Why aren’t Canadians reading Canadian books?

Increasing corporate domination of the publishing world has made it harder for homegrown titles to standout – in stores and online

The fall literary season has arrived with its trademark festivals and book awards. But a problem lurks behind the celebrations: Canadians aren’t reading Canadian books. Writers keep quiet for fear they’ll look like losers in the book sweepstakes. Our independent publishers and bookstores are too worried about staying afloat. Libraries seem unaware of what’s happening in their collections. Foreign-owned publishers aren’t paying attention.

Quebec, with its progressive book policies and larger number of independent bookstores, doesn’t have this problem. But in English Canada, sales of Canadian books are way down.

According to a report on the book business by an independent think tank, the fault is in our book market and its broken delivery system. Called More Canada, the 2018 study was done by 29 professionals in the book business concerned about the decline. In 2005, the study notes, 27 per cent of the books bought by English Canadians were by Canadians. Today the figure is only 13 per cent – a shocking drop of 50 per cent. No wonder professional authors have seen their incomes decline by 27 per cent since 1998!

And it’s not because people are too busy looking at screens to read books. According to BookNet Canada CEO Noah Genner, the decline in reading averages only one to two per cent a year. Canadians still read lots of books. They just don’t read many books by their fellow Canadians.

In the 80s and 90s, writers and publishers excelled at getting the word out about Canadian books. They were helped by a large number of independent book shops that sold Canadian books and a powerful electronic and print media. Those days are gone.

What went wrong? You probably never thought of it, but digitizing is a huge part of the problem. Fifteen years ago the book business here began to rely on American-based digital systems to sell our books. It was part of increasing corporate domination of the publishing world. Digitization makes it possible for publishers to provide online information or metadata about books to bookstores and retailers. But not all retailers use this metadata, which includes some indicators that distinguish between American and Canadian books. “We could do a better job with this,” Genner explains. “So the point in the More Canada report about many systems not showing things like the Canadian author indicator or allowing searches to be filtered on Canadian authors is completely true.”

Many of the terms used are foreign based. For example, under the BISAC code (Book Industry Standards and Communications) there is no identifier for an adult non-fiction book by a Canadian-based Indigenous author. The BISAC code notes only the classification “Native American.”

When an editor complained, they were told nothing could be done because the standard code was set in the U.S. Genner notes that BookNet Canada represents Canadian interests on the BISAC committee and they are working on more Canadian Indigenous indicators.

James Lorimer, a Canadian publisher involved in the More Canada study, says these digital issues are the easiest problem to fix.

For example, our libraries heavily promote events for Canadian writers. Nevertheless, they aren’t buying as many Canadian books for their collections. According to the More Canada study, only seven per cent of the books borrowed are by Canadian authors, compared to an estimated 25 per cent about 15 years ago.

Lorimer notes that libraries in English Canada rely on Overdrive, a foreign-owned distributor that buys digital lending rights from publishers and resells them to our libraries but doesn’t distinguish between Canadian and foreign books.

The Canadian book business needs to move from denial of the problem to awareness, he adds.

“Does it really make sense that 87 per cent of the books that we read are American or British?” he asks.

Unfortunately, the foreign owners of our multinational publishing companies are more interested in shareholder profits than the market share of Canadian books. As long as their overall sales remain stable, they are satisfied. The same goes for Canadian book chain Indigo.

These oversights aren’t the result of ill will, just the failure of people in the book business to think through the impact of new technologies on our book market.  

Among its 68 recommendations, More Canada asks our libraries and Indigo to use digital systems that recognize Canadian-authored books.

Some steps are being taken. Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa is working on solutions that will allow searchers to recognize distinctively Canadian-authored books. Independent bookstores are starting a campaign to get federal funding for promotion. They have a much better success rate than Indigo at selling Canadian books. One reason is that the indies, as they’re called, use a made-in-Canada software that distinguishes Canadian books from American.

Readers’ impressions of Canadian authors are very, very positive, Genner says. According to a 2018 BookNet Canada study, they have even improved. And thanks to online retailers, Canadian books are instantly available.

They are just not very visible to Canadians. And that means that most Canadian novels or non-fiction books have as much chance of reaching their readers as the milkmaid in the fairy tale has of marrying the prince.


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