McClelland and Stewart Logo

A: Apparently to Germany. Today it was announced that the German-based publishing conglomerate Bertelsmann AG, which owns Random House, took full control of McClelland and Stewart, venerable independent Canadian publishing house and champion of Canadian literature through its flowering in the 20th century under the leadership of Jack McClelland, when it published such  stars in our firmament as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Farley Mowat (the triumvirate one can generally rely upon new CanLit students to name). Douglas Gibson, longtime Editor at McClelland and Stewart, became a household name himself as he steered the work of writers and the reading tastes of Canadians. The New Canadian Library, brainchild of Sinclair Ross and Jack McClelland and published by M&S starting in 1958, introduced countless Canadians to their literary history.

Previously, McClelland and Stewart had been owned by Random House (25%) and the University of Toronto (75%), who received their share from former owner Avie Bennett. While foreign takeovers of Canadian publishers are still banned under Canadian regulations, (Conservative) Minister of Canadian Heritage James Moore exempted Random House’s takeover from the regulations.

This change in ownership marks the end of the semi-quasi-independence of the “big” independent publishing house in Canada. House of Anansi stands strong, as do Douglas & MacIntyre, Thomas Allen, Dundurn and many small presses, but their businesses too are being challenged by the transformation of the publishing industry in recent years: the rise of e-readers, the decline of market share, the rise of global publishing and bookselling conglomerates, the decline of support for government protection and funding of Canadian-owned and -focused publishers – all these factors have created a sea of peril for Canadian firms.

What does this mean for Canadian publishing, and for Canadian books? For many, this is another sad and worrisome step in the erasure of a truly Canadian industry, a forum for Canadian stories and a means to foster Canadian identity. Generally, the mood seems to be one of resignation: the struggles of the Canadian publishing industry have been clear for several decades now, and the future looks bleak.

As someone who has grown up in this climate of decline and change, I (perhaps heretically) can’t help but see the resonances between this corporate globalization and the globalization of our identity: can we really have the latter, which many Canadians believe to be a positive move, and yet somehow prevent the former? In Canada we’re quite ambivalent about our own vexatiously elusive identity, but despite the strong pull of nostalgia, the desire to stuff us all into hockey jerseys, and the continued need for a strong national presence in some spheres, we’re living in a time when we more readily acknowledge the desirability and fact of a Canadian culture that is diverse and even trans-national, reaching beyond national borders to connect with global communities (ethnic, social, common-interest, etc.). We are no longer “one” Canada. Were we ever?

So our companies, too, go beyond our borders, and global conglomerates come to us. The real need is to prevent the loss of diversity that such takeovers may cause: to ensure that Canadian voices, in all their diversity and their continual change, are still heard even as we become closer to “the rest of the world.” How does this happen? We need to create awareness and demand, to promote Canadian voices and ensure Canadians young and older are reading Canadian. Well-known Canadian authors will be published by big publishers regardless of ownership, but what about rising talent? What about important voices that struggle to be heard — that may not appeal to the bestseller lists?

The government has a role: this takeover exemption signals changes will be coming to the regulations governing Canadian publishing. That doesn’t mean the government should stop funding publishers, especially smaller presses that promote new voices. The education system has a responsibility, too, to present Canadian voices to our students: historical voices that give life to the world that formed us, and the contemporary voices that demonstrate the relevance of reading Canadian to understanding the world beyond the schoolroom today. As individuals and citizens we also have responsibilities: to stay connected to our own thinkers, writers and artists even as we reach out to the globe – not out of parochialism or duty, but because they help us refine our perspectives. And, always, to be curious and engaged, to share our enthusiasm and our concerns, for our books and for our country. Will we save Canadian publishing, and the world? Maybe.

Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. This is a very insightful review of MS and a call to arms for Canadians that I fully support. We have to start taking an interest in our own culture regardless of the takeovers and globalization. It’s up to us to preserve our identity.

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  2. Susanne Marshall

    Thank you! I agree. Canadian culture is always changing, and it’s up to us to stay informed, stay engaged and stay positive about its transformations. There’s a role for everyone – individuals, governments, and institutions – in ensuring the public feels connected to “culture,” high and low, abstruse and everyday.

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    • The difficulty, I think, lies with lower literacy levels and lack of interest in reading. As a teacher, I find that this becomes more true each year. It’s difficult getting students engaged with literature in general much less Canadian literature. The U.S. marketing machine is so much stronger that American books tend to attract more young readers by being splashier and attention-grabbing. I worry about the future of literacy and the future of Canadian publishing. I agree that part of the responsibility lies with Canadians to promote their own work, but it’s also publishing houses that need to get the work “out there,” and once “out there,” who will read them if young adults aren’t interested in reading?

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      • Susanne Marshall

        Calamity May, you make a good point: books are only one “technology” these days, and younger readers are spending more and more time on online devices, rather than with book in hand. Publishers see the need to develop more e-books and interactivity, especially for young readers, but these things are a lot to take on in a climate of uncertainty and financial hardship. Perhaps (blue-sky thoughts) Canadian booksellers should be thinking about collaborating on Scholastic-style touring book fairs for schools?

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  3. [...] position and what it means for Canadian publishing. Our own Literature editor Susanne Marshall weighs in here. [Toronto [...]

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  4. [...] is so often bad news, and the news of M&S’s absorption into Random House dimmed the fugitive light that much more for many readers interested in Canadian literature. But [...]

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About Susanne Marshall

Susanne Marshall lives in Halifax, NS, where she teaches writing and Canadian Literature. She was educated at Mount Allison University, the University of Toronto, and Dalhousie University, where she completed a PhD in contemporary Canadian literature. Her research interests include redefinitions of regionalism, Atlantic Canadian writing, ecocritical writing and urban writing. Susanne has also worked in the educational publishing industry as a developmental editor, and as a freelance editor. She reads and writes all day, for her profession, for interest, and for the love of it.

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