A couple of weeks ago, the Toronto-based Globe and Mail ran “Why book buying stats might stifle the next great author”. Written by John Barber, the article claims that:
“The true dinosaurs of the new age are authors. Once happily enclosed in the “stables” of publishers willing to nurture and develop their talent, even if they never wrote a major bestseller, droves of so-called “mid-list” authors now find themselves roaming among the ever-present throng of wannabes flogging unpublished work in an indifferent market.”
Barber goes on to blame Canada, or at least providers of Canadian data:
“Many mid-list authors have fallen victim to increasingly sophisticated, widely available sales data, according to agents and publishers. Publishers can now assess every author’s lifelong sales thanks to such services as Nielsen Bookscan in the United States and BookNet Canada.”
Barber observes that “some now blame [data] for hollowing out literary culture.”
Scapegoating data is more than nonsensical; it’s demonstrably wrong. Around the same time that Barber was lamenting the presence of data, National Post columnist Barbara Kay used “Rise of the independent publishers” to describe what actually works.
Kay writes, “As traditional nook publishing houses fail, lean and mean small shops are finding success through loyal readers.” She cites her own experience writing and marketing a book through a publisher known for nurturing “conservative Canadian polemicists”.
Using Iceberg Publishing as an example, Kay claims:
“Community is the key word … [Iceberg’s staff and authors] form a solid community that will grow organically – and build the readership base with each release.”
This is a strategy that any publisher can pursue, but smaller and independent publishers are better positioned to exploit it. They need not obtain scale; they have to demonstrate purpose and focus, an investment that serves community.
For his part, Barber does identify a problem that may well need Canadian attention: a relative dearth of best-selling Canadian authors. Only 10 of the top 62 books sold between 2005 and 2012 were written by Canadians; four of these were created by either Eckhart Tolle or Malcolm Gladwell.*
For people concerned with a national culture, that could represent a real problem, one that funding organizations like the Canada Council for the Arts should be concerned with. To solve it, though, they might be better served providing funds to build capacity and community for Canadian content, not simply funding individual projects.
[*I don’t have access to the source data, but I’m somewhat surprised Margaret Atwood does not appear in the list.]