New Star Blogs

Some questions for the Canada Council

|

On June 3, Cana­da Coun­cil Direc­tor Simon Brault, and Direc­tor Gen­er­al Car­o­line Warren were in Van­cou­ver for a Town Hall Meet­ing to give a pre­sen­ta­tion on the Cana­da Coun­cil’s pro­grams and cur­rent pri­or­i­ties. This was fol­lowed by a ques­tion-and-answer peri­od where mem­bers of the audi­ence could ask ques­tions of Mr. Brault and Ms War­ren. It seemed that half the mem­bers of the audi­ence that almost filled the York The­atre on Com­mer­cial Dri­ve had some­thing to get off their chests, and the hour went by before New Star pub­lish­er Rolf Mau­r­er had an oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak. Mr. Mau­r­er offered to use New Star’s own site to pose his ques­tions, which fol­low.

 

1

Thank you, Mr. Brault, and Ms War­ren, for your pre­sen­ta­tion, and for giv­ing us this oppor­tu­ni­ty to ask ques­tions and raise our own con­cerns. I wish to raise two issues, and I promise to be suc­cinct.

I have been the pub­lish­er of New Star Books since 1990, and pre­vi­ous to that had worked at the press since 1981 in every capac­i­ty, encom­pass­ing man­age­ment, edi­to­r­i­al acqui­si­tion, pro­duc­tion, sales, mar­ket­ing and pro­mo­tion, and pack­ing orders for ship­ping. I men­tion this because although I have no imme­di­ate plans to retire, I do face the fact that over the next few years I must pre­pare the press for new own­er­ship — the sec­ond suc­ces­sion that I will have been part of at New Star Books.

For that rea­son I read with a cer­tain amount of alarm the news that the Cana­da Coun­cil has recent­ly sab­o­taged the pro­posed sale of the Ontario lit­er­ary press The Porcupine’s Quill to new own­ers. Aes­thet­i­cal­ly, I could not be far­ther from Tim and Elke Inkster, the cur­rent pro­pri­etors of the press; and polit­i­cal­ly, I could not be far­ther from the ide­o­log­i­cal posi­tions held by the prospec­tive new own­er, Ken Whyte. I am non­plussed, how­ev­er, to find myself in their cor­ner on this one.

Sab­o­taged” is a strong word to use; I strug­gled to find the right one. But “blocked” or “pre­vent­ed” would be wrong, because they imply a cer­tain right, or pro­pri­ety, to the action. I resist any claim by the Cana­da Coun­cil that they have any right to inter­fere in the inter­nal work­ings, includ­ing suc­ces­sion, of any orga­ni­za­tion that ben­e­fits from their sup­port.

The Cana­da Council’s role is to sup­port the ongo­ing work of Canada’s pub­lish­ing hous­es. It has a role in assess­ing the qual­i­ty of the work car­ried out by the press, and to sup­port that work, at lev­els that vary wide­ly accord­ing to its judge­ment, and the judge­ment of the juries it assem­bles. It is not, how­ev­er, itself a pub­lish­ing orga­ni­za­tion. It is an arts agency, tasked with the respon­si­bil­i­ty for pro­vid­ing finan­cial sup­port for an indus­try that in the absence of pro­grams such as Writ­ing & Pub­lish­ing, would not be able to exist in this coun­try, for struc­tur­al rea­sons. Arguably, it lacks the exper­tise to make such pub­lish­ing deci­sions as who can best car­ry on the work of any giv­en press, and its prin­ci­pals. Sim­ply put: your offi­cers do not work close enough to the knives to be able to make such deci­sions.

It is sim­ply not with­in the Cana­da Council’s ambit to deter­mine who gets to pub­lish in this coun­try. It amounts to unwar­rant­ed inter­fer­ence in the inter­nal deci­sions of a pub­lish­ing house. I am dis­mayed to con­sid­er that the val­ue of my life’s work will at the end of the day be judged by an offi­cer at the Cana­da Coun­cil on the basis of cri­te­ria that I have had no voice in deter­min­ing, and which are in any case obscure, or even con­sis­tent­ly applied. I urge you to revis­it this issue, and to recon­sid­er your pol­i­cy around com­pa­ny suc­ces­sion.

 

2

The sec­ond top­ic I wish to raise is one that has pre­vi­ous­ly been high­light­ed by the More Cana­da Report, which was issued late last year.

This report draws atten­tion to the pre­cip­i­tous decline this cen­tu­ry in Cana­di­an par­tic­i­pa­tion in Canada’s own book mar­ket­place. Using data pro­vid­ed by the Depart­ment of Cana­di­an Her­itage, the More Cana­da Report states that the pro­por­tion of Cana­di­an-authored books sold in Cana­da has declined from 27 per­cent in the ear­ly 2000s (itself almost cer­tain­ly rep­re­sent­ing a decline from a decade ear­li­er), to about half that today: 14 per­cent. Of that 14 per­cent, it is esti­mat­ed that only 4 per­cent rep­re­sents books pub­lished by Cana­di­an firms, i.e., those pub­lish­ing hous­es sus­tained by Cana­da Council’s sup­port.

Four per­cent. Can you even speak of a “domes­tic indus­try”?

While each one of us pub­lish­ers have been anec­do­tal­ly aware of this sharp decline in access to our own mar­ket­place, the More Cana­da Report is the first time we have seen any acknowl­edg­ment that this decline is not a prob­lem spe­cif­ic to our indi­vid­ual com­pa­nies, but a broad­er phe­nom­e­non. The Cana­da Coun­cil, how­ev­er, has been able to watch this cat­a­stro­phe unfold, in real time, over the past fif­teen to twen­ty years. This rais­es some ques­tions, which I am now putting to you:

How does the Cana­da Coun­cil under­stand this decline in mar­ket share for Cana­di­an pub­lish­ers?

What, in your view, are the caus­es of this decline, and how should these be addressed?

What are the impli­ca­tions, for the Cana­da Council’s own work and for the coun­try itself?

How is the Cana­da Coun­cil itself propos­ing to respond to this sit­u­a­tion?

Why has it been silent through­out this event?

I thank you for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to bring my con­cerns for­ward, and wish you well in your own work at the Cana­da Coun­cil for the Arts.