Coach House Press Closes

For months, the rumors had haunted literary circles. Novelist Paul Quarrington, president of the The WRITERS' UNION OF CANADA, had been braced for bad news ever since a friend emerged from a publishers' conference reeling from reports of the worst Christmas book sales in memory and the devastation wrought by massive federal and provincial cuts to the arts. "He came out shaking his head and saying, 'People are going down,'" Quarrington recalled. But last week, as a sombre press release announced the most recent casualty in the country's beleaguered publishing industry, even Quarrington was caught off guard. The obituary was for Coach House Press, the 31-year-old Toronto firm that has become a national institution by giving authors like himself - and award-winning novelist Michael ONDAATJE - their start. "For it to be Coach House," said Quarrington, "turns out to be doubly heartbreaking."

Across the country, writers and publishers vented their fury at the policies they claim precipitated Coach House's demise and still threaten the domestic publishing industry - even, some argue, the survival of Canadian culture itself. Fresh from an Ottawa meeting with Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who promised to consider emergency relief measures, Jack Stoddart, president of the 145-member Association of Canadian Publishers, warned that another 10 small presses face possible bankruptcy. According to an angry Margaret Atwood, such a loss could snuff out the next generation of talent. "I got my start with small literary publishing houses in Canada," she said. "If all the small presses vanish, what you will have is something like professional sports without the farm teams. Where are these kids supposed to come from?"

The bigger firms, too, are at risk. "The industry is facing a major crisis," said Anna Porter, publisher of Toronto-based Key Porter Books. "What is endangered is not the publication of books; it's the publication of books about Canada." Already, Porter has cancelled plans to publish works of fiction this fall, and has put other exclusively Canadian projects on hold to concentrate on titles that she knows she can sell abroad. Instead, her lead selection is a coffee-table glossy on the American cowboy; others feature wild horses and sunken treasure. "They're by Canadian writers," she said, "but they say nothing to us about us."

For many, Ontario Premier Mike HARRIS added insult to injury by shrugging off charges that his government's cutbacks - slashing Coach House's annual provincial funding by 74 per cent, to $19,290 - had dealt the publisher a death blow. "If they can't compete in the marketplace," Harris told reporters, "that probably speaks to their management capabilities." His indictment left publishers sputtering with rage. Referring to Harris's ill-fated former partnership in a North Bay ski hill, Stoddart fumed: "He has the gall to say this and he couldn't even run a ski resort."

But the premier's preoccupation with market forces reflects a wider public perception - that those in the cultural industries are perennial whiners, addicted to government handouts. The notion is particularly galling to Coach House publisher Margaret McClintock, who took over the press six years ago. A former officer with the Ontario Arts Council, McClintock recognized the "cooling grant climate" and set out to make the house less dependent on public largesse. By forging a Canadian distribution agreement with McClelland & Stewart and expanding the company's U.S. markets, she had tripled sales to $450,000 by last year. Indeed, at the very moment McClintock was announcing the closure of Coach House last week, the firm's U.S. agent, Ira Silverberg, found himself in Los Angeles besieged by inquiries about one of the 14 titles she had just cancelled: the script for David CRONENBERG's controversial new film, Crash. But despite such successes - and government grants - Coach House has rarely broken even. It is, as McClintock notes, a reality accepted by those who produce Canadian literature for a market that is one-tenth the size of the mammoth English-language book bazaar next door. Said McClintock: "Harris's comments just show he's completely ignorant about the economics of book publishing."

While U.S. publishers can handily earn back their costs on home ground, their Canadian counterparts enjoy no such economies of scale. Still, American books - which, together with British titles, occupy 80 per cent of the space on Canadian bookshelves - set the market price. "If Canadian books were priced to reflect the real economics of publishing in this country", said McClintock, "it would cost $50 for a paperback." Worse, unlike most other retail businesses, booksellers can return their unsold stock to publishers for a rebate. Last Christmas, the industry suffered record returns - as high as 50 per cent of sales for most major firms. Given those market pressures, Anna Porter blames publishers for not doing a better job of making their case for public support. As she points out, even the oil and cable industries benefit from regulatory schemes. "I think we've done a really crappy job of explaining how this industry works," she said, "and what government funding and policy has accomplished in this country."

In fact, the inequities of the continental marketplace lie behind many of the cultural policies now under attack. In the 1930s, Graham Spry, one of the fathers of the CBC, argued that Canadians had a choice between funding from "the state or the United States." By the late 1960s, the push to foster a national identity brought a wide range of new cultural measures - and grants. Since then, a generation of Canadian writers has flourished, earning plaudits and export dollars abroad. Among them were such names as Alberto Manguel, Susan Swan, Anne Michaels, Ann-Marie MacDonald and George Walker, many of whose first manuscripts found a home at Coach House Press. The company also became one of the few publishers to introduce English-Canadian readers to Quebec writers - including Nicole Brossard and Dany (How to Make Love to a Negro) Laferrière. Indeed, for many, the collapse of Coach House seemed bitterly ironic coming only two weeks after Copps had announced a $20-million fund to foster national unity. Sighed Atwood, "Twenty-million dollars for national lunacy and then they demolish one of the few houses that does a lot of Quebec literature and translation." To publisher Malcolm Lester, who has just turned the management of his imprint over to Key Porter, that is only one paradox in the current policy turnabout. "This is an industry that governments created over the past 20 years," he said. "Now, they seem to be undermining their own success."

But if those policies produced a thriving literary culture, publishing itself remained a risky business. In an effort to correct its inherent structural problems, former Conservative communications minister Marcel Masse attempted to bring in measures that would guarantee the country's publishers a larger share of their own marketplace. That legislation never materialized, and his contentious Baie Comeau policy, aimed at preserving national ownership, was increasingly watered down. Then in 1992, one of his successors, Perrin Beatty, presided over a legislative change that allows Canadian publishers to sell their firms to foreign interests - but only if their economic survival is at stake. With rising paper costs and cuts that have slashed funding by 62 per cent over the past year, Stoddart worries that many companies now meet that criterion. In addition, 10 small firms face the loss of critical lines of credit with the expiration of an Ontario program of loan guarantees. Said Stoddart, "The government has opened the door to a mass sell-off of the entire industry."

As Copps's aides ponder a new confidential study of the book business commissioned by the heritage department, publishers are lobbying for permanent tax breaks or legislative reforms. As Avi Bennett, chairman and CEO of McClelland & Stewart, put it: "We don't want handouts that are at their whim." Whatever course Ottawa finally chooses, the decision has the potential to shape not only the next generation of Canadian writers but the cultural well-being of the nation as well. Said Gordon Platt of the Canada Council: "It's a decision our government will have to take--whether we can afford to have a literary culture and tell our own stories, with our own identity and voice."

Maclean's July 29, 1996