Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Canadian Writers and U.S. Sales

I've often wondered why Canadian writers don't have more of a presence in the United States. After all, they are the closest of our neighbors who have English as the natural language of most of its citizens and the two countries have more in common than not. So why is it that only a handful of Canada's writers ever show up on the shelves of my bookstores? Why does it seem so much easier to find British writers here than it is to find Canadian writers?

According to The Globe and Mail, things are getting worse, not better.
It may be a golden age for Canadian literature, with Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and Michael Ondaatje garnering world renown, but data suggest book exports to our country's main trading partner are dwindling.

Industry challenges are myriad, ranging from a weak U.S. dollar in relation to the Canadian currency, which is cutting into the value of book sales, to changes in the U.S. booksellers' market, leaving Canadian publishers scrambling to keep up.

Together, these factors amount to a slow but steady drop in exports over the past five years and may help explain the growth in Canada's "cultural goods deficit." Book exports to the United States slid 23.6 per cent between 2002 and 2006, Statistics Canada said yesterday, as the greenback tumbled 26 per cent against the loonie.
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Publishers are "finding new markets, trying to plug away at the U.S. and tightening their belts, but the deterioration of the exchange rates has happened so quickly -- to the point where it's almost impossible to keep changing the pricing on the books."

Publishers are trying to cut costs and diversify into new markets in Australia and - once books are translated - Europe and Asia. The United States, however, still accounts for about 90 per cent of Canadian book exports, according to Export Development Canada.
I found another surprise in looking at the statistics at the end of the newspaper article: the U.K. imports a very small amount of books from Canada despite the historical relationship between the two countries. So I'm asking for some help from my Canadian friends. Which authors should I be looking for, and can you recommend any websites that specialize in Canadian books, especially those sites with relatively low postage charges? Let's get the word out.

20 comments:

  1. I feel like I don't read many Canadian authors either--just the biggies like Atwood and Munro--not lesser knowns (to myself anyway). I think Canadian Amazon has a Canadian fiction section, which I have looked through. I wonder if there are some particular small presses that publish lots of Canadian works? I will have to check back to see what responses you get. I have lots and lots of British authors on my shelves, but not so many Canadians! (Of course there is Kate S.'s book of short stories that I need to get....)

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  2. Good point, Sam. With the exceptions that Danielle mentions, I'm not familiar with many Canadian authors.

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  3. I'm not familiar with many Canadian authors either, but I also don't pay attention to the nationality of the authors I read. The only requirement I have for a book is that it be in English, and that's only because I can't read any other languages. I've seen Canadian literature discussed a lot lately, and I must confess I don't understand this emphasis on the country of origin. Am I unique in not paying attention to nationality? I don't seek out books from any specific country, it just doesn't matter to me. Hmm, I must apologize as I see my comment has kind of gone off on a tangent...

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  4. Hey, we're just happy if Americans know we exist! ;)

    As for sources, I'd check booksincanada.com and the GG's.

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  5. Danielle, I know we have to be missing out on some good books simply because they don't cross the border due to economic considerations...that bugs me. Of course, there are Canadian and Brit authors who are published in this country, but I wonder what else I'm missing. Having lived in the U.K. for several years, I know there's plenty that we never hear of...

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  6. It's funny that it has to be that way, Jenclair...I wish it were easier.

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  7. Matt, the country of origin is really not important...and that's the point. But we get shut out on some potentially great stuff because it's just too expensive to get it to us here. The better known Canadians and Brits are published in the U.S. but it's the others I wonder about. I want to see what the small publishers are doing and I like the adventure involved in discovering new writers.

    My internet radio station does exactly that for small labels and independents with no recording contracts. I play people with no ties to the big boys and we've created a nice little niche to market these folks. It's a shame the same can't be done for writers.

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  8. Thanks for the two ideas, Sylvia...we know you exist...we want more from you. :-)

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  9. A surprisingly good list of Canadian authors can be found at Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canadian_authors). Scroll down for links to poets, playwrights, sci-fi writers, and short story authors.

    I bet you've read more Canadians than you realize. Some who I've read in recent years are famous (Robertson Davies, Atwood), some almost famous (A. E. Van Vogt, Yann Martel, W. P. Kinsella, Mavis Gallant, whose Paris Stories I'm reading right now), and some I didn't realize were Canadian at first (Carol Shields, Winnifred Eaton, Douglas Coupland, Thomas Costain).

    Plus, the borders are so fluid that it's hard to say who's a Canadian writer: William Gibson (lived there since 1967), Saul Bellow (born there and moved to the US when he was nine), Douglas Cooper (born and raised in Canada, moved to Mexico), Martel (born in Spain, lives in Canada), and Rohinton Mistry (born in India and moved to Canada immediately after college).

    At the risk of generalizing, I've consistently found in Canadian authors a more international perspective than you'll find in many American authors. Although I'm sure they exist, I haven't run across any truly "regional" Canadian writers yet.

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  10. Hey, I left a LONG reply here today and it's gone! Anyway, I won't repeat it all, but I will say, our population- despite our large geographic size- is but a fraction of the U.S., and only near half that of the U.K., so the fact that any Canadian authors find success outside the border is an accomplishment. As well, there's something to be said for quality over quantity- we don't have Canadian equivalents of John Grisham or Sophie Kinsella (though we do have Harlequin romances, but don't just us too harshly for that).

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  11. More Canadians than any other nationality work at my university, so I feel really lucky to be learning more about books, music and movies made by our neighbors to the north. O Canada!

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  12. I've been more interested lately in Australian authors for similar reasons. It started when a friend who lived in Australia for a couple years recommended a book to me and I couldn't find it ANYWHERE. So she lent me hers. Then I saw someone talking in a blog about an Australian prize, very prestigious, like our National Book Award, and again, I couldn't find the book ANYWHERE. Now I try to be more aware of Australian books and make attempts to find them.

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  13. Wow, thanks for all of that good information, Cloyce. I never thought to check Wikipedia for that kind of list.

    You're right about most of us reading more from Canadian authors than we realize because it's not always pointed out in the author's blurb. And, as you say, which country claims an author born in one country but who spends the bulk of his productive career living in another...both of them?

    I've only read two of Mary Lawson's novels but she strikes me as being a "regional" Canadian author based on what I've seen of her work to now. If you haven't read her, I'd recommend that you take a look.

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  14. John, there's certainly something to be said for quality over quantity, I agree. When I look at the bestseller lists in this country (and even in the U.K., usually) I have to wonder if the list really represents the reading taste of this country as a whole. If so, we are in big trouble.

    I actually do make an attempt to read writers from as diverse a group of countries as possible. I just wish it were easier to find them here. Right now, I'm reading a novel translated from the German in which it originated but, since it's historical fiction, I would have never guessed that its author is German.

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  15. bybee, let me know, please, if you find something that you particularly like but that seems to be a secret in this country. I'd appreciate that.

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  16. I can only remember a very few Australian writers that I've ever read, Dewey. That's another whole world of writers that remains largely a mystery to me.

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  17. Cloyce brings up an interesting point. We don't have as definite a national identity as Americans do so we are more free to draw on our ethnic backgrounds (even Anglo-Saxon). We can be Canadian *and* Indian or Scottish or Nigerian or whatever. There is no conflict, no doubts about loyalty.

    We are also far more aware of and interested in the world than Americans, so literature with an international flavour would naturally do well here. That's not to say there isn't "regional" literature, but it probably doesn't get widely distributed. Perhaps we are not sufficiently interested in ourselves--that would certainly be in line with our humble national character.

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  18. Interesting thoughts, Sylvia. I, for one, would like to have a more complete understanding of Canadian culture just so that I could see what the differences are between Canadian and American culture. Fiction usually is the best way for me to get a feel for another culture and I'm always on the lookout for new Canadian writers for that reason.

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  19. Well, here's a little editorial. that pegs Canada pretty well. And I wonder if fiction explains Canada best. We are calm, sensible people. Nonfiction might be the way to go, and you can do no better than Pierre Burton.

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  20. Interesting editorial, Sylvia...but I think I'd draw the line at Shania Twain if I were you guys. I use here name in kind of a negative way every time that I introduce our country music internet station. :-)

    I'll check out Pierre Burton since I'm not familiar with his work. I do seem to get a better feel for a people's "personality" from fiction for some reason, but I'm willing to try some non-fiction.

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