I got my comp copy of Ultra Libris (by Rowland Lorimer, published by ECW Press) in the mail today, meaning the book will officially pub in about a month. Although it’s exactly the kind of book I would ordinarily review, I’d feel a bit weird reviewing a book I worked on—especially one by a former MPub professor of mine—so here’s just a summary and some short excerpts that I found particularly interesting.
At 432 pages, Ultra Libris is a substantial volume, but it’s well worth reading—I found it far more interesting than I’d expected. (Being able to read it away from the demands of grad school probably helped significantly.) Lorimer offers a detailed look at the book publishing industry in Canada, beginning with some important historical context. Squeezed between the colonial influences of Britain (and, to a lesser extent, France) and the cultural dominance of the United States, Canada was, in the first part of the twentieth century, inundated with a literature not its own. Government-initiated commissions to study the state of Canadian culture and Canadian book publishing, along with lobbying by the Association of Canadian Publishers, led to a series of key policies designed to lend structural and cultural support to the industry—one that was then able to flourish in the 1970s and has produced Canadian books and authors renowned the world over. More recently, the concept of the “creative economy”—the notion that arts and culture contribute hugely to a nation’s economic health—has helped to cement the importance of encouraging cultural initiatives and supporting domestic cultural production.
Yet, as we’ve seen in these past few volatile years, Canadian-owned publishers seem always on the brink of financial collapse. The dominance of Chapters-Indigo is a major factor, as Lorimer shows with some incisive case studies, but perhaps it is time, as he proposes in the latter part of his book, to change our current publishing model, exploiting available technologies (and not just ebooks) to increase both production efficiencies and reach.
Put another way, if publishers don’t embrace evolving opportunities in every sphere of book publishing the already substantial gap between the contributions to limited economic growth made by the printing and publishing industries and the more robust contributions made by other industries of the creative sector… may increase. (p. 334)
Some of the alternative models he suggests include service publishing in both trade and scholarly environments and Canada Council–mandated set fees for publishing professionals. His argument for paying these professionals what they deserved had me cheering:
Even though book publishing employees will accept relatively low wages, it is wasteful of human resources to start a university graduate with a Master’s in publishing and a second Master’s degree at a salary equivalent to an entry-level clerical position, let alone to assign that person clerical work. This is doubly the case when the same graduates can earn up to twice that salary doing publishing work outside the industry. Low wages are sometimes justified as part and parcel of a lifestyle choice that a person is prepared to make. Such thinking encourages mediocrity, feeds off a culture of poverty, and buys into a false notion of the nobility of poverty. It is a disservice both to those who are underpaid and society as a whole. Moreover, it is indefensible that government should be subsidizing an industry that does not compensate its employees with a living wage. Paying low wages not only drives people out of the industry but also encourages an inefficient organization of work. (p. 192)
I also found intriguing Lorimer’s comparison of the reading public’s willingness to pay a premium for a Canadian-authored or Canadian-published book to the organic food movement:
Although this may be changing, the mindset (with regard to price) of the Canadian book buyer appears to be this: Why should a book by a Canadian author cost more than any other book, especially a book by a more famous foreign author? Only in very recent years, with increased emphasis on organic food products as well as economies of scale, have the realities of production costs—which, in the case of books, means the size of print runs—become persuasive. Prior to those developments, try as they might, Canadian publishers had not been able to persuade the book-buying public that Canadian-authored and Canadian-published books are the gold-riveted designer jeans of the market. (p. 215)
The reader who is willing to pay more to support an author for being Canadian, who recognizes that fostering Canadian talent simply costs more, is likely in a small—possibly insignificant—minority, but the analogy is an interesting one nonetheless.
One feature of the book—quite apart from its content—that caught my attention was at the very back:
Get the eBook free! At ECW Press, we want you to enjoy this book in whatever format you like, whenever you like. Leave your print book at home and take the eBook to go! Purchase the print edition and receive the eBook free.
All you have to do is email ECW and show proof of purchase; you’ll get your choice of a PDF or EPUB. I think this model is brilliant, and I wonder how many publishers have embraced it. Many publishers see the ebook as an additional revenue stream, and they view the print book and ebook as separate entities, whereas ECW’s approach really makes the reader value the content rather the method of delivery. I would be interested to know which strategy ultimately leads to more sales.
This post has been a bit of a hodgepodge, but, as I mentioned earlier, Ultra Libris is a tome, and its coverage is vast; I can’t hope to do it justice in such a short entry. What I will say is that anyone working within Canadian publishing, or looking to get into it, would glean something of value from this thorough—and surprisingly uplifting—book.