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.
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.
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.