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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