What’s Wrong in the Book Trade?

By Gordon Lockheed | September 23, 2003

Since the spring book season started, I’ve been hearing rumblings all across the country that the book trade in Canada is slipping rapidly towards a state of crisis unlike anything seen before it. The problem? Books aren’t selling. The blockbusters aren’t selling in the quantities they have in the recent past, even with deep discounts; mid-list books sales have dropped off the map, and backlist sales are plummeting. This is different than the pattern of the last few years, in which a few heavily merchandised books sold well, while the rest were slipping. And no one has a satisfying—or even moderately comforting—explanation.

Still it’s worth a look at the explanations that are floating around. Most of them make isolated sense, but none of them fully explain what’s happening.

A.) Blaming Heather

Since Chapters/Indigo is the 800-pound gorilla sitting atop the Canadian book trade, she’s the first place anyone looks for both problems and possible solutions. It long ago became clear that Heather’s favourite isn’t books at all, but money, and that she has problems of her own that just might be without a solution.

Certainly there’s a growing suspicion—and a mountain of unprocessed empirical and anecdotal evidence—that the Chapters/Indigo retail model can’t be profitable on the terms that it initially set—prestige mall locations that carry up to 150,000 titles and provide a kind of retail/cultural nexus for the surrounding communities. Similar bookselling strategies have been adopted across the English-speaking world, and are, on the surface, admirably progressive. The original idea was that the superstores would improve the cultural tempo of malls and the communities that surround them, bring large, prestigious bookstores to areas that often didn’t have any bookstores, and thus would “grow” the book trade by selling books to people who previously didn’t have ready and comfortable access to them as part of their “normal” shopping activities.

The strategy also happened to include a strategy of deliberately wiping out the independent competition. This was deemed a necessary comfort by the chains’ planners and was tacitly agreed to by the large publishers if not the small and regional ones. Initially, this part of the plan worked to a more extreme degree in Canada than in the U.S. and Britain, where there were several chains exercising the strategy. In Canada the competition model has devolved to a single chain, 600 independent bookstore closures, and the result is a virtual monopoly: Chapters/Indigo now holds Seventy percent of the Canadian book market.

There was nothing illegal or even immoral here, just a version of Wal-Mart style capitalism many people whine about as unfair, but no one does anything about because they believe its one of the inevitabilities of globalization. In bookselling, both the chains and the major publishers assumed that a combination of slickly-inviting stores where readers could hang out, streamlined infrastructure, economy-of-scale savings and the deeper discounts from publishers able to ship to a single location—along with increased sales—would make operations profitable for both sellers and suppliers.

For a number of reasons, it hasn’t worked as planned in Canada. Exactly why or how it went awry is something none of the key players—Chapters/Indigo and the large publishers—are being very candid about. Some of the possible explanations for the failure are as follows: 1.) Once the initial novelty of having big bookstores in malls wore off, ground rents proved too high to permit the slow-moving backlist sales and non-producing prime floor space that made the stores “super”; 2.) The Chapters/Indigo stock control and ordering systems appear to have been invented by addled chimpanzees (who were then given the job of running the systems); 3.) Hiring mostly illiterate bookselling staff, which aggravated the problem of barely functional supply systems; 4.) A fundamental lack of understanding by the superstore model creators that books are only barely fungible. I think that all the mall book superstores—in the U.S. and Britain as well as Canada, made a miscalculation about what people go to malls for. They go to buy merchandise and to engage in knowledge-free shopping as a cultural end in itself. Mall-goers aren’t readers. They watch television and they shop.

It is now clear that from a book publishing perspective, Chapter/Indigo isn’t “growing the industry” as promised, but is merely dumbing it down and putting it into blockbuster mode, which means selling large quantities of a small number of books, usually at profit-killing discounts, and killing sales of backlist and specialty titles.

This is clearly the recovery strategy Chapters/Indigo is currently employing in an attempt to get its bottom line into the black. The reader-friendly zones on the main floors of the stores have been dismantled, and average stock in the stores is below 100,000 titles. Most of the backlist has been replaced by greeting cards, music CDs, candles and bric-a-brac. The readerly “culture zones” have been replaced by remainders, deeply discounted best sellers, and manufactured-in-China merchandise. If you want to sit down and read, the new system tells you, buy a book and go sit in Starbucks, bub.

This has been damaging to publishers whether they’re big publishers being gouged for deeper discounts or (as with Stoddard) find themselves with cash-flow problems because they’ve been deluged with returned books, or whether they’re small and medium sized publishers who have problems placing books or can’t get them into the system at all.

Blockbusteritis merchandising—or books-as-retail-widgets—will ultimately result in fewer publishers, which may, from a Darwinian perspective, be an acceptable outcome, at least for the survivors. The logical survivors, unfortunately, will likely be corporate and American, for the simple reasons that the deeper pockets of their parent companies will likely permit them to weather the storm. But it also means, inevitably, that surviving publishers will reduce their risk by publishing few chance-taking titles. The current publishing mania for young urban novelists can be seen as both a response to changed conditions and a symptom of them, given that novels are the most fungible genre writers practice within. I don’t think it’s an accident that most of the young urban novelists share sensibilities with the 30-something marketeers who are the prime market demographic for virtually everything in the new global economy, and the sort of people advising Heather Riesman about how to rejig Chapters/Indigo to make it profitable. Unfortunately for book sales, the publishers are slowly discovering a.) that marketeers are too busy to read, and b.) Canada is quite a lot larger and less self-involved than downtown Toronto and Vancouver.

Another response/symptom is the recent proliferation of literary prizes. The prize money may be welcomed within the writing community, but it shouldn’t blind anyone to the truth that the prizes are marketing devices, and only secondarily attempts to reward literary excellence and innovation. Most of the prizes are simply rewards for highly skilled conventional behavior—a problem that is widespread enough that the venerable Booker Prize has recently found it necessary to admonish its juries to open their eyes a little more.

One of the strengths of the Canadian publishing system as it now exists is that the presence of a sizable tier of low profile but artistically and intellectually high risk book publishers that permit writers to do what they do best: process complex ideas and collateral cultural and political tropes in innovative ways. Both the Chapters/Indigo retail strategy and Canadian publishing’s response to it is tearing up the tracks for the innovators. That will eventually weaken Canada’s book publishing industry, if for no other reason that it will knock out the farm system that has developed the writers we have. Equally important, it will have a depressing effect on the idea-processing element of the larger intellectual and social culture of which writers remain an important part, and is—not incidentally—the sole defendable rationale for government subsidies to writers and to book publishing. If the Chapters/Indigo model, along with sales success in the retail blockbuster book market becomes the dominant mode by which writers and publishers operate, governments will be warranted in rethinking subsidies. If the incidence of innovation and cultural analysis disappears from Canadian books there’ll be no political reason to continue the subsidies, and no cultural —or informational—reason to buy and read the books produced by our writers and publishers.

B: Blaming the Overbuilt and Antiquated Industry:

In a market-driven economy, too much of any sort of production deflates its value. Quite simply, Canada produces too many books. It does so from a variety of motives, some admirable, some not so. Most are the consequences of inattention to the rapid changes that are transforming the informational and educational marketplace. Yet the biggest single problem is largely self-created: recent book publishing and bookselling changes have redefined books as merchandise rather than cultural instruments. This was a profound shift in cultural outlook, and can’t be corrected with a “whoops” and a return to old habits.

One need only point to the insane current book trade practices that have evolved to keep Chapters/Indigo solvent to verify overproduction. As it now stands, Chapters/Indigo (unlike other Canadian booksellers) doesn’t have to pay for the books it orders, and it has found a way to avoid paying for the books it sells. Its 110-day payment dispensation, negotiated through the federal Competition Bureau, allows it to return books before payment for the books is due. The 90 day return policy (which lets all booksellers return unsold books after 90 days and is a piece of business insanity in and of itself) permits Chapters/Indigo to mass return any book it wants before it is obliged to pay for it. Under the same set of rules, it can then reorder the same titles it has returned, thus making consignment a permanent condition. The fact that Chapter/Indigo is, by several accounts, still not able to pay its bills is proof that Chapters/Indigo is dysfunctional, that the book trade practices are worse than dysfunctional. It also suggests what many analysts have been saying for some time now, that the corporation will need to close dozens more of its unprofitable stores before the red-ink bleed stops. With dozens of Canadian publishers—large and small—teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the effect of dozens of superstore closures may be catastrophic, notwithstanding the alleged safeguards negotiated by the Competition Bureau.

These threats, if nothing else, don’t exactly create a climate for risk-taking publishing. The do create a perfect climate for marketplace cowering, conventional behaviors, and hoping that the other guy collapses first and opens a little market space for the survivors.

Conventional behavior unfortunately may be the course of action least likely to succeed, because conventional book marketing clearly isn’t working, and anyway doesn’t address any of the fundamental questions facing book publishing. As far as I know, no one, anywhere, is asking the most important question. That question is: what can books do better than other media. The question has a logical corollary, to: how can the book trade be reshaped to reflect the changed realities?.

This necessary exercise isn’t going to be easy or pleasant, but the long-term answers constitute the future of book publishing. At a glance, the obvious answers to the first question are: 1.) Portable reference: small dictionaries, guidebooks, and compendiums of a wide variety of information from gardening manuals all the way to the essential writing of Plato or Adam Smith/ 2.) Formats for working through complex and dense concepts and ideas: scientific monographs, cultural criticism, experimental literature and anything else that can’t be explained with an executive summary or its successor, instructional video; 3.) Accumulative non-linear reference, such as local history and personal accounts of specific events or lives lived—but only because the alternate technologies are currently too expensive or too impermanent. The current publishing and book-selling cash cow, self-help books, have sold well in the recent past. It hasn’t mattered that most of the books aren’t read, because the self-help impulse is normally accompanied by short attention spans and is the sort of impulse that is often satisfied simply have having good intentions—or by placing purchased books prominently enough to turn them into to conversation-starters or convince other self-helpers that one is fashionably improved. Sooner rather than later, video and interactive DVD, which are easier for those with short attention spans to digest, will devour a large portion of this market niche.

C.) Blaming the Collapse of Book Reviewing

It’s probably not helpful to point out that one of the less publicized characteristics of the Global Village/New World Order is its preference that people not spend time reading unless it’s on a pixel matrix. Yet it happens to be true. Electronic connectedness isn’t optional. If you opt out, you still have to cope with the 60-cycle hum, and the racket of information sprayed at you from all directions. The hallways in your new condo are too narrow for bookcases, and a thousand other discouragements to silent leisure are recognizable the moment you look.

That said, Individuals are partly responsible for their own dumbing down. There is a strain of self-loathing among those who read that is damaging the reading community from within. The Globe and Mail, which is the country’s most readerly newspaper, ran a series of articles last summer by John Allemang semi-boasting about the trend of not-reading books. This was no doubt occasioned by some sort of need to suck up to the anti-intellectual bottom-liners who were then pushing “convergence” through the Bell Globemedia corporation, but the failure of the articles to point out the downside of these trends was inexcusable from a newspaper that targets literate readers.

Young individuals are now socialized away from reading books. The primary source of this push is market culture, which wants everyone to be a shopper instead a citizen. But it is also a failure of the education system, which seems, once it teaches kids how to read in Kindergarten and the first grades, to turn on reading and critical education in favour of procuring identities for their students at the expense of civil skills. Most of those identities are located content-free in the mall or on television.

As an indirect result, somewhere in the past decade books have fallen beneath threshold of popular culture’s radar, which is a cute way of saying that even front-of-the-list titles are no longer generating sufficient buzz to have a significant effect on any other element of the culture. The publication of a book simply is no longer in and of itself an “event” save amongst those in the shrinking book reading and writing community. To reach that point a book has to have a celebrity angle—as with Madonna’s children’s book—or some sort of hysterical franchise element, as with the Harry Potter series, or Stephen King’s novels.

Probably the most obvious marker in this is the precipitous decline in book reviewing. Canada now has just a single full-time book reviewer (Philip Marchand at the Toronto Star) and except for the Globe and Mail, literally every paper in the country has substantially cut back the number of book reviews it runs. CanWest Global papers—a sizable portion of the total in Canada, are rumoured to be auctioning reviews done by one newspaper throughout the chain as a cost-saving measure. In addition, every paper has cut back the average length of the reviews run from (depending on the paper) 900-1200 words to about 600. A sizable number of literary magazines have either ceased publication or have stopped reviewing books, and several magazines that once ran extensive book review sections have either made cutbacks (MacLean’s, Toronto’s NOW and Eye weekly entertainment tabloids, or have stopped reviewing books altogether. The only magazines I can think of that have improved their reviewing are Vancouver’s Georgia Straight (more reviews) and Books In Canada, which has gone international and features longer if fewer reviews than a decade ago. Canada’s university journals have completely descended into jargon-mustering or have become glossy display cases for artifactual materials.

A secondary loss in Canada has been CBC’s policy shift against prominently featuring books and authors. A decade ago Morningside had a steady stream of authors on the show. They talked, sometimes boringly and ad nauseum, about their books or about cultural issues related to print and/or the state of our national culture. The Journal had weekly book review features. Then, for reasons that still elude me, book culture was exiled throughout the corporation in favour of television standup comedy and on the radio side, people with entertaining obsessive-compulsions of one sort or another. In effect, the CBC gave up Peter Grzowski’s brand of literacy for Arthur Black’s. Today, the only treatment of books on CBC radio is Eleanor Wachtel’s prim Writers & Company, which is, ironically, named after an independent Toronto bookstore that went bankrupt shortly after the arrival of Indigo Books in its neighbourhood. The CBC does have Evan Solomon’s Hot Type. Solomon tries hard, but operates on a far smaller budget and with less élan than TVO Ontario’s Imprint had during its Daniel Richler-hosted heyday. Beyond that there’s nothing, unless you think CodCo comedienne Mary Walsh’s half-cooked televised book chat-up featuring her barely articulate friends making a show of their lousy reading skills is helpful in selling books. I don’t.

The only other reading-oriented fare in the mass media is the continued existence of TVOntario’s Imprint, which is now targeted primarily at Wally Hourback’s dotty aunt in North Bay and other elderly ladies who hide their nurse books and Harlequin Romances under the pillow and pretend to read Jane Urquhart or Carol Shields novels. Daniel Richler has been trying for three years to mount a viable television channel for those interested in language, but he’s been asked to do it with an annual budget that wouldn’t pay for the stage wranglers on a single episode of Canadian Idol.

Not very long ago, the CBC interpreted its mandate as a national public broadcaster to mean that its job was to nudge popular culture in more thoughtful directions. Now it seems to want to bootlick every lowest common denominator it can find, with the radio side either imitating commercial radio or finding multicultural entrepreneurs to remind its mainly white, upper middle class audiences of its burden of guilt. The television network’s arts coverage, is, with periodic exceptions, now merely another feeder off the U.S. publicity machine, with Shania Twain replacing Anne Murray as prime Canadian content.

Presumably this dumbing down and the content shift toward popular music and comedy is a response to the alleged shorter attention spans of its audiences. One is tempted to ask what empirical evidence they have that attention spans are shorter than they were 25 years ago, but that’s ultimately as unprovable as the existence of popular culture’s radar threshold. What I can say is that sucking up to the marketplace is not a good long-term strategy for a publicly funded communications network with an educational mandate and a long-standing tradition of elevating public discourse. It is also, perhaps unfortunately, not something that book publishers, writers and readers can do much about, although a wise course might to be whine about it much more loudly than they have done lately.

Similarly, it’s hard to say what should be done about the collapse of book reviewing. One suggestion I’ve heard is to divert some of the subsidy money from market-oriented public relations and reading festivals toward a national review of books, something that is high-profile in the style of the London Review of Books, or the New York Review of books. Such a publication has been talked about for decades, and it isn’t going to make any more money than it would have ten years ago. But if our cultural agencies are at all serious about maintain Canada’s cultural integrity, this is the time to make it a reality. We need an instrument that will create controversy and buzz around our authors, who are more than skilled enough to deserve and sustain it, both here in Canada and outside our borders. The costs can be rationalized as necessary for cultural survival, or as a publicity-generating instrument for competing in the international marketplace, depending on one’s political orientation. The publishers can, if they want, pull summary reviews from it for distribution in the bookstores. But its hard to argue against the idea that the voices of our writers are becoming hard to hear in the din of the New World Order, or that we need a prestigious instrument that showcases the deepest elements of our shredding—or mouldering–national discourse.

3436 words: September 21, 2003


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