The Tomes, They Are A-Changing

How Alberta's publishers are meeting the digital age.

By George Melnyk

These are tumultuous times for Alberta book publishers. They’re disappearing. They’ve stopped publishing, moved to other provinces or been merged. One way or another, many no longer exist. Duval House was sold out of province. Brindle & Glass was bought by BC’s Heritage Group. Red Deer Press and Fifth House’s Calgary offices were closed and operations moved to Ontario. Canmore’s Altitude Publishing went out of business in early 2008. The association representing book publishers in Alberta has lost almost a third of its membership since 2001. And those that remain are facing the biggest revolution in publishing since Gutenberg invented the mechanical printing press—the rise of digital media.

Still, there’s a good chance you’ve read at least one book published in the province in the last year. It may have been a book on gardening by a local expert explaining how best to grow tomatoes in our short season, or a guide to hiking in Banff or Jasper National Park, a biography of a local personality or politician, or a novel by a hot new writer—just one of hundreds of titles published annually by Alberta publishers. Without the rich and vibrant publishing scene that has developed in Alberta over the past 40 years, we would be living in a diminished culture, impoverished by lack of necessary local knowledge and understanding of who we are.

This vital industry was launched by Edmonton maverick Mel Hurtig with his publication of Eli Mandel’s An Idiot Joy in 1967. Hurtig Publishers was the first English-language, nationally oriented trade publisher not based in Toronto. Mel broke the established paradigm and inspired a generation of Alberta book publishers to follow in his footsteps. Eventually dozens of publishing houses dotted the Alberta landscape and their range of activity was impressive—literary, educational, trade, academic and specialty publishing. From Edmonton’s NeWest Press (award-winning literary titles) and Lone Pine Publishers (innovative marketer of trade books) to Calgary’s Edge (science fiction and fantasy) and Rocky Mountain Books (regional guidebooks, mountain culture), the Alberta publishing scene over the past 40 years has been a story of growth and achievement—at least until recently.  

John King, senior editor at the University of Calgary Press and president of the Book Publishers Association of Alberta (BPAA), characterizes book publishing in Alberta as “floundering.” One reason may be the level of provincial government support. In fiscal year 2007–08 (ending March 31, 2008) the Alberta Foundation for the Arts (AFA), the prime source of grants for Alberta publishers, provided $360,000 to support book publishing (an average of $36,000 per publisher), while the federal government’s Book Publishing Industry Development Program (BPIDP) provided $1.8 million to Alberta publishers. 

Government support for book publishing is an entrenched tradition in Canada. It originated in the belief that Canada’s small markets disadvantage cultural industries such as publishing because they have to compete against large US (and formerly British) publishing conglomerates. While Canada produces 16,000 new book titles annually, the United States produces 300,000. Alberta, with about 10 per cent of the Canadian population, produces less than 3 per cent of those titles and generates about 2 per cent of total book publishers’ income (2006). 

Government financial support for cultural industries is fundamental to fostering a strong sense of national, regional and local identity. Support varies across the country, but all provincial governments fund cultural industries to some degree. A New Brunswick government report titled “Creating a Culture of Books and Reading” views authors and publishers as “our cultural ambassadors throughout the world.” It adds, “books are a vital cultural product that must be given special treatment.” 

The amount of money the Alberta government gives the AFA annually varies dramatically. In 2005/06 it was $32-million, of which $254,706 went in grants to book publishers; the following year it dropped to $20-million ($282,000) and in 2007/08 it was $25-million ($360,000). In 2008/09 (an election year) it shot up to $36-million ($835,000). Lindsay Blackett, Alberta’s Minister of Culture & Community Spirit since the 2008 election, says he supports the local publishing industry. During the first year he was in charge of the Culture portfolio, the AFA more than doubled the money it granted publishers over the previous year. 

Lindsay Blackett considers himself a champion for culture in the province (he inaugurated Alberta’s first “Arts Day”). He says that “book publishing is on my agenda,” and argues that “we’re moving in the right direction” on the issue of aid to publishers. His government issued a document on cultural policy titled “The Spirit of Alberta” (
/pdf/spiritofalberta.pdf), which commits itself to enhancing the “capacity, sustainability, and development” of cultural industries. Another goal is “stable and predictable funding for government foundations,” which must be welcome news to the AFA.

A cornerstone of the policy is an exploration of “options for a cultural industries development program.” In response, the BPAA published “Essential Reading: Book Publishing in Alberta,” a 2008 position paper which asks for a strategic funding program that would include a tax credit program similar to those of Ontario, Quebec, BC and Manitoba, and a provincial version of the BPIDP run by the federal government, which gives not only money to publishers, but also assistance with supply chains and international marketing. While British Columbia’s and Ontario’s block grants were smaller than Alberta’s per publisher, those provinces provided millions of dollars in tax credits to their publishers, something Alberta does not do.

Don LePan of Broadview Press in Calgary says he doubts that strong, reliable government support for the book publishing industry will ever materialize. But with help from an anonymous Calgary philanthropist, he launched Broadview’s literary imprint, Freehand Books, in 2008. Freehand took the country by storm. Its first crop of books included Susan Olding’s Pathologies: A Life in Essays, longlisted for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, and Edmontonian Marina Endicott’s novel Good to a Fault, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best fiction for the Canada/Caribbean region,  and shortlisted for the $70,000 Giller Prize. Even The Globe and Mail took note, describing Freehand as “the little western publisher that could.” 

For Melanie Little, Freehand’s inaugural and now former editor, local publishers are crucial. “I can’t tell you how many writers in Alberta have told me how excited they are that there is a new publisher in the province,” she says. It’s not just the appearance of a new local publisher in spite of long odds that affirms the value of local publishing, but also the determination being shown by veteran publishers like Rocky Mountain Books (RMB), headed by Don Gorman. After Altitude Publishing shut down in early 2008, RMB bought the long-time Canmore publisher’s backlist and, at the same time, announced over 30 new RMB books for spring 2009, a major expansion of RMB’s list.  

Roberta Rees, author of the award-winning novel Beneath the Faceless Mountain, set in the Crowsnest Pass, believes that “regional publishing is more important in an age of international prizes and globalization” because it nurtures “a real diversity of voices that reflects the diversity of our province.” In publishing such diverse voices, local publishers also help defeat the stereotype of uniformity that outsiders have about Alberta.  

Downloading has authors and publishers scrambling to understand this brave new digitized world.

Carol Holmes, executive director of the Writers Guild of Alberta, is even more enthusiastic about the role of local publishers: “Alberta book publishers have been a local resource for our writers, and at times the only resource.”

A good example of how Alberta publishers have created literary reputations and made it possible for local writers to make a living is Brian Brennan, a former journalist at the Calgary Herald, who took up book-writing with a vengeance after he left the newspaper. “Seven of my eight books of narrative non-fiction have been published by an Alberta publisher,” he says. As far as he is concerned, “it’s easier for writers to sell their book ideas here than it might be in Toronto or Vancouver.” All publishing is “regional” or “local” in that authors and publishers belong to the same community. A Toronto writer can make headway with Toronto publishers just as a BC writer has an advantage with a Vancouver publisher, especially if they are locally known or are writing on a topic of local interest, which is what Brennan does with his series of profiles of Alberta personalities.

Alberta authors are linked to Alberta publishers, and Alberta publishers have a special relationship with local bookstores. The declining number of independent booksellers, who account for about 20 per cent of book sales nationally and have traditionally been friends of small publishers, has also changed the landscape. In 2008 Calgary lost its premiere independent bookseller, McNally Robinson. Simone Lee of Pages on Kensington in Calgary estimates that “50 per cent of the business we do in events is by Alberta authors, and Pages is an event-focused business.” Alberta book publishers, most of whom are small, face challenges in a highly competitive national bookselling environment in which almost half of domestic book sales are made by one company—Chapters/Indigo. 

“Alberta publishers reach out to an international readership, disseminating the work of our writers on a global scale,” says Lou Morin, general manager of NeWest Press. She worries that the demise of the industry would result in the loss of local culture. She believes that future generations would not have access to our stories without a viable publishing industry in Alberta. 

How long can local book publishing survive in the Digital Age, when so many of us are hooked to the Internet? Do the book as an object and traditional book publishing as an industry have a future in Alberta as our focus turns global, digital and wireless? Is there a role for local publishers in the new age of expanding self-publishing, online sales and e-books? 

New gadgets such as the Kindle2, not yet available in Canada, can carry 1,500-plus e-books on one device, and e-book downloads now account for 10 per cent of Amazon’s book sales. Websites such as and carry hundreds of thousands of titles, while Canadian companies such as Indigo have launched services that enable the downloading of e-books to smart phones. University libraries in Alberta have bought digital books that can be downloaded as PDFs. Aggregators of digitized books sell access to these products for a fee, but some are also available for free. Digital culture is dictating new norms of readership and reading platforms as more people spend more time reading information on a digital screen.

While Ted Giles of Temeron Books believes that “books will always be a necessity,” David Scollard at Frontenac House isn’t so sure. “The world is evolving at such a breakneck speed,” he says. He wouldn’t be surprised if some sort of personal digital device became the preferred source of reading and books. In fact, he sees poetry as “a natural for the cell phone.” Both he and his co-publisher wife Rose Scollard got their start in the industry at the venerable Toronto publishing house Ryerson Press in the 1960s. They’ve seen the industry change a great deal. E-book platforms now boast hundreds of thousands of users, while Stanza, designed specially for the iPhone and iPod Touch, had 600,000 users in the six months since its debut in July 2008. Doug Barbour of NeWest is convinced that the industry “probably needs to find ways to use the new technologies… to reach potential new audiences.” 

Physical books remain the core of the publishing business, but for how long? Authors have begun posting their works online, sometimes at a price to consumers and sometimes for free. The web connects writers and readers directly, without the intermediary role of the publisher. With individual pay systems like PayPal, exchange happens directly. When a reader wants a personal copy, PoD (print on demand) publishing has become the standard response. Self-publishing, whether online or in print, is a growing industry and it uses the digital interface to both produce titles and link unknown writers with an audience, even if it is limited to their personal contacts on Facebook. Even the University of Alberta bookstore has an in-house printer that will produce a single copy of a book or as many as one wants.

So who needs publishers? We do. We choose works that have the imprimatur of a bona fide publisher. It’s the trust factor. We trust that a book created by a publisher was selected from dozens or hundreds of other candidates. We trust that this selection process allows only the most gifted writers, best researchers, most authentic local experts and most original thinkers to be published. We trust that the publisher has edited and fact-checked the book properly. That a publisher would take a financial risk on a book says a great deal about a book’s authority. Being published in a traditional manner doesn’t guarantee a book’s value, but it still has a serious advantage over e-books or self-published books; the former lack the sense of permanence and cachet of paper publishing, the latter the credibility. 

But traditional publishers are worried. Google’s scanning of seven million titles in US university libraries (most protected under copyright law) in order to create a massive new database for easy downloading has authors and publishers alike scrambling to understand the implications of this brave new digitized world.

Last year, the Book Industry Advisory Committee of Ontario’s Media Development Corporation called for the establishment of a “digital transformation fund” to help Ontario publishers transition to the digital marketplace. Because Ontario’s cultural industries are the fourth-largest contributor to the province’s GDP, there is widespread desire that publishing remain in the forefront of technological innovation. Alberta doesn’t have such a fund for book publishers, but that hasn’t stopped Athabasca University Press, Alberta’s newest academic press, from taking advantage of the new technology and going “open access,” meaning all their publications are online and available for free downloads. AU Press is the first academic press in Canada to do this. They also print a few hard copies and sell them through traditional channels. After the initial run is sold, they print on demand with a supplier who can produce as few as 50 copies.

AU Press director Walter Hildebrandt believes this is a sensible business model and the right thing to do. “We want to make knowledge more accessible,” he explains. Because academic titles are already produced through public funding of research, he believes the public shouldn’t have to pay for them again. In his experience, it is not a question of either/or; he believes AU Press should produce online and hard copies because the different forms of publishing support each other. He doesn’t promote open access for trade publishing, but he believes the principle is good for the university community. Some argue that digital publishing entitles authors to more of the revenue pie than traditional publishing; the current industry standard for digital royalties is 25 per cent rather than the 10 per cent typically given authors of hard copies, since digital books cost less to produce—one-third to one-quarter the cost of a clothbound edition. Writers organizations are currently pushing for substantially higher author royalties on digital books.

Even if more books will be delivered via the Internet, the book as a printed object will not disappear. About 1.7 billion trade books are still sold annually, along with 170 million professional books and 25 million scholarly books. These numbers don’t include the thriving used-book business that also sells tens of millions of copies globally.     

Currently, digital books represent less than 2 per cent of income for publishers. So it is unlikely that books as we know and love them will disappear altogether, or that libraries and booksellers will cease to exist as repositories of the book as physical object. But just as the written text migrated from clay tablets to hand-lettered vellum and parchment scrolls to printed and bound books and now to computer screens, the book will evolve with every major technological innovation. Today cell phone novels, published digitally in instalments, are all the rage among Japanese youth. Ten years ago, they didn’t exist. After these serialized novels are published on cell phones, they can get printed and sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies. In fact, Deep Love, a novel by a Japanese author named Yoshi, was transformed into a series that sold 2.7 million hard copies. Walter Hildebrandt may be right—print and digital can work to mutual advantage.

Gordon Pitts, the author of Stampede! The Rise of the West and Canada’s New Power Elite (Key Porter, 2008) argues that if Alberta is to reinvent itself after the Age of Oil, then it must “emerge as an international thought leader” and to do that it must “develop the great novelists, political scientists and social thinkers.” If we want Alberta stories to be told, if we want to preserve local knowledge and expertise and our unique cultural identity, we need Alberta book publishers—whatever they, and the books they produce, look like. 

George Melnyk is author of the two-volume The Literary History of Alberta and a recipient of the Alberta Centennial Medal.


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