The future ain’t what it used to be

I heard Anna Porter deliver a delightful talk last night at McMaster University about her career in Canadian publishing and the future of the book. Unfortunately, the past looks better than what’s coming next.

Porter was a co-founder of Key Porter Books, one of Canada’s great houses. She sold her interest in 2004 and the company has since gone bust, as have several other former major players. An author of six books herself, most recently the award-winning The Ghosts of Europe, Porter is uniquely qualified to talk about publishing. Of all the publishers I’ve ever worked with, she was unique. Most publishers are order-takers. Not Porter. She was forever brimming with ideas and putting them together with people.

Porter started in the business in the 1970s working for Jack McClelland, the man who singlehandedly invented modern publishing and the promotion of authors in Canada. She approvingly quoted him as saying, “This terrible business has been kind to me.” Porter worked with all the greats: Margaret Atwood, Farley Mowat, Irving Layton, and Al Purdy. For her, Margaret Laurence is Canada’s best writer and The Stone Angel her best novel.

Canada has 139 publishers but less than 200 bookstores. Porter worries about the direction Indigo is taking by reducing books in favor of other consumer items. But she quoted independent bookstore owner Ben McNally as saying that fewer books at Indigo might actually be good for his business. Publishing still employs 7,500 creating 15,000 books a year in Canada. Tens of thousands of additional titles pour into Canada from other lands where they spill more than we drink.

The future of the book is unclear. Online books are now a $1 billion annual business but the only ones making money are Amazon and their ilk. Publishers and writers do not share fairly in the profits. Much of the fault lies with the publishers; like the tribal clans of Scotland they fight each either rather than unite to limit the common enemy.

Porter remains an optimist. No surprise there. To not only survive for forty years in the business, but also prosper, you have to be optimistic. And you have to be good. Anna Porter was among the best. If we had a few more go-getters like her in the field today, I’d be more sanguine about the future.

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