“Don’t Quit Your Day Job”: Publishing and Promotion in Canada

I’m tempted to say that I read a disturbing article in this weekend’s Globe & Mail about the state of promotion (or lack thereof) in today’s Canadian publishing industry. And having worked in the Canadian publishing business I can attest personally that everything in this article is accurate.

But instead what I’m going to point out as more disturbing is that even knowing all this already and having read the article, well, I’m still not dissuaded from writing and trying to publish a novel (or ten).

Thinking that there’s something wrong with me? You’re correct: it’s called being a writer 🙂

I include the article below, as the Globe & Mail for some reason (unlike other papers like the New York Times) still restricts access to their archive after a few days.

– S.


Publish, and your book will probably perish
You did your part, you wrote the book. So why are Canadian publishers getting worse at their part – selling it? James Adams reports

From Saturday’s Globe and Mail
February 7, 2009 at 8:14 AM EST

It’s not known who the first author was who complained that his publisher wasn’t doing enough for his book.

Maybe it was Pope Callistus III moaning to Johannes Gutenberg in the mid-15th century that he had printed too few copies of His Holiness’s collected homilies. Maybe it was Daniel Defoe in 1720, griping that his London publisher, William Taylor, was too skimpy with proceeds from the sale of Robinson Crusoe, or failed to recompense him for taking the carriage to Bath for a reading.

But while such friction has been a staple of the book business through the centuries, with this year’s dismal overall economic outlook unlikely to spare publishers, the bleats from writers are only likely to get louder. Already, Canadian authors say they’ve been asked to bear more and more costs (including those for indexes, picture research, and permission clearances for non-fiction works), at the same time as book “promotion” has become largely “self-promotion” via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, blogging and the registration of domain names on the Internet.

Joked Margaret Atwood during a recent interview: “The term ‘relentless self-promoter’ used to be an insult in publishing circles. Now it will be a necessity.”

For the many writers who lack “a little Barnum” in their bones, what they see as an abdication of responsibility by publishers is not good news. In the words of one veteran non-fiction author: “The publisher now seems to feel his duty to the writer is fulfilled when the writer has his book in hand. After that, the book must find its way in the world, like the seed off a poplar tree blowing in the wind.” Another, a novelist, sees a “steady erosion of [publishers’] services toward creators. … [They] no longer edit or proofread as they once did, buy advertising, employ a sales force … and tour authors as they once did” – and this at a time when the books they publish have climbed in price to “the edge of affordability for most readers.”

Tellingly, both writers made their comments on condition of anonymity. One has a book out this year, the other is finishing one. Neither wishes to be seen as biting the hand that might still semi-feed them.

This isn’t to diminish their concerns, which, as Atwood notes, are being voiced at a time when “everything is shaking down in publishing.” Fifteen or 20 years ago, in the analog era, Canadian book publishing seemed relatively straightforward – “a relatively genteel activity,” in the words of House of Anansi publisher Sarah MacLachlan. Books were physical objects, piled in warehouses and shipped to a mix of independent retailers and chains with family-sounding names like Smithbooks and Coles. Publicists sent advance copies of these books to The Globe and Mail for that all-important review while pestering CBC Radio’s Morningside for that equally all-important chat with Peter Gzowski.

A book’s promotion was also, remembers Toronto-based fiction writer Andrew Pyper, about “sharing rides in Hondas to readings in church basements in small towns” – a phenomenon, after having published four books in the last 12 years, he still deems “the core of the thing.” Indeed, Atwood – who once, early in her career, did a book signing in the men’s socks and underwear section of an Edmonton department store (“I think it was because it was near the escalator”) – continues to call publishing “an art and craft with a business component.”

“But now,” adds Pyper, “there’s this additional virtual [promotion] apparatus of sites and blogs and whatever. … Do these things actually work? Nobody seems to know.”

Of course, as Geoffrey Taylor, director of Toronto’s International Festival of Authors, observes: “If everybody knew what the magical marketing tools were, that’s all they’d do, to a certain extent.” Word of mouth, even in the digital age, “is still by far the largest way of getting books out there. What everyone wants to figure out is how to spark it.”

Certainly “the 32-city author tour,” as Atwood calls it, is pretty much defunct, as is the publisher-paid wine-and-cheese book-launch party.

If a tour is booked, it’s more likely to be quite circumscribed, dovetailing with an event or a series of events like the Vancouver International Writers Festival or Edmonton’s LitFest – and if there’s government or corporate grants to defray costs, so much the better.

Sometimes the tour is “virtual” – Debby de Groot, who resigned as publicity director for Penguin Group (Canada) in 2006 and now heads her own public-relations firm, likes to set up interviews where, in the case of an athlete’s story, for example, the hosts of radio sports shows will call into the author’s home. If the client is a New Yorker or in London, she may send him to a satellite-linked studio at ABC or BBC and patch him to Canadian interviewers.

If a launch happens, it’s mostly at the urging (and because of the ingenuity) of the writer. Last fall, for example, for the kickoff of her debut book, All About Colour, Toronto designer Janice Lindsay got Pittsburgh Paints to pay for an event at the city’s trendy Gladstone Hotel. Her publisher, McClelland & Stewart, sent out invitations and got a local bookseller to bring in 79 copies of Colour, all of which sold for the full list price of $34.99. Pittsburgh, in the meantime, has agreed to buy 1,000 copies of Lindsay’s book to sell in its fancier stores and to pay the author’s travel expenses for a six-city tour this spring.

Also, “straight-up advertising doesn’t work any more,” says Anansi’s MacLachlan, meaning print ads in newspapers and magazines. “Viral marketing” on the Internet is a big buzzword, and the book video (which can be posted on YouTube) is the hot idea, although at this point these promotional trailers for books often amount to little more than glorified home movies.

Other challenges of what de Groot calls the current “fractured landscape” of publishing include print-on-demand technologies, the rise of new competition from on-line ordering sites like Amazon.ca and AbeBooks.com, at the same time as e-books such the Sony Reader and Kindle are even dematerializing the notion of the physical book.


Of course, not everything has vaporized into the electronic ether. Having swallowed the Chapters chain in 2001, Indigo Books & Music stands unchallenged as the country’s pre-eminent bricks-and-mortar book retailer. With 240-plus outlets, it accounts by some estimates for more than 65 per cent of all retail book sales in Canada. Says one publisher: “You inevitably have to look at [Indigo] as the central place where you’ll get your biggest buy or number of books out. Every book we publish, we will sell to Indigo.”

But selling to Indigo has its costs. Not only does the chain seek an aggressive volume discount, it has a welter of fees it often charges to publishers to place their wares at various locations within the Indigo footprint – what one publishing sales director calls “the grocery-store model of book selling.”

Say you’re a publisher who’s printed 10,000 copies of a title. Half are earmarked for deposit into Indigo’s 70 or so large-format stores. Since it’s fall and the crucial pre-Christmas buying season is imminent, you and Indigo are talking about racking that order in what Indigo calls its “front-of-store new-release alcoves.” To do that November through December, the publisher faces a potential fee of almost $11,000. Or, say Indigo has bought 2,000 copies of a title, and the publisher would like those books placed throughout November and December in end-of-aisle displays in the stores. The fee according to Indigo’s rate card? Close to $6,000.

These are substantial levies in an industry where profit margins of 2 to 5 per cent are common and the average annual salary of a publicist, according to industry watchdog Quill & Quire, is $37,100 (for a publicity assistant, it’s less than $30,000).


If there’s one major piece of advice that professionals on the publishing and promotion side would give to the majority of writers, it’s probably: “Don’t quit your day job.”

As a writer, “you’re doing it for some reason other than making a living,” MacLachlan says. It’s great if the money follows, but “your publisher can’t assure you of that. The market can’t assure you of that. All we can do is try.” And, Lindsay points out, laughing, by not trying to earn your living by the pen, you “can have the luxury of being disappointed and incredulous at the abilities of your publisher.”

Katherine Ashenburg put this down in black and white last year in a paper sponsored by the Banff Centre’s literary journalism program. A former editor at The Globe and Mail, Ashenburg laid out her income, including advances and grants from the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council, and expenditures involved in the four years she dedicated to the research and writing of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, a 2007 title published in Canada, the United States and Britain as well as Brazil, Poland, Japan and now Italy. Comparing her net earnings as an author with what she would have earned over four years as a salaried newspaper editor, Ashenburg discovered that her after-tax cost of writing The Dirt on Clean was almost $280,000.

Today, she says, she’ll “never write another research-heavy non-fiction book.”


Friction or at least ambivalence is likely always going to be part of the author-publisher relationship, according to Geoffrey Taylor. “The author can spend anywhere from six months to 10 years writing his book. And even when the manuscript’s finished, usually there’s a year or two to go before the book hits the bookstore.

“From the author’s point of view, it’s taken forever to get to that delivery date. There’s emotion involved. For the publisher, it’s like buying lottery tickets: They’re hoping the book catches on.

“So when a writer asks, ‘Why aren’t they selling my book?’ well, it’s because the publisher has other books, too” – sometimes many dozen books for which it’s paid wildly varying sums, divided among “a handful of publicists,” as Pyper notes. “The fact is, the ‘machine’ isn’t as big as some writers might think.”

Another fact, at least to Taylor’s eyes, is that “the window of opportunity for books, especially new fiction,” is becoming narrower. It used to be a year, then it became six months. Now that window of opportunity is more like three months.” Books, in fact, are “like films,” he said. “They can collapse right after release.”

But this scenario apparently doesn’t entirely discourage writers. As one first-time author said recently, “I did it because I knew I couldn’t not write a book. It came out. It made me happy. I sold the film rights. I feel proud of the book. … Overall, the experience has been fantastic.”

And guess what? She has another book in the works.