Reality (2006): Heavy Weather, the Porcupine’s Quill at Thirty

Tim Inkster

A version of this epistle appeared in Canadian Notes & Queries, Number 69. Summer, 2006. Another version was delivered to the Alcuin Society in Vancouver, April 2008; a third version was delivered to the Arts & Letters Club in Toronto, March, 2009. Any number of the issues raised herein have been fixed, in the interim, though I do hear from a number of my competitors that similar challenges continue to plague the industry.

Steven O’Keefe is an American book publishing consultant who teaches on-line marketing strategy, campaigns and training at Tulane University in New Orleans. Mr O’Keefe also owns a consulting service called Patron Saint Productions that publishes a quarterly newsletter called The Beautiful Plan. The Spring, 2004 issue was sub-titled ‘Oh Canada. Workin’ in a Winter Wonderland’. Mr O’Keefe wrote …

‘Due to the peculiarities of funding, Canadian publishing is, indeed, “Canadian”. It displays a reverence for nature, a pride of place that helps books sell well locally. The books reflect the small size of Canadian markets, so geographically dispersed that no wholesaler has been able to make a go of it in the provinces. They encompass a diversity as broad as the native peoples, ex-Europeans, and expatriates that populate Canada’s shores. Just as her husky hockey players glide gracefully over ice on a few centimetres of steel, so Canada’s publishers produce graceful books on razor-thin margins. It is a joy to watch them play, even though they seldom score.’

I would beg to differ. The Porcupine’s Quill has, I think, ‘scored’ more than a couple of times in the past thirty years …

The very first title we published (1975) was a first book of poems called Marzipan Lies by one Brian D Johnson. Mr Johnson is currently film critic for Macleans magazine, and claims to have met Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, twice. Other very early releases included Scenes (1977) by E J Carson, and Paracelsvs (1977) by Brian Henderson. Ed Carson was, until recently, the president of Penguin Canada. Brian Henderson is currently the publisher at Wilfrid Laurier University Press.

In 1978 PQL published Une Bonne Trentaine, a slim book of verse written by local Erin Village highschool graduate Robert Dickson. The book included a poem called ‘Au nord de notre vie’, which was eventually recorded by the franco-ontarienne rock ensemble Cano and came to be recognized as the anthem of the franco-ontarienne cultural movement. In 2002 Mr Dickson became the first anglophone poet to win the Governor General’s Award for poetry en français.

In 1988 Atmospheres Apollinaire by Mark Frutkin was shortlisted (one of five) alongside novels by Margaret Atwood and David Adams Richards for the Governor General’s award for fiction. Atmospheres Apollinaire eventually sold 1100 copies over thirteen years.

The very famous John Metcalf joined PQL as a ‘non-salaried’ senior fiction editor in 1989. Metcalf’s editorial acumen was felt quickly, and nationally. In 1991 both Terry Griggs’ Quickening and Don Dickinson’s Blue Husbands were shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award in the fiction category. Two, out of five, shortlisted titles was a creditable showing for the ‘Little Press That Could’, or so we thought at the time. Quickening sold 1634 copies through three printings. Blue Husbands sold 1734 copies through four printings. We seemed to be headed in the right direction, at some not inconsiderable speed.

I remember standing beside Malcolm Lester, in the Nicholas Hoare store on Front Street in Toronto, the morning the shortlist was announced. Lester, remarking on the excellent showing by the Porcupine’s Quill, suggested that PQL might well be on its way to replicating the critical success of Lester, and Orpen, Dennys. It was a generous thing for Lester to say. I wanted very much to believe him.

In 1993 Bad Imaginings by Caroline Adderson was also shortlisted for the Governor General’s award (due, apparently, to an extraordinary intervention on the part of novelist Leon Rooke, an imposing specimen of a man), and sold 2215 copies through three printings.

In 1994 How Insensitive by Russell Smith was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Prize and the Books in Canada First Novel award (before Chapters had anything to do with the prize). How Insensitive sold 7848 copies through ten printings. These books did not sell in Coles, and only minimally in W H Smith stores. Chapters did not exist in 1994. How Insensitive sold, therefore, in independent bookshops across the country. In 1994 we did no export business worth mentioning.

In 1998 we published Russell Smith’s second novel, Noise. Mindful of the huge success of How Insensitive, Chapters’ buyers pre-ordered 3200 copies of Noise, and then ended up returning 2665. This was our first retail experience with a big box return level of 83%. At the time, it was shocking. More recently, it has become commonplace. Noise eventually sold 3776 copies, a bit less than half the sale of How Insensitive. Russell Smith was disappointed, and signed shortly thereafter with Doubleday.

In the year 2000 we published Annabel Lyon’s Oxygen to huge critical success but rather dismal sales of only 898 copies before we sold the title to McClelland & Stewart because Ellen Seligman’s offer was rather more enticing than a competing offer from Random House / Vintage. Annabel Lyon is currently (Fall 2009) on the shortlist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize with her novel The Golden Mean, published by Random House.

In 2003 we published Emma’s Hands by Mary Swan, a Guelph resident who had bested Alice Munro (and several hundred other writers) to win the O Henry Prize in the United States the year before. Sales thus far in Canada are 544 copies. Mary Swan is not heartened. Neither is Mary’s New York agent, who also represents Alice Munro. Swan’s novel, The Boys in the Trees (Random House) was shortlisted for the Giller in 2008.

In 2004 we published Mike Barnes’ Contrary Angel, a followup collection of stories to Aquarium (1999) which had won the Danuta Gleed award administered by the Writers’ Trust and sold a total of 437 copies. Contrary Angel fared worse. Mike Barnes’ second collection has sold 293 copies.

Eric Ormsby started editing poetry for PQL in 2002. In that same year Norm Sibum’s Girls and Handsome Dogs was chosen as one of the best twenty-five books published in Canada by the editors of, and also took the A M Klein Prize for poetry in Quebec. The title sold 240 copies. In 2004 Norm Sibum’s followup collection, Intimations of a Realm in Jeopardy, sold 103 copies. On Abducting the ’Cello by Wayne Clifford did a little better — 212 copies.

I was amused to read a piece by Hal Niedzviecki in the The Globe & Mail a while back in which he reported that students at the (then) new Humber School of Publishing had created business models for hypothetical publishing companies that included no poetry, or fiction, on their hypothetical lists.

In the case of poetry, I think the students are likely justifiably cautious. Chapters won’t stock such titles, so, they don’t sell. Or so we are told. But we did publish The Hidden Room (1997) by P K Page which sold over 2500 copies each of two volumes and was included in at least one list of the twenty-five most important books published in the history of Canada. I’m proud of that. Number 18. Right after Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee and immediately before Jacob Two-two and the Hooded Fang by Mordecai Richler.

Lines of Truth and Conversation by Joan Alexander and Always Now by Margaret Avison were both included in the Globe Top One Hundred list for 2005. This was the fourth year in a row that PQL had placed at least two titles on the Globe One Hundred list. The achievement is remarkable considering that rather more than half the Globe list is dominated by books published by foreign-owned multinationals, and a further quarter by very-large Canadian trade houses. Of the dozen titles listed that were published by smaller, Canadian-owned companies, the Porcupine’s Quill had two contenders. The achievement is remarkable, but sales — of Joan Alexander’s Lines of Truth and Conversation and Always Now, Volume Three by Margaret Avison — were close to zero for both titles in the five weeks following the announcement of the list in late November. Christmas sales, in other words, were non-existent.

In 2005 included both Norman Levine’s Canada Made Me and Planet Earth by P K Page on their list of ‘Fifty Canadian Essentials’ (along with the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary, and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock). Very prestigious, but that commendation translated into sales of thirty-five copies of Canada Made Me, and only twenty copies of Planet Earth.

The Porcupine’s Quill was shortlisted (2005) by the Canadian Booksellers Association for a Libris award as Canadian Small Publisher of the Year, and Roy MacSkimming, writing in The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada’s Writers has called the Porcupine’s Quill ‘Canada’s pre-eminent literary press’ … which is arguably not true, but it does sound good on grant applications.

The point, I think, is not that we can’t score. We do.

The problem is that there is no way we can ever win.

The role of PQL within the Canadian publishing industry is articulated at length in Kim Jernigan’s Fall 96 issue of The New Quarterly in which John Metcalf ruminates on the reality of what had been achieved to that point, and weighs it against his vision.

‘I want to counter apathy and blandness. I want to shock homogenized minds with the experience of writing at high voltage. I want the press to assert relentlessly literature’s importance. I want nothing “small” about this small press. I want the press to become something of a “movement”. Not a movement committed to a particular “ism,” but a gathering together of writers with an aesthetic approach to literature and with a lust for excellence. I want our writers to draw strength from community. I want each to embolden the next. I want writers who love language and who will swagger and flaunt. I want elegance. I want sophistication. I want a press crackling with energy. I want to draw together into one place so many talented writers that we will achieve critical mass and explode upon Canadian society in a dazzling coruscation (Take that, Steve Heighton!) showering it with unquenchable brilliance.’

The coruscation thing did not happen, though the Porcupine’s Quill has been characterized as a ‘hothouse’ for the nurture of Canadian literary talent. This conjecture is arguably true. Russell Smith, for example, now publishes with Doubleday; Steven Heighton, with Knopf; Antanas Sileika, with Random House; Annabel Lyon, Liz Hay and Elise Levine, with McClelland & Stewart. Notice that all four of the major ‘trade’ publishers identified in the preceding sentence are pieces of the verysame Bertelsmann empire. This suggests (to me) that one or other of the Bertelsmann tentacles should have long ago bought up PQL as an obvious Triple-A sort of farm team for the big leagues. I suggested as much to David Kent on one occasion before Kent left Random, but John Neale, the chairman at the time, was apparently not to be convinced.

There is nothing inherently ‘wrong’ or reprehensible in successful younger writers choosing to put the literary world behind them in search of larger markets, and larger advances. They do. And they will continue to do so. It’s a fact of life that is exacerbated by a small number of aggressive literary agents … but the agents are themselves a fact of business life in literary publishing. Look at the Ontario Arts Council’s ‘Writers’ Reserve’ programme, for example.

The Writers’ Reserve is primarily designed as a writer’s (as opposed to a publisher’s) support programme but one acknowledged goal of the Writers’ Reserve is to assist smaller publishers in the pursuit of ‘author retention’. A worthy cause, to be sure, but the ceiling on recommendations under the Writers’ Reserve is $5,000 which is simply inadequate weighed against the typical $40,000 advance for a two-book deal offered by Bertelsmann.

The problem isn’t Bertelsmann, or even agents, though I would certainly be inclined to agree with Scott McIntyre of Douglas & McIntyre …

‘In the multinationals’ feeding frenzy, you see numbers that are insane. And that just gives literary agents more stature than ever. All the writers go to them, and the agents go to the top dollar every time. So that hands the Canadian game to the people with the deepest pockets.’

Consider the case of a young(ish) Canadian literary publisher who, in 1983, invested $5000 in the career of a then-unknown poet and then followed that up in 1987 with an additional $10,000 investment in that same author’s first collection of stories.

What if the publisher were prescient?

And what if the unknown poet eventually became one of the most celebrated novelists of her generation?

Given the level of risk inherent in an ‘investment’ in an unknown poet, and given the return on investment one might expect would be attached to one of the most ‘celebrated novelists of her generation’, imagine my dismay when I discovered (in 1999) that my $15,000 investment, after a dozen years, returned $8309 — the total sale price for an assignment of contract to Storm Glass and The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan when I sold Jane Urquhart’s early collections to McClelland and Stewart.

I do not mean to suggest that the M&S offer was niggardly, quite the contrary. I have every reason to believe that Ellen Seligman went a goodly piece out of her way to be as generous as she could, but still — a loss of $6691 on an investment of $15,000 after twelve years is not a good return. In any business.

Robert Wright, writing in Reading Canadian: Youth, Book Publishing and the National Question, 1967-2000, has suggested that the Porcupine’s Quill is ‘kindalike’ MoTown Records.

Though it is true that Jane Urquhart once did sing a duet with tenor Michael Burgess of the Broadway production of Les Miz and apparently acquitted herself admirably, still, I am not persuaded that the career of Jane Urquhart is in any way comparable to that of Diana Ross who sold several tens of millions of 45rpm vinyl recordings for Berry Gordy before she left MoTown for greener pastures.

The Porcupine’s Quill sold 4572 copies of Storm Glass over twelve years; and 846 copies of The Little Flowers of Madame de Montespan, over sixteen years.

At one time I was optimistic that Chapters, and then Indigo, would be advantageous for small presses, and literary presses, in Canada.

It is certainly true that historically we never did do much business at all with Coles or even W H Smith, largely because the mall store formats were too small to include shelf space to stock anything other than high-turnover bestsellers and profitable remainders.

My thinking was that the big box stores would have to put something on the shelves at the back of the last aisle on the top floor, and that would be our books, and I wanted to buy into David Peterson’s argument that Chapters was going to ‘grow the market’ for Canadian books. (Mr Peterson, at the time, was chairman of the board of Chapters.)

For awhile, that’s exactly what happened …

1) in 1998 Chapters (& Indigo) ordered 13,293 copies of PQL books. And they returned 4,052 — less than 30 percent, which was somewhat higher than industry standards, but not excessively so, and left us with a net sale of 9,241, which was worth about $90,000 in business for PQL, which was not bad at all.

2) in 2005 (seven years later) Chapters ordered 5,079 copies of PQL books. And returned 3,512 — sixty-nine percent; which left us with a net sale of 1,567 — which means that we had lost 83% of our business with Chapters in the preceeding seven years.

That’s not good, but that’s not the worst of it, because in that same timeframe PQL also suffered through the bankruptcy of General Distribution which Chapters exploited aggressively and which ended up costing Elke & I $65,000 personally. In that same period we also witnessed the closing of Writers & Co (Toronto), Prospero and Books Canada (Ottawa), and Britnells (Toronto), among others. In fact the devastation in the independent retail sector is such that there were only forty independents in Canada who participated in the Literary Press Group’s so-called ‘JoyRead’ marketing programme in 2005 — and three of those stores: Women in Print (Vancouver), the Granville Book Company (Vancouver) and the Double Hook (Montreal), all have closed their doors since then.

The shuttering of the Granville Book Company means that there is no longer a bookseller in Vancouver interested in selling books at the RAW Exchange — Vancouver’s premiere reading series hosted by the Vancouver Public Library.

The Double Hook is another interesting case in point.

Judy Mappin, the proprietor, is the daughter of E P Taylor, who owned a horse called Northern Dancer as well as a few other trinkets that included Massey-Harris, Hollinger Mines, Dominion Stores and Standard Broadcasting. Judy Mappin is also a recipient of the Janice Handford award for service to small and literary Canadian publishing, and the Order of Canada. If Judy Mappin, with her resources, can’t build a viable independent bookstore after thirty years of trying, what possible chance do we have in literary publishing?

And what happens to the Porcupine’s Quill, now that the Double Hook is gone?

MBA student Jamie Glover, writing a paper for the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in the spring of 2004, correctly noted

‘All in, the emergence of the big-box book seller as market leader changed the dynamics of the retail front for all publishers, but the least capable of absorbing the deleterious effects of this market shift were the small presses. Without the cash flow to pay for minimum required inventory or a place on the chain’s “power tables”, and without the attentive sales people at the retail level to encourage readers to experiment with small publishers’ works, the already small Canadian market became considerably smaller.’

I was amused to read a recent report in the business pages of the The Globe & Mail in which a spokesperson for a bankrupt gift-and-candle chain called Bowrings blamed that company’s financial difficulties on competition from Chapters, which probably doesn’t like to think of itself as Bowrings, on stilts.

That being the case, I was not surprised to hear ACP executive director Margaret Eaton acknowledge that the Association of Canadian Publishers suspects that less than five percent of Chapters’ volume is fuelled by the sale of books from Canadian trade book publishers, and less than fifty percent of Chapters’ volume is fuelled by the sale of books, period.

Conventional wisdom suggests that one way to counter falling sales is to increase marketing efforts.

The Supply Chain Initiative, funded by Heritage Canada, attempted to foster the creation and dissemination of high-quality bibliographic data. Armed with $35,000 of Heritage funding over the past seven years, the Porcupine’s Quill was one of the first Canadian publishers to achieve BookNet Canada’s ‘gold’ certification for the export of complete bibliographic records in ‘onix’ format, purportedly an industry standard.

The problem, unfortunately, is that seven years’ worth of repeated export attempts to the major aggregators have been met with only limited success (Chapters, for example, is convinced that the name of our company is Porcupine Press, which is actually a Marxist publisher in the UK), and I am starting to think that extensive on-line bibliographic data may in fact be expediting the secondhand trade in PQL productions, which benefits us not in the least.

The Porcupine’s Quill has recently enjoyed three separate federally-funded internships which corresponded (roughly) to our fiscal years 2003—2005. In this period $27,000 worth of wage subsidies gave us the manpower to be able to increase marketing expenditures 77% (from $25,623 in 2003 to $45,499 in 2005) and yet this additional $19,876 in marketing effort over the three years was attended by a $10,461 decrease in sales over the same period.

It would appear that we have passed the point of diminishing returns.

The $45,499 we spent on marketing in fiscal 05 was not, of course, all our own money. The package included $8,100 worth of Ontario Media Development Corporation ‘BookMark’ funding and $6,000 worth of Canada Council Book Publishers Promotion funding. We do track sales, and returns, closely, by account. We are certainly able to report on specific sales resulting from specific market interventions and we are credibly able to claim some limited success in those targetted attempts but a) the dollar returns on specific market interventions are very low, and b) the overall sales trend, irrespective of specific market interventions, is inexorably down.

And the future, if anything, looks grim.

In 2005 the bulk of our marketing dollars were allocated to the ill-named ‘JoyRead’ campaign orchestrated by the Literary Press Group and supported heavily ($192,000) by the federal Heritage ministry. Our participation in this initiative cost us $8,800 spread over eleven titles through the year. Product placement was heartening. Returns, on the other hand, were disastrous. After 1 December, 2004 Jessica Grant’s Making Light of Tragedy shipped 744 copies, but returns in the period (to 28 February 2006) were 861 copies — ie one hundred percent of the shipments, and an additional return of 117 copies that were shipped prior to the start of the JoyRead campaign. This so-called ‘promotion’ cost us $900. Royston Tester’s Summat Else fared a bit better — 762 copies shipped, and just 790 returns — but still, $1800 in marketing effort on these two titles to effect a net sale of negative 145 copies over fourteen months is not good.

Compliance, particularly by Chapters, was one of the problems with ‘JoyRead’.

Intern Jack Illingworth monitored the Chapters store in Yorkdale mall (Toronto) that same summer. There was no JoyRead display in evidence. Inquiring of the manager, Jack discovered not only that she had never heard of the JoyRead campaign, or, in fact, of the Literary Press Group, but also that she didn’t want to — despite the fact that the store was in receipt of the federal marketing subsidy attached to the programme.

As John Metcalf has said elsewhere: ‘You can’t sell books to people who don’t want them.’

In 1978 the Porcupine’s Quill had no sales force, and no distribution. We published a collection of poems by a Montreal poet by the name of Lazar Sarna whose principal claim to fame was that he had earlier published a novel called The Man Who Lived Near Nelligan with Coach House. We sold 404 copies of Letters of State, 63 of those in cloth, which I thought was not too shabby at all.

In 1978, of course, there were no e-tailers, and we were not obligated to submit extensive bibliographic information in onix format to aggregators.

By 2006 our books were readily available on,, amazon in the UK, France, Germany, China and Japan,,, barnes&, and in the US through Ingram and Baker+Taylor. In Canada we are distributed by the University of Toronto Press and we are presented to the trade by the Literary Press Group.

In the fall of 2005 we published a new collection of poems by Lazar Sarna. So far, sales for He Claims He Is the Direct Heir are 126 copies, paper, of which the author himself bought 40. We have long ago abandoned any attempt to publish poetry in cloth.

LPG sales manager Margaret Bryant reported that our Spring 2006 list was received with enthusiasm across the country.

Hand Luggage by P K Page, for example, ‘is selling well’ as a result of ‘a lot of bookseller interest’, in ‘Quantities that range from 1 to 4’. A Gathering of Flowers from Shakepeare is also ‘selling quite well’, ‘in quantities from 1 to 4’. And, ‘wholesalers are also very interested’ in World Body by Clark Blaise.

But, what did that mean in terms of orders at the University of Toronto Press? The LPG sales force had been presenting our Spring list for over three months. Advance orders for World Body were 29 copies, ordered by a total of 13 stores. David Helwig’s autobiography The Names of Things attracted orders for 66 copies, from 19 stores. A Gathering of Flowers, 98 orders, from 30 stores. And Hand Luggage by P K Page, 190 orders, from 37 stores. On average then, the four spring titles for 2006 attracted advance orders of 95 copies each, from an average of 25 retail stores, nationally, which pretty much characterizes the extent of what remains of the trade market for literary titles in Canada.

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The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.