiction writers including Peter C. Newman, as well as those who write about headline events such as the Bre-X gold mine scandal or the trial of Paul Bernardo, also generate high sales.

The market for books in Canada, as it affects both authors and publishers, has to do with who makes the publishing decisions and controls the distribution of books and where these decisions are made. What begins as a question of business practice may evolve into a question of the ownership of cultural industries. Historically, in English-speaking Canada the market for Canadian-authored books and Canadian-owned magazines has been precarious, given the nature of our resource-based economy and the competition from books and magazines produced in other countries. Distribution is costly because our small population is stretched in a 6500 km ribbon along the American border. By contrast, in Québec French-language publishing and distribution is more concentrated geographically. No matter what language they operate in, however, Canadian publishers have been restricted to their own territory, partly because British and American publishers held world and subsidiary rights for their own authors and, not uncommonly, for Canadian authors as well. French publishers have held the same advantage in the francophone world. In the past, then, decisions to publish a Canadian writer were sometimes made in New York, London or Paris.

While it is possible for an author or journalist to survive primarily within the Canadian market, it helps to sell your books in foreign markets. Canadian writers have always done well in foreign markets - witness the careers of T.C. Haliburton, L.M. Montgomery, Farley Mowat, Margaret Atwood, Marie-Claire Blais, Antonine Maillet, and Nancy Huston - and this circumstance often leads to arguments that our authors would still be published if there were no local publishing industry. Not surprisingly, the same argument is never applied to the American and British publishing industries. The assumption is that a good Canadian book will be published abroad and that it will find its way into Canadian bookstores, but this viewpoint does not distinguish between the services provided by the cultural industries of one's own nation and the normal exportation of books and interchange of ideas across international boundaries. Foreign publishers have indeed been receptive to Canadian writing, but none have done for Canadian writers what Jack McClelland, Jack Stoddart, Jacques Hébert, Pierre Tisseyre and Louise Dennys have done. When a Globe and Mail editorial of 23 March 1994 claimed that there was no evidence that the nationality of a publisher makes any difference to the books it publishes, publisher Anna Porter responded, "Canadian publishers publish between 75% and 85% of all Canadian-authored books." A 2006 report from the Association of Canadian Publishers confirms that trend, noting that "Canadian-owned companies published 85% of Canadian-authored books."

For this reason, writers long ago learned to take even a modest role in the marketing of their books and to become political activists, not only for their own works but on behalf of the cultural industries in Canada. Publishers now promote our authors vigorously through advertisements in the print and electronic media. Our writers, in fact, are promoted in many ways, starting with all levels of education. Canadian studies and literature courses are now part of the curriculum in schools and universities, and these are facilitated by reprint series and anthologies. Universities offer writer-in-residence programs. Foreign universities include Canadian writers in their Canadian Studies programs. Literary and cultural research flourishes in Literary Periodicals in English and in Literary Periodicals in French; bibliographies, biographies, collections of letters, and surveys all help to locate our writers in the panorama of Canadian life and international currents. Authorship has been a central topic at many conferences since the groundbreaking Canadian Writers' Conference (Queen's University, 1954), at learned societies and at the University of Alberta conferences on the "literary institution."

There are even symposiums devoted to one author, such as those held annually at the University of Ottawa symposiums. Industries have grown up around the writings of L.M. Montgomery and Margaret Atwood. Every autumn since 1980 Harbourfront at Toronto has hosted an International Festival of Authors, which attracts writers and audiences from around the world. Bookstores present authors reading from their new works every fall season, and authors appear at the annual Salon du livre in Montréal and The Word on the Street festivals across Canada. Nominations for national and international literary awards always generate interest in Canadian authors. The CBC's excellent coverage - including author interviews on national radio shows, the Canada Reads contest, and daily reports on the arts in Canada - has contributed in no small measure to placing our writers closer to the centre of our imaginative universe.

Book Publishing as a Cultural Industry

Writers have been affected by the dramatic transformation in the book trade since 1970. At that point the traditional arrangements that were in place since the 1890s were transformed by a host of events inside and outside the industry. After a decade of prosperity, both inflation and recession severely shook the major locally owned houses. In the early 1970s, for example, Ryerson and Gage were sold to American firms although Gage was repatriated in 1978. Macmillan changed owners twice. McClelland and Stewart almost went bankrupt in 1985, only to be saved by its new owner. These were firms actively dedicated to the promotion of Canadian writers. On another front, writers were concerned over the demise between the 1970s and 1990s of well-paying magazines like the Star Weekly, Family Herald, Weekend Magazine, Atlantic Insight, The Globe and Mail Magazine and West. Such calamities were not entirely mitigated by one positive phenomenon in those years, the most significant flourishing of regional publishing since Confederation. Small presses were established from coast to coast in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them begun by writers who were dissatisfied with both the physical appearance and the marketing of their books by mainline Toronto and Montréal houses.

The year 1991 was one of crises involving everything from books to jobs. A recession was under way and the federal Goods and Services Tax (the GST) kicked in, both of which contributed to flat sales. Several more major firms and small presses disappeared: Hurtig Publishers and Western Producer Books in the west, and Deneau, Summerhill, and Lester & Orpen Dennys in the east. Hundreds of jobs were lost as the industry downsized. To add to the woe, Ottawa and the provinces announced major cuts to the cultural sector.

The 1980s and 1990s witnessed increasing globalization and the appearance of mega-bookstores. As multinational corporations snapped up British and American publishing houses, their Canadian subsidiaries also changed owners. The pressure to show ever-increasing profits forced firms to seek out best-sellers and to take fewer risks with new or experimental writers. The super-bookstores, in the form of Canadian firms such as Chapters (a joint venture between SmithBooks and Coles) and Indigo, threatened the survival of small independent booksellers; and American super-bookstores such as Barnes & Noble continued their efforts to break into the Canadian market. Some critics of the superstores argued that they were more likely to concentrate on blockbusters and best-sellers, and take fewer risks with books that remain on the shelves indefinitely or with small-press books. All of these things, along with the high costs associated with production, distribution, discounts and insurance on warehouse inventory, clearly have not kept authors from being published, but there is nevertheless a tendency among corporate publishers and retailers to operate with huge turnovers and big sales. In any case, there are many writers who cannot make a living solely from sales of their books and articles.

Because the survival of cultural activities cannot be left to the vagaries of the marketplace, it is generally accepted that authors may need supplementary sources of income, and that, like publishers, they should benefit from regulation of the market and from laws protecting their creations. In the absence of wealthy patrons and writers with private means of support, the obligation to fund writers has fallen to agencies of the federal and provincial governments, which traditionally have nurtured business. Since World War II Ottawa has supported writers on three fronts: through arm's-length agencies such as the Canada Council; through the Departments of Communications and Canadian Heritage; and through copyright legislation and adherence to international agreements that affect the distribution of books and magazines.

Although government aid has been welcomed by authors and publishers, it has come at a price. Sometimes the price has been in the form of legislators' hints about censoring sexual content or confiscating the profits from books written by criminals who exploit their crimes. It has also involved frequent collisions among government departments and cultural administrators, ongoing financial cutbacks and unexpected clashes between Canadian laws and international regulations.

Economic survival would have been far harder for authors had it not been for the 1951 Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences (Massey Commission), which recommended federal government support for publishing and authorship. As a result, the Canada Council was created in 1957, and similar arts councils were later established in all the provinces. Québec, for example, created its equivalent to the Canada Council, the Conseil des arts et lettres du Québec, in 1961. The Canada Council funds a program to translate French- and English-language books into the other language, it sponsored the annual National Book Week until its cancellation in 1994 and it administers the Governor General's Awards. Because only about 100 writers in a given year obtain Canada Council grants, these subsidies have been criticized for creating favouritism and dependency, but they have cushioned small publishers and sustained major authors when they needed help. Severe cutbacks in the 1990s meant fewer grants to artists and writers and diminished aid to publications, which has caused the cancellation of book projects and even periodicals, as in the case of the alternative magazine New Maritimes, which lost its annual Council grant of $14 000 in 1997.

Similarly, the provincial arts councils distribute funds to authors and to local publishers, and they have also reduced their funding to cultural industries. However, the provincial governments still provide literary prizes (see Literary Prizes in English; Literary Prizes in French), such as the Trillium Awards in Ontario. In addition, prizes have been awarded by a variety of donors, which include cities (Toronto and Edmonton, for example), corporations (Molson and Chalmers), publishers (Seal Books and Harlequin) and private foundations (Giller). Publicity from these events can stimulate sales of an individual author's books.

The most thorough re-examination of government involvement in the arts was the 1980-82 Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee, chaired by Louis Applebaum and Jacques Hébert, whose Report (1982) recommended increased government support of publishers and writers while it reaffirmed the principle of the writer's freedom from political control. The Committee also cautioned against a situation where only one level of government would have jurisdiction over culture. In light of the fundamental changes in government policy concerning the arts and the proliferation of global agreements involving cultural industries since the late 1980s, those recommendations have been drastically modified.

In the 1980s federal funding came from the Department of Communications (DOC) in the form of direct subventions to publishers for individual titles and industry-wide grants. In the 1990s most of the agencies and crown corporations that dealt with cultural matters operated under the wing of the Department of Canadian Heritage. Both departments have had to tread a thin line among the proponents of provincial autonomy, cultural sovereigntists, business interests and international groups pressuring to change investment regulations. During the Free Trade negotiations from 1985 to 1988, for example, the DOC attempted to keep cultural industries out of the discussions, for it was clear that Canada and the US had different philosophies about culture. Canada argued that because cultural industries protected the national identity, they were not negotiable. The Americans argued that cultural industries produce commodities like other industries, and that "cultural sovereignty" was an excuse for not discussing investment policies.

Even though "culture" was excluded from the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, and from the North American Free Trade Agreement (between Canada, the US and Mexico) in the early 1990s, this problem for publishers is far from settled. In 1997 Canada was involved in negotiations for the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), which, its critics said, might have given multinational corporations too much control over such areas as social benefits to cultural industries. The Department of Canadian Heritage has a cultural policy section, one of whose tasks is to strengthen the cultural industries and to evaluate acquisitions of publishing firms by foreign buyers.

But other problems more closely connected to authors emerged in the 1990s. One was the imposition of the GST on books, which increased their price by 7%; another was Ottawa's devolution of powers to the provinces, which began in 1991; and a third was the almost annual round of cuts to the cultural sector by all levels of government. Ottawa has attempted to offset these problems in makeshift ways, such as by an aid program in 1990 known as the Cultural Industries Development Fund, which was followed by a cutback of $151 million in 1991 to the cultural sector, and which in turn was offset by another grant of $140 million to the publishing industry in 1992. In 1995 Ottawa's cuts to two major support programs were estimated by the industry to mean a loss of 300 book-industry jobs and fewer titles published. Nevertheless, in the same year Québec revamped its funding to its cultural industries by setting up a new agency, the Société de développement des enterprises culturelles, and British Columbia established a new arts council.

Plans to prepare a new comprehensive copyright law to replace the 1921 Copyright Act went into high gear with a 1984 white paper entitled From Gutenberg to Telidon. The notion of copyright as a protection for intellectual property has long been accepted, but its enforcement is another matter in the era of the information revolution and global trade in cultural products. When any person with access to home taping machines, a photocopier or the Internet can reproduce intellectual property, it becomes difficult to police copyright infringements. The book trade, authors, librarians and electronic on-line companies all had input into the discussions about international copyright, the free flow of print materials across international borders, unauthorized photocopying and compensation for library borrowing.

So complex were the hundreds of consultations and briefs presented to the Departments of Communications and Heritage that the new legislation proceeded in three phases. The Phase I copyright act, which became law in 1988, increased the penalties for the infringement of copyright, extended the meaning of moral rights and included plans for writers' and artists' collectives. Phase II, which became law in 1997, aimed at a balance between the rights of creators and consumers, provided more protection for the Canadian distributors of foreign books in Canada and permitted exemptions for research and educational photocopying by libraries, universities and the visually impaired. Phase III will deal with copyright problems arising from use of the Internet and other electronic distribution channels. In this regard, the Periodical Writers Association of Canada in 1996 complained to the CRTC that the major newspaper chains - Southam Inc, Thomson Corp and Maclean Hunter Ltd - were pressuring freelancers to sign over ownership of their articles, photographs and illustrations for use on database services, CD-ROMs and on-line publications.

Inevitably, authors have been drawn into the debates over the methods used by provincial and federal governments to ensure the survival of Canadian publishing, especially against the growing number of foreign takeovers and aggressive foreign competition. They approved when both Ontario and Québec set up royal commissions in the early 1970s to investigate the impact of foreign control and then followed up with financial aid to their publishers. The other provinces followed suit, and many authors and their publishers benefited from grants to publish books. They applauded in 1972 when the federal government began to assist in the promotion of Canadian books abroad and again in 1979 when Ottawa established the Canadian Book Publishing Development Program to provide direct grants to the publishing industry. Foreign takeovers were slowed down with the establishment of the Foreign Investment Review Agency (1974), which was reorganized as Investment Canada in 1985. FIRA's mandate was to review foreign investment related to Canada's cultural heritage or national identity. When Ottawa began free trade discussions with the United States in 1985, it announced the Baie Comeau Policy as a means of increasing Canadian ownership content and restricting foreign ownership of new firms and branch plants, but after the Free Trade Agreement (1988) was in place this policy became too costly to enforce.

Copyright problems inspired the establishment of the Canadian Society of Authors (1899) and the Canadian Authors' Association (1921). Other organizations such as the League of Canadian Poets (1966), the Writers' Union of Canada (1973) and the Union des écrivaines et écrivains québécois, or UNEQ (1977), have lobbied the government on copyright and other matters like the "Canadianization" of publishing and distribution, more funding for literary translations and income tax adjustments.

They persuaded the DOC to implement the Public Lending Right Commission (1986), which compensates writers and illustrators for the use of their works in public and university libraries. The Commission was administered within the Canada Council by a committee whose first chairman was author Andreas Schroeder, and the committee prided itself on keeping administration costs to a minimum. Authors, editors, translators and illustrators register their titles, and payments are determined by sampling the holdings of representative libraries across the country rather than basing payments on actual library borrowings. The libraries used in the sampling are rotated. The first distribution in 1987 was $3 million, whereas in 1997 over 10 000 creators received payments in excess of $6 million. In 1995, the chairman of the Canada Council, Roch Carrier, undertook a strategic reorganization of its administrative and grants budgets, due to parliamentary reductions. When the Council decided to clarify its relation with the PLRC, which operated at arm's length from the Council, the Writers' Union interpreted this move as a power grab designed to force the PLRC to contribute to the Canada Council's contingency fund.

Another important victory for authors was the Canadian Reprography Collective (1988), now known as the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency, or CanCopy, which administers the photocopying rights of its members. A similar plan has been in effect in Québec since 1984, where it is known as the Mandat de gestion des droits de reprographie. Under CanCopy's agreements signed with users of copyright materials - schools, colleges, universities, libraries, corporations, copyshops, federal and provincial governments and their departments - it collects fees and then distributes them to its writers, visual artists and publishers. Its founding members included Harald Bohne of the University of Toronto Press, Phyllis Bruce of Key Porter Books and Michael Fay, writer and president of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada. The first distribution in 1992 of $300 000 grew to over $9 million in 1996-97, distributed to 2974 creators and 232 publisher affiliates.

Not all professional problems can be resolved by governments, of course. In 1975 the Writers' Union protested when the large retail chains, Coles and W.H. Smith, sold remaindered American editions of Canadian authors whose own Canadian editions were still in print. Such importation was possible because court injunctions were slow, and until 1988 penalties for the infringement of copyright were minimal. The writers' organizations have also negotiated for standard contracts with publishers, and CanCopy has successfully prosecuted copyshops over misuse of the copyrighted materials of its members. Other problems present ongoing difficulties: censorship and harassment by customs officials; concern over the persecution of foreign authors by their governments; and quarrels over "appropriation of voice," that is, the imaginative delineation by some writers (usually male, of white European background) of the lives of women, Indigenous people or other minority groups whose experiences are considered alien to theirs.

Over the past half-century, the writer's situation has changed for the better. Literary agents now operating in Canada have improved authors' negotiations with publishers. Their traditional royalties are now supplemented by payments from the Public Lending Right and the Canadian Licensing Agency. Their militancy through provincial and national professional associations and through international organizations like PEN has empowered them on artistic and political issues. Even the state recognizes their economic and cultural clout. Thanks to Statistics Canada and its Culture Statistics Program, we know more about the number of individuals employed in writing and the annual volume of sales by book and periodical publishers, both domestic and subsidiary. Most important of all, writers have received more acclaim at home and abroad than ever before, and this publicity has helped sales. Our own writers have become cultural icons and media stars.

While the publicity hoopla and glowing press releases centre on the rightly deserved successes of a few individuals, the statistics reveal another side to writers' circumstances. Most writers serve a long apprenticeship in obscurity. Many of them will never enjoy the security of a steady salary and company benefits. Freelancers may be out of pocket for research expenses. Their incomes are often in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands, of dollars. Too many of them spend their working lives subsisting at the poverty line. While they are more honoured than at any other period in our history, their careers are fraught with economic uncertainties and their reputations subject to fickle shifts in critical fashions and popular tastes. In the end, thankfully, financial success, as desirable as it may be, is only one of the many demons that drive writers to take up their vocation.

See also Book Publishing; Literature in English; Literature in French

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