A number of regular visitors to this blog are interested in Canadian fiction and don’t live in Canada or the United States. While they have no trouble buying Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro, they complain — with some justification — that a lot of Canadian writing voices are not easily available to them. I don’t have an ideal solution, by any means, but thought I would at least attempt an explanation and offer a suggestion. (The illustrations are a couple of famous titles from the New Canadian Library series — keep reading for a link.)
I am leaving the U.S. out of this post — with the advance of online selling, most Canadian titles are available. Shipping costs from Canadian sources are not prohibitive for those that aren’t.
A handful of Canadian authors, including some first novelists, do very well in the international market. Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle scored advances over $2 million Cdn last year; reports are that Alan Bradley received more than $1 million for Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie along with a contract for five more books. Obviously, those aren’t the books we are talking about (both were available in the U.K. before they were here in Canada).
As noted above, the Canadian A list also gets published in the U.K, usually simultaneously. Home runs come from the U.S. market. Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Fall on Your Knees and Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance both were Oprah selections — I’m told that meant sales of over 750,000 for both. Britain’s 2008 bestseller was the thriller No Time for Goodbye by Canadian Linwood Barclay (no I haven’t read it) which has sold more than a million copies. When you consider that 5,000 is a very large number for Canadian sales, you start to see what is up.
Literary novels that show up in Canadian competitions also tend to get picked up in the U.K., although it may take six or eight months (a good example is last year’s Giller winner, Through Black Spruce, released this month). Again, this market has much more potential than the Canadian one — the success of books such as Life of Pi (which did all right in Canada and then hit the big time fully a year later with a Booker win) validates the strategy of waiting.
All of which suggests the business case is this: The potential big bucks for Canadian authors come from the U.S. and U.K., not the home country. In the best case scenario (for the author) that comes immediately. Even with the smaller publishers, it makes business sense to try to sell well in Canada, then leverage that success into an overseas contract at the Frankfurt Book Fair. The flip side of this business case? The harder it is for Europeans to buy a book published in Canada at a reasonable price, the fewer potential problems you are creating in finding a U.K. publisher for an overseas contract. There will never be a Canadian version of the Book Depository (or an Australian one — they publish great books too — for that matter, since the case is very similiar there.)
Certainly that means there are a lot of very good Canadian books that are not available — or for those who can’t wait the six to eight months, a frustrating interval. (We Canadian readers do face that same frustration — and even the very welcome Book Depository option does have some costs.)
Here’s the suggestion and I admit it is probably only of use to very dedicated readers: Buy five books at once and the overall shipping costs move into line. Canada has two significant online sellers — chapters.indigo.ca and http://www.amazon.ca/ — and both offer international shipping. Chapters is slightly less expensive — a flat $10.95 Cdn, plus $3.95 a book — so I’ll use them for my example.
I’ve used this method to send a couple of packages to friends in the U.K. and tried out a few other test orders to confirm the estimated costs. With online discounts (usually of 24 per cent) for trade paperbacks, the average cost usually works out to about $15 a book before shipping. A five-book order with shipping comes to $105 (roughly 57 pounds at current exchange rates) or just over 11 pounds per book. That isn’t hugely out of line with U.K. cover prices, although I admit (at least in North America) cover prices don’t mean much anymore. New hardovers are obviously more expensive but the online discounts tend to be significantly higher — again the total cost comes in at about the cover price.
Chapters quotes a shipping estimate of 6 to 8 weeks which I have found usually is accurate, although my limited experience shows quite a bit of variance (I suspect some shipments sit in Customs warehouses for some weeks). Be warned if you order a book that they say will ship in two weeks, or whatever, they usually hold the entire order. The website says they also ship to Australia, New Zealand and many other countries (search International Shipping for a list) — I have no experience with their performance there. I admit it isn’t a perfect solution; at least it is a suggestion.
As a final temptation…. There are two main sources of Canadian fiction “classics”, many of which are available only in Canada — the New Canadian Library (catalogue here) and Penguin Canada (here). Note that a number of the more popular Penguin titles are available in the U.K. and U.S. series — my guess is that copyright and potential sales are both involved in the choice. Also, new releases from NCL often show up on the Book Depository and while shipping is “free”, they have just added the international costs into the price — a book that costs $13 in Canada (NCL titles are quite cheap) costs 13 pounds, hardly a bargain when the exchange rate is $1.85. If any of the titles in either series happens to rouse an interest and you would like me to consider reviewing it, by all means leave a suggestion in a comment. I do own a version of most of them and would probably be happy to have an excuse to reread.