Publishers worry that Ottawa will allow more access to foreign firms by KATE TAYLOR
At a recent panel discussion about the book industry, publisher David Kent cut through the moderator’s polite introduction and jokingly accepted the label Satan. The bubbly Kent might seem an unlikely incarnation of evil, but he’s the CEO of HarperCollins Canada, a foreign-owned publisher, and his Canadian competitors were out in force that night in Toronto, ribbing him as they aggressively denounced foreign ownership – just in case anyone was thinking we might need more of it in the Canadian book industry.
That’s the reason the publishers are so testy these days. Fresh from saving Saskatchewan potash from foreign control, the federal government is now reviewing its policy on foreign investment in the book business, and is expected to issue its conclusions this year. Ottawa has long argued culture needed special protection, but Canadian-owned publishers are worried the current government will open up the industry to competition in ways that might benefit foreign publishers and big bookstores, but might damage the Canadian sector. After all, unlike the future of Potash Corp., the fate of a literary press won’t decide which federal party will win seats in Saskatchewan.
“Change is in the wind,” said Margie Wolfe, owner of Second Story Press and president of the Association of Canadian Publishers, after she attended Ministry of Canadian Heritage consultations last month. Under a 1992 policy, the Canadian book industry is protected in theory, but it’s governed in practice by a Byzantine mix of controls, exemptions and logical contradictions that aim to deliver those crucial “net benefits” on which Ottawa judges foreign investments. This patchwork system has served Canadian literature rather well over the years.
But now, the advance of e-commerce is threatening to upset the equilibrium. After Ottawa allowed Amazon to establish a warehouse in Canada last spring, bypassing the policy that stopped foreign-controlled companies from setting up book-distribution businesses here, critics cried foul and Canadian Heritage belatedly launched the review that a federal panel had first recommended two years ago.