Tiffany's Reviews > The Perilous Trade: Publishing Canada's Writers

The Perilous Trade by Roy MacSkimming
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's review
Apr 11, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: 2011, great-can-lit, history
Read from January 19 to April 06, 2011

Every Canadian book publishing professional should read this book. Roy MacSkimming has written the one-stop-shop book on the history of book publishing in Canada, spanning from the early-twentieth century to 2003 when the book was published. He discusses the birth of such established presses as McClelland & Stewart, University of Toronto Press, MacMillan, etc., in addition to the advent of independent book publishing in the 60s, headed by House of Anansi, Coach House, New Star, etc. I'm fairly certain he covers the beginnings of every Canadian press established before 2003, although he obviously spends more time on the heavy hitters. The last quarter of the book is then dedicated to the demise of publishers such as Stoddart and Hurtig (which I found especially interesting since I used to live in Edmonton), the rise of multinationals such as HarperCollins, Pearson, and Random House, and also the impact of Chapters Indigo on the industry as a whole.

I can imagine that many outside the book publishing industry might find the content a little dry. But as someone who's worked in the industry for four years, I thought The Perilous Trade was a fascinating and illuminating read. It was exciting to read about industry folk whom I've actually heard of, although I'll admit that it was often difficult to follow all the name dropping. I'm pretty sure I've already forgotten a lot of the people mentioned in the book in relation to which press they worked for and/or started. But I've never been good with names in the first place, so this isn't a criticism against the book.

After reading this book, I wish more than ever that I had been a publisher during the 60s and 70s--those people had it made, and they didn't have to worry about e-book pricing or XML workflow. They published books because they believed in Canadian writers and Canadian content. What a concept! While this is of course still the driving force that keeps that ever-creaking publishing wheel turning, hippie-era publishers seemed more likely than present-day publishers to say, "Fuck it, I'll probably lose money on this book but I'm publishing it anyway because it's awesome." So what if they were drunk or high on acid when they decided which books to publish? It obviously worked out because some damn good authors emerged from that time, and Can lit is better for it.

It wasn't always this way, of course, and MacSkimming describes in great detail the financial struggle many publishers weathered in order to remain in business. But that in turn resulted in much of the cornerstones of present-day publishing, such as grants for publishers and writers, the Canada Council, the Association of Canadian Publishers, the Literary Press Group, and the general sense of community that occurs when an underappreciated industry needs to strengthen itself internally to stay afloat. Because back then, publishers got together to harass the government a hell of a lot more than they do now to get what they want. And get this--the government used to listen. (Well, sometimes. The Mulroney government really fucked over Canadian publishers with bullshit free trade agreements and allowing the infiltration of foreign businesses into the Canadian market. So that's shitty. But at least I know the story behind that after reading MacSkimming's book.)

My only gripe about the book is that it included no insight into the future of Canadian book publishing, which I thought was a bit cowardly. I realize the book is meant to focus on the history of the Canadian book publishing industry, but I think MacSkimming may have skipped out a little early and consciously avoided commenting on where he thinks the industry is headed. While 2003 may have been early to speculate on the advent of digital publishing, I think at least some mention of it is essential to the text, and he really did sidestep the whole issue. But there's a new(ish) edition of the book that was released in 2007, so I imagine this oversight has been touched upon in the latest version.

The Perilous Trade is essential reading for those in the Canadian book industry, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking to better understand Canadian literature, writers, and the cultural sector as a whole.

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Reading Progress

01/20/2011 page 42
03/29/2011 page 233
49.0% "Pretty much to go-to book on Canadian publishing. I wish I'd read this years ago."

Comments <span class="smallText"> (showing 1-2 of 2) </span> <span class="smallText">(2 new)</span>

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message 1: by Chelsey (new)

Chelsey What did you think!? I have to read this for my summer program .. I just got it in the mail and it's quite the nicely sized book lol. A good read =)??

Tiffany Writing my review up right now, I thought it was great. Ridiculously informative.

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