A Short History of Canadian Book Publishing

In February 2014, Oxford University Press Canada announced that it was shutting down the school division, which published textbooks and learning resources for Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms across Canada. Like any other Canadian industry or sector, publishing has become increasingly affected by large, multinational—and usually foreign—mergers and consolidations. The largest companies producing and distributing learning resources in Canadian classrooms are not Canadian at all. Pearson Education, Nelson, and McGraw-Hill Ryerson dominate the already small, but competitive, centralized market in Canada.

 What are the consequences of these mergers and how have they affected Canadian learning and culture? While some educators argue that learning resources for Canadians should be created by Canadians, this is simply not possible. In fact, even aspects of the production phases are outsourced to India, China, or Singapore, where cheap labour increases profits and maintains healthy margins. This has deeply affected the Canadian printing industry.

 To see these challenges to Canadian publishing as a recent phenomenon, however, is misleading. From its inception, publishing in Canada, whether for educational, religious, or leisurely purposes, has always been difficult. Given Canada’s size and sparse population, the distribution of books presented the most difficult issue. Adding to these issues was the lack of a formal university system in which learning and the arts could be spread and cultivated. These challenges were particularly acute during the colonial period, when communications, transportation, and other infrastructure were poor.

 In the eighteenth century, printers in British North America also had to compete with a much larger and more established printing culture in the United States. Not bound by the stringent imperial copyright laws laid out by the United Kingdom, the United States were able to produce copies of popular books cheaply and distribute them freely without incurring a penalty. During Canada’s colonial period, presses were few and far between. Books would be published wherever there was a press capable of doing so. In cities like London, Oxford, Edinburgh, Berlin, or Paris, authors could select a publisher that best suited the author’s needs. But the luxury of an author choosing a publisher was almost non-existent in British North America. William Brown and Thomas Gilmore established one of the first presses in Quebec City in 1764, a press that published the province’s first newspaper, The Quebec Gazette/La Gazette de Quebec. In addition to newspapers, the press began to publish education texts, grammars, catechisms, legal texts and various other content. These early presses blended all forms of publishing, maintained large mandates and did not always specialize in a given field.

 In the late nineteenth century, John Lovel and Son was established in Toronto. This press capitalized on pirating American books, such as Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, which was produced at a better cost and then saturated the market with a better, more affordable alternative to the American version. This form of piracy was extremely common until, in 1891, the United States passed a new copyright law and signed the Anglo-American Copyright Agreement. Maynor Barrientos Amador has explored the historical evolution of the Anglo-American Copyright laws from the eighteenth to the nineteenth century and has shown how these laws have made an impact upon commercial writing and literature.

 The first company to publish books exclusively in Canada began its operations in 1829. The Methodist Book and Publishing Company established themselves on Queen Street West in Toronto, working in what is now the City TV building at Queen and John Street. They focused on confessional texts rather than trade or commercial books. This, however, would change slightly when Reverend William Briggs became publisher in 1879 and expanded the press’ mandate. The press served illustrious Canadian writers like Nellie McClung, Charles Mair, Pauline Johnson, and Robert Service. In part because of the change in mandate, the press was renamed the Ryerson Press in 1919 after Egerton Ryerson. This press dominated the industry from the late nineteenth  until about the 1960s.

 By the 1900s, many publishers had been established in large Canadian cities, particularly in Toronto and Montreal. Among others, these included Oxford University Press (1904), University of Toronto Press (1901), Macmillan Company of Canada (1905), and Thomas Nelson and Sons (1913). Importantly, many of these publishers were owned—or at least influenced or funded—by established publishers in the United Kingdom.

 The consequences of Canada’s entry into the Second World War in 1939 permeated all facets of life. It separated and uprooted families, prioritized certain areas of production and manufacturing over others, and also deeply affected Canadian culture. These changes forced politicians to take a hard look at Canadian society. After men and women returned from overseas service, the government under Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent formed a royal commission to assess the impact of Canadian culture. Former Canadian diplomat and later Governor General of Canada, Vincent Massey, headed the commission. The Massey Report (1949-1951) concluded that the number of Canadian-authored books was on the decline, although it is unclear as to what data the investigation used to compare. For example, in 1947 Britain published 1,723 fiction books, while Canada produced just 34. In 1948, British publishers released 1,830 fiction books and Canadian publishers produced 14. The Report also concluded that Canadian literature and publishing was vital in the rejuvenation of Canadian culture and mentality. It was, therefore, imperative to bolster Canadian writing and publishing. In 1957, Parliament acted upon one of the recommendations of the Massey Report, establishing the Canada Council for the Arts. Among other initiatives, the Canada Council continues to provide grants and fellowships to authors in an effort to support Canadian artists. Many provinces followed suit and established similar councils and organizations that support the arts at the provincial level.

 However generous the support of the Canada Council may be, it still does not protect Canadian publishers from the large coffers of foreign companies. Almost all of the major trade publishers in Canada are subsidiaries of or owned by British, American, or German publishers. Penguin Books, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Random House each operate in Canada, but are not necessarily Canadian. In July 2013, Random House and Penguin were combined the create Penguin Random House, one of the largest trade companies. The recent history of publishing in Canada has been one of consolidation and takeover. As this post suggests, however, the history of publishing in Canada has always been riddled by pragmatic challenges. Like other industries, Canadian companies have looked to new ways to survive in an increasingly challenging economy.