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Guest opinion: why libraries should get into the book-selling business

In the June 2013 issue of Q&Q, Vancouver librarians Shirley Lew and Baharak Yousefi argue that libraries should get into the business of selling books.

Baharak Yousefi and Shirley Lew

It may be sacrilegious and antithetical to everything libraries stand for (and as librarians, we appreciate this more than most), but we ardently believe it nevertheless: libraries should get into the business of selling books. Now.

The crisis in Canada’s once vibrant book industry is negatively affecting our reading lives and communities. Growing evidence suggests that the increasing dominance of big corporations and discount giants is resulting in less diversity of ideas.

Canada’s publishing industry is facing tremendous instability and transition. As Canadian-owned publishers struggle to remain independent, the impending merger of Penguin and Random House will further shift the balance of power into fewer hands.

Similar pressures are affecting booksellers. Discount giant Target is set to become, by some estimates, the second largest book retailer in the country. Target’s strategy is similar to Costco’s: bestsellers stocked in large quantities and deeply discounted. Meanwhile, Canada’s largest bookstore chain, Indigo Books & Music, has rebranded itself as a “lifestyle store for booklovers,” allocating more retail space for home décor and gift items, and less for books. While many independent booksellers withstood the arrival of Amazon in Canada, the rise of ebooks has mostly shut them out of the digital marketplace.

The impact has been swift and harsh. The Canadian Booksellers Association estimates that 300 independents across the country have shut their doors over the last decade. (Earlier this year, the CBA itself surrendered its charter and merged with the Retail Council of Canada, ceasing to exist as an independent organization.) In the past several years the closures have included Collected Works in Ottawa, Duthie’s Books in Vancouver, Nicholas Hoare in Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, and four Book Warehouse locations in B.C. Together they represent a loss of more than 175 years of bookselling experience and service to our communities.

What else has been lost? For some consumers, perhaps very little. Bestsellers are cheaper than ever, and finding almost any book online is simple. If saving time and money were all that mattered, we may never have been better off.

But the actual damage is incalculable. The loss of independent bookstores is accompanied by the loss of diversity, possibility, and sense of place. Publishers, writers, and the readers they serve all lose in a market that rewards blockbusters but ignores alternative voices and ideas.

Instead of being bystanders to this devastation, libraries have compelling reasons to seize the opportunity it presents. We have a mandate to help preserve our literary and cultural landscape; we have the space, often in rent-controlled buildings; we know how to buy and promote books; and we are not constrained by the need to turn a profit. We are uniquely equipped to sell books and support writers, publishers, and reading in Canada.

Ours would not be a traditional business venture, but an extension of the service we already provide. It would operate on a self-sustaining, cost-recovery basis. The inventory would highlight books from Canadian publishers and writers, and reflect a range of voices across social, cultural, political, economic, and artistic spectrums. It would be a dynamic, jumbled, and chaotic collection of books and ideas.

When Target announced it would open in the same mall as McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, Paul McNally commented, “Our cultural industries need a zone of protection, certainly more than potash does.” Libraries in Canada can, and should, be that zone.

Shirley Lew and Baharak Yousefi are readers, former booksellers, and librarians in Vancouver

 

 

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Canadian booksellers pick their top fiction of 2012

When Q&Q spoke to independent booksellers across Canada to get their fiction picks of the year, it became apparent that while seasoned favourites like Ian McEwan and J.K. Rowling dominate the list, local titles are favourites in all regions.

Simone Lee, co-owner of Pages on Kensington in Calgary, attributes the popularity of Will Ferguson’s 419 to hometown pride. “He’s a local celebrity,” she says.

Click on the thumbnails below to discover Canadian booksellers’ top picks for fiction.

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Alternative markets: why publishers are turning to zine fairs to woo new readers

Canzine, the country’s largest festival dedicated to zines and independent culture, happens this Sunday in Toronto (the Vancouver edition is scheduled for Nov. 17). Following the success of last year’s event, writer Jason Spencer spoke to several independent publishers about the importance of zine fairs to building readership. This article appeared in the Jan./Feb. issue of Q&Q.

(Photo: Jackie Spencer)

Last October, publisher Beth Follett decided to try a new method of connecting with readers: she signed up her company, Pedlar Press, as a vendor at Canzine Toronto, a daylong celebration of indie culture presented by Broken Pencil magazine. Not knowing what to expect, Follett carefully arranged a selection of Pedlar titles on her display table just inside the front doors of the 918 Bathurst Centre, including ReLit Award winners Sweet by Dani Couture and Blood Relatives by Craig Francis Power. As hundreds of misfits, hipsters, and readers began crossing the threshold, she realized she had come to the right place.

“It’s very difficult these days to find an audience and reach new customers,” says Follett, who understands the need to build new alliances as more independent bookstores close down. “It’s very important for me to be here and not in some ivory tower, where only a slice of the populace knows about Canadian literature.”

With nearly 200 vendors, 2010’s Canzine was one of the biggest in its 15-year-plus history. Likewise, thousands of people showed up at Montreal’s Expozine, a two-day event held in November that celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011. “What does this mean for small presses? It’s a motivation to keep publishing,” says organizer Louis Rastelli. He adds that attending alternative gatherings can be eye-opening for people in the established book industry. “If the industry doesn’t get involved in what the new generation is doing, similar to the music [business], they [will] have some catching up to do.”

ChiZine’s Brett Savory (Photo: Jackie Spencer)

For some small presses, zine fairs perform a similar function to book launches. “You can do direct sales, so it’s a little cash boost, especially around the holidays when the [printer’s] bills are coming in,” says Nic Boshart, co-publisher of Invisible Publishing, which has had a presence at recent gatherings in Toronto, Halifax, and Montreal. But for many, such events are not so much about sales as they are about building relationships with new readers. Brett Savory, co-publisher of ChiZine Publications, says he attended Canzine Toronto in the hopes of accumulating social-media followers and promoting the press’s monthly Chiaroscuro reading series. Boshart adds that zine fairs are a good place to scout talent and network with presses one wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Not only do zine fairs bring scores of cultural artifacts to the public, they also provide a venue for interesting side events. In an effort to trump the previous year’s Puppet Slam, Canzine organized the Typewriter Orchestra Room, a cacophonous installation featuring a dozen poets attempting to channel Shakespeare. Canzine also hosted more conventional readings from authors such as Jonah Campbell, who read from his essay collection Food and Trembling (Invisible), and Expozine welcomed author Jonathan Goldstein, host of CBC Radio’s WireTap.

Such inventive programming can be an opportunity for authors who don’t fit in elsewhere. “If you can’t get a reading, make your own show,” says first-time Canzine Toronto vendor and seasoned attendee Liz Worth, author of Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond (Bongo Beat/ECW Press) and the poetry collection Amphetamine Heart (Guernica Editions). “You really have to get creative and you have to push really hard.”

Invisible’s Nic Boshart (Photo: Jackie Spencer)

Still, publishers who want to succeed at zine fairs need to adapt in order to stand out. Given the number of exhibitors at Expo­zine  – more than 270 – Rastelli recommends that publishers avoid selling titles at list price. “A lot of customers would like a bit of everything instead of spending all their money at one table, so we encourage people to have inexpensive books,” he says. “Even a publisher of perfect-bound books can produce a small zine worth $2, and at least if someone doesn’t buy a $20 book, they can go home with a sampler.” For her part, Follett, who plans to attend Canzine Toronto again in 2012, says she doesn’t advertise prices, in order to encourage discussion with interested readers.

Follett suggests potential vendors should think twice before dismissing zine fairs as lowbrow. “[T]here is a lot of ignorance, some of it willful, about who is producing art in Canada,” she says. “This is the ground where seeds are being planted for future excellence.”

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IFOA’s International Visitors Programme: the schmooze factor

The 2011 cohort at Niagara Falls (Photo: IFOA)

Less than 24 hours into a September business trip to New York City, three people had already asked Iris Tupholme the same question: how could they land an invitation to the International Visitors (IV) Programme? In truth, the guest list is chosen collectively by a committee, which Tupholme chairs, but that fact didn’t stop her peers from trying to wrangle a spot in what has become one of the industry’s most coveted networking events.

Launched in 2008, the five-day IV Programme runs in conjunction with the International Festival of Authors at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, which kicked off its 2012 edition on Oct. 18. Participants arrive on the first Sunday of the festival and spend the following week attending publisher-hosted breakfast and lunch meetings, touring bookstores and literary agencies, taking in festival readings, participating in pitch meetings, and attending presentations. It’s a fast-paced symposium that immerses visitors in the Canadian publishing industry and, ideally, sends them home with a list of promising Canadian authors and attractive foreign-rights opportunities.

“Five years ago, we started it with the goal of bringing a small group of editors and publishers and an occasional agent or literary scout to Toronto for a series of meetings with colleagues, and attending readings by our Canadian authors and others,” says Tupholme, the vice-president, publisher, and editor-in-chief at Harper­Collins Canada. “It has blossomed from there.”

Tupholme first approached IFOA director Geoffrey Taylor about creating the IV Programme in 2005, after attending the Visiting International Publishers program in Sydney, Australia. Creating an IFOA-related networking event was already in the festival “job jar,” says Taylor, so the pair began developing a program designed for publishing professionals in mid-career who might not be able to attend major international book fairs in Frankfurt or London.

But right from the beginning, says Taylor, “everyone wanted to be a part of it at a much more senior level.” The program also fills the annual networking gap created when Reed Exhibitions announced the permanent cancellation of BookExpo Canada in 2009.

Sales pitches at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre (Photo: IFOA)

Funding for the IV Programme comes primarily from the Ontario Media Development Corporation, with the balance covered by the Department of Canadian Heritage, Authors at Harbourfront Centre, individual publishers (who might sponsor a party or event), and foreign arts councils or funding bodies affiliated with program participants. The program pays for airfare, accommodation, meals, and ground transportation for all “fellows,” while “distinguished guests” (such as agents) cover their own travel costs.

“The exact mechanics vary from year to year,” says Taylor, who emphasizes that the distinction is purely financial. All invited guests participate equally in the week’s events.

While organizers can’t quantify the number of deals and foreign-­rights sales that have resulted directly from the program, most alumni confirm that they have, indeed, discovered Canadian talent in Toronto.

Ziv Lewis, foreign-rights manager for Israel’s Kinneret Zmora-Bitan Dvir Publishing, learned about Deborah Willis’s Vanishing and Other Stories (Penguin Canada) during the 2010 IV Programme and recently published a Hebrew translation. Lewis also met Andrew Kaufman in Toronto, and Kinneret will release an Israeli edition of Kaufman’s second novel, The Waterproof Bible (Random House Canada), in early 2013.

Likewise, London-based literary scout Rosalind Ramsay learned about Katrina Onstad’s novel Everybody Has Everything (McClelland & Stewart) during a 2011 visit to Westwood Creative Artists, and has since encouraged Netherlands publisher Artemis/Ambo Anthos to secure Dutch rights.

The cultural exchange can also happen in reverse. During the 2010 program, former Picador editor Sam Humphreys (now publisher at Penguin U.K. imprint Michael Joseph) introduced Coach House Books editorial director Alana Wilcox to Eye Lake, a novel by U.K.-based Canadian writer Tristan Hughes. After connecting with Humphreys in Toronto, Coach House bought Canadian rights and published the novel in October 2011.

Schmoozing at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre (Photo: IFOA)

Agent Gray Tan, president of the Grayhawk Agency in Taipei, sold The Man with the Compound Eyes by Taiwanese author Ming-Yi Wu to his fellow 2011 IV participant Lexy Bloom, a senior editor at the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group in the U.S. Tan and Bloom became friends during the program, and two months later, Bloom bought Wu’s novel for the Vintage and Anchor imprints.

Perhaps most importantly, representatives from independent Canadian presses have a chance to rub shoulders with influential visitors during the IV Programme. Alumnus Aram Fox, a New York City literary scout, introduced Coach House’s Wilcox to more than a dozen publishers at the 2010 Frankfurt Book Fair after the pair connected in Toronto. “Scouts aren’t that excited to see smaller presses,” says Wilcox, “but [Fox] was open, has the greatest contacts, and arranged the meetings.”

Many alumni agree that running IV during the festival gives the event a cozy atmosphere often lacking on a trade-show floor. The intensive schedule also encourages long-lasting bonds. “It’s something completely different from meetings at book fairs,” says Tan, who represents The Cooke Agency, Random House of Canada, McClelland & Stewart, and the Beverley Slopen Literary Agency in the Chinese market. “Sure, we would still love to do business with each other, but the priority is simply to make friends and exchange ideas and experiences.”

“A huge amount of trust and goodwill is generated, and I imagine that many Canadian authors have benefited indirectly as a result of that goodwill,” says Nick Barley, director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. In addition to Barley, directors from some of the world’s leading authors’ festivals – including the Melbourne Writers Festival, Beijing’s Bookworm International Literary Festival, and the International Literature Festival Berlin – have participated in the IV Programme, and in 2010, the five festivals formed a unique partnership known as the Word Alliance.

Organizers say they don’t plan to expand the number of fellowships available in future years. The current group size of roughly 20 participants – including both fellows and distinguished guests – ensures each visitor has a meaningful experience, says Taylor. The 2012 IV Programme, however, saw the addition of a Canadian editorial fellowship (awarded to Trena White, publisher of Douglas & Mc­Intyre) and a new industry prize known as the Ivy Award. The committee also hopes to create events for the growing list of program alumni and institute a juried IV application form to replace what’s currently a more subjective selection process.

Alumni suggestions for improving the program are strikingly minimal. “I hope the ‘speed date’ part of quick meetings with Canadian publishers and agents can be modified according to the needs of each IV [participant],” says Tan. “Otherwise 10 minutes is just too short.” Barley says the focus on meetings and socializing comes somewhat at the expense of attending literary events, but he adds, “This is a very minor quibble. The organization of the IV Programme is 99 per cent right.”

Overall, past participants have nothing but praise for the event – including the annual field trip to Niagara Falls. Many souvenir photos are snapped while these literary VIPs sport the requisite yellow ponchos. Visiting the landmark site is also one of the most relaxed moments in an otherwise demanding week. “You make people get up really early in the morning, you pour them onto a bus when they’re barely awake, they suddenly arrive somewhere and they get soaking wet,” says Taylor. “What’s not to love about that?”

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Titles Bookstore in Peterborough to close

Peterborough, Ontario, is set to lose another bookshop this season. Titles Bookstore, an independent bookseller in the city’s downtown core, will close in May, just shy of its 25th anniversary.

Owners Anne and Dave Heuft tell the Peterborough Examiner they’re being forced out after their landlord, looking to expand into their unit, failed to renew the lease.

“We didn’t want to move,” [Anne] Heuft said. “First of all, moving is expensive. We’ve moved three times before, and every time you move, you lose some customers. And we’re getting older, so we made the decision to close.”

The Heufts opened Titles as a children’s bookstore in 1987, and have since expanded into general fiction and non-fiction.

From the Examiner:

The closure leaves only Chapters and Walmart, as well as pharmacies and convenience stores, selling new-release books in the city.

Titles is the second bookstore in the city to announce its closure this month. On April 2, Quillblog reported that Emmaus Family Bookstore, the city’s only Christian book and giftshop, would be shuttered this spring.

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Book links roundup: TTC launches book club, activists concerned about London Book Fair’s China focus, and more


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Book links roundup: New generation of Canadian poets, gender and literary fiction, and more

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Author to spend six days in bookstore window

Isabel Losada has just wrapped another day sitting in the window of a Parisian bookstore. That’s four down and two to go for the U.K. author, who’s in town to promote the release of the French-language translation of her 2001 book, The Battersea Park Road to Enlightenment/Mes Tribulations sur le chemin de l’éveil (Presses du Châtelet).

It isn’t the first time Losada has been “author in residence in window” (as she refers to the experience on her website). Last year, the author — who also wrote the 2004 bestseller For Tibet, with Love — set up shop for a week in the window of a London Waterstones to mark the SW11 Literary Festival. This time around, she’s parked her publicity/merchandising stunt from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. in the window of W.H. Smith, the largest English-language bookshop in Paris. If a recent status update on Losada’s Facebook page is any indication, the setting hasn’t been ideal for selling a French-language title:

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Book links roundup: U.S. threatens Apple and publishers with lawsuit, Audible hires A-list celebrities, and more


*Clarification, March 8: The film is of a Dickens’ character, not of Charles Dickens

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Book links roundup: 500 new fairy tales, Scholastic enters the app market, and more

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Book Pictures

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

Tea and snacks inspired by Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Rimma Burashko with author Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak talks to the audience about the best and worst of Catherine the Great's favourites

Eva Stachniak smiles as she signs a copy of Empress of the Night for a fan

Fans wait in line to have their copies of Empress of the Night signed by Eva Stachniak

Fans wait in line to have their copies of Empress of the Night signed by Eva Stachniak

Lesley Strutt, Dean Steadman, Amanda Earl, Alastair Larwill and Frances Boyle

Frances Boyle, Dean Steadman, Lesley Strutt and Alastair Larwill

Amanda Earl

Jewel of the Thames launch

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