Monday, January 10, 2011

Key Porter Books: Shocking, Yes, but Surprising?

Those of you in Canada will surely have heard by now about the immediate "suspension of activity" (which, since they laid off their last editor, sounds a lot like "closure" to me) by Key Porter Books, one of the largest Canadian publishers. Nothing slated for publication after January will be published. Learning about this was a real shock to the system for me; if the big fish can't make it, how will the little guys manage to survive?

Additionally, I was saddened to hear that none of their authors had any idea. In fact, from what I can gather from the news articles about the suspension, most of their authors didn't even learn about it from Key Porter. They heard about it on the news. Which is just sad, and also, in my opinion, unprofessional. (And ironically appropo, given my blog post last Thursday.) It's not at all what I would expect from such a large company, and I hope that the people at Key Porter have a good reason for their lack of communication with their authors.

But then when I looked into it more, and started searching for news about the company and their plans for the immediate future, I came across this CBC article from last September announcing that they were closing their Toronto office and laying off almost two-thirds of their staff, and only one thought occurred to me: the writing was on the wall for these guys, and has been for at least a few months now. Maybe it's the cynic in me - okay, it is definitely the cynic in me - but as soon as I see a company being bought out, downsized, restructured, merged, or what-have-you, I always assume that they'll be gone within 5 years or less. I never hope to be right about these kinds of predictions, and sometimes I'm not - but these are all signs, to me, that a company is drowning.

So, apart from hoping that Key Porter finds a way to come back from the brink (which I do), what does this mean for writers? When we see a publishing house bought out by another one and merged as one of their imprints, (hello - and goodbye - Tricycle Press), or when we learn that a publisher is downsizing, how should we interpret that news? Should we be wary? Should we cross them off our submission list? Is it better to be optimistic, or to think about strict business potential when it comes to where we send our work and who we sign contracts with?

I honestly don't have answers to these questions, guys, so I'm opening the floor to comments and ideas. What do you think when you see that change is afoot for a publishing house? Do you rethink your submissions to them, or is it business as usual?


  1. We need to bear a couple of factors in mind as we look at what's happened at Key Porter Books. First off, 2010 was an abysmal year in publishing. Fewer publishers are taking on new and unproven authors, advances are dropping like a stone and there was/is still a global recession.

    That said, Key Porter Books produced high quality literary fiction (as well as exceptional non-fiction) and they left genre fiction (which is a consistent and proven seller) our of their business model.

    With the exception of Dorchester in the US, most genre fiction publishers are thriving. Many, like Harlequin, for example, have developed their own eBook imprint (Carina Press) as 2010 was when eBooks became mainstream. They're still about 9% of the total sales in North America, but that's going to grow in leaps and bounds as eBook readers drop in price.

    Sad that Key Porter went under, but as with most Canadian publishing, the emphasis is on literary fiction which just doesn't sell anywhere near the numbers that genre fiction does.

  2. Sean, you bring up some really good points. Key Porter's decline could stem more from what they publish (and whether that type of book is marketable) than anything else. But does this mean that there just isn't a place for the likes of Margaret Atwood anymore? That thought makes me very sad indeed.

  3. Atwood is a brand, so she can publish anywhere she pleases. My sense is that smaller publishing runs and targeted marketing of literary fiction to the specific venues where lit-fic lovers shop will help for certain. I think (and I hate to say this) there's a lot of books by Canadian publishers that probably shouldn't have been published because the market would be so slim, but were still published because of perceived high literary value. This is where the market runs into art like a head on collision. Publishing is a business and you have to make money - that means you need to publish what makes you money.

  4. I don't even want to think about this. It sounds like an absolute nightmare for those authors. Imagine if any of their novels were debuts!

  5. Matthew, some of those authors did have their debut coming out - and now, they don't anymore. I hope that Key Porter is able to make some kind of effort towards helping them find new homes with different publishers.

    Sean, I hear what you're saying about needing a market for your books, but at the same time, I can't believe that there is no market at all for work that has high literary value. And let's not forget the non-fiction work that Key Porter published: cookbooks, memoirs, etc. There is a market out there for these kinds of books.

    At the same time, this is a tough economic climate. I wonder if a different marketing strategy is in order here?

  6. I'm acquainted with one author who had a debut scheduled at an imprint that has folded. I'm not sure what will become of his book. It's sad.

  7. Yikes, I don't know. The writing part seems so easy compared to the selling part. Literary does seem to make sense with the smaller publishers who can treat it like their baby and do it justice. Genre fiction sells and big publishers should be more concerned with what sells. I must admit that I was always a literary girl and am now very intrigued by commercial. The thing is, my favourite books are those that combine a love for language and craft with a knack for storytelling and plot. How do we get more of those published?

  8. Foldingfields - I think that writing is extremely subjective. One person might find the elements you're looking for in a title that is purely commercial and another might not. For me at least, it's a question of what I'm looking for in a book. If I want to be inspired or contemplative, I'm going to read literary fiction. If I want entertainment, I'm going to read commercial fiction.

    I'm a published author with three books under my belt - I don't write literary fiction - I write bubble gum because it's what puts a smile on my face. You have to figure out what works best for you, I think and just throw yourself out to the universe.

    Also... it helps to have an agent!! :)

  9. Discouraging. I know people are still reading, we just have to figure out how to get to them.