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Pressed for distribution
It's all about timing. Luckily for McGill-Queen's University Press (MQUP), their Canadian distributor filed for bankruptcy protection at the end of April -- low season for the publisher of academic and scholarly books. Most other Canadian publishers, like the Montreal-based Véhicule Press and ECW, were still launching spring titles and getting ready for the summer season. "But it's not a big time for us. We do sell through the summer, but it's concentrated around the Learneds [conference] and in early summer for the fall trade season," said MQUP business manager Arden Ford.
PHOTO: Claudio Calligaris
MQUP is non-profit and owned jointly by McGill and Queen's University. Editorial offices are located on both campuses, but the press's administration is primarily at McGill. The press publishes about 120 titles every year and specializes in the Canadian perspective and international themes. Leading this year's list, for example, is the much anticipated Peeking through the Keyhole: The Evolution of North American Homes, written by Avi Friedman, associate professor and director of McGill's Affordable Homes Program, and David Krawitz, administrative coordinator of the School of Architecture.
General Publishing Co. filed for bankruptcy protection on April 30, owing creditors $45.7 million, including $800,000 in receivables to MQUP. "It certainly put a dent in our bottom line. We're still looking at how to recoup and cover that loss," said Ford.
MQUP has since switched to a new distributor and, for the time being, the publishing program remains intact. "We have not trimmed back [on the number of books published] or reduced staff. It's very much business as usual," said Roy Ward, MQUP marketing manager.
General Publishing Co. was the owner of several publishing houses, including Stoddart and House of Anansi, and the Canadian distributor of approximately 200 publishers. The company's financial woes precipitated yet another crisis in Canadian publishing, an already fragile industry still reeling from debacles like the demise of Chapters Inc. and its eventual take-over and merger with Indigo Books & Music Inc. Jack Stoddart, General's founder and owner and a book-industry mogul for 40 years, was forced to sell his company's subsidiaries in order to pay creditors.
To make matters worse, General showed "no consideration of the presses," said Ward, when they decided to shut down distribution operations without giving publishers sufficient notice. "In fact, we welcomed the news. At that point, we were glad to get our stuff out [of General's warehouses]. But even a few days' notice would have made a difference," said Ward. MQUP titles were stuck in an infernal limbo at General's warehouses with no way of getting to Canadian bookstores. (Separate distributors operate in the United States and overseas.)
"Dribs and drabs came through from May to August, but otherwise we couldn't get anything from General," said Kimberly Stephenson, McGill University Bookstore trade and reference buyer. For example, Don't Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys, written by Michael Dorais, published by MQUP, was in demand during the summer when high-profile cases were all over the media. The McGill Bookstore sold out, but couldn't order more copies until the problems with General were sorted out.
The effects also trickled down to professors and students as books needed for September classes were mired in logistical problems. "The whole General Publishing situation created a traffic jam as publishers scrambled to find new distributors. It was a madhouse all over the country," said Jack Hanna, McGill University Bookstore manager. The popular MQUP-published Stikeman Elliot: The First Fifty Years, by McGill University's current chancellor, Richard Pound, was one of the books to get stuck in traffic, coming into the bookstore late, after its release date. "The problems are being ironed out and I think, under the circumstances, we handled it extremely well," Hanna added.
"It's very good to have this over," said Ford. "In the best of circumstances, it's very difficult to change distributors and doing it under these circumstances...we were stressed out. But it enabled us to regroup. We're very fortunate."
There may be some good news on the horizon. The government is expected to offer financial assistance to the publishers affected by General's bankruptcy, but nothing has been officially announced yet.