Sutherland House Publishing

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Every year BookNet Canada surveys a couple thousand book buyers and publishes the results along with a boatload of data on Canadian book sales compiled from the nation’s tills. I’m going to hit some of the highlights. If you’d like more, it’s for sale here.

Let’s start with the good news. Bookstores came back in 2022.

And most people who are buying books are not averse to paying full freight:

I met with a great group of mostly retired Ottawa mandarins today who seemed surprised to hear that so many people still read physical books, but they do. What this chart doesn’t show is that even young adults prefer hard copies:

I admit to being surprised by the above. I expected ebooks to jump rather than fall this year because publishers have been raising prices of paperbacks and hardcovers in response to higher paper costs; it appears that many have also chosen to fight inflation by raising the price of their ebooks, bringing them in line with the alternatives.

The surest way to write a best-selling book is to have written one in the past:

I wish the editors had structured that question a little differently. Why conflate recommendations and reviews? They’re different things, like browsing online and browsing in person. Still, interesting results.

There’s a lot of ways to look at this next chart. The headline is that Canadian book sales were down slightly in 2022, in lockstep with the US decline. It’s fascinating to me that 625,971 individual books, as represented by ISBNs, recorded at least one purchase at retail. That’s a lot of books. An uncharitable person would also note that the average book sold 82 copies in 2022 (that’s old and new titles, of course) and that 229,105 books did not report a single sale.


And here’s the most misleading chart in the history of publishing. It looks like Scholastic and HarperCollins are fighting it out for #1 in a crowded Canadian marketplace. In fact, Penguin Publishing Group, Random House Children’s Books, Random House publishing Group, and Penguin Young Readers Group are all divisions of one Penguin Random House empire, and there are hundreds of other PRH units that don’t make the chart. The company has over 50 percent market share and it is bidding to buy more.

I guess we’d all be tempted to publish a chart like this if PRH was one of our biggest customers. Also, an accurate representation of Canadian market shares would be a nightmare for the chart designers, PRH’s line running onto the next page. The above, in any event, looks nothing like the reality of the Canadian book market.

This does. For half a century, the federal government has been legislating and spending in pursuit of a Canadian-owned book sector. Canadian-owned publishers clock in at a measly 4.7% of sales in their home market:


Something I hadn’t registered before: the top five Canadian-owned publishers are kids publishers.

Nothing against publishing for kids—it’s something Canadians are exceptional at—but if you find that 4.7% figure appalling and worry that Canada is outsourcing its intellectual life to head offices in New York and London, the situation is probably worse than you thought.

Finally, what are Canadians reading?

Fiction: 26.1 percent (romance and thrillers were at 5 percent and 5 percent respectively, with literary fiction at 1.9 percent).

Nonfiction: 32 percent (with biography and self-help both around 3 percent; for reasons that have always escaped me, comics and graphic novels are included in nonfiction and represent the biggest category at 6.2 percent).

Young Adult: 5.2 percent.

Juvenile: 35.4 percent.

Let’s hear from some real experts


One of the things you pick up in the course of a long career in journalism is an ability to sound authoritative on a subject you hadn’t thought about before breakfast. There should probably be a disclaimer at the top of SHuSH reminding readers that I’m a relative neophyte in book publishing. Five years this spring! I still have much to learn.

That’s not false modesty—I have an exceptional understanding of the industry for a five year old. But there are real authorities out there and two of them commented on SHuSH 194, comparing the Canadian and US independent publishing scenes.

Howard White is an author, founder of the Raincoast Chronicles series, owner and president of Harbour Publishing, and a titan of Canadian letters:

From my vantage of having been in book publishing for 50 years and owning two of the major trade publishers still standing I could quibble with some of your points—for instance that most our independent presses only publish poetry and literary fiction—but I would not want to detract from your main point, namely that English-language Canadian book publishing is in a state of deep crisis and risks collapsing entirely in the next decade unless the government wakes up and takes decisive action. There are a host of issues afflicting publishing but they can be addressed most simply by re-funding the main support program, the Canada Book Fund, which as you rightly point out, has been allowed to shrink to half its original size despite vastly increased need.

Two points: almost all countries of Canada\’s size and stature subsidize their book publishing industries both with robust subsidy programs as well as structural measures such as fixed pricing, national distribution agencies, and anti-dumping legislation…. It is the price of having a national literary culture. Second, the amount of investment needed to save our present industry is minuscule compared to the amounts being mobilized in aid of news media and other cultural sectors. It would be a tragedy if the federal government fails to recognize the peril faced by its once-proud book publishing industry and I thank you, Mr. Whyte, for helping to sound the alarm.

Roy McSkimming is a Canadian journalist, novelist, and author of the best single volume on Canadian publishing: The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada’s Writers:

This is a highly engaging and thought-provoking essay. It proves once again that, after the disappearance of book sections, book columnists and publishing reporters from our major dailies, and the slide into irrelevance of the trade paper Quill & Quire, the most trenchant writing on English-Canadian book publishing is right here at SHuSH.

There are undeniable truths in your hard-headed characterization of the industry\’s weakness. But your broad analysis does over-simplify, overlooking some important strengths of Canadian-owned publishing. While it\’s lamentable that the sector now accounts, by your estimate, for only 5% of the domestic market, that statistic says more about radical change in book marketing and retailing in the digital age than about the intrinsic value of Canadian books, or the resilience and endurance of their publishers. As you say, the future looks bleak, but people have been saying that about Canadian publishing for a century and we still have an industry of our own.

You\’re rightly critical that the Canada Council\’s increasing politicization imposes dangerous controls and restrictions on the publishers it funds. This is bitterly ironic, given the Council\’s long history of fighting off government control to protect freedom of artistic expression. At the same time, you also acknowledge that if English Canada is ever going to achieve the necessary \”critical mass of commercially viable publishers,\” greater government support is required. Your proposed remedy is \”super-charging the Canada Book Fund\” to enable Canadian independents to produce more commercially viable books (as opposed to literary fiction) and to work harder at marketing them. That was exactly the objective of the CBF when it was established in its earliest iteration in 1979 (by Joe Clark\’s Progressive Conservative government) at what is now the Department of Canadian Heritage. The program is market-oriented. It funds publishers according to their sales volumes of all categories of Canadian books, as well as supporting booksellers and the industry\’s supply chain infrastructure. But federal governments of all stripes have frozen the fund\’s budget solid for the past twenty-two years. According to the Association of Canadian Publishers, this amounts to shrinking its real economic impact after inflation by 55 percent. So your public-sector recommendation is well taken and long overdue—especially since the current government has pledged to increase the CBF budget by 50 percent but has failed to do so.

Meanwhile the industry has frequently shown remarkable resilience and innovativeness. More than \”a couple of Canadian independents\” have successfully sold their companies to a new generation of owners. In addition to ECW Press and Dundurn Press, at least half a dozen independents have done the same, including Kids Can Press, Groundwood Books, Orca Book Publishers in Victoria, Cormorant Books, Talon Books in Vancouver, and Thistledown Press in Saskatoon. The first three are children\’s publishers, the others primarily literary presses. In fact, it should be emphasized that one of the great success stories of Canadian publishing has been the flourishing of children\’s publishers where none existed prior to the 1970s. Another is the rise and proliferation of vigorous independents in literally all regions of the country. And even when financial disaster has struck, and major Canadian companies like Stoddart and Douglas & McIntyre have gone under, important imprints such as Anansi, Greystone and D&M itself have been reborn with new dedication under new owners. The future may look bleak. But new publishers, like Sutherland House, always seem to emerge to pick up the torch.

Give SHuSH a push


A weekly newsletter like SHuSH is a lot of work. We don’t charge for it or present advertising or ask for donations, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t appreciate a little support. The best way you could help keep us going is to subscribe to our Sutherland Quarterly.

The second edition of Sutherland Quarterly is now available for order. From the inimitable author and journalist Paul Wells, An Emergency in Ottawa: The Story of the Convoy Commission:

On Feb 14, 2022, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made what might be the most controversial decision of his tenure, invoking the Emergencies Act to end a three-week occupation of downtown Ottawa by truckers protesting mandatory COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Proclaimed in 1988, the Emergencies Act is designed to give federal officials extraordinary powers in the event of threats to Canada\’s national security that can\’t be managed under existing laws. Trudeau used it to make the protest illegal, freeze the accounts and cancel the vehicle insurance of participants, requisition tow trucks to clear protestors from the streets, among other measures. The government defended the first-ever invocation of the act as just and necessary; several premiers and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association called it an assault on democratic rights and civil liberties. As required by the act, Trudeau appointed a commission of inquiry into its use. Last November, justice Paul Rouleau held three weeks of riveting hearings that included testimony by so-called Freedom Convoy organizers, police officials, cabinet ministers, and Trudeau himself. Award-winning author Paul Wells was a regular visitor to the inquiry. Witnesses described layer on layer of dysfunction and acrimony in every organization that converged on Parliament Hill—three levels of government, three police forces, and the protesters themselves. How does a society make crucial decisions when everyone is exhausted, nothing works, and the noise from the truck horns and the shouting is deafening? And how do the protagonists regroup to make their case in the weird and sterile environment of a public inquiry? That\’s the story-inside-a-story of the Emergency in Ottawa.

Launched last fall, Sutherland Quarterly is a new series of captivating essays on current affairs by some of Canada’s best writers. Each essay will be published as a stand-alone book and sold at retail in the usual manner; the essays will also be available (at a preferred price) by annual subscription. An Emergency in Ottawa will hit stores in early April, $19.95 (plus HST); the subscription price is 20 percent off the cover price or $67.99 (including HST). I hope you’ll consider subscribing.

Also, we are open to submissions.


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