That may sound extreme, but consider the meaning of “fair trade”:
Fair trade is an organized social movement that aims to help producers in developing countries to make better trading conditions and promote sustainability. (Wikipedia)
True, Canada is not a developing country. But its book publishers are facing difficult—nigh hostile—trading conditions, and the sustainability of Canadian cultural production is in the balance.
When we buy from local bookstores, we are supporting local business. When we buy books from Amazon, we are buying from a giant multinational corporation. We know this. We also know that Amazon is successful because they offer excellent customer service and they make everything extremely convenient. Fine. I can appreciate a business doing its business well. (Now, Wal-Mart is also doing business well… if “business” means driving down prices and running local stores into the ground in a race to the bottom. Reminds me a little of Amazon….)
Now, this paragraph will seem unrelated, but bear with me…. Vancouverites are especially conscientious buyers. I’ve come to appreciate this during the year I’ve lived here. The little produce store near my (admittedly too expensive) apartment offers more organic, fair-trade fare than many of the supermarkets I frequented when I lived in other provinces. There are so many vegetarian and vegan restaurants here, and so many sustainability-oriented organizations and businesses! All I ask is that we extend our critical purchasing behaviors (purchasing power) to the arts, and support what local artisans and artists we can.
I hone in on Vancouver for a reason: this city is the home of Douglas & McIntyre, the largest independent (that is, Canadian-owned) book publisher in the country—which announced last week that it would be filing for bankruptcy.
“This is a business that is legendary for complaining, and people saying the sky is falling, but I think that there is some truth to the concerns,” says Kaiser. “You cannot easily manage all of the changes going on in this industry as an independent.” (National Post)
My cohort (I study publishing) freaked out a bit:
Speculations about the future of D&M (significant ones in this CBC article) are not entirely hopeless, but other Canadian publishing companies, authors, libraries, and readers (that means you, probably)—not to mention D&M’s laid-off employees—are reeling from the blow. Steph, of the blog Bella’s Bookshelves, may have summed it up best:
I am reeling too. I reeled more intensely a few days ago, but still, there is some reeling. I love books, all forms. I own many shelves of bound paper, but I am also a frequent user of my e-reader (so don’t go thinking I’m biased toward one form of publishing or another). I also study publishing, and I spent my summer proofreading and building ebooks for a delightful independent Canadian publisher (this one—huzzah!). So all of this is on my mind.
I also recently attended Mini TOC [Tools of Change] Vancouver, a conference about digital publishing, at which interactive-book designer Talent Pun wryly observed that book publishers are having to become software companies or perish, today. And they don’t know how to market software yet. And many may not survive long enough to learn.
Don’t mistake me for one of the fear-mongers; there is some hand-wringing going on in publishing, but the end of the world is not nigh. Matt Williams, VP of House of Anansi (second-largest—nope, now the largest indie Canadian book publisher), wrote the best response I’ve seen to this ruckus on Anansi’s blog, Inside the House. (If you only check out one of the links in this post, choose that one.)
Still, D&M represented Western Canadian and non-Toronto-centric publishing. There is something to be said for that.
Forgive the jumble of thoughts.
Canada’s fair trade organization highlights the principles behind the term “fair trade”, and I ask you to focus on that as well:
Fair Trade is a … way of doing business. It’s about making principles of fairness and decency mean something in the marketplace.
It seeks to change the terms of trade for the products we buy – to ensure the farmers and artisans behind those products get a better deal. Most often this is understood to mean better prices for producers, but it often means longer-term and more meaningful trading relationships as well.
For consumers and businesses, it’s also about information. Fair Trade is a way for all of us to identify products that meet our values so we can make choices that have a positive impact on the world. (Fairtrade Canada)
Sounds laudable to me. And desirable. And doable. Let’s think about justice, and let’s act justly. I reflect on the following words, written by Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Baha’i Faith (the Faith I strive to live by), all of which are comments on our responsibility to promote justice, in both little and big ways:
The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.
Be fair to yourselves and to others, that the evidences of justice may be revealed through your deeds…
Observe equity in your judgment, ye men of understanding heart! He that is unjust in his judgment is destitute of the characteristics that distinguish man’s station.
No radiance can compare with that of justice. The organization of the world and the tranquillity of mankind depend upon it.
(quoted in this section of The Advent of Divine Justice by Shoghi Effendi)
Justice is a value I use as much as possible to steer my purchasing decisions. It’s difficult, and not always possible, because we do not (yet) live in a just world—and I’m certainly not perfect at it—but it is vital that we try.
I realize I have been messily tossing book retailing and book publishing all together, as though they were one business. This is not the case, though they are interdependent.
But think of it as more opportunities to practice justice in our daily lives: we all have the power to choose which retailers or vendors we buy from, and we also have the power to check publishers out. Buy the book you want, obviously, but choose local stores and homegrown publishers if and when you possibly can.
I might be preaching to the choir, here, and I am okay with it. Solidarity!
Let’s end on a hopeful—nay, enthusiastic—note. Books are not dead, nor is publishing, despite the moaning and wailing. For one thing, there are lots of interesting conversations happening about the future of content (for what are books if not beautifully prepared textual and visual content?). Here are a few of the most exciting:
- Book: A Futurist’s Manifesto by Hugh McGuire and Brian O’Leary
- Planned Obsolescence by Kathleen Fitzpatrick
- A New Kind of Book (Peter Meyers)
What can I say now but this: happy reading!