The Publishing Industry in Canada 1918 to the Twenty-First Century

by George L. Parker
Photograph (from left to right) of John McClelland, Sir Robert Watson, Mrs. Matie Molinaro and Jack McClelland, [195-]

Canadian publishers underwent dramatic changes during the twentieth century, shifting their focus from the importation of foreign titles to the manufacture of Canadian books by Canadian authors, while continuing alliances with foreign firms. Navigating the difficult waters of the Second World War, ongoing financial challenges, and relentless competition from abroad, homegrown publishers have nurtured a Canadian voice and brought much-beloved literature in all genres to the world. In this case study, book history scholar George L. Parker, author of the seminal The Beginnings of the Book Trade in Canada (1985), provides an overview of the industry from 1918, with reference to transformational events of the last decade.

1918 to the Second World War
Canada’s book industry has been shaped by importation, the agency system, and globalization. They are responses to the enormous geographical spread of our small population whose print requirements have never been entirely fulfilled by our authors or by domestic production. With the commodification of books and the upsurge in literacy in the late nineteenth century, British and American publishers aggressively marketed their books in colonial Canada. Their houses negotiated Canadian rights with their Canadian branches or with local publisher/agents, who imported plates, sheets, or bound books from their principals. The revenues from agency distribution and textbook publishing nurtured original Canadian publishing.

These practices are evident in the business records of Copp Clark; Clarke, Irwin; Macmillan of Canada; McClelland & Stewart (M&S), and Lorne Pierce of the Ryerson Press, which are held in the archives CP00189.jpgof the three institutions participating in this website. The records pertain to the risks of publishing, such as copyright issues, distribution costs, “buying around” by booksellers and institutions, the competition from international educational publishers, and the challenge after 1918 to transform agency activities into a real publishing industry. These records also attest to the commitment of these Canadian publishers to publish Canadian authors.

Canada’s efforts in the First World War fueled national pride and optimism. In the booming 1920s growing revenues and the increasing number of Canadian books published annually were evidence of the health of the publishing industry. Publishers courted authors and supported the fight by the Canadian Authors Association for fair treatment under the new copyright act of 1921, and both groups organized the first annual Canadian Book Week (1921). Authors undertook popular lecture tours and radio readings. Their books were promoted by reviewers like William Arthur Deacon of the Toronto Globe and Mail. While the British lamented the loss of their Canadian markets to the Americans, Publishers’ Weekly (23 June 1928) devoted a full issue to Canadian publishing and bookselling successes.

John McClelland of M&S emphasized international best selling Canadian authors such as Ralph Connor and Lucy Maud Montgomery, and newcomer CP01139.jpgMartha Ostenso. Lorne Pierce, the literary editor of the Ryerson Press, launched the Makers of Canadian Literature – a series on Canadian writers – as well as a series of poetry chapbooks, and a series of school readers. At the Macmillan Company of Canada, Hugh Eayrs attracted prize winner Mazo de la Roche, poet E.J. Pratt, environmentalist ‘Grey Owl’ (Archie Belaney), and novelists Frederick Philip Grove and Morley Callaghan. S.B. Gundy, manager of the Oxford University Press, published Stephen Leacock. C.J. Musson’s authors included Emily Murphy and Douglas Durkin. Thomas Allen’s lists included Nellie McClung, Mary Grannan, and Donald Creighton.

The Canadian subsidiaries of Wm. Collins Sons; J.M. Dent; Dodd, Mead; Doubleday; Little, Brown; and Thomas Nelson also published Canadian writers. Because of these promising ventures, Canadian houses at that time normally arranged contracts with Canadian authors (such as the agreement between M&S and L.M. Montgomery), and occasionally with non-Canadian writers, for the Canadian market, but our publishers rarely secured lucrative world and subsidiary rights for any authors, which would happen at a later phase in the quest for a “real” publishing industry.

The Great Depression brought severe contractions, exacerbated by higher tariffs imposed by many countries. American firms dumped copyrighted books CP00123.jpginto Canada. The “dollar books” scheme was an innovation by American houses and their Canadian agents to attract book buyers, but the choice of some new fiction at $1.00 and $1.25, while other new fiction was offered at between $2.00 and $2.50, merely confused the public. Two new innovative houses, Louis Carrier of Montreal and Graphic Publishers of Ottawa, went out of business. M& S were bailed out by Cassell (1929) and by J.M. Dent (1935), two of their major principals, and Lorne Pierce’s financial department at Ryerson refused books that lacked sales potential. John Gray repeatedly advised his Macmillan of Canada colleague Hugh Eayrs to develop textbook and educational publishing to raise revenues.
Many poets and fiction writers had difficulty getting published. Despite some popular successes, the majority of trade books were not profitable; Morley Callaghan, Frederick Philip Grove, and Sinclair Ross, among others, could not survive on book sales alone. Thomas Raddall was one of the few novelists to live by his pen.

The Second World War revived book sales, even though manpower shortages, paper rationing, and Ottawa’s reluctance to promote books as part of the war effort caused delays in publishing deadlines. The loss of British exports that were replaced by swelling imports of American books and periodicals influenced the British temporarily to support plans for more original publishing in Canada. There was an increase in reading, and heavy demand for technical and scientific books. Important new writers appeared: Grace Campbell and Hugh MacLennan with Collins; Gwethalyn Graham with Thomas Nelson (Canada); Thomas Raddall with Doubleday (Canada); Evelyn Richardson with Ryerson; and Sinclair Ross with M&S.

Montreal’s publishing industry received an important economic boost after the Fall of France in 1940. The Berne Convention authorities permitted the reprinting of French copyrighted works for distribution to the Francophone world for the duration of the war. This situation ended in January 1946, but helped foster the cultural maturity that led to the Quiet Revolution in Quebec after 1960.

Second World War to the 1970s
CP01113.jpgAfter 1945, as Canada evolved into a multicultural society, and a new sense of identity supplanted the old colonial ties to Britain, national self-scrutiny was evident in works that probed contemporary politics, the justice system, the environment, relations between French- and English-language Canadians, and Canada’s international role. Expanding school and college enrolments encouraged educational publishing. The paperback revolution also attracted new readers in its investigations of contemporary society and politics and its restoration of the past though reprints of literary and historical works.

Moreover, some publishing ventures were undertaken because of concerns by Ottawa and the provinces over Canadian ownership of cultural industries. The survival of culture and literature marked a new intervention in print culture: following recommendations of the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Sciences, and Letters (1949-51), also known as the Massey-Levesque Commission, Ottawa established the National Library (1951) and the Canada Council (1956), which funded authors, artists, and scholars. Provincial arts councils provided similar funding. The federal government in Ottawa also improved its statistics on production, distribution, and bookselling, adhered to the Universal Copyright Convention, and provided support for book CP00139.jpgexports. Ottawa also undertook occasional surveys of professional authorship.

Post-war Toronto publishers attracted authors who achieved international critical and financial success. Robertson Davies left Clarke, Irwin to work with John Gray at Macmillan, who also published historian Donald Creighton and novelists Morley Callaghan and Hugh MacLennan. Jack McClelland transformed his father’s lists of popular best sellers with star novelists such as Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, Mordecai Richler, and Gabrielle Roy. McClelland’s poets included Earle Birney, Leonard Cohen, Irving CP00871.jpgLayton, and James Reaney, and nonfiction writers Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, and Peter C. Newman. McClelland established Canada’s first literary paperback series, The New Canadian Library, and the first social sciences series, the Carleton Library, and several series on Canadian history.

Lorne Pierce at Ryerson published Will R. Bird and Dorothy Livesay, but his retirement in 1960 was a harbinger of inheritance problems among Toronto houses and created a loss of prestige for Ryerson, CP00866.jpgeven though it published Hugh Hood and Alice Munro, The University of Toronto Press and Les Presses de l’Université Montréal distributed their scholarly books internationally, while Harlequin Books was the only trade publisher to have major international impact with its primly erotic “chicklit” romances.

The prosperity of the 1960s masked serious problems. The cumbersome agency system created many distribution conflicts, of which “buying around” was one of the most publicized. This process arose because post-secondary institutions, libraries, and retailers ordered directly from foreign wholesalers or publishers, thus circumventing the authorized Canadian agent, whom they CP00417.jpgcriticized for perceived inefficiency, slow orders, and high prices. Moreover, institutional libraries frequently ordered from computerized American wholesalers that expanded their operations into Canada. In addition, sloppy management, over-expansion, and the decision by the provinces to revamp their authorized textbook lists created cash flow problems, and major educational publishers like Ryerson, Gage, and Macmillan verged on bankruptcy.

Meanwhile, international houses terminated their agency agreements with Canadian houses and established subsidiaries that developed well-financed Canadian educational and trade programs in English and French. Doubleday was the first of these international arrivals in 1948 when its managers abruptly left M&S. This trend continued as Wallace Matheson developed Canadian operations for Prentice-Hall, Ron Besse moved from McGraw-Hill-Ryerson to Gage and then to Macmillan, and Campbell Hughes departed Ryerson for Van Nostrand Reinhold.

In 1970 the crisis set in. Ryerson was sold to the American firm McGraw-Hill, and W.J. Gage to Scott, Foresman (although Gage was repatriated in 1978). In CP00971.jpg1972 Macmillan was sold to the Canadian firm MacLean-Hunter as part of its expansion in the educational and reference market; this in spite of a proposed purchase of Macmillan by John Gray and Jack McClelland. Hugh Kane departed M&S for Macmillan of Canada’s final decade as a distinguished Canadian house, while Jack McClelland faced bankruptcy in 1972 and was bailed out by an Ontario government loan. In Quebec City, the venerable Librairie Garneau was purchased by the France-based publishing group, Hachette Livre. The way was paved for globalization, in which publishing houses owned by international conglomerates arrived in the late 1970s, the latest variation of colonialism in Canada’s publishing industry.

New Conflicts, New Strategies: 1970s to the Twenty-first Century
CP00284.jpgDebates over ownership of the cultural industries became bitter in the 1970s. In 1973 the Writers’ Union of Canada was formed by authors who aggressively lobbied the industry and Ottawa. The Ontario Royal Commission on Book Publishing (1972) recommended loans and subventions to Canadian-owned firms that published Canadian trade books and textbooks. Ottawa increased its financial aid and established the Foreign Investment Review Agency (1975) – renamed Investment Canada in 1985 – to monitor, but not necessarily stop, takeovers. The nationalistic Association of Canadian Publishers pressured Ottawa to create the Book Publishing Industry Development Program (1979), but even with $40 million spent by 1985, the industry was still only twenty per cent Canadian-owned.

CP00080-2.jpgIn effect, as globalization impinged on the autonomy and markets of the locally owned houses, the kind of “real” publishing industry that had been envisioned from the 1900s to the 1940s did emerge. In the mid-1960s, as international houses established subsidiaries, M&S was the first local house to unload its many agencies, retaining only a few of its closest foreign ties. In place of the traditional agency arrangements, M&S and other Canadian publishers began to negotiate rights at international fairs, and embark upon co-publishing ventures with foreign houses. Even so, several Toronto houses that prided themselves as original publishers, Clarke, Irwin and Simon & Pierre were victims of the economic downturn of the early 1990s. Clarke, Irwin went into receivership in 1993; Simon & Pierre was acquired by Dundurn Press in the 1990s; Lester Orpen & Dennys folded in 1991 but their contracts and inventory were acquired by Key Porter Books.

CP00576.jpgOne bright exception to these crises among Toronto’s major players was the appearance of small presses across the country in large cities and small communities. Dissatisfaction with the major English-language houses centered in Toronto – and a similar development emerged in French-language communities over Montreal’s and Quebec City’s dominant role – influenced a new cottage-industry of regional publishers and their authors that filled a need for poetry, fiction, works of local interest, and niche subjects ranging from feminism and gender issues to politics and aboriginal concerns.

Houses such as Breakwater Books (1973) in St. John’s, Newfoundland; Les Éditions d’Acadie in Moncton, New Brunswick (1984); Véhicule Press (1972)CP00861.jpgand Guernica (1978) of Montreal; Coach House Press (1965), House of Anansi Press (1967), and New Press (1970), all of Toronto; Turnstone Press in Winnipeg (1973); Coteau Books (1975) of Regina, NeWest Press (1977) in Edmonton; and New Star Books (1972), Press Gang Publishers (1975), and Theytus (1981) of Vancouver, provided a sense of regional identity and pride that had previously been unpublished.

One of the most remarkable developments was the international success of children’s book publishers. Beginning with May Cutler’s Tundra Press (1967) in Montreal, other award-winning children’s small CP00837.jpgpresses were KidsCan Books (1973) of Toronto, which began as a feminist collective, and Red Deer College Press (1975), which devoted part of its lists to books for young people. Groundwood Books (1978) issued award-winning books by Canadian and foreign authors; it shifted operations from Vancouver to Toronto some years before it was bought by Anansi in 2005. Like larger commercial houses, small presses can be battered by changes in government policies and are objects of buyouts by other small presses or their larger competitors; but authorship itself, the starting point in Robert Darnton’s publishing and distributing circuit, is alive and thriving.

The authors may always be there, but rapid changes through the late 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century in distribution, consumer purchasing patterns, and international economic downturns shook up the publishing industry. For example, General Publishing, which the Stoddart family had turned into a major publishing and distributing success (it had been a central distributor for the small presses within the Literary Press Group), was caught in over-expansion and distribution conflicts and entered bankruptcy in 2002. Over-expansion also spelled the doom of mega-bookseller Chapters, which was bought and re-branded by its rival chain, Indigo Books, in 2001. Both firms transformed production and marketing of best sellers for the publishing industry. These chains influenced the size of production runs and wholesale discounts, and often determined book prices through promotional sales and discounts.

The power of the major chains placed independent book shops at a competitive disadvantage, at a time when increased operating costs squeezed their profit margins. By 2000, as competition for consumers became fiercer, consumers themselves searched for the best deals, and browsed not only the bookshelves but turned to the Internet to purchase from independent booksellers, from Chapters and Indigo, and from the American and Canadian outlets of Indeed, when the Canadian dollar was at par with the U.S. dollar in 2007, consumers even forced publishers and booksellers to offer Canadian books at the same price as the American price.

Facing the Future
CP00117.jpgLong a cottage industry, publishing in Canada was transformed by Anglo-American competition and the commodification of books in the early stages of the first globalized book market at the end of the nineteenth century. It shared modestly in the spectacular growth and profits of the international book market through the twentieth century, and it suffered the severe financial depredations of the 1930s. Once it had sorted out the lucrative but growth-inhibiting complexities of the agency system, which we may see as a test of the local publishing industry’s marketing skills, book publishing came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

CP00988.jpgIn an ironic twist, it became a victim of its own successes when the new globalization, in the form of international publishing conglomerates, invaded the Canadian scene in search of further profits. International subsidiaries and smaller local houses co-exist in a market where books are treated like groceries. As well, recent advances in web publishing, along with the availability of e-readers and e-books, present further challenges to publishers of traditional printed books. The memory of a golden era for Canada’s “perilous trade” – Roy MacSkimming’s perfect phrase, has receded, but it remains an industry with enormous survival and regenerative power.

Media Gallery



Further Resources

Audley, Paul. Canada’s Cultural Industries: Broadcasting, Publishing, Records and Film. Toronto: James Lorimer, in association with the Canadian Institute for Economic Policy, 1983.

Bellefeuille, Pierre de, Alain Pontaut, et al. La Bataille du livre au Québec: Oui à la culture française, non au colonialisme culturel. [Montréal]: Leméac, 1972.

Canada. Commons. Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage. The Challenge of Change: A Consideration of the Canadian Book Industry. Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada - Publishing, 2000.

Canada. Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences. Report. Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1951.

Canada. Statistics Canada. Education, Culture, and Tourism Division. Culture Statistics. Book Publishing Industry, 1983. Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 1985.

"Canadian Number." Publishers’ Weekly 113.25 (23 June 1928).

[Eayrs, Hugh S.] A Canadian Publishing House. Toronto: Macmillan, 1923.

Friskney, Janet. New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years 1952-1978. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Gerson, Carole and Jacques Michon, eds. History of the Book in Canada: Volume III, 1918-1980. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007.

Gray, John Morgan. Fun Tomorrow: Learning to be a Publisher and Much Else. Toronto: Macmillan, 1978.

Grescoe, Paul. The Merchants of Venus: Inside Harlequin and the Empire of Romance. Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 1996.

Jeanneret, Marsh. God and Mammon: Universities as Publishers. Toronto: Macmillan, 1989.

Karr, Clarence. Authors and Audiences: Popular Canadian Fiction in the Early Twentieth Century. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2000.

King, James. Jack: A Life with Writers: The Story of Jack McClelland. Toronto: Knopf Canada, 1999.

MacSkimming, Roy. The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada’s Writers. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2003

Parker, George L. The Beginnings of the Book Trade in Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Pierce, Lorne. The Chronicle of a Century: 1829-1929: The Record of One Hundred Years of Progress in the Publishing Concerns of the Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregational Churches in Canada. Toronto: United Church Publishing House, Ryerson Press, [1929].

Porter, Anna. The Storyteller: Memory, Secrets, Magic and Lies. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 2000.

Solecki, Sam, ed. Imagining Canadian Literature: The Selected Letters of Jack McClelland. Toronto: Key Porter Books, 1998.

Spadoni, Carl and Judy Donnelly. A Bibliography of McClelland and Stewart Imprints, 1909-1985: A Publisher’s Legacy. Toronto: ECW Press, 1994.

‘The State of English Language Publishing in Canada.’ Special issue of Journal of Canadian Studies/ Revue d’ études canadiennes 10.2 (May 1975).

Wallace, W. Stewart. The Ryerson Imprint: A Check-List of the Books and Pamphlets Published by the Ryerson Press since the Foundation of the House in 1829. Toronto: Ryerson, 1954.

Whiteman, Bruce. Lasting Impressions: A Short History of English Publishing in Quebec. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1994.

Whiteman, Bruce, Charlotte Stewart, and Catherine Funnell. A Bibliography of Macmillan of Canada Imprints 1906-1980. London, ON: Dundurn Press, 1985.

Archival Resources

Hugh Kane Papers, Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

Key Porter Books fonds, McMaster University

Lorne and Edith Pierce collection, Queen’s University Archives

McClelland & Stewart Ltd. fonds, McMaster University

Macmillan Company of Canada fonds, McMaster University