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.