Making Our Words Count: Canadian Authors in the Electronic Era

Yesterday, I attended a really stimulating discussion at the Writers’ Union Annual Meeting involving Jill Tonus of Bereskin & Parr and the Director of the Scream Literary Festival and York University’s experimental new media lab, Bill Kennedy. The session was moderated by Derek Weiler, the Editor of Quill & Quire. Derek WeilerJill Tonus

The issue that Canadian authors confront is how to adapt their work and their expectations to shifting business models for Canadian book and periodical publishing which are continually under threat by shifting market forces, and the new technologies.

Jill Tonus, set the scene with a broad-ranging and provocative exploration of how Canadian copyright reform might offer ways ahead, pointing explicitly at European models, which appeared to offer significantly more hope, than the current Ottawa gridlock on copyright reform.

Bill Kennedy, who had been associated for many years with the wonderful Coach House Press, started by Stan Bevington, bpNichol and a loose syndicalist collective, told us of Coach House Press’s bold initiative to publish all of its titles over a five year period in downloadable PDF form.

The discussion was then wide-ranging, with particular emphasis being placed on the new announcement by Robert Miller, who recently announced that HarperCollins would be moving to an experimental, and highly disruptive business model:

No more authors’ advances, instead, higher royalties and profit participations.

No more returns. Returns are the dirty environmental secret of the book publishing industry. Of all books printed, between 25 and 35 percent are ultimately returned to the publisher, for a full credit and pulped, recycled, or dumped in landfill. HarperCollins believes that it can calibrate demand much more finely, and if shortages develop, rapidly print substituted goods.

No more additional fees for prime product placement in major book stores. Instead, HarperCollins believes that it can generate buzz in other ways.

Aggressive use of the internet for marketing and promotion, and to build collaborative networks of readers and enthusiasts.

Simultaneous publication in electronic downloadable and digital audio formats.

Patrick Boyer, President of Blue Butterfly Books, asked how the new model was working. No one on the panel knew. It is too early say, but one of the panelists quoted from Jane Friedman, president and chief executive of HarperCollins that “at this moment of real volatility in the book business, when we are all recognizing things that are difficult to contend with, like growing advances and returns and that people are reading more online, we want to give them information in any format that they want”.

The Writers’ Union Annual General Meeting goes on for the next two days in downtown Toronto, but the issues are sufficiently significant that they will resonate for a long period.


  1. Fantastic! And, that is the same Bill Kennedy I mentioned with regard to ArtMob.


  2. Bill Kennedy noted why Coach House’s five year trial of free downloads of its titles ended. The subsidy for it ran out, and then they could not afford it. See, providing free digital is expensive (more so in 1999). Once again, digital freedom seems to mean the creator/producer subsidizes the users.

  3. Hadn’t recognized you in the audience, Christopher. I naively assumed that once one had generated the book in whatever typesetting programme Coach House might use (way beyond Quark, obviously) that outputting to Adobe was as easy as hitting a print button, and then the issue was simply hosting the digital files on the website.

    As I quipped on Thursday, Coach House’s books have always been so gorgeous that the mere fact that one could do a print dump wouldn’t cut into sales that were realistic.

    The example that I tend to use is An Leabhar Mòr or theGreat Book of Gaelic, whose free website drove me – and many others – to buy a glorious book. The pages can be seen starting here.