Farewell to all that

Of all the sectors where you might expect to see foreign ownership rules relaxed, I’d put Canadian book publishers last on the list. But apparently, Ottawa is considering ending the policy banning foreign firms in the business, according to John Barber in The Globe and Mail. There is even support from the likes of Lionel Koffler of Firefly Books. Of course, several major foreign houses – Penguin and Random House – are already here but they have to provide benefits to Canada.

Nationalist though I am, I agree it’s time to open the borders to all comers. It’s clear that the current protectionist cultural policy is not working. Major Canadian publishers including Key Porter and Stoddart have fallen by the wayside in recent years despite government aid. Many other Canadian houses stay alive only because they distribute popular non-Canadian authors such as Barbara Cartland or Maeve Binchy. Public money going to this sector is being wasted.

But if we’re going to allow a free market in book publishing, we have to change a few other cultural rules, too. For example, why should profitable magazines such as Maclean’s and Chatelaine receive annual subsidies from government in excess of $1 million. Why should the Canada Council or the Ontario Arts Council continue to subsidize book publishers? There was a time when such grants paid for author promo tours but so few writers tour anymore that the money might as well go to other artistic pursuits. Some authors may receive part of their advance on royalties from such programs. The last time that happened to me was 1986. Since then, I have refused any such payments on the basis that I am an established author and any money should go to first-timers. If that’s still going on, the amounts must be so minuscule as to be worthless.

As a final argument, I would say that governments should no longer support an industry where the largest proportion of the marketing budget for most books is paid to bookstores such as Indigo and Chapters to buy prominent display. That’s the dirty secret of this business. Turns out that selling books is no different from selling Kraft Peanut Butter. If you want your product on the end cap where a consumer might see it and buy on impulse, you have to pay. Since books have become no different than other consumer goods, we might as well level the playing field and make the rules the same as they are for everyone else. No more hat in hand; no more heart on sleeve.

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