English-Language Book Publishing | The Canadian Encyclopedia


English-Language Book Publishing

Severe obstacles impeded the growth of a publishing industry in early Canada.

English-Language Book Publishing

Severe obstacles impeded the growth of a publishing industry in early Canada. A large territory with a small, scattered population made distribution difficult and expensive; unfavourable competition from US publishers not bound by imperial copyright laws often swamped the market with cheap imported editions; successful Canadian authors usually published through established foreign companies and avoided the stigma of a colonial imprimatur; major British and American publishers established branch offices in Canada after 1890 and returned most profits to the parent company; local firms acted as agents for foreign publishers and promoted agency books to the neglect of indigenous, original publishing; finally, Canadian publishers were unable to get international rights and secure profits from subsidiary rights, and were, in effect, forced to operate only inside Canada.

Pioneer Publishers in Early Canada

In colonial times there were no clear distinctions between printing and publishing, and pioneer printers performed the roles of editors, publishers, distributors, stationers and booksellers. William Brown and Thomas Gilmore, who set up the first press in Québec City in 1764 and published the province's first newspaper, the Quebec Gazette/La Gazette de Québec, also published its first books, including an ABC primer, legal works by F.J. Cugnet, a 180-page catechism, and Abram's Plains, a poem by Thomas Cary.

Hugh C. Thomson of Kingston went on from newspaper publishing to issue 2 volumes of verse and a 2-volume novel, St. Ursula's Convent (1824), by Julia Beckwith HART - the first fiction published by a Canadian-born author. John Neilson of Québec published the History of Canada; from its First Discovery, to the Peace of 1763 in 1826. Joseph HOWE of Halifax published the first major literary talent in British North America, Thomas C. HALIBURTON, whose The Clockmaker (1836) sold rapidly and gained international sales when it was pirated in London, Philadelphia and Paris; Howe claimed he made little profit from the book.

By 1851 there were several printer-publishers in Montréal and Toronto, and publishing received impetus from a budding interest in Canadian history. F-X. GARNEAU' s 4-volume Histoire du Canada appeared in Québec 1845-52, and provoked a Tory response in Robert Christie's 6-volume History of the Late Province of Lower Canada (1848-55), published by Thomas Cary, Jr, and John Lovell. John Mercier McMullen of Brockville compiled and published on his own History of Canada (1855), which sold steadily for 2 decades.

Publishing in the 19th Century

John Lovell and Son was the most successful original publisher of the 19th century in Canada. Lovell inaugurated the Literary Garland in 1838 and published, among others, William KIRBY, Michel Bibaud, Charles SANGSTER, Rosanna LEPROHON, Catharine Parr TRAILL and translations of F-X. Garneau. His closest counterpart was George Maclean Rose, a printer who, with bookkeeper Robert Hunter, founded Hunter, Rose and Co in Québec City in 1861, moving to Ottawa in 1865 and Toronto in 1871.

Rose joined briefly with Alexander Belford, who had made a great success of pirating American authors and flooding the US market with cheap editions of such books as Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer. Rose-Belford published Rose-Belford's Canadian Monthly (1878-82), a continuation of the Canadian Monthly (1872-78), and continued the book piracy. Rose brought out 2 volumes of the Cyclopaedia of Canadian Biography 1886-88. In 1891 a new American copyright law and the subsequent Anglo-American Copyright Agreement effectively ended book piracy in the US and Canada.

The most influential Canadian publishing house in the 1890s was the Methodist Book and Publishing House, called the RYERSON PRESS after 1919 in honour of its first book steward, Egerton RYERSON. Established in 1829, it published religious books and some trade books until the Reverend William Briggs took over in 1879 and widely expanded the trade publishing, bringing out 37 new titles in 1897 alone.

Briggs published numerous important Canadian writers, including Kirby, Traill, Nellie MCCLUNG, Charles G.D. ROBERTS, J.W. BENGOUGH, Charles MAIR, Isabella Valancy CRAWFORD, Robert W. SERVICE and Pauline JOHNSON. The Methodist printing plant produced early Ralph Connor (Charles W. GORDON) novels for the Westminster Press. Although Connor went on to sell in the millions outside Canada, the pattern in which profits derived from selling foreign (agency) books rather than Canadian books was already well established.

Schoolbooks had also become important. The earliest texts were mostly imported from the US, but in 1846, 31 titles were adopted from the Irish National School series. This series was used for decades, but there were Canadian series as well. John Lovell's Series of School Books (1858) contained Canadian texts, and James Campbell's Canadian National Series included locally written as well as British adoptions. When the Ontario Readers began in 1884, the textbook market across the country passed to the control of Thomas Nelson, Edinburgh, William J. Gage and, soon after, Copp Clark. Canadian editions of foreign texts have continued to the present as a significant branch of the publishing industry.

Over a dozen new publishing houses were established between 1876 and 1913 - a period of confident expansion in all areas of Canadian life. Among them were Musson Book Co (1894), G.N. Morang (1897), McLeod & Allen (1901), University of Toronto Press (1901), Oxford University Press (1904), John C. Winston (1904), Macmillan Co of Canada Ltd (1905), McClelland and Goodchild (1906, later MCCLELLAND AND STEWART), Cassell and Co Ltd (1907), J.M. Dent and Sons (1913) and Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd (1913).

Into the 20th Century

Many of the new firms were Canadian branches of US or British houses, and all Canadian publishers were agents for foreign books. This period saw 3 significant enterprises in the publishing of Canadian history and biography: the MAKERS OF CANADA, in 20 vols (Morang 1903 to 1908); the Chronicles of Canada, in 32 vols (Glasgow, Brock and Co 1914-16); and the monumental CANADA AND ITS PROVINCES, in 23 vols (Glasgow, Brock and Co 1914-17).

WWI provided a major impetus to publishing to fill the demand for books on the great events and their participants. Patriotic poems, notably John MCCRAE'sIn Flanders Fields (1919), were popular, as were firsthand accounts such as Billy Bishop's Winged Warfare (1918).

The 1920s brought a slump from overproduction, but also saw the emergence of 3 important figures in publishing, Lorne PIERCE, Hugh Eayrs and John McClelland. Pierce, who became editor of the Ryerson Press in 1920, believed that the new sense of national identity fostered by Canada's war effort could be channelled into a literary revival. He edited a new anthology and the multivolume Makers of Canadian Literature in 1923 (only 12 appeared), and compiled An Outline of Canadian Literature (1927).

Eayrs became president of Macmillan (a British firm) in 1921 and also encouraged Canadian literature, notably Mazo DE LA ROCHE and Morley CALLAGHAN. McClelland published more Canadian authors than almost all other publishers combined. The 1920s also saw brief careers for 2 new publishers outside Toronto; Graphic Publishers was started by Ottawa printer Henry C. Miller in 1924 and published perhaps 34 titles before bankruptcy in 1932; Louis Carrier founded his firm in Montréal.

Hard times during the Depression of the 1930s saw salaries cut and original Canadian publishing slump as popular foreign books were promoted. However, Clarke Irwin and Co was formed in 1930, first as an agency and later as a vigorous publisher, and some new Canadian authors were first published in these years, including Hugh MACLENNAN and Sinclair ROSS.

There was a brief recovery late in the SECOND WORLD WAR, but recession in the book industry lasted into the 1950s. A flood of inexpensive British and American paperbacks hit the Canadian market, and more British and US subsidiaries opened branches. Nevertheless the publishing industry experienced dramatic growth in supplying textbooks to a growing student population.

McClelland and Stewart was at the centre of a virtual renaissance in Canadian literature, publishing Irving LAYTON, Leonard COHEN, Mordecai RICHLER, Margaret ATWOOD, Al PURDY and others. M & S undertook a new 18-volume history of Canada, the Canadian Centenary Series, and published best-selling authors such as Pierre BERTON and Farley MOWAT. Jack MCCLELLAND succeeded in marketing many indigenous BEST-SELLERS, such as Berton's Comfortable Pew (1965), and established the reprint series New Canadian Library (1958) and the Carleton Library series (1963).

Most of the publishing industry was centered in Ontario and Québec, notably Toronto, but during the 1960s and 1970s numerous publishers sprang up across the country: Oberon (Ottawa); Harvest House (Montréal); Fiddlehead Books (Fredericton); Douglas & McIntyre (Vancouver); Western Producer Prairie Books (Saskatoon); Breakwater (St John's); Hurtig (Edmonton); Talonbooks (Vancouver); and James Lorimer, Anansi, Lester & Orpen Dennys, New Press, Peter Martin and Women's Press (Toronto) (seeSMALL PRESSES).

Between 1969 and 1985 the size of the domestic market for books rose from $222 million to $1.4 billion. However, the industry has been widely publicized because of its financial difficulties, some of which are chronic. The market for English-language Canadian books is relatively small and faces powerful competition from American and British books. As costs increase, the chances that a publisher can print and sell 5000 to 10 000 copies of a Canadian book at a profit become less certain.

Publishing: An Industry in Peril

By 1970 the situation of many of the Canadian companies was critical. The venerable Ryerson Press, $2.8 million in debt, was sold to McGraw-Hill (a US firm) in 1970. The Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing, chaired by lawyer and author Richard ROHMER, was established to examine the industry. The Ontario government put into place its recommendation of a loan-guarantee system for Canadian publishers, although many other recommendations made by the commission were not acted upon. However, the guarantees failed to save Clarke Irwin in 1983; it went into receivership but was subsequently resurrected by John Irwin.

Even in their most independent and lucrative era, most Canadian publishers depended on sales of foreign books to survive. Since the 1950s, more and more of this "agency" business has been removed from Canadian firms as growing numbers of foreign publishers have established their own subsidiaries or branches in Canada.

In 1996-97 foreign-controlled publishers and distributors accounted for about 35% of the industry's sales revenue. Revenues reported by Canadian-controlled publishers and distributors amounted to just under $1.3 billion, while those reported by foreign-controlled companies were $690 million. Profits represented 3.0% of revenues for Canadian firms, with 5.4% for foreign firms. Cutbacks in government grants may have affected the profitability of Canadian publishers. Canadian-controlled publishers still produced over 80% of the new titles in Canada.

Foreign-owned publishers accounted for 35% of overall sales and 20% of new titles in English. To the extent that foreign-controlled firms have become involved in publishing Canadian books, they have concentrated heavily on the textbook market, which involves somewhat lower risks, and in which many provincial government policies encourage Canadian-authored texts; however, they are also active in trade publishing.

The federal government has provided support for Canadian publishing through the Canadian Book Publishing Development Program, now the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIPD, established 1979-80, initially administered by the Department of Communications, now administered by the Department of Canadian Heritage), the CANADA COUNCIL and the SOCIAL SCIENCES AND HUMANITIES RESEARCH COUNCIL (SSHRC).

Meanwhile the educational market for Canadian texts has become more fragmented than in the past, but in general, the various provincial governments continue to require that Canadian texts be available for use in their school systems. Canadian-owned firms continue to live a precarious existence because of the policy of allowing returns of virtually unlimited quantities of unsold books, the weakness and foreign control of BOOK CLUBS, mass paperback and wholesale distribution, and the reluctance of Canadian banks to lend money to publishers.

English-speaking Canadians do not lack for books. With some 75 000 books a year published in the US and Great Britain, there is almost an embarrassment of choice. However, the continuing domination of the industry by foreign-controlled firms that devote only a small portion of their profits to publishing Canadian authors casts grave doubts on the future viability of a critical area of Canadian cultural expression.

Canadian Publishing in the Electronic Age

Book publishing in Canada faces difficult economic challenges, including decreased sales and the threat of ever-increasing Internet-based and electronic reading options that have changed public reading habits towards digitized information. Additionally, the existence of Chapters/Indigo - which has secured a large share of the book market in Canada - has made business difficult for small publishing houses. Book publishing in Canada relies on subsidies and trade protections to ensure level playing fields with American and British publishers; therefore, subsidy erosions and decreased interest by government to ensure market protections have the potential to greatly reduce the viability of small, regional publishing houses.

The greatest challenge to Canadian book publishers, however, is the introduction of electronic reading devices. As e-readers continue to take up more of the market, publishers will need to ensure there exists an economically-viable price structure; will require that the published works are compatible with all makes of e-readers; will need to ensure downloads are accessible (and reliable); and will need to have a good understanding of which books should remain in both print and electronic versions and which can be shifted to electronic versions entirely. This change in practice not only affects the Canadian book publishing industry, but book publishing across the globe.


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