Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

February 5, 2010

The New Canadian Library Experiment

I’m fond here at Inklings of reporting on uncontrolled bookselling research I’ve engaged in.  It makes me feel as if I’m contributing something – data – to the debate while hiding my sometimes abrasive opinions behind lightly biased but more or less substantiated findings.  And this, certainly, is a subject I’ve had passionate opinions about in the past which I seek to see vindicated in numbers.

The New Canadian Library (hereafter, NCL) was founded in 1958 at McClelland & Stewart during Jack McClelland’s famous (infamous) regime as a response of sorts to the cheap and portable classics serieses available of American and British backlists.  The idea was to provide cheap reprints for, largely, the college market, in order to support and further the study (and therefore legitimacy) of Canadian literature.  I won’t give you too thorough a history; an excellent history of the series’s early years is available from Janet Friskey, New Canadian Library: The Ross-McClelland Years, 1952-1978, while Roy MacSkimming’s Perilous Trade also contains a good account.

What concerns me is the recent history.  In 2009, McClelland & Stewart relaunched NCL, putting the old pocket-sized and inexpensive editions out of print and replacing them with fancy new trade paperbacks at a significantly higher price point.

Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising - $12.95

The launch was celebrated as a Very Good Thing in honour of NCL’s 50th birthday, but I can tell you that from this corner of the world at least, the transition was a source of a great deal of anxiety.  It wasn’t clear right from the beginning what would be kept in print and what would be vanishing, and for a period of about a year it became difficult to get any kind of quantity of some very important titles as they had been put out of print in the old edition but hadn’t yet made it to the new one.  The increased price on the edition was also not something the academic community wanted to hear about.  These editions were intended right from the beginning to serve university students who don’t want to pay 50% for a fancy redesign.  Over a flurry of emails and phone calls we gathered that someone felt that a redesigned prestige book would get better face time at the big book chains, and would add to its saleability in the general trade market.  We academic types would have to just suck it up because the people wanted prettier books.

Hugh MacLennan's Barometer Rising - $19.95

These titles have been on the shelf now for roughly two years.  We dutifully stock every single title available.  Let me tell you how the new adventure is working out for us.

We have only sold two copies of any NCL title outside of the context of a university course:  Two Solitudes, and Wild Geese.  The Wild Geese, by the way, was sold to me for my Canada Reads Independently reading.  You read that right.  One “real” sale in two years.

The books are, however, still stocked to supply Canadian Lit course lists.  These are unquestionably the bulk of our NCL sales.  I am looking right now, in fact, at 45 copies of the giant new Diviners by Margaret Laurence which have been sitting unsold since September.  Our sales of this book this year have been abysmal.  In 2007, we sold about 150 copies of the old, $12.95 edition to classes totaling 290 students.  That’s about 52% of the students – a typical number for a book which is widely available in used book stores.

This year?  We’ve sold 30 copies of the new $22.95 edition to a class of 120.  That’s 25%.  Now, there’s no way to know why the students are so shy this year – it could be any number of things.  But I know they take one look at that big purple tome and turn ashen.  Students have breaking points when it comes to buying books – how hard they look for another way to find a text is directly related to the price & weight of what they’ve been told to get.  A little, cheap book they’ll buy without too much thought, but throw a big fat expensive book at them and they balk, pull up their socks and get out there to find an alternative.

Who wins under this scenario?  My impression is nobody does.  The very admirable aims of Roughing It In The Books not withstanding, I don’t see an NCL trade paperback able to compete with the trade front lists of McClelland & Stewart’s parent company, Random House of Canada.  They are more expensive, the print quality is lower (they look good in .jpg, but they’re printed on the same cheap newsprint paper that Penguin’s cheaper classics are on), and they get basically no advertising whatsoever.  I can’t believe the publishers don’t know this, which leaves the possibility that they’re just trying to milk more money out of the market they did have, the universities.  But they’re kidding themselves if they think both the professors and the students aren’t counting pennies.  They can just assign fewer books, or use the libraries.  There’s a sweet spot in academic pricing and “in line with frontlists” isn’t it.

This is on my mind with our year end (and returns season) in sight.  I find myself wondering how things look to McClelland and Stewart.  Are Chapters, Borders, Indigo and Amazon carrying more copies of the series?  Are they selling them?  At the mouth of Canada’s largest university serving a large percentage of the Canadian literature students in the country, I feel confident saying they’ve hurt their college sales.  Was it worth it, guys?  And Canadian Literature, that beleaguered old underdog, is it stronger or weaker for it?

7 thoughts on “The New Canadian Library Experiment”

  1. Kerry C says:

    You are amazing. I find your uncontrolled bookselling research absolutely fascinating.

  2. rpriske says:

    The amazing thing about this is that there is nothing new about it. It is a basic supply and demand curve that tells sellers where to set price points. In general increased price will lead to lower sales. The question is, at what point do the drop in sales overtake the increased profit margin?

    In the case you have cited, it sounds like they blew it, pure and simple.

  3. Melwyk says:

    Plus, I have to say it, the new NCL line is just ugly. Too big, too bland, too expensive. The little pocket books were easier to carry, and the old covers have that kitsch appeal. I’ll pick one of the mustardy coloured old NCLs from a used bookstore over the new stripy ones every time.

  4. melanie says:

    I had no idea that the quality wasn’t as good – but I guess that is because I’m not buying them. Okay, I do buy them for prizes on the blog but usually I will pick up 2nd hand copies as gifts for people if I want to share the book with someone. And you are so right about cost & weight being a factor when you are a student. I rarely bought books at the university bookstore if I could get them else where and I made damn sure I did find them second hand somewhere.

    Great post!

  5. JK says:

    How fascinating! I escaped this repackaging during my student years, but I would have been mighty peeved to have seen the prices go up for frou-frou covers.

    An interesting situation where it SORT OF worked: A friend of mine picked up a rebranded NCL (Can’t remember which one now) at a warehouse sale on a whim, thinking, based on the cover, that she might like it. She’s not an avid reader, and about 10 pages in she discovered it wasn’t what she thought it was, at all. It was permanently shelved. Now, in a less frenzied buying environment she might have made the discovery before she bought it, but even still, it almost suggests the covers are too sleek and modern, and were much better represented by their old covers.

  6. Gregory says:

    Interesting Post!

    I assigned my grade 12 Can. Lit. seminar class two years ago the task of advocating for a title from the NCL list to be re-branded. It lead to some very heated debates over the merits of some of the titles but one point that was consistent was the dislike of the new format, especially once they were exposed to the previous editions. If this was the intended ‘target’ audience (currently University sophomores) then M&S badly miscalculated.

    I look back to my University days (late 80′s/early 90′s) and I often skipped lunch somedays in order to pick up a copy of a NCL title. Since the price of a NCL title was usually between $5.95 and $8.95 I would risk a title outside of my course work. The books were reasonably priced and I enjoyed the Canadian Art-work on the covers. Unfortunately, I can’t imagine anyone skipping a sandwich and coffee for one of these new and expensive titles.

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