May 5, 2010

Canadian Bookseller Association to Canadians: "Buy American"

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In a surprising story, Stuart Woods reports in Quill & Quire that, “In a bid to force publishers to lower Canadian book prices, the Canadian Booksellers Association is asking the federal government to consider amending the laws that restrict the import of foreign books into the country.” In fact, the association says in a release, the current laws are “no longer commercially reasonable and should be repealed.” CBA vice-president Mark Lefebvre goes so far as to say current regulations are “anti-competitive” and amount to “a tariff on the Canadian book-buying public.”

So what exactly are they talking about? As Q&Q explains,

Under the current guidelines, which are governed by the Copyright Act, Canadian booksellers must buy directly from Canadian-owned distributors (such as H.B. Fenn and Company or Canadian Manda Group) and the Canadian arms of multinational publishing houses (such as HarperCollins Canada or Random House of Canada). Booksellers can circumvent the Canadian supply chain and buy directly from the U.S. only if certain titles aren’t available from Canadian sources or are priced at more than 10% of the U.S. price, given that the Canadian dollar is at par. (When the Canadian dollar is valued at less than the U.S. dollar, the price discrepancy allowed under the act is greater.)

If the current regulations are repealed, and if the Canadian dollar (which closed at $0.98 U.S. on Thursday) remains at parity, publishers would be obliged to price their books in line with U.S. titles, or else booksellers could buy directly from U.S. suppliers such as Ingram or Amazon.com.

However, as Q&Q also reports, “The CBA’s stance on parallel importation is sure to outrage Canadian publishers, particularly the Canadian arms of multinational houses, which underwrite their domestic publishing programs by selling higher-priced Canadian editions of foreign titles to the Canadian market.” Which is an odd way of saying that Canadian publishers, wherever their ownership, sell Canadian editions to, er, Canadians.

It’s a point not lost on at least one bookseller: Toronto indie superstar Ben McNally immediately wrote a letter to Q&Q in vehement opposition to the CBA’s stance:

… Anyone who thinks that the health of the publishing community is not the health of the bookselling community is seriously deluded….

In my opinion this is disgraceful behaviour. This is a selfish and short-sighted attempt to have the cake and eat it, and I am appalled that it has happened without consultation with the publishers, on whom we depend for all facets of our business.

The Canadian Booksellers Association does not speak for me. I have no wish to be a part of this organization.

But obviously not all booksellers agree. In another Q&Q report, Ottawa bookseller Christopher Smith

…. points to the mass-market paperback edition of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Played with Fire, which U.S. publisher Random House has priced at $7.99, but which Penguin Canada is selling north of the border for $13.50. When consumers get wind of such price discrepancies, he says, they immediately head to Amazon.com to make their purchases. “This whole set of regulations was put in place before online retailing was invented, and it’s not working anymore,” says Smith. “If we keep going the way we’re going we’ll all go out of business.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him on Twitter at @mobylives

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