Why should you care about book publishing?

Dr. Matthew Bucemi teaches about book publishing at York University. (Photo credit: Matthew Bucemi)

Being stuck at home for the last three years of the pandemic gave people a chance to return to slower-paced past times, like baking bread and reading. I was one of the many people who rediscovered and rekindled their love of reading during this period. As I started reading and engaging more with authors and other readers on social media, I began picking up little bits and pieces about the book publishing industry. I quickly learned that, like many industries in the aftermath of 2020’s racial reckoning, the book publishing industry found itself in a moment of turmoil and change.

To help me make sense of what has been going on in the industry and the unique challenges facing Canadian publishers, I reached out to Dr. Matthew Bucemi, an assistant professor in the Writing Department at York University. Dr. Bucemi teaches a course about book publishing and has previously worked at several publishing houses. He received his PhD in English literature from Cornell University.

BZ: The book publishing industry has been making headlines recently with the workers strike at HarperCollins and the head of Penguin Random House US stepping down. It seems like the industry is in a moment of crisis. Can you give us a sense of what’s been happening?

MB: The industry has been in crisis in some way for a long time. Some crises, like “What do we do about ebooks?”, get resolved but in the last few years, the culture wars have become more intense. One of the big pain points in the field is editors taking a strong ethical stance against what a publisher wants to do and the publisher justifying it by saying, “Well, too bad. We’re publishing it anyway.” This idea that if you want to publish the books that you care about, you also have to publish this thing that you object to. Since coming to Canada, I’ve been introduced to the funding issues and the difficulties that Canada is facing in building a domestic book publishing industry because so many publishers are foreign-owned multinationals.

BZ: Up until the last few years, I’ve been very naïve to how big of a role the book publishing industry plays in determining what we read. Just how much power do book publishers have?

MB: At the most basic level, it’s 100% of the power. You will only read about a book because a publisher has put it out. Of course, self-publishing exists and there are some success stories that happen organically once in a blue moon, but it’s really hard to do it on your own. You need mastery in not just writing, but also cover design and publicity. You need the Rolodex of names and numbers to call to get your excerpt placed in the right place. That being said, the industry is changing, especially as it becomes younger, so it may be different in 10 or 20 years. But historically and right now, publishers really get to decide what you read.

BZ: Wow, okay. What are the challenges, then, when power is concentrated in a small group of people to make all these decisions in publishing?

MB: An author once put it to me like this. If you have a small number of publishers and each publisher has a small number of editors (editorial teams and staff are being reduced across the industry), the pool of people who could look at any potential book is very small. That means, the chances that the person making the decision about my book is someone who might be like me and share my kind of story and understand where I’m coming from, those chances are reduced. The fewer people that have a say in what gets published, the more unlikely it is that a really diverse range of people get to be heard. For example, if you have only 5 big publishers and they each have 5 senior editors, that’s 25 people in the entire country who will look at and give final approval to a manuscript. Out of those 25, how many of them are Black? Indigenous? A woman? Gay? The potential for many different people to be heard is dramatically reduced by having such an insular and compacted industry.

BZ: What about the book publishing industry in Canada? Are there specific challenges that we have in this country when it comes to publishing?

MB: I think one of the one of the biggest problems in Canadian publishing right now is, “Who cares about Canadian literature?” I think of my students. They listen to K-pop. They watch American movies, Japanese anime and Scandinavian murder mysteries. But they don’t care about Canadian stuff. There’s no national identity for Canadian literature. The government has tried to solve this by funding small Canadian publishers through granting bodies like the Canada Council for the Arts. They give money to small publishers but only if they don’t make a lot of money already on their own. And that incentivizes these small publishers to publish very small print runs like two or three hundred books of stuff that has no mass market appeal and that won’t sell. For some of these publishers, as much as seventy percent of their revenue comes from grants. So you end up funding an arts culture but no one reads the books. In France, there are similar subsidized granting bodies which give a lot of money to French publishers. But the difference is that they give a lot of money to books with mass market appeal, books that people want to read. So publishers are encouraged to put out stuff that will have mass market appeal and to publish big whereas in Canada, publishers are incentivized to be small.

BZ: How could the system be improved?

MB: It all comes down to readers but it’s a bit empty to say that. Efforts like Canada Reads or putting a sticker on a book that says “Canadian author” are nice, but they just don’t move the needle. Most people don’t really care, and you know, why should they? They haven’t been given any reason to. There hasn’t been a successful attempt to cultivate an idea of what Canadian literature is. You can pump all the money into it but if at the end of the day, readers don’t care and don’t buy the books, then what’s going to happen to Canadian publishing in 20 years? Is it going to exist?  

BZ: I wonder how much of that is because this sense of Canadian identity is really hard to define, even outside of the literature context. We pride ourselves on being multicultural and we really value the diverse perspectives and stories that everyone shares. But on the flip side, it makes it hard to define what the Canadian story is.

MB: I think you’re exactly right. But we can lean into that really profoundly as a unifying factor. At the end of the day, how many people will buy a book because they are swayed by the intellectual and cultural evidence that Canada is indeed a multicultural society? There may be a few people who will buy based on that and I know a lot of independent bookstores stock their shelves based on that. But how many readers really care about that? It’s not that anything is wrong with the authors or their books. They’re actually really cool and interesting, but the books don’t go anywhere because they’re not publicized and marketed properly. I think that’s a uniquely Canadian challenge.

BZ: Even for myself as a reader, I’m trying to challenge myself to read more diverse stories written by Black authors, Indigenous authors and women of color. But Canadian authors have never been on that list for me. I do try and make an effort to read books from the Giller Prize list or Canada Reads, but I don’t feel that same drive to read more Canadian authors as I do for some of these other storytellers.

MB: Because you’re not given a reason to, right? Even though these granting agencies would hope that you do, these small publishers are encouraged to not publicize too much because they get more revenue from grants than they get from selling books. And all these awesome authors are not supported in meeting their potential, which is a shame because they are diverse and they have so many great stories to tell. They represent what Canada could be.

BZ: It sounds like the granting system is almost set up for these authors and publishers to not do well. What’s at stake if that system doesn’t change?

MB: Cultural stagnancy. Canada is this incredible site of diversity, not just in terms of the voices themselves, but also the different kinds of stories that are cool and interesting. But if people have no reason to read or like Canadian books, these big multinational publishers will just come in and impose their own idea of what diversity is. There will be fewer, more similar people who get to decide what diversity looks like and what stories will be told.

BZ: As readers, what can we do to support this change? 

MB: The change needs to come entirely from the top down in the way that publicity and funding works, the way these books are marketed, and even the way stores like Indigo work. There needs to be people who have a vision to correct this from the top down. It’s entirely about leadership. As a reader and consumer, there’s actually very little you can do. It’s very discouraging, I know. I can tell you, you should go out there and talk to your independent bookseller but I don’t think that’s realistic. The culture just doesn’t move that way. Some people might do activist purchasing where they say every month, they’re going to buy a new Canadian book. But that’s not sustainable. We need to be investing in books with wide appeal that people will buy.

BZ: After all of this, what do you see as the future of book publishing?

MB: I think kids are going to change things eventually. These young people want to be involved in cultural production and they see that right now, it’s so difficult to break into the industry. So they’ll say, “Who cares? I’ll just keep hustling and do it on my own.” So they’ll write their own fan fiction on these user-generated platforms and some of them will go on to become editors or published writers. I put my hope in this generation that is very savvy about using social media to promote their work. They will figure out how to sidestep these complicated systems around publishing and marketing. If enough young writers say, “Well no, I’m going to do this on my own terms and not be part of that system,” then I think that things will change and the industry will be really different in 10 years.

BZ: Why should we care about book publishing?

MB: It’s a difficult question for me to answer. On the one hand, I believe strongly in books and culture and that culture is important to our identity. I can also tell you that there’s an army of diverse writers out there who have these incredible stories to share and that reading them is going to give you this enriching cultural experience that you can’t get on Netflix. But on the other hand, it comes down to, “What is worth my $25?” It’s difficult to get more people to care if the care is grounded in spending money.

BZ: That’s really hard to hear but I appreciate your honesty about the reality of the situation. Thank you for this conversation. I’ve learned a lot and it’s been very thought-provoking.

MB: I know I seem cynical about things but actually, I think there’s hope. All the young writers who are coming up now and trying to change the system – they give me optimism.


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