Canada's non-fiction crisis

Plus, the mystery of Justin Trudeau's communist publisher

The short-list for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust prize for non-fiction was announced this week. Not surprisingly, given the recent history of non-fiction in this country, all five of the nominees are memoirs.

I have absolutely nothing against memoir. Sutherland House has published its share, and we’ll publish more, and we’ll be happy if one of them gets nominated for a major award. But the dominance of memoir in the Canadian non-fiction world is a problem. Not because the memoirs are bad (although the quality is uneven, as in any genre), but because the first-person voice is not enough.

Memoir can be a useful tool for exploring the world but it is limited, and it is no substitute for well-researched, fact-based non-fiction. We need investigative journalism, history, biography, politics, current affairs, science & health books if we’re going to understand ourselves and our times (especially with conventional media slowly dying), but Canadian trade publishers are producing very little of it.

I’ve complained about this deficit several times in the past. This week, my friend Dan Wells, publisher and owner of Windsor-based Biblioasis, is carrying the ball.

“We’re at a point in Canada’s history where it’s never been more important to tell our stories to ourselves, and to hold people in positions of authority accountable” says Dan, “and we have never been in a worse position to do so. Our market is dominated by foreign multinationals and the multinationals see Canada as too small a market so they don’t invest in substantial researched Canadian non-fiction.”

The multinationals are the likes of Penguin Random House Canada and HarperCollins Canada. Dan watches their catalogs closely because he’s a bookseller as well as a publisher.

“As a bookseller,” he says, “I can tell you that of the 5,000 Penguin Random House titles that I sort through for Canada in a six-month period, maybe there’s one work of Canadian history or researched non-fiction.

“If I wanted to, I could fill eight to ten shelves every six-month publishing season just with the major American history and politics titles brought into Canada by the multinationals. But in the course of a year, I have a hard time keeping my Canadian history shelf fresh.

“At one point I started keeping track and I could only find three or four presses in all of Canada that were doing substantial non-fiction.”

Welcome to the 116th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

Biblioasis has published five or six researched non-fiction books this year, but with a smaller market share and fewer resources, it’s tough. “We don’t have the market access to make it successful,” says Dan.

His recent efforts to bring to market Elaine Dewar’s On The Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years impressed upon Dan “just how fucked up everything is in Canada.” He paid the author a modest four-figure advance (“which is not nothing for us”) for a 400-page book that took more than a year of solid work to complete.

“Elaine wrote it because she wanted to do it, but that’s the way it is with Canadian non-fiction now.” Unless you’re one of the lucky few to get a substantial advance from a multinational, you’re self-financing your book. “Too much onus is put on the authors,” says Dan.

Part of the problem is that granting agencies, led by the Canada Council, don’t value researched non-fiction. They don’t consider it art, so they don’t fund it. They do support memoirs, which is another reason you get outcomes like the Weston List.

The irony is that memoir requires less support. It is relatively inexpensive to produce (which is part of their attraction to publishers). The Dewar book involved a lot of research as well as intensive editing and fact-checking, all of which had to be done on deadlines to meet the pandemic moment. “It required a lot of time and investment, as any investigative book or work of history does,” says Dan. “That’s why so few of these stories get told.”

There was a time when a writer doing a substantive book could count on the support of a newspaper or magazine to underwrite some of the research, cover travel costs, or otherwise indirectly help to finance the project. Few outlets have that capacity anymore. “Even full-time journalists often don’t have the time to finish their investigations, they’re stretched so thin,” says Dan. “That’s where authors can come in and go deeper, connect the dots like Elaine did on her story, and really add something to it. But it’s difficult and expensive to do.”

Another Biblioasis author, Mark Bourrie (Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre Esprit Radisson) won the last edition of the Charles Taylor Prize, after which he spoke publicly and forcefully about the “crisis” in Canadian non-fiction. He told the CBC he was done writing on Canadian subjects because the readership wasn’t there: “Most of the non-fiction, almost all the non-fiction really that's sold in Canada, comes from ... other English-speaking countries.”

Further, said Bourrie, it’s unaffordable for authors: “Say I wanted to write a book about what's happening in the Arctic and I have friends in the Arctic. They're all telling me that climate change is so obvious. It's just crazy up there.

“For me to go up there and research that, dig through that story and write a book about it, would cost so much. And it's not clear whether or not it could be marketed in the Canadian market, whether it would get serious support from publishers, and that's because of … the systemic problems.”

Says Dan Wells: “We’ve got to figure out a way to fund this kind of writing, whether its through private funders or through public funders.” He’s spoken to the federal government and the Canada Council about the issue, and while “there are officers at every level who understand the problem,” nothing is changing.

If you haven’t heard about the Dewar book, this is from the publisher’s description:

When the first TV newscast described a SARS-like flu affecting a distant Chinese metropolis, investigative journalist Elaine Dewar started asking questions: Was SARS-CoV-2 something that came from nature, as leading scientists insisted, or did it come from a lab, and what role might controversial experiments have played in its development? Why was Wuhan the pandemic's ground zero—and why, on the other side of the Atlantic, had two researchers been marched out of a lab in Winnipeg by the RCMP? Why were governments so slow to respond to the emerging pandemic, and why, now, is the government of China refusing to cooperate with the World Health Organization?…

In this compelling whodunnit, she reads the science, follows the money, connects the geopolitical interests to the spin—and shows how leading science journals got it wrong, leaving it to interested citizens and junior scientists to pull out the truth.

Trudeau’s communist publisher

Four days ago, the Globe & Mail reported that Justin Trudeau’s 2014 memoir Common Ground was republished in a Chinese edition in 2016.

Doesn’t sound like much of a story, does it? Foreign editions of Canadian books are released all the time.

What’s different in this case, says the Globe, is that the Chinese publisher is Yilin Press of Nanjing, part of the state-owned enterprise Jiangsu Phoenix Publishing and Media, which “takes operational direction from the propaganda department of the Jiangsu provincial communist party committee.”

Why would a propaganda wing of the communist party make such a deal? The Globe quotes foreign policy experts who say that the republication of Trudeau’s book is “a classic ploy” by Beijing to flatter a foreign leader. “They are trying to do anything they can to encourage him to look positive on China and the Chinese state,” according to one of the experts.

Says another: “Clearly, by publishing his biography they wanted to please him. They are the masters of propaganda.”

What do the Chinese hope to get out of courting Trudeau? “Beijing had high hopes it could persuade Canada to sign a free-trade agreement and was seeking Canada’s help in its global campaign Operation Fox Hunt to track down people it called criminals, many of whom were Chinese dissidents,” writes the Globe.

The Globe also finds it notable that the Liberals, at the time, were trotting Trudeau out to private events at the homes of wealthy Chinese-Canadians. The PM would do a little dance and the money would flow:

Chinese billionaire and Communist Party official Zhang Bin attended a May 19, 2016, fundraiser at the home of Benson Wong, chair of the Chinese Business Chamber of Canada. A few weeks later, Mr. Zhang and his business partner, Niu Gensheng, donated $200,000 to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation and $50,000 to erect a statue of Mr. Trudeau’s father.

So it all looks a bit unseemly.

I poked around and was reliably informed by someone in a position to know that Trudeau and his agent sold worldwide rights to Common Ground to HarperCollins Canada. That means it was up to HarperCollins to publish the book in Canada and also sell rights to its republication in as many foreign markets as possible. Trudeau would get a cut of revenues from those sales.

Also, it is commonplace for publishing contracts to contain language that requires the publisher to get approval from the author or his/her agent before any rights sales can be finalized. I’m told there was such language in Trudeau’s contract. So he or his agent would have had to approve the rights sale to Yilin Press.

You can look at the transaction, then, and conclude that Trudeau approved the rights sales to an arm of the Chinese government and, having received payment for the rights, effectively put himself in hock to Beijing.

When you also recall Trudeau’s 2013 statement expressing admiration for China’s “basic dictatorship,” and the stunning Liberal self-dealing in the SNC-Lavalin and WE scandals, you can easily convince yourself that Trudeau is stupid/craven enough for all this to be true.

But it’s not that simple. Trudeau committed long ago to forward any proceeds from his book to the Canadian Red Cross. It does not appear there was any personal financial gain for him (and it would have been a small amount, in any event).

Moreover, it’s doubtful that Trudeau or anyone in his camp knew a damn thing about the rights purchaser, Yilin Press, except that the company is Chinese. HarperCollins sold rights to the Trudeau book in a lot of countries. Trudeau, or more likely his agent, would have got a note saying “were selling rights here, here, and here, okay?” Someone would have emailed back, “yeah, fine, whatever.”

Should the PM, or someone in his office, have asked questions about Yilin Press and its connections to the communist party? Maybe, but it’s not like there was a free-market alternative down the street from Yilin. Every publisher in China is accountable to the communist party in one way or another. To get an ISBN number in the Chinese market, you have to go through the state, not because the state provides the service, but because it monitors all publications. Si Limin, chairman of the China Book Publishing Industry Association, is the former director of the News and Newspapers Department of the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television. And so on.

As for the trade deal the Chinese were supposedly eager for Trudeau to sign? It was more the other way around. In 2017, the Liberals tried to convince Beijing to adopt Trudeau-style progressivism in return for free-trade with Canada. They were laughed out of town. The Chinese couldn’t even be bothered to pretend an interest in human rights to get a deal signed.

I have all kinds of problems with the ethical standards of the Liberal party, Trudeau’s personal judgment, those cash for access meetings, and his Chinese policy, but there’s nothing much to see here.

(The photo above, btw, is of the Zhongshuge bookstore in Beijing.)

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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Show and tell

How we get our books into bookstores

Things have been rough at Sutherland House this summer. We had a production mishap. A book went to the printer without captions on its photo pages. We had to scrap the whole press run, fix the captions, and then find press time to reprint, which was next to impossible. There is no slack in the system right now. Friesen’s, maybe the biggest Canadian book printer, and the best for hardcover books, is not taking any new bookings before February. We needed our books this fall. We juggled projects and deadlines and managed to muddle through but not without a lot of pain and lost time.

It put a damper on what is otherwise shaping up to be a very strong fall for us, and it also put us behind for our sales conference this week.

When most people think about book sales, they think of the transaction at the Indigo cash register or on Amazon. But that’s not what sales conferences are about, at least not directly.

Before a retailer can sell a book to a customer, someone has to sell the book to the retailer. For that purpose, publishers employ sales representatives to make the rounds of independent booksellers and chain stores. The reps try to convince the retail buyers to order lots of our books for inclusion in their stock.

All of this happens way ahead of the actual release of the book. Our sales conference this week was for next spring’s books. It’s not convenient for a small shop like us to be working so far ahead. We’re concentrating right now on ensuring that our fall books do well. It’s difficult to think ahead to next spring, but it has to be done because retailers (especially the chains) drive the process and they make their choices many months in advance of on-sale dates. (The retailers also get 50% of the proceeds from each sale, and they can return any unsold product for a full refund, which is to say that booksellers have it sweet).

Sutherland House doesn’t have its own sales representatives. Only the very largest publishers such as Penguin Random House and HarperCollins have dedicated teams. The rest of us outsource our sales. The firm that represents us in Canada is the Canadian Manda Group, and we feel very fortunate to have them on our side. They’re excellent.

Most of their work is with brick-and-mortar retailers, both chains and independent retailers, which is where roughly a third of our books are sold. (More than half of Sutherland House’s books sell through Amazon, and no one really sells books into Amazon. Its algorithms do most of the work in deciding which books it will stock and how many. We also sell a good chunk of books directly to consumers through events, launches, and our website).

The bricks-and-mortar part of the business isn’t what it used to be, but it’s still crucial, not only for the revenue that it generates but for the visibility our books get in the stores. So we take our sales conferences seriously. We do two a year with Manda (for our spring and fall books), and two a year with our US representatives, Baker & Taylor Publishing Services (also spring and fall).

The idea of the conference is to arm your sales representatives with the information and excitement they need to succeed in their pitches to retailers. We show up (on Zoom these days, rather than in person) with a slide presentation displaying our spring list, which for 2022 is a half dozen books. We show off our covers (although most of them are not yet finished. We talk about the content of the books (which are still being edited). We discuss our plans for promoting each title (these are often already underway).

Welcome to the 115th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

One of our spring books is Eric Reguly’s Ghosts of War: Chasing My Father’s Legend Through Vietnam. Eric is a Globe foreign correspondent. His father, Robert, was a star correspondent for the Toronto Star in the 1960s and 1970s. He became famous for tracking down Gerda Munsinger (below), the “Mata Hari of the Cold War, an East German prostitute and alleged Soviet spy who had affairs with a couple of Canadian cabinet ministers; she was believed to be dead by the time her antics were revealed in 1966 but Robert found her very much alive in an apartment in West Germany and won the first of his three National Newspaper Awards.

He had many other great scoops but the highlight of Robert’s career was his coverage of the Vietnam war, which he saw up close and intimate, as reporters did back then, jumping in and out of helicopters with US troops whenever they felt like it.

Long fascinated by Robert’s career and press coverage of the war, Eric retraced his father’s footsteps in Vietnam a couple of years ago. That became the centerpiece of a larger story that reviews Robert’s career, the toll it took on his personal life, and the impact of his constant story-chasing on his family. It is part biography of Robert and part memoir by Eric, who grew up in his father’s shadow, pursued his own (celebrated) journalism career, and tried to avoid the personal damage that can come with the single-minded pursuit of stories.

I relayed all this to the sales reps and talked about target audiences for the book, which range from the general non-fiction reader in Canada to Vietnam war enthusiasts in the US (there are a lot of them). I mentioned some publicity we’ve arranged and that the Globe is going to host the book launch and run an excerpt of Ghosts of War.

Ideally, a publisher wants to have covers designed, titles and subtitles set, and book descriptions (from, say, inside the front jacket, or your Amazon page) polished before going into a sales conference. As mentioned, we’re behind, so the draft of the cover of Ghosts of War I used for the presentation (above) is unfinished. It is a photo montage, and we montaged the wrong kind of chopper. That will have to change, but the photograph of Robert will stay and that’s generally what the cover will look like.

Manda represents a bunch of publishers and its sales conference runs over four days. We were fortunate to be first up on day one; we had the Manda team at its freshest. They asked good questions and gave us great feedback on our covers and titles, which we always take seriously. The sales reps have a hard-headed sense of what works in the book marketplace, and what doesn’t.

It all happens fast. Disappointingly fast, if we’re honest (and if you think about it from the point of view of an author who has spent years on his or her book, horrifyingly fast). But Manda has a lot of publishers to get through, and dragging a sales conference out longer would take time away from actual selling, so it’s understandable.

Also, the process of quick pitches mimics what happens when the rep sits down with a retailer. In fact, the reps have even less time. They’re lucky to get a minute of a buyer’s attention on any particular book. There are a lot of publishers with a lot of books vying for that minute.

The process further mimics the consumer’s buying decision. People browsing in bookstores or on Amazon do not linger on every available title. They make snap judgments based on the genre of book, the title, the cover image, the author. They may quickly cast eyes over a hundred books before bothering to read the dust jacket of something that attracts their attention. So a book has to make its impression at a glance. In that sense, the quick-pitch disciplines imposed by a conference agenda are useful.

Of course, the sales conference is not our only contact with our sales reps. It sets the table for the upcoming season; it is not an end in itself. There will be plenty of follow-up and feedback in the months following.

Similarly, the sales rep’s initial pitch of a book to a retailer, if it sparks an interest, can lead to a lot of back-and-forth to improve the book’s odds of success. Manda sometimes relays to us the feedback it gets from retailers; we’ve had buyers at the chains double their orders because we tweaked a cover to their satisfaction.

Even after four years (!) in this business, it still strikes me as weird that publishers outsource their sales. We’re nothing without sales. Why would we outsource the most important thing we do? But when we’re selling books into many hundreds of retail outlets spread across a continent, it’s not feasible for any but the largest firms to deploy their own sales forces. So that’s how we roll.

If you can stand any more…

We’ve mentioned this before but our friend Nigel Beale runs a great podcast called The Biblio File in which he talks to authors, publishers, booksellers, collectors, scholars, critics, designers, and agents from all over the literary world. It’s wonderfully informative and Nigel’s accumulated archive is an incredibly valuable resource on the book trade. Recently, he had me on the show together with Jack David of ECW. We talked about what’s working and what isn’t in Canadian publishing, and whether or not I was correct in saying that our efforts to build a made-in-Canada publishing sector “have failed as completely as it is possible to fail.” You’ve probably heard enough from me but Jack and Nigel are worth the listen.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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SHuSH: The tabloid edition

Murderous heiresses, K-pop readers, poisoned publishers, and more

It’s the last week of summer. It’s difficult to take anything seriously. Welcome to the first annual SHuSH tabloid edition!

Earlier this year, crime writer Peter Lance published Homicide at Rough Point, which argues that tobacco heiress Doris Duke deliberately killed her companion/interior designer Eduardo Tirella at her estate in Newport, Rhode Island in 1966.

Doris Duke is an interesting study. She inherited more than $50 million at the age of twelve and became famous for doing whatever the hell she wanted, including playing piano in nightclubs, studying dance with choreographer Katherine Dunham, serving with an intelligence agency in WW2, participating in séances, surfing, making friends with Elvis and Albert Einstein, marrying a series of fortune-hunting losers and exotic playboys, and trysting with Lebanese antiquities dealers and young jazz musicians.

When she ran her Dodge Polara station wagon over Tirella, twice, police called it “an unfortunate accident.” Lance believes the notoriously vindictive Duke, who had stabbed her common-law husband with a butcher knife three years before this incident (similarly without consequences), bought off most of Newport to escape prosecution. The victim, in Lance’s telling, was “a gay Renaissance man and war hero.”

Welcome to the 114th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

Lance’s book was well-received, but the story wasn’t over. “On July 3, 2021,” he writes in Vanity Fair, “something unexpected happened. I was doing a book signing at the Brenton Hotel, on Newport’s waterfront. A heavyset 68-year-old man with a walrus mustache came up to me and said, ‘I just read your book. Not only was your account of the murder 100% consistent with what Fred Newton [a dissident accident investigator] concluded, but I was there. I heard the entire lead-up to the crash and I confronted Doris Duke seconds after it, when she jumped out of the car and was staring down at it.”

The heavyset man, Bob Walker, was Duke’s paperboy. Lance interviewed Walker. The updated account of Duke’s attack on Tirella runs as follows:

…as Tirella stood at the gates to unchain them, Duke got behind the wheel. She disengaged the parking brake by hand, shifted into drive, and pressed down so hard on the accelerator that she left tire-wide gouge marks in the gravel. Then she roared forward. Tirella went up on the hood of the wagon, possibly staring at Duke through the windshield as the [Dodge] Polara [station wagon] burst through the gates.

At that moment, as Bob Walker was getting closer, he heard the man scream yet again. “That proceeded for a couple of seconds,” he says, “and then there was a deceleration of the motor and a slight skid.” That’s when, for unknown reasons, Duke… had tapped the brakes and Tirella rolled off onto Bellevue Avenue, having sustained a broken right hip, but still alive.

Walker, by now, was pedaling furiously, closing in on the Rough Point service gate when he heard the man “scream again and the roar of the motor,” at which point, he says, the man’s wail “turned to horror. ‘Nooooo…’”

It was then… that Doris Duke hit the accelerator and drove forward, crushing Tirella under the wheels of the wagon and dragging him across the street. The Polara jumped the opposite curb, knocked down a section of post-and-rail fence, and ended up against a tree. Tirella, officials later determined, was killed instantly.

You can buy the book here, but this article will suffice for most.

The K-pop bookseller

It used to be that the best thing that could happen to a book was that it be seen in the hands of someone boarding Air Force One. Then Oprah took over. Then Reece. Now it’s RM of K-pop’s BTS.

RM is a rapper. K-pop is Korean pop music. BTS is a sensational boy band run by the publicly traded record label, HYBE, founded by the billionaire “Hitman Bang” Si-hyuk.

Twenty-six years old and already in the second decade of his career, RM was recently spotted by a photographer eating a bowl of noodles and reading Early Death, which has been out of print for a decade. The book deals with a bunch of Korean artists who died young.

The rapper’s aggressively online fans, who go by the name of ARMY, demanded copies from the publisher, Hyohyung Books, and within three days it was back in print. It is now a bestseller at South Korea’s largest chain, Kyobo Book Centre.

This wasn’t a one-off for RM. Another book by a conceptual artist sold out across Korea a day after he shared photos of it online.

Sutherland House is sending its entire fall list to RM.

There was no closure

Joe Soldwedel, 69, who owns a bunch of little Arizona newspapers, married an employee, Felice Aspiranti, 66, in 2010. She filed for divorce in 2017. That’s when the fun started.

Convinced that Aspiranti married him for his money, Soldwedel sought to annul their marriage and kill a prenup that guaranteed she would get $900,000 if they split. He also made repeated claims that Aspiranti was trying to kill him by slipping into his food a heavy metal sometimes used as an ingredient in rat poison. He sent hair and nail samples to a Colorado lab that found six to fifteen times the normal level of thallium in his body.

Police checked Aspiranti’s computer and phone and interviewed her and found no evidence of a poisoning plot. They collected hair samples from Soldwedel and found no signs of thallium. Soldwedel says he had undergone therapy and had mostly recovered by the time the police did their work.

The authorities note that thallium is often an impurity in illegal drugs. They suggested that if traces of the element were present in Soldwedel’s body, methamphetamine was the likely culprit.

Much to Soldwedel’s disappointment, local prosecutors would not lay charges against Aspiranti for poisoning him.

He tried to introduce the poisoning allegations in his divorce proceedings but had no luck there, either.

So Soldwedel sued Aspiranti for $18 million over the “poisoning” and used one of his newspapers, the Prescott Daily Courier, to tell the world, or at least a corner of Arizona, that his ex (unnamed in the stories) had been trying to kill him.

The same paper ran ads naming Aspiranti (and nicknaming her as “The Iceberg”). It showed her photograph (bordered with skulls and rats), and offering a reward of up to $10,000 for useful information forwarded to “Joe’s Poison Tip Line” at 1-833-BIG REWARD.

This is SHuSH, so there has to be a book angle. Leaving no stone unturned, Soldwedel wrote and self-published a book repeating his claims, and distributed more than 30,000 copies of an abridged version free to his newspaper subscribers.

A court upheld the Soldwedel-Aspiranti prenup and the divorce was finalized last year.

Soldwedel’s $18-million lawsuit was to go to trial this month. Unfortunately for the reading public, he dropped the suit this week, along with a $2-million defamation claim. “I convinced myself a few years ago that such a lawsuit, I could achieve closure,” he said. “But I realized probably within the last year, there's no such thing no matter how it turned out.”

Aspiranti dropped her countersuit: “We’re all glad it’s gone and done.”

A quick recommendation

This is an incongruously serious note for SHuSH’s tabloid edition, but Anne Applebaum’s latest in The Atlantic is highly recommended. We’ve all read a ton on woke attacks, cancel culture, people getting their lives ruined for breaking (or being accused of breaking) new social codes enforced by mobs, but few writers have managed to be as balanced and thoughtful as Applebaum with “The New Puritans.”

An election update

We mentioned in our last edition what the Conservatives and New Democrats had to say to say about book publishing in their platforms. This week the Liberals released their platform and consistent with Team Trudeau’s free-spending ways, it promises the following:

Invest $43 million per year to support Canadian authors and books publishers by increasing, by 50%, funding through the Canada Book Fund, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Public Lending Right Program.

That’s a big promise. It makes thin gruel of the Conservative platform—“Conduct a review of federal book publishing policy to enhance the commercial viability of Canada’s independent publishing sector.” What’s your pleasure: a cash windfall or a policy review?

Most independent publishers in Canada would take the money and run. And you can’t blame them (although I hope they don’t bank on this new cash because platform promises are not government policy, and at some point we’re due for a fiscal reckoning).

The big problem with the Liberal promise is that it would increase the dependence of independent publishers on a broken public support system that over the years has left them small, irrelevant, and commercially unviable, and subjected them to the overbearing editorial guidance of the Canada Council.

More money, especially from the Canada Council, is like giving bigger rocks to crack whores. They’ll be grateful, but they’ll die sooner.

Far better to give any additional funds to the Public Lending Right, where they would have a transformative effect on the lives of starving Canadian authors, and meanwhile conduct a review of book publishing policy to enhance the commercial viability of the sector.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


Leave a comment


Comes the revolution

The leading Conservatives are talking about book publishing

There’s a Canadian election campaign on right now and as always happens when politicians seek our votes, conversation turns to arts and cultural policy.

Would be nice, though, wouldn’t it? The only elections I can remember where arts and culture (A&C) played a serious role were the 1988 free trade election, in which protectionists argued that more economic interaction with the US would spell doom for Canadian cultural expression, and 2008 when Harper got beat up by opponents for his proposed cuts to arts funding.

Covid, Afghanistan, health care, and housing have dominated the conversation in the first two weeks of this campaign, and I don’t expect much will change before September 20. But there was one crucial policy announcement made by one party that somehow slipped past everyone except me.

On page 155 of Erin O’Toole’s “Recovery Plan,” which is what the Conservatives are calling their platform, comes the following: “Conduct a review of federal book publishing policy to enhance the commercial viability of Canada’s independent publishing sector.”

So far, it is the only reference to book publishing I’ve been able to find in any of the platforms (a quest not helped by the fact that the Liberals have yet to release theirs). It is an increasingly reference with the Conservatives now leading in the polls. And I’m taking full credit for it.

Welcome to the 113th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

Last February I wrote a piece in the Globe & Mail on the failures of the Conservatives on the arts-and-culture front. In brief, it argued that it was time for the party to quit ignoring the sector, admit its existence, and come up with a set of arts policies different from those of the Liberals. Even a Liberal minister in charge of the current system admitted that it is “broken.”

Conservatives have been weak on A&C not so much because they’re philistines, although some of them are, but because they view Canada’s government-supported A&C sector as a creation and client of the Liberal party. Liberals established the A&C community’s significant public institutions, from the National Arts Centre to the Canada Council, and arranged most of its funding. Not surprisingly, the community tends to reflect Liberal values and priorities. For instance, last summer, Simon Brault, chief executive of the Canada Council, the nation’s chief arts granting agency, published an enthusiastic endorsement of the top Trudeau Liberal priorities of Indigenous rights and environmental activism:

We need to reimagine an arts sector determined to eliminate racism and discrimination in every form, and the legacy of colonialism. We need to reimagine the arts’ rightful place in the conversations that shape our future. And we need to reimagine, through the arts, a greener and more just and equitable world.

That’s Brault above, looking clever. Whether or not you agree with his statement, you can probably see how Conservative-leaning Canadians might feel alienated from official expressions of A&C policy, and view the whole sector as a corrupt political project.

Conservatives also tend to dismiss as illegitimate any force-fed, bureaucrat-led, “official” expressions of Canadian culture. Being more market-oriented than Liberals, they would prefer a more organic approach to the arts, i.e., something that does not require a lot of public money to sustain it. (In reality, things are never so cut-and-dried: Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives, led by Marcel Masse, were quite generous to the arts in the eighties, while Jean Chretien’s Liberals oversaw the biggest funding cuts in 1995.)

When they’re out of power, Conservatives tend to threaten to kill the CBC and slash arts funding, but once they reclaim power, they never act on these impulses. They do some simple political math and find that moving against the A&C sector would perhaps please the party’s base but scare away more swing voters than it would attract. So they do nothing, and the Liberal cultural project is perpetuated, never mind that it is broken.

How broken? The original goal was to produce a “national Canadian consciousness” (a questionable objective in the first place). It was supposed to do this by protecting Canadians from global (mostly US) culture. The national consciousness never developed, and Canadians have demonstrated a bottomless appetite for US culture (along with an increasing impatience with Canadian content quotas.)

In the last decade or two, the protectionist elements of arts-and-culture policy have been crumbling. Most of our newspapers are effectively foreign-owned. There’s more US television content available than ever before. The idea that the Canadian publishing industry should be Canadian-owned, too, has died. But the arts support system—which includes Canadian culture’s political leadership, bureaucrats, funding bodies, and institutions—still exists. It is confused and ineffectual. It doesn’t know whether it should be populist or elitist, or if it’s a job-creating industrial strategy or a promoter of artistic excellence. As a result, it often works at cross-purposes with itself, and seldom finds success.

With regard to books, Ottawa and the provinces have been trying to build a made-in-Canada publishing sector for fifty years. They have failed as completely as it is possible to fail. According to data I’ve seen floating around lately, the market share in Canada of Canadian-authored books has fallen from 27% to 10% in the last fifteen years. And the lion’s share of that 10% comes from Canadian-authored booked published by multinationals, not the 200-odd independent (i.e., government-funded) publishers. The independents are a mere 4% of the market, despite doubling the number of titles they produce annually (1,300 to 2,600) over the last decade. Most of the economically significant independents we once knew—McClelland & Stewart, Key Porter, Macmillan Canada, Stoddart/General, Douglas & McIntyre—are dead or no longer Canadian.

The goal of all these funding programs when they began was to have Canadian-owned publishers in control of at least half the market by now, not 4%.

When I looked yesterday, there was only one Canadian adult title from an independent press in the top 300 sellers in Canadian bookstores. That’s not unusual.

My suggestion for the Conservatives was that they instill some of their own values and priorities in the system that the Liberals have so effectively politicized, and I gave them tips on where to start, including:

  • Put audiences first. The default assumption must be that if Canadians aren’t responding to federally funded arts-and-cultural offerings, it’s the fault of those offerings, and they must improve.

  • Instead of putting all the money to direct funding of organizations and artists, use some of it to encourage Canadians to spend on arts and culture (which Harper did in a minor way with a tax credit for arts activities for children).

  • Encourage enterprise and self-sufficiency among publishers, rewarding rather than punishing commercial success (the Canada Council is continually narrowing its definition of arts so as to exclude anything with a commercial taint). Arts funding decisions shouldn’t be based entirely on markets, but more substantial recognition of audience or commercial metrics would certainly help.

  • Encourage transactional funding mechanisms rather than juried grants and awards. For instance, expand something such as the Canada Book Fund, which moves money to publishers in proportion to sales, at the expense of the back-scratching conclave we call the Canada Council.

  • End the fragmentation. Canada doesn’t need 400 theatre companies, 300 independent book publishers, 2,600 museums, and more than 11,000 performing arts companies. Encourage consolidation so that more of our companies and organizations have the scale to compete against the very best. Privilege those performers trying to succeed in global markets. We have the talent—let’s organize it properly and take it to the world.

  • Insist on regional equity. Quebec represents 22.6 percent of Canada’s population, and native French-speakers are 20 percent of the national population, yet Quebec bags between 36 percent and 46 percent of the seven major Canada Council funds for dance, music, theatre, literature, etc. The Prairies and Atlantic Canada are woefully underfunded.

All of the measures were aimed at enhancing the commercial viability of the A&C sector, with special references to independent publishing. No, I never came out and called for “a review of federal book publishing policy to enhance the commercial viability of Canada’s independent publishing sector.” But that’s more or less what I was asking for, and until someone else comes out with a better claim, I’m advancing mine.

There’s a lot more to be said about what went wrong with Canadian independent publishing over the last fifty years. We’ll return to this in the weeks ahead.

Meanwhile, I have to hand it to O’Toole. This might be the first Conservative platform in history to devote more attention to culture than agriculture. There are four pages of A&C policy, including sensible (rather than angry or radical) approaches to broadcasting, newspaper bailouts, living with the internet giants, etc.

(Tangent: I used that photo of O’Toole at the top of the page on purpose. It’s the one the Globe used to illustrate my story. I personally believe it’s journalism’s job to make politicians look ridiculous, but the Globe tends to do so only selectively, and this struck me as a bit of a low blow. Anyone agree?)

Jagmeet Singh’s NDP has also published a full platform with an A&C component. It is not as fulsome as the Conservative offering but it states clear priorities, including the following: help organizations build back after the pandemic; permit income averaging for artists and cultural workers; make the internet giants pay their taxes and contribute to Canadian cultural funding; give more money to all of the usual cultural institutions, starting with the CBC.

The problem with the NDP cultural platform is that apart from income averaging, which is worth talking about, it doesn’t separate the party from what the Liberals usually do.

(Tangent 2: Singh has long been the best-dressed man in the House of Commons, as you can see above. Since the writ dropped, he’s been running around in cardigans and with his shirttail hanging out. I suppose it’s more man-of-the-people, but am I the only one disappointed?)

We’ll talk about the Liberal platform if and when it is released.

SHuSH Mailbag

We love getting mail. You guys don’t write often enough, so I’m sharing some of our correspondence in hopes of encouraging more.

Last week we wrote about the Scholastic scandal, wherein the publishing company’s owner died and left everything to his girlfriend and executive vice-president, Canadian Iole Lucchese, much to the annoyance of his undeserving sons. It turns out Natasha Hassan, who runs comment at the Globe & Mail, went to Downsview High with Iole, who is now a billionaire, and reports that she was kind and smart. Natasha also sent the photo above, and while she didn’t give me permission to use it in SHuSH, she didn’t not give me permission. Besides, it’s a great shot of both of them.

Also on the Scholastic story, Bill King noticed my mention that Lucchese earned a lot of money: “I didn't know jobs in publishing could pay $1 million a year. Do you have any openings, Ken?”

Just as soon as we’re a billion-dollar company, Bill.

The SHuSH edition of July 9, Barbarians at the library, ranks as best-read out of the 112 we’ve published. It has received some succinct comments. Alan wrote to say, “You have a mental disability.” Feeling that he’d not quite nailed it, he wrote back: “You are an imbecile.”

On July 23, SHuSH noticed, amid a survey of the summer reading of British MPs, that Jacob Rees-Mogg (above), had recommended Wodehouse’s Code of the Woosters. I further mentioned that Rees-Mogg, the “honourable member for the 1850s,” graduate of Eton and Oxford, a man who married his childhood friend Helena Anne Beatrix Wentworth Fitzwilliam de Chair in a latin mass, a man who is “praised as a conviction politician whose anachronistic upper-class mannerisms and consciously traditionalist attitudes [what’s wrong with offshore tax havens?] are often seen as entertaining,” and a man who once uttered the word "floccinaucinihilipilification" on the floor of the Commons, is everyone’s favorite toff.

Bonita wrote to say that “Jacob Rees-Moggs is no one's favourite toff. He is a sneering, reactionary Brexiteer who keeps his companies and millions off-shore, voted against abortion, gay rights, free lunches for school children and raising benefits for the poor. And that's just a start.”

You say tomato, Bonita, I say tomato.

Floccinaucinihilipilification, I neglected to mention in the original post, means the action or habit of estimating something as worthless.

We also get thoughtful mail at SHuSH. A couple of weeks back, we wrote of Substack’s attempt to upend the book publishing world by delivering serialized books on its subscription platform (the same one you use to subscribe to SHuSH). I’m skeptical, but Deanna writes, correctly: “Wattpad and WEBTOON's whole model is serialization, and both are hugely successful. I might posit that Substack is looking to them, to Hooked, and a number of other bite-sized content apps that have been doing serialization for the better part of a decade. It's an interesting argument that it hasn't worked in more traditional print media since Dickens, but it does work for younger readers who consume content (stories) in any format on their phones.”

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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Indigo's new pulse

How Canada's largest bookseller discovered the internet

“The COVID-19 pandemic,” says Indigo, Canada’s largest bookseller, “has negatively impacted the economy and consumer spending, disrupted supply chains, and created significant volatility in financial markets on a global scale, the extent of which will depend on future developments that are highly uncertain and cannot be reliably forecasted.”

Yes, the world remains a troubled and unpredictable place, but we can still begin to see how the pandemic has affected Indigo, and speculate about the company’s future.

Indigo just released its first-quarter financial results, covering the period April-June 2021, which can be compared to its pre-pandemic results from the same quarter in 2019.

Back then, Indigo had revenues of $193 million and no profit. Seventy percent of its revenue, or $136 million, came from the firm’s eighty-nine Chapters and Indigo superstores. Only $25 million came from its 115 smaller stores (Coles and Indigo Spirit), and another $29 million from online sales at Not only did the company book no profit, but all three of those revenue channels were down from the previous year, with online sales falling the most (15%).

This is to say that Indigo, in financial terms, was immunocompromised before COVID-19 hit.

Welcome to the 111th edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

The decline in digital sales was especially alarming. It seemed that CEO Heather Reisman was giving up on the web, an impression reinforced by her frequent renovations of in-store environments and her not terribly successful launch of a so-called cultural department store (top of page) in New Jersey, Indigo’s first international gambit. She was all about bricks and mortar.

One also got the sense that Heather was giving up on books. She was building up the candles and blankets side of the business—it represented almost 40% of 2019’s total revenue. She also launched, an effort to graze on Hallmark grass, and another step away from the book business.

Two years and several pandemic waves later, Indigo is down to 88 superstores and 88 small-format stores, a net reduction of twenty-eight. I don’t know the significance of 88. Maybe the company’s new retail guru—Indigo always has a new retail guru—is a pianist, or Chinese, or a white supremacist.

The remaining stores are now open to foot traffic, and the company is wrangling with its various landlords over how much rent it should pay for the pandemic months when most of its outlets were closed. Indigo received almost $3 million in federal emergency rent subsidies, and almost $4 million in payroll subsidies, which seems like a lot but isn’t for a company as big as Indigo. As we noted in an earlier post, Heather also received a $25 million “liquidity enhancement,” or bailout, from billionaire husband Gerry Schwartz.

Which brings us to the present. Revenues for Indigo’s most recent quarter are $172 million (down $21 million from two years ago), and it lost $15 million (before depreciation, amortization, etc.).

Indigo doesn’t release enough detail on its operations to give us a clear idea of how the company lost only $15 million when its revenue fell $21 million, but costs were down across the board, probably reflecting the closed stores, reduced staffing levels, and fewer books on the shelves, among other savings.

The big news is the movement in Indigo’s sales channels. Superstore revenue fell from $136 million in the first quarter of 2019 to $80 million in the first quarter of 2021. Smaller store revenue dropped from $25 million to $10 million over the same period. Online revenue more than doubled from $29 million to $74.5 million. So Indigo’s digital sales, an afterthought in 2019, are now within spitting distance of its superstore revenue. That’s an enormous improvement. (Meanwhile, the candles-and-blankets share of Indigo’s business has dropped from 40% to 35%. Yay books.)

Before we declare Indigo Canada’s hottest tech stock, three cautions.

First, a big reason that online sales remain strong and in-stores sales are relatively soft and the candles-and-blankets results are down is that we’re not yet done with the coronavirus. We can expect stores to do better and the online number to deteriorate as time goes on. The real question is how much of the online growth can Indigo expect to retain?

The company’s bet is that the post-pandemic world will be different. Its commentary on the quarterly results notes that online revenue is already down 18% from peak pandemic but still sky-high compared to pre-pandemic times. That suggests the Indigo can hold most of its digital growth. Maybe the pandemic forced a lot of people to discover the Indigo website, or maybe Indigo is benefitting from Amazon fatigue (and/or hatred), or maybe it got a lot better at selling online. Regardless of the reason, Indigo is pivoting to digital. “We really think it’s going to be our path to growth in the future,” company executive Craig Loudon told investors after the results were announced.

Heather (interviewing a manspreading James Frey above) takes the view that COVID “has changed the consumer,” including his/her comfort with buying online, whether for home delivery or curbside pickup. Asked if she’d be opening more stores in the future, she said her focus is on expanding digital capability: “For now, we’re just focusing all of our effort on digital investment.”

(At the same time, Heather wouldn’t rule out future bricks-and-mortar expansion in the US. She bristled when the one analyst who bothered to put questions to her on Indigo’s earnings call referred to her New Jersey results as “mediocre.” There have been “wonderful improvement in the performance in that store,” she insisted. Even unprofitable dreams die hard.)

Second caution: website sales tend not to be as profitable as in-store sales, mainly because of high mailing or delivery costs. Indigo claims that it has found efficiencies in fulfilling its orders, managing its inventories, and marketing to virtual customers. It also hasn’t been discounting bestsellers to the extent it once did (in futile competition with discount-happy Amazon). While the company asserts that it is realizing its best online margins ever, it adds nothing about the size of those margins, or even an assertion that they are positive. Executives think they can continue to find improvements in its digital margins in the years ahead. Not impossible, but not easy.

Last and largest caution: let’s not kid ourselves about Indigo. It’s a crucial part of the Canadian book publishing ecosystem, and we need it to succeed, but right now it belongs in ICU. It’s bleeding money: a $50 million loss in 2019 (pre-pandemic), $100 million in 2020, $57 million in 2021, and $15 million so far in this new fiscal year. That’s a lot of millions, even if your husband is a billionaire.

As a publicly traded company, Indigo is listed on the Toronto Stock exchange. Five years ago, its share price was $20. Gerry, who along with Heather owns 58% of Indigo’s shares, thought $20 was cheap and picked up another 100,000 shares for just under $2 million. By the summer of 2019, those shares were trading at $8. Stories appeared in the Globe worrying about the company’s future, and Motley Fool types put it on a death watch. Today those shares trade at $3.80, up from the floor of $2.10 hit during the pandemic winter, but still butt ugly. The street values the company at a mere $100 million.

What does all this mean for the future of Indigo? An improved digital profile certainly helps. Online sales may never be as profitable as in-store sales, but they’re the company’s best hope of retaining its market share. Beyond that, there is still a lot of hard work to be done before Indigo returns to profitability. So, yes, the future is “highly uncertain and cannot be reliably forecasted.”

I still think Gerry and Heather eventually buy the 12 million Indigo shares they don’t already own and take the company private. There aren’t a lot of other options. They could sell, but Gerry Schwartz didn’t get to be Gerry Schwartz by selling at the bottom. And it’s not like there are a lot of buyers for big-box book retailers, especially when the single investor who owns both the Waterstones and Barnes & Noble chains has his hands full with those companies.

Why take it private? A return to profitability at Indigo requires a lot of painful decisions and grinding work. If you’re going to put yourself through that, it’s best to be 100% owner and the full beneficiary of the turnaround effort.

Regardless, we wish Indigo well. Again, it’s a crucial part of the Canadian book publishing ecosystem, and we’d all be worse off without it.

Remember that merger thing?

An update on the proposed Penguin Random House takeover of Simon & Schuster. You may have noticed that the Brits have pronounced themselves fine with the deal but the US is balking. Perhaps.

The Joe Biden administration has been busily hiring trustbusters to fill important positions at key agencies and promises aggressive challenges to concentration of ownership in all sectors of the economy. The S&S deal, according to Bloomberg, is now being scrutinized by the Justice Department.

Meanwhile, Canada failed to announce a decision before the government shut down for the election. That does not mean there has been no action, however. We’re told that federal officials have expressed concern to Penguin Random House Canada, as they should, considering that the proposed takeover would leave Canada with one of the most concentrated book publishing sectors in the entire world (two companies HarperCollins and PRH/S&S) would control roughly 70% of the sector). The feds have not said they won’t approve the deal, and have not told PRH Canada what it needs to do to get the deal approved—divest these other assets, for instance, or ensure that S&S can operate independently. They’ve simply said we have problems with this deal and asked PRH to propose solutions.

It’s not much, but it’s more than I expected from Ottawa. We’re coming up on a year since the deal was struck.

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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