November 12, 2019 – Scott McIntyre, “On Publishing”

Scott McIntyre was a founding partner of Douglas & McIntyre (D&M) Publishers, at one time the country’s largest independent publisher that promoted Canadian authors and earned an international reputation for beautiful books on a range of subjects. What made the B.C. publishing house unique was McIntyre’s interest in works about the history and art of Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast.

During McIntyre’s 40-year tenure, D&M produced about 2,000 books on the arts, architecture, politics, and history. They included works by such celebrated authors as Douglas Coupland, David Suzuki, Wade Davis, Lorna Crozier, Emily Carr, Richard Wagamese, Wil Ferguson and Wayson Choy. He took chances, often at personal financial risk, to champion less-known writers so that their voices could be heard.

Scott began his speech by reminding us of a quote from Jack McClelland: “We publish authors, not books.”

Scott McIntyre was a founding partner of Douglas & McIntyre (D&M) Publishers, at one time the country’s largest independent publisher. He passionately argues that while the publishing industry is undergoing a period of dramatic change, at its core ‘the book’ remains the same. For the 3,000 years that writing has existed, the book has been the symbol of a civilized society. It has served as an agent of change, while both recording and shaping culture. The ideas of the Renaissance were communicated through books. Holy books helped to spread Christianity in the West and Islam in the East. Political manifestos triggered revolts and changed the world. In Canada, the words of Northrop Frye, Donald Creighton, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro have all been critical to an evolving Canadian identity and a growing national self-confidence. Powerful stories from Indigenous writers such as Lee Maracle, Richard Wagamese, Thomas King and Eden Robinson are finally being heard by larger audiences. The book remains one of the most endurable, informative, portable, easy-to-use of all the media. Even with today’s frenzy of media news outlets, books continue to serve reflective long-form journalism which eventually provides genuine insight and fills-in the blanks of history – a perspective which is increasingly necessary.

Books have also always been on the leading edge of material discovery and innovation. From clay and stone tablets to the walls of pyramid chambers, the invention of the alphabet by the Greeks, and the evolution of printing surfaces from Papyrus to parchment to paper, from Gutenberg’s cast metal letters to digital printers, innovation was driven by the needs of books. What we think of today as the standard book format was devised to make scrolls easier to handle. Eventually, the convenience of paper allowed
books to become ubiquitous and inexpensive. In the near future people will likely be able to read a book via a chip implant! But even with all of these innovations, the human brain still has to conjure up the words and shape the stories through lived experience and imagination. This human touch has always been the source of the power of books. Nothing in the digital world changes this fundamental truth.
The development of a broad sweep of small individual publishing houses across Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries meant that books were reaching expanding markets. Book publishing further expanded in the early 20th Century when, remember, there was no television, internet, or video games to demand people’s attention. In the 1930’s and during WWII, paper shortages caused a decline in publishing, but there was a resurgence in the 1950’s, one of the consequences being an emergence of classic American literature. With a healthy economy, the large and newly energized US market could respond to greater editorial and financial risks. Mass-trade paperbacks broadened the market base further and, at about the same time, the scale of working capital required escalated with the growth of agents resulting in consolidation and the beginnings of chain bookstores. These large publishers began to force small independents out of business. Beginning in the late 1960’s, the rise of agents, the increasing costs of signing authors, the increasing discounts demanded by large customers, and the explosion of self-publishing made simple and inexpensive by the digital world, made consolidation inevitable and scale all-but-essential. The growth of Amazon eventually led to the merger of Penguin and Random
House. Amazon alone, between eBooks, printed books, and audiobook sales, accounts for 50% of all US and UK book sales, and is showing no signs of slowing down. Publishing experts predict that the book business will soon be dominated by 3 mega-companies: Amazon; Penguin- Random House; and Ingram.

However, there are still a lot of smaller publishers underneath he mega-companies that continue to take greater creative risks while generating books with skill and passion. At its core, publishing is about the human touch. It’s an art that combines an intuition for a market with a sense of both quality and a clear vision for the path forward. Staying small and personal has been the guiding spirit of good publishing from its earliest days, and many believe that it should return to that scale. Book sales in Europe remain
steady and are growing again in the US. Ebooks sales have levelled off, and independent bookstores are flourishing once more. In Canada, as a result of some federal and provincial public policies to protect book publishing in this country, there are now quality small-trade houses in every Province to represent the nation’s regional and generic diversity.

In spite of the business model changing almost beyond recognition, the value of ideas is more important than ever. Wherever the digital revolution is taking the world, human beings — even young ones — retain a fondness for the physical artifact, in all its simplicity, and for the power of a story. It is up to us all to nourish and sustain that.


Question: Could you comment on the decline of the independent Canadian booksellers? I’m thinking of the Monroe’s and the Duffy’s that we used to enjoy a few years back. They’ve gone now, how does that affect business from your point of view?

Answer: It’s changed it. It’s caused it to morph. But in fact, for instance, Monroe’s is still one of the great successful stories in this country, albeit one of the very few because, of course, not all had the good sense to buy the building. It’s cut out the middle ground. Like everything else, it’s become the ‘90/10 rule’. So, you rely on bestsellers to carry the freight and it influences what is called the ‘midlist’, the soft stuff. But the average Canadian book sells maybe two to three thousand copies. I mean that’s not enough to build a business model and yet publishers have been able to find way between public money, and low salaries, and all those other things. So, it’s changed it. It’s emphasized the big, and it certainly has handed more of the agenda to the multinationals. But, as they’re cutting their lists, they really only want books that will sell a huge quantity. So, a lot of that has, in fact, empowered the smaller houses to do more interesting, creative publishing. And so, I think on balance, everyone says the sky is falling, it’s not. I think the sky would fall if Chapters went bankrupt, but it’s unlikely to do that. They have cut back their purchasing, but they’re still bobbing and weaving. The other thing I didn’t actually mention in this talk is that the future is the export market and Canadian publishers for all the problems of scale have actually done pretty well. Children’s publishers, generally speaking, sell above 75% of what they do in the US and the UK. I know Greystone’s here so I won’t throw the number out, but Rob is doing extremely well in the international market. And that’s what you do and that’s what the big guys have done. We diversify and scramble. Costco is great for books. I remember a publisher not that long ago saying, you know, when Amazon can get up to 50% of our business between eBooks and shipping individual books, we could tell Chapters to go to hell. And there is some of that, but I think there’s always a change, but the question is whether digital innovation really undermines to the extent that you can’t develop the big projects: if so, that’ll hurt, but it hasn’t hurt yet. Actually, Philip Hoffman, the chairman of Penguin Random House International in a public forum at Frankfurt about two weeks ago said, “this is the best era for book publishing since Gutenberg.” I don’t know that I would believe that, but there you have it and he’s a guy who knows what he’s doing.

Question: Can you, in a thumbnail form, indicate in modern terms what happens when a manuscript thumps on your desk? What are the steps that you take to make that publishable?

Answer: Sure, I’ll try to be very brief. With a manuscript, its accepted theoretically by a publisher. Then it goes through an editorial process. Usually there are three kinds of editing. The big substantial stuff that shapes or says, “that character is wrong” or “that chapter doesn’t work.” Then beneath that there is copy editing which is the nitty picky stuff. I don’t know if you’ve ever read a book called the Comma Queen the New Yorker copy editor: it is really quite exciting, but that’s the middle ground. After that, there’s proofreading and all that stuff. So, there’s a whole series of processes, all of which the publisher pays for with no certainty of a market. I had a friend of mine who works in films say, “you know, publishers are incredibly stupid,” in the other cultural industries, the producers take their money off the top. In book publishing, the risk-taker has to live on what’s left over. And that’s part of it, but I would argue that publishing is a profession. These are specific and rigorous skills. It’s less so now, but in the good publishing houses, there’s serious editing, there’s good design, there’s good distribution, and adequate marketing. Marketing has always been the soft underbelly of book publishing, but that’s it in sort of a nutshell.

Question: What’s your opinion on the impact of the Nobel Prize for literature?

Answer: Certainly. On the authors, obviously I would say, extraordinary. And on the publishers that are lucky enough to have them, extraordinary. But of the awards, that mean something in Canada, by far the best is the Giller. We published a Giller winner. We licensed the paperback rights of The Sentimentalist. We sold 130,000 copies in 30 days. So, the major awards trigger avalanches, but all the others cause a small peak that kind of fritters away. But certainly, internationally, the top prizes trigger huge sales. France won 17 Nobel prizes [in literature] and those books really did dramatically well. We represented them in Canada for 20 years.

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