Wednesday Night #1029

Written by  //  November 21, 2001  //  Gerald Ratzer, Harry Mayerovitch, People Meta, Reports  //  No comments

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The subject was publishing, and the place was chockablock with the Montreal literati and academics with books to their credit.

David Nicholson started this evening on authors and the publishing industry by showing some video footage of the book launch of Holly Higgins Jonas at the Double Hook on Greene Avenue.
Holly then introduced Philip Cercone Executive Director of of  McGill-Queens Press. Philip started his life in Italy, then came to Canada where he obtained a degree from the University of Western Ontario. In 1985 he started  McGill-Queens Press with two employees from each university. The Press has now grown to some 30 employees and is publishing 150 volumes per year. Holly pointed out that Philip has served the publishing industry well, and has been a mentor for university presses at UBC and Calgary. His wife, Colleen Gray is an author, poet and editor. She has a Ph.D. from McGill in 17th and 18th century history.
Other authors introduced were William Weintraub, Linda Leith of the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival, Mark Paterson,Victor Teboul, Sandra Cohen Rose and Bryan Barchinski, the book editor of the Gazette.
Dr. Margo Sommerville introduced Katherine K. Young and Paul Nathanson. Katherine is a professor in Religious Studies at McGill specializing in Hinduish, Bioethics and women in world religions. Paul also has a Ph.D. in religious studies. He is interested in pop culture – from the Wizard Oz to Princess Diana – and its influence on the America psyche.

Philip Cercone fielded most of the questions about the state of publishing in Canada today. (We almost said “books in Canada today,” but according to Philip, books are sometimes the least of it,financially, anyway. These days, he says, spinoffs will often make more money than the book on which they’re based.)
Philip commented that the small good publishers would survive, but he is concerned with the near monopoly of the Indigo/Chapters Empire that now represents some 90% of the Canadian book market. Heather Riesman of Indigo/Chapters is paying her bills, but the Chapters division has too many stores, and some will be sold off. Also Amazon is now filling orders in Washington State and shipping directly into Canada. This too is making it harder for the smaller bookstores to stay in business. However, Duffy’s, in BC, one of the better independent stores, is surviving so far.

Gerald Ratzer asked about the publishing industry and why the royalties to authors are so low. In the case of Computer Science textbooks, the royalties are in the 10% to 15% range on a textbook that sells for $70. Because the retail price is so high many students are going to the local copy services, where they can get a Xerox copy for $25. Clearly the printing costs, even for a small run of a few thousand copies, are under $20, so there are considerable markups being made by the time a book is sold at retail.
One question of great interest was whether a author is better off publishing in Canada than in the big U.S. market. “I’d encourage Canadians to publish in Canada,” Philip said. First of all, some major American houses have become so marketing focused that they initiate projects from scratch and don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts. Thus the odds of getting into print are much better north of the border. That’s partly because, thanks to our limp Canadian dollar, the cost of publishing per title is lower here.
If a Canadian produced book has sufficient appeal, Philip pointed out, the author can get the Canadian publisher to sell the rights to it outside of Canada. If not, “you will at least be read in this country.” (You might not make money, my friend, but you’ll be read – up to a point.)

As Linda Leith pointed out, a lot of Canadian writers have done really well out of small domestic publishers. Women authors who first made their mark on the local scene are now recognized as some of the best in the world.

Among the industry developments that were noted in passing were the emergence of Japan as a very lucrative place in which to sell books, and the advent of “print on demand” publishing. What happens in the later case is that, if a small order is placed for a book in a city other than where it is stored, it can be printed out, cover and all, on line.

The Internet has had the effect of not only selling more new books, but of enabling potential buyers to find out where to buy “old” ones. The consensus seemed to be that it will be some time yet before anybody is going to make much of a buck out of paperless book publishing. According to Mark Paterson, though, the Net makes a good loss leader: “I put out short stories [on it] for people to see.” A propos the Internet, there was strong negative criticism of the Gazette web site, and the difficulty people were having in navigating it. One person described it as a hodge-podge. One solution is to get on the Gazette Email list, which supplies the headlines in a clickable form. It was pointed out that newspapers in general have sites that are hard to navigate in order to encourage readers to buy the paper!

Meanwhile, where do you sell the physical product at a time when Indigo-Chapters takes up an estimated 90 per cent of the retail business in the country? That’s bad news for small publishers, one of their number said.
When the two companies were competing separately, he explained, “they’d order books they’d never sell and use them as wallpaper.”
Small book stores are also threatened by the ability of the Indigo-Chapters monolith to undersell them on popular titles. But, it was agreed, the “really good” small ones will survive. How? In the age of Time Warner and other global multimedia marketing machines, by concentrating on appealing to on appealing to hype-resistant readers . In other words, by selling hype-resistant readers. In other words, by selling “books you won’t see on Oprah,” as somebody quipped.

Guy Stanley addressed the problem of copyright infringement, and the definition of “fair use”. Margo Somerville said that the definition of IP – Intellectual Property – was too broad. In the US patents are being issued for tangible items such as cancer tests. Not only has Myriad patented the test procedure, but also the DNA cancer gene. There is a French challenge to this type of patent, and the Ontario government is also joining the challenge, as they estimate that the diagnosis using this test would cost $4,000 each.
Margo spoke some more about her current book The Ethical Canary, which is about the essence of life and against human cloning. Her next book, Death Talk[$65us], is based on some 400 articles, and addresses how to accommodate death in one’s life. In previous centuries death was discussed in the context of religion. With the decline of church attendance, most people do now not have a forum for this discussion. While many people are terrified of death, there has been a 2,000-year discussion of euthanasia. Now we have better palliative care, but people still want to control the time, the place and how they will die.

Comrade Harry, now well over ninety, is writing a new book to be entitled Way to Go. It is about elegant ways of being buried!! Margo continued this theme, by saying she wants to be buried in the Australian outback under a gum tree!

The topic then turned to Harry Potter and the success of the new film, which has been breaking all box office records, grossing $100 million in three days. Philip pointed out that Time/Warner/AOL controls 89% of the US media industry and knows how to control the merchandizing of a concept. They control the authors, publishing and distribution channels and know how to choose the winners. He continued by saying that the Canada Council and other granting agencies do support Canadian writers, and without that support, it would be difficult for a Canadian author to break into the US market. A strong Canadian publishing industry will lead to a strong culture.
Harry Potter fans can hear the music at Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets [1:10:17]

Katherine Young spoke about their book that deals with how men are being marginalized and how over the last couple of decades there is a move to a more gyno-centric culture. While ideological feminism is not problem, applying the feminism model to men is a concern. Pay equity is one example of this. Equal pay for equal work is fine, but equal pay for equivalent work is a much fuzzier concept. Is the work of a nurse, a policeman or a garbage collector equivalent?
Boys are being “diagnosed” with Attention Deficiency syndrome and fed Ritalin. Is this part of a female plot to emasculate males? Why are suicides up some 15%? Why are most of the school shootings done by male teenagers?

Linda Massarella was introduced as a writer for the New York Post and the New York Times.

Dr. Des Morton said he was grateful to his publishers including the McGill-Queens Press. They have taken risks in publishing more esoteric titles, and yet have been successful.

In conclusion,Carroll McCormack asked whether he should publish in Canada or the US? Since he earns his living by writing, he needs the best possible income to survive. Philip replied by saying that he stood a better chance of being published in Canada. In the States, publishers like Random House will return an unsolicited manuscript. Authors supported by the Canada Council stand an excellent chance of being published in Canada, and Canadian publishers are now working harder on selling rights to their titles overseas. In other words, Canadian publishing is alive and well and will nourish Canadian authors.
Notes by Professor Gerald Ratzer and Robert Stewart

The Prologue

On the eve of American Thanksgiving, we are reminded of a wonderful Art Buchwald column, written during his days in Paris with the Herald Tribune and often reprinted, in which he tries to explain Thanksgiving to the French. “One of the most important holidays is Thanksgiving Day, known in France as le Jour de Merci Donnant.” see Tribune Story That brings us to the principal topic this week. No matter how clever the writer, s/he will languish in anonymity without a PUBLISHER. Many Wednesday Nighters are writers, most of whom, fortunately for them and for us, have publishers.

Therefore, this Wednesday, we celebrate publishers and authors as we welcome Philip J. Cercone, Executive Director McGill Queen’s University Press along with a number of our favorite Wednesday Night writers and Dr. Linda Leith who has done more with Blue Met to publicize books and authors than most publishers will ever do.

Philip has previously expressed his views on the plight of the publishers, at the mercy of an ever-shrinking number of booksellers, and we can expect an up-date on this question, as well as other insights into the mysterious world of writing and publishing.

If you have ever written a book, or even thought that your name should be on the cover of a publication, this is the Wednesday Night for you! And if you have never done either, you will still enjoy the discussion.

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