A March essay: Buying Canadian books

double-hook1two-solitudes2                                          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.

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31 Responses to “A March essay: Buying Canadian books”

  1. Jules Says:

    It’s an interesting post you got here Kevin. I’m experiencing the same problem with French books or pocket version. We usually get them a few months after they get out of press in France. It’s frustrating because added to that, they cost more than twice the price!! I now have a friend who sends me books in exchange of Quebec authors, but it’s not that worth it (except for waiting time!) because of the shipping costs for me! Loving books costs a lot wherever they come from… I guess! :)

  2. Isabel Says:

    I love your insightful review and agree with it.

    I went to Vancouver one year and bought lots of books that appeared in lower 48 ONE year later.

    I was raving about authors that none of my friends had heard of.

  3. John Self Says:

    Kevin, I recently read a recommendation of Fall by Colin McAdam. Do you know it?

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I amazed by your timing once again, John. Fall was sitting on an order list, awaiting another title from my wife before being submitted, when your question came in. I haven’t read or heard anything from anyone who has read it (it just came out last week) but had it marked for attention because of McAdam’s first book, Some Great Thing.

    That book, his first novel, was about a builder and a bureaucrat in Ottawa, battling over a land development. On the one hand that sounds crassly boring (Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full is the only other novel I can recall that featured a developer). On the other hand, I’m one of those who think at least some novelists should try to capture what is happening in the current world. Some Great Thing wasn’t great but it was an enjoyable read (for a Canadian — I’m not sure it would cross the Atlantic very well). And McAdam certainly offered the potential for improvement.

    That, coupled with the boarding school angle (I’ve enjoyed both Yates’ A Good School and Knowles’ A Separate Peace in recent months), had this one on my list. I plan to read it quite soon after arrival so would hope to have an opinion for you in a few weeks.

  5. Trevor Says:

    I think John has a link into the future, Kevin, or at least into your mind. He seems to be just ahead of the curve on everything!

  6. deucekindred Says:

    If i’m not mistaken Robertson Davies’ and Mordecai Richlers’ books should still be easily available in the U.K.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Davies and Richler are certainly available — they are part of what I call the A list (and there are quite a few authors of whom this is true — I just cited a few obvious examples).

    Your post, deuce kindred, does give me a chance to harp on another Canadian books idiosyncracy, however.

    Canada does not have “mass market” paperbacks for its authors unless a U.S. or U.K. publisher decides to produce one — alas, our market does not have enough “mass” to have a mass market. And sometimes when such a version is produced overseas, copyright protection in Canada means it can’t be sold here.

    This produces the interesting situation where some A list Canadian authors books can be bought significantly cheaper in the U.K. than in Canada. The Book Depository has Richler’s Barney’s Version and Munro’s The View from Castle Rock at 7.19 pounds ($13.30 Cdn). The online price for versions here (even with the discount and before shipping costs) is $17.60, which is 32 per cent higher.

    Strange world, book publishing.

  8. deucekindred Says:

    I didn’t know that. It is strange indeed.

    You are right though it is a shame that there hasn’t been a rediscovery in Canadian literature. (like what happened in music when the media focused on Canadian bands due to The Arcade Fire’s success) Really all you need is one author to write a killer novel ( I think Atwood, although an excellent author, is a bit too old so there is need for fresh blood oh and Yann Martel has more of a European background to make him a Canadian per se.)

    I lived in Canada for the first 14 years in my life (mainly The Indian Reservation Cormorant Lake, then Winnipeg, Toronto, Dauphin and Kenora) and the only Canadian authors we were exposed to were Mordecai Richler, Margaret Atwood and Gordon Korman, which was a shame I’m sure there was way more than those three.

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    deucekindred: I think you are quite right about Atwood, although she certainly does have her fans. And I think Canadian literature is quite well represented with the well-known authors — it is some of the lesser known or first novelists who have trouble getting exposure outside the country.

    I don’t know where you live now, but given your background I think you might be interested in two novels by Joseph Boyden, if you haven’t heard of him or them already — Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce — since both are set, at least partially, in Moosonee and Moose Factory . Through Black Spruce won the Giller Prize as Canada’s best novel last fall and was released in the UK this very day, so your post gives me another chance to promote it. I commented on it in another forum before I started this blog so I haven’t reviewed it here — here’s a link to dovegreyreader’s review which comments on both books: http://dovegreyreader.typepad.com/dovegreyreader_scribbles/2008/11/congratulations-to-joseph-boyden.html
    Thanks for your comments.

  10. deucekindred Says:

    Thanks for sharing! will definitely check out!

    (btw I currently live in Malta, Europe)

  11. Rob Says:

    I’ve actually grown a little disillusioned with the Book Depository lately – while more expensive books may be reduced, the cheaper books are sold at considerably above RRP, which makes a bit of a nonsense of the “free postage”.

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Part of me is disillusioned with them because I do think it is misleading to put shipping costs into the price and then brag about “free postage”. A much bigger part of me, fortunately, appreciates their business model and, so far, an incredible service record. They do supply such a wonderful service (for me, getting books from the UK was a major pain before I discovered the BD — from stewart on the Man Booker debate site) that I’d rather see that acknowledged. Then again, I’m not sure that book fanatics in Western Canada are necessarily their number one target market.

  13. Trevor Says:

    I actually got Nineteen Eighty-Four from them cheaper than I could get an awful-looking mass market paperback from Amazon. I think with the exchange rate I ended up paying $8, when the cheapest mass market edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four was $9.99 or thereabouts; the trade edition (also not attractive) was around $13. It might be a raw deal with some of their books, but there are some excellent deals on there.

  14. Colette Jones Says:

    I had some problems with the Book Depository in January whereby their system was not actually taking the order but appeared to have, and it happened on more than one occasion. This caused problems with books I was buying for my book group. I gave them another chance recently and the order went through so I think they have fixed it, but amazon got my book group order in the end!

    • Colette Jones Says:

      Replying to myself… to add that I did notice a price to be above RRP on one occasion but I thought it was probably a mistake rather than intentional.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    As the guy who introduced a grumpy comment about the Book Depository, I’d like to back off a bit. Any problems that I have had with them have been minor and I certainly appreciate — and use — the excellent service they provide. As Trevor’s post notes, the BD is often the best (and sometimes the only) source for books that I really want. And I must admit that most of the higher price examples that I have found concern books that simply would not have been available otherwise. They aren’t perfect, but they are a valuable resource for those of use who like books.

  16. Sheila o'Brien Says:

    Gosh, KFC, now you have Mr D’Arcy endorsing your blog. Amazing.

  17. Rob Says:

    The books that are priced higher than RRP tend to be the cheaper ones, where charging the normal price wouldn’t cover postage. One example is the Wordsworth Sherlock Holmes collection, which has an RRP of £5.99 but costs £8.69 on BD. I’m not sure whether it’s actually legal in the UK to artificially inflate one element of a price while claiming that another part is “free”, but it’s certainly deceitful.

    As you say, Kevin, they’re a very valuable resource, but that’s no excuse for this kind of thing.

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I agree it is misleading, but only that. Regarding the Canadian books I referenced in the post, I have to admit that at least the BD is making them available (I’ve seen other examples of this as well — Barnacle Love was available for a while last year at a price that obviously included some international shipping costs). I’d rather they did that than simply not carry the book because they couldn’t afford to “free” ship it.

  19. Trevor Says:

    Kevin, on my Giller Prize forum I just posted a link to an interesting article in The National Post about Canadian literature. Apparently only 53% of people interview (Canadians? North Americans? Didn’t say.) can name a Canadian author, living or dead. I’d love your insight into what it says.

  20. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor’s post above came in while I was writing my reply concerning The National Pest article, which is now on his blog here. The link to the article in The Pest is also available on Trevor’s site.

  21. Cipriano Says:

    A very interesting posting. I’ve been reading with a reading partner from Illinois for about six years now. She’s a high-school English teacher and a real aficionado of good literature . We’ve read hundreds of books together and it is amazing how many of these have been from Canadian authors. More and more we are finding that some of the most impressive fiction out there, is from Canada.
    Right now we are reading David Bergen’s The Time In Between.
    Simply amazing book.

  22. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for your comment Cipriano and I am happy to read that you are finding Canadian authors worthy of reading. Bergen’s book did win the Giller Prize, Canada’s premier fiction prize in 2005 — I admit it wasn’t to my taste, but I can certainly understand why people like it.

    Your comment has also inspired me to do a post on last year’s Giller winner, Joseph Boyden’s Through Black Spruce. While I commented on it elsewhere at the time, I hadn’t started this blog yet. It was released in the UK just a few weeks ago, so a revisit seems timely. I’ll try to get the post up within a week — keep an eye out for it, because if you like Bergen I think you will also find Boyden to be of interest.

  23. JRSM Says:

    I’ve searched around a lot to find a way of getting books from Canada cheaply (I’m in Australia): in the end I have found Chapters to be be (slightly) the cheapest, but the postage is still a killer.

  24. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is too bad — because there are a lot of similarities between Australian and Canadian fiction (I plan to do a post on it soon). The countries are the same age, have the same “dominion” heritage, mistreated their native populations equally badly, have all their people living on a border and still have huge frontier areas — all of which produces a particular kind of fiction (the UK and even US just don’t have those kinds of conditions). Alas, for a physical product like a book, they are far apart and the markets just don’t seem to be big enough to create a critical mass that produces “book trade”.

  25. JRSM Says:

    You’re spot-on about the Canadian/Australian similarities–I’ve been on a bit of a Canadian literature binge recently (Munro, Findley, Davies, Quarrington, Okegawa, Richler, plus some odd little House of Anansi titles), and it’s quite striking.

    I just wish Penguin Canada would update their classics site–the “new titles” they are lisitng are from 2004!

  26. KevinfromCanada Says:

    It is only speculation on my part, but I suspect Penguin has pretty much abandoned the “Canadian” classics and left it to New Canadian Library — NCL books are significantly cheaper and when you consider that sales for school courses are a significant factor in all these classic series, I suspect that has an impact. I was also amused to note when I checked their site in response to your comment, JRSM, that Penguin is claiming Saul Bellow as Canadian for almost half the 42 titles they do list. I know he was born here and spent some months in Canada as a babe, but even I, Canadian chauvanist that I am, don’t claim him as Canadian.

    On the Australian-Canadian front, do I get to claim Janette Turner Hospital as Canadian? Or do I have to yield to her Australian roots?

  27. JRSM Says:

    We’ll split her.

    That’s a shame about the Canadian classics–nice-looking books, and I discovered some great writers (I’d never read Findley before, for example: nothing of his other than ‘Spadework’ ever appears in bookshops here).

  28. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Check out the redesigned NCL titles — for my money, their catalogue is better and the new books are both nice looking and significantly cheaper than Penguin.

  29. David Says:

    I know you wrote this three years ago now, Kevin, but I just wanted to add a comment that might be of use to anyone in the UK wanting to buy books from Canada who might be reading this post, regarding shipping costs. If you’re in the UK and you use Amazon.ca, it’s well worth choosing Standard International shipping, even if you want your items in a hurry. Amazon say this will take 10-12 weeks (!) BUT I have found that every time, no matter whether I am ordering one book or five, when I choose Standard shipping, my order is nonetheless dispatched using Priority International Courier and the DHL man arrives with my books within 3 or 4 days. If I had chosen that method of shipping it would usually add about £15 to my order, so it really is worth bearing in mind.
    I just ordered four books from them yesterday (Linden MacIntyre’s ‘Why Men Lie’, Russell Wangersky’s ‘Whirl Away’, Kyo Maclear’s ‘Stray Love’ & Heather Jessup’s ‘The Lightning Field’) with Standard 10-12 week shipping – they’ve shipped with DHL and are due to be delivered on Monday.

  30. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for bringing this post back to light, David — and for the very useful information. I know that people think buying books from Canada is dreadfully expensive with shipping, but it is not — particularly when you can get the order up to three or four books. Alas we have no version of the Book Depository (and I doubt we ever will) but careful shopping and selecting does make the cost quite acceptable.

    And I had not heard of the Maclear so will be looking it up.

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