canada

The moment I came across Milk and Honey was a definitive moment in my life; I realized how fascinated I was about the publishing industry. I read poetry in high school, analyzing form and meaning in Emily Dickinson poems or Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it was always so confusing to me. I often wondered why poets couldn’t just get to the point or describe their thoughts in metaphors that make some sort of sense within the first read. To my surprise, Rupi Kaur and this poetry book happened, the poetic phenomenon that changed the poetry community. The feeling was instant, ironic to what this new age in poetry publication is called: Instapoetry.

 

Instapoetry is an adaptation of traditional poetic ideals into a transformative Internet subgenre. Poets have turned to Instagram, a popular social media platform, to share excerpts of their work in hopes of publication. Instapoetry refutes traditional poetic forms, and instead, polarizes a new style that entwines art with literature. Molly McElwee, in an article for Gibraltar Magazine, shares that Instapoetry is the use of this “photo-sharing platform [giving] poetry a much-welcomed fresh feel… the poems are bite-size, they fit within the square Instagram frame; their font is carefully selected, an aesthetic extension of their work. And, when well done, the platform has skyrocketed amateur writers to the literary mainstream.” [1] Since Kaur’s arrival, it was as if poetry was culturally relevant again. According to Booknet Canada, Kaur continues to dominate all book sales across the world, where “for the second year in a row, unit sales in the poetry category increased significantly. [2] In 2016, poetry sales increases by 79% over 2015, and between 2016 and 2017 the units sold increased by another 154%.” [2] Andrews McMeel Publishing announced that Milk and Honey “sold more than one million copies in print after just over a year… and are currently in their 16th printing.” [3] In this age of new media revitalizing poetry, shaping the poetry publishing industry, what is the legitimacy of Instapoetry? Thus, in the scope of this essay, I strive to explore what Instapoetry means in publishing, and defend the relevancy of Instapoetry, analyzing how it saves the poetry community by counteracting conventional poetic norms.

 

Michael Warner, in his scholarly paper, “Publics and Counterpublics” foregrounds a crucial theory that helps explain how Instapoetry has been so successful and unstoppable. Warner explains that a public is self-organized, a “space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself” and “the circularity is essential to the phenomenon.” [4] In order to create this circularity, there must be participants that contribute to the discourse, which in this case are the poets and the readers. Warner considers that “a public is never just a congeries of people… it must first of all have some way of organizing itself as a body, and of being addressed in discourse.” [4] To organize itself, the public is “a social place created by the reflexive circulation of discourse.” It is constantly interactive and linking social interpretation together because social networks are a collective effort and exists in relationships between all participants. Instapoets produce Instapoetry solely for the intention of the poems being read. Without the Instareader, the poems would mean nothing and would not be circulated. This has become an important criterion for the public sphere to function coherently. Moreover, Warner explains that “a public is poetic world-making.” The contributions to a public are often performative acts, that the engagement itself can transform and shape the public. A unique correlation exists between the public and the text. An example is the form in Instapoems that can be adapted and used in other discourses, like Kaur’s iconic line breaks inspiring the works of several new Instapoets: Atticus, Nikita Gill, Amanda Lovelace. Ultimately, it’s quite intriguing and comforting for Instapoets to put their work on 800 million and counting content- creator generated social network service as if a guarantee that there will be a certain readership if the right amount of tags and hashtags are used. Instapoetry will always be a public between the intersection of Instagram and the Poetry Community, and in order to have an “on-going life”, it must have the supporters that continue to produce and contribute to the discourse.

 

In midst of this digital technology storm, it is uncanny to believe that technology has no effect on books, reading, and publishing. Technology is a blessing and a curse. It strives to simplify our lives, making basic human tasks almost disappear by the robotic programming of completing a task within the touch of a button (i.e. meeting someone face to face versus a quick text). The introduction of eBooks led many people in the industry to believe that print publication would be dead; however, studies show that specifically in poetry, Canada had the greatest sales yet in 2016. [6] Accordingly, Andrews McNeel Publishing proves to be the most successful publishing house that understands the market of Instapoetry and uses it to their advantage, publishing “eleven of the top twenty best-selling poets last year.” [6]. Kirsty Melville, president of Andrews McNeel, explains that “as a publisher, we go with where the culture goes.” [6] She continues with stating that “the digital age has facilitated a connection between writers and readers. In addition, although these poets share their work online, publication in book form is also cherished. The book is one of the oldest, most successful, and most valued inventions for sharing ideas.” [6] It is as if Instapoetry acts as a complementary tool that revitalizes poetry genre in the publishing industry, where readers are compelled by these strong desires and interests after reading Instapoetry to do something about these feelings, to physically purchase the poetry book and contribute to the monetizing of poetry. Evidently, Instapoetry becomes a gateway drug that revives the public’s cultural interest in poetry, and by this inherent interest in poetry book sales, the poetry community lives on.

 

Why is Instapoetry hated on or seen as “a pop phenomenon with little connection to the literary world”? [7] Vinu Casper shares this fair and common critique on Instapoetry: “Poets who spend years honing their craft, carefully writing and rewriting every line, practicing their performance over and over before they take to stage, are being beaten to the punch by influencers with a steady social media presence and masses of followers. These so-called Instapoets get away with blanket statements and empty metaphors under the guise of poetry.” [5] She questions if these simple posts are more “for sake of engagement” as if a marketing ploy that schemes for likes or comment responses from Instagrammers instead of the poetry itself. Similarly, Tham Young, an English teacher critiques Instapoetry, calling it “fidget spinner poetry”, as if it demonstrates a millennial flaw. He suggests that millennials uphold short attention spans that make it harder to critically comprehend and analyze traditional works of poetry. [8] Instapoetry is then seen as laziness, that the incompetency to create a similar product of poetry based off of ancient standards is deemed as illegitimate or unworthy of the same value and praise. This furthers the generation gap within the poetic community, that the older traditionalist poets refuse to accept or learn to understand new styles of poetry. Instead, they turn this misunderstanding into hatred and exclusivity, a poetic culture war.

 

As a fellow Instapoet, I like to think that there are many reasons why Instapoetry is so favourable; an important one being that “they pack so much meaning into so little language.” [3]. They entwine “the internet’s love of an inspirational quote with artful typography and immediate share-ability.” [3]. One Instagram account called @Poets follow Kaur’s outburst of simplistic aesthetically pleasing visual/ phrases.  It features many poets that write one-liners/ one stanzas that sound like every day phrases or thoughts. An example is (insert image): “I aspire to be/ an old man/ with an old wife/ laughing at old jokes/ from a wild youth.” written by Atticus, a current popular Instapoet following the steps of Kaur. [9]

Or another that is simple: “you are in/ everything/ I see/” titled “six word poem – poets”. [10] As much as it sounds like everyday dialogue or thoughts, they are very relatable, shareable, “screenshot-able”, and “easy to recall if one is in need of an inspirational quote or late in the day mantra or an impulsive Saturday night tattoo.” [11]. They can be instantly felt and emoted, and if it is so easy to relate to them, it sparks the heavy desire to read more or read on; both that contribute to supporting poetry publishing. As well, Instapoetry becomes more accessible to the everyday reader as more contemporary themes are addressed: love, culture, feminism, gun violence, domestic violence, war, racism, LGBTQ, and other social justice topics. Perhaps it isn’t about replacing traditional works or forms, but using the current medium to foster the appropriate cultural relevance or representation to the era in which the new media poetry is produced. It’s an “innovative progression” [11], one that lures new readers into the inherent simple language in Instapoetry and understands deeper meanings about the life around them, all while using flowery language and poignant metaphors.

 

Whether it’s continuing to buy print poetry books in the store or reading online content, in the end, poetry is poetry; art is art. Who has the power to constitute what is right and what is wrong if arts and literature are subjective to the reader? In a world that becomes more and more complicated, isn’t it nice to come across poetry that can be simple yet make the reader feel an intense array of emotions? It’s not really different from older poets like Keats, Shakespeare, and Byron; Instapoets continue to “examine their present moment and turning that moment into art.” [11]. They lead a cultural revolution of introducing new, raw, emotional storytellers, while utilizing a simpler writing style, into the community. Sometimes I also find a hard time understanding how posts like “you are in/ everything/ I see.” can be seen as poetry, but perhaps there’s a poetic aesthetic to finding meaning in something so simple. It’s these wonders that continues our curiosities with poetry and makes us continue reading, scrolling.

https://www.instagram.com/p/BPmXIbIj0qC/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

 

WORKS CITED

[1] McElwee, Molly. “INSTAPOETRY – The Age of Scrolling Literature.” The Gibraltar    Magazine, 25 Oct. 2017, thegibraltarmagazine.com/instapoetry-age-scrolling-literature/.

[2] Canada, Booknet. “Poetry Sales Increase Again in 2017.” BookNet Canada, Mar. 2018, www.booknetcanada.ca/press-room/2018/3/7/poetry-sales-increase-again-in-2017.

[3] Flood, Alison. “Poet Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey Sells More than Half a Million Copies.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Sept. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/13/poet-rupi-kaurs-milk-and-honey-sells-more-than-half-a-million-copies.

[4] Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88.4 (2002): 413-25. Web. 20 Jan. 2017. <http://knowledgepublic.pbworks.com/f/ warnerPubCounterP.pdf>.

[5] Casper, Vinu. “Challenging the Insta Poet Community.” PSU Vanguard, 13 Apr. 2018, psuvanguard.com/challenging-the-insta-poet-community/.

[6] Maher, John. “Can Instagram Make Poems Sell Again?” PublishersWeekly.com, Feb. 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/75976- can-Instagram-make-poems-sell-again.html.

[7] Millner, Maggie. “Instapoets Prove Powerful in Print.” Poets & Writers, 2 Aug. 2018, www.pw.org/content/instapoets_prove_powerful_in_print.

[8] Gurtis, Alex. “Instapoetry – the Polarizing New Poetry Style That Is Making Poetry Relevant Again.” The Odyssey Online, 10 Jan. 2018, www.theodysseyonline.com/instapoetry.

[9] https://www.instagram.com/p/Bni6ktpgki-/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[10] https://www.instagram.com/p/Bndd8SIg7Ei/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[11] Miller, E. Ce. “We Need To Talk About Why People Hate ‘InstaPoets’ So Much – And Why They’re Wrong.” Bustle, Bustle, 31 July 2018, www.bustle.com/p/are-instapoets- destroying-the-art-form-reviving-it-a-defense-of-social-media-poetry-8530426.

In 1883, then Prime Minister John A. MacDonald laid the groundwork for Canada’s residential school system when he said to the House of Commons, “the Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men” (MacDonald 1883, 1108; Historica Canada 2015).

 

As most Canadians are aware, this is exactly what happened. Children were torn away from their families in an effort to eradicate their Indigenous languages, cultures, and values (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015, Volume 5: Legacy). Over 100 years later, the lasting effects of this plan are still felt, and the country is in a race against time to save Indigenous cultures and languages that are teetering on the brink of extinction (United Nations 2008).

 

Dr. Kimberly Christen, who focuses her research on how digital technology and Indigenous cultures can intersect, has come up with one solution that has garnered international attention and acclaim. That solution? Mukurto (MOOK-oo-too) CMS (Content Management System), an open source community digital archive platform that “allows indigenous communities, libraries, archives, and museums to archive, preserve, and circulate their cultural materials and knowledge in ways that reinforce their own systems of knowledge management without denying the dynamism and flux of all such systems” (Christen 2012, 2884).

 

But when it comes to looking at the transfer of information within Indigenous knowledge systems, we cannot simply archive, preserve, and circulate. We cannot only facilitate a way for the information to be shared appropriately; we must also ensure that this new way of transferring knowledge does not negatively impact the communities that it is meant to help.

 

In this essay, I will examine how while certainly admirable and groundbreaking, Mukurto CMS does not fully account for the emerging negative repercussions of excessive use of smartphones and social media; or for the importance of community engagement and experiences that must go hand in hand with digitization and documentation. While preservation is important, projects need to also find ways to incorporate revitalization strategies and traditional ways of transferring knowledge if Indigenous cultures and peoples are going to continue to thrive and grow.

 

Because today, in a way the first prime minister never imagined, children across the country continue to be withdrawn from their families. Just this time technology, the same technology that we hope to use to preserve and promote culture, is partly to blame. The iGen (born between 1995 and 2012) has grown up in the age of smartphones and social media; and according to an American study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, teens today will spend up to ten hours a week on social media sites alone, not counting their other internet usage patterns (Monitoring the Future Study 1989–2015). Canadian institute MediaSmarts reports that by Grade 4, 24% of students already have their own phone, a number which doubles by Grade 7; and of these youth with phones, 39% sleep with their device beside their bed (MediaSmarts, 2014).

 

Psychology Professor Jean M. Twenge wrote, “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones… The results could not be clearer: Teens who spend more time than average on screen activities are more likely to be unhappy, and those who spend more time than average on nonscreen activities are more likely to be happy” (Twenge 2017). In addition, increased time spent using and looking at electronic devices has also led to what some are calling screen tiredness or digital fatigue (Nowak 2017; Sweney 2017).

 

Teens are more connected than ever before, but feel feelings of depression, anxiety, and loneliness have skyrocketed since smartphones became an accessory to everyday life (Monitoring the Future Study 1989–2015). We have to be cautious that new technologies, such as Mukurto CMS, are not hurting instead of helping. We have to be cautious that these programs are an extension of culture, and not a replacement for it.

 

Mukurto CMS can be compared to social networking sites, as people have to create an online profile with their personal information. Then, depending on that information they are given access to specific data and history related to their gender, family, or age as it pertains to their culture. Twenge’s research shows that part of the reason for increased feelings of loneliness is because social media offers a window into others’ lives and people can observe what they are left out of. In a similar way, through Mukurto CMS, people know there are certain things they do not have access to. The dynamic is different, but the resulting emotions may be similar if the dynamic is not thoroughly explained to young people, who have grown up in an age where everything appeared to be public and free to share online.

 

In addition to the disconnect related to social media and smartphone use, research has also shown that Indigenous people face higher levels of suicidal thoughts and suicide rates than Canada’s non-Indigenous population (Aboriginal Peoples Survey 2012). So when introducing possible digital solutions to archive, preserve, and circulate culture to the Indigenous population, we have to be hypervigilant of the negative impacts of smartphone and social media use and make sure we are not exacerbating the lasting negative impacts the residential school system and colonialism have on Indigenous mental health and well-being (Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2015, Volume 5: Legacy).

 

Without discounting the positives that Mukurto CMS has brought forward, including archiving endangered cultures and connecting people that no longer reside in the same space, the software does not bring communities and people together physically. To encourage youth to spend even more time in online communities, such as those created by Mukurto CMS, when studies show this correlates to less time spent with friends and family may not be healthy, especially when we know how important real-life experiences are and the important role they have held for generations (Assembly of First Nations 2015). Why innovation is necessary and impactful, so to are traditional ways.

 

Dr. Christopher Lalonde found that the risk of Indigenous suicidal ideations and suicide is “mitigated when a community has strong ‘cultural health’” (Lalonde 2005).  So perhaps even more importantly than concerning ourselves with digital preservation, online communities, and constant connection; we should be connecting youth with Elders so that the teachings can be passed on as they were for thousands of years: through oral storytelling and through on the land experiences. We can develop videos, post photos, and write detailed instructions to ensure that stories and skills at risk of extinction are preserved in some form, but practical skills, such as how to tan a moose hide, tell which wild berries are edible, or properly pronounce the glottal stop (ʔ) or the bar “l” (Ł) in the Dene languages are best learned in person from Elders.

 

The NWT On The Land Collaborative 2017 Report discussed how engaging youth is key to developing skills which will increase capacity and resiliency in both the youth and their communities. “On the land programming is valued because it produces interdependent outcomes across economic, social, and environmental spectrum,” the organization stated (NWT On The Land Collaborative Report 2017).

 

Meanwhile, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Wellness Foundational Model explored how the land is the source of Indigenous identity upon which culture, language, and spirituality are based; and how the land is the “backdrop for intergenerational knowledge transmission (education)” (Assembly of First Nations 2015). AFN noted that having “Access to culture, teachings, Elders, the land, medicines, and cultural self-esteem profoundly impact individual and community health.” Mukirto CMS offers a different kind of landscape, but it will never replace the land.

 

The oft-touted “walk in two worlds” mantra teaches that It is possible for Indigenous people to walk in two worlds, meaning both their traditional world and the Westernized world. There is a way to combine traditional teachings with modern technological advances, but there must be a balance.

 

“I agree social media is NOT an effective way to build the communities we build in physical space, but it’s an extension of our communities. Our goal should be to create the healthiest spaces possible, wherever we meet/talk,” says Ryan McMahon, a vocal Anishinaabe comedian, regarding the ways communities come together to talk, grow, and support each other (@RMComedy, September 21, 2017).

 

As publishers, we have to be aware that while emerging technologies may appear to be perfect solutions, often we are unable to gauge unintended and negative consequences until the damage has already been done. We need to be aware that while technology has great power to connect and preserve, it also has the power to disconnect and distance communities from what truly matters. It has the power to blind us and make us believe that it is the way forward; and while innovation will always be important, sometimes the best way to archive, preserve, and circulate knowledge is through traditional ways that have not only proven successful but have also shown to increase wellness and resiliency (NWT On The Land Collaborative Report 2017).

 

If Indigenous traditions and languages are to flourish and grow—so that they are not only spoken in classrooms and posted on websites; but so that stories are written, the languages are fully integrated throughout the communities, and the skills are kept safe within the minds of members—than any initiative that aims to revitalize culture must do so not only through a lens of preservation, but also through a lens of understanding the importance of true engagement and experience.

 

Just as the Indigenous community walks in two worlds, so to must publishers. We need to learn how to balance the tangible and intangible; and know both how to help preserve, circulate, and archive culture in a respectful and ethical way, and also know when it is time to take a step back.

 


References

Assembly of First Nations: Safe, Secure, Sustainable Communities Unit. 2015. “Wellness Foundational Model.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://health.afn.ca/uploads/files/health_foundational_model_-2015-final.pdf

Christen, Kimberly. 2012. “Does Information Really Want to be Free? Indigenous Knowledge Systems and the Question of Openness.” International Journal of Communication 6 (2012): 2870-2893. Accessed September 16, 2017. http://www.kimchristen.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/christen6.2012.pdf

Christen, Kimberly, Alex Merrill, and Michael Wynne. 2017. “A Community of Relations: Mukurtu Hubs and Spokes.” The Magazine of Digital Library Research 23, no. 5/6 (May/June). Accessed September 15, 2017. https://doi.org/10.1045/may2017-christen

Greenwood, Shannon, Andrew Perrin, Maeve Duggan. 2016. “Social Media Update 2016.” Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/

Historica Canada. 2015. “Residential Schools in Canada: Education Guide.” Accessed September 21, 2017. http://education.historicacanada.ca/files/103/ResidentialSchools_Printable_Pages.pdf.

House of Commons. 1883. “Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada.” Commons Debates, April 20-May 25, 1883: 1108. Accessed September 21, 2017. http://eco.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.9_07186_1_2/370?r=0&s=1

Kanopi Studios. 2017. “A Safe Keeping Place for Sacred Materials.” Kanopi Studios Blog, June 25, 2017. Accessed September 15, 2017. https://www.kanopistudios.com/blog/safe-keeping-place-sacred-materials/

Lalonde, Christopher. 2005. “Identity Formation and Cultural Resilience in Aboriginal Communities.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://web.uvic.ca/~lalonde/manuscripts/2005Resilence.pdf

McCue, Duncan. 2016. “For For First Nations facing suicide crisis, the solution is rooted in teh community.” CBC News, April 18, 2016. Accessed September 20, 2017. http://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/suicide-first-nations-snuneymuxw-1.3536821

McKinnon, Melody. 2016. “Canadian Social Media Use and Online Brand Interaction (Statistics).” Accessed September 17, 2017. http://canadiansinternet.com/2016-canadian-social-media-use-online-brand-interaction-statistics/

MediaSmarts. 2014. “Life Online: Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://mediasmarts.ca/sites/mediasmarts/files/pdfs/publication-report/summary/YCWWIII_Life_Online_ExecutiveSummary.pdf

National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2015. “Monitoring the Future study 1989-2015.” Accessed September 20, 2017. http://www.jeantwenge.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/igen-appendix.pdf

Nowak, Peter. 2017. “Digital fatigue behind the overkill in ebooks.” The National, May 4, 2017. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.thenational.ae/business/digital-fatigue-behind-the-overkill-in-ebooks-1.10550

NWT On The Land Collaborative. 2017. “NWR On The Land Collaborative 2017 Report.” Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.nwtontheland.ca/uploads/8/6/5/1/86514372/final_otl.report_2016-17.web.pdf

Sweney, Mark. 2017. “‘Screen fatigue’ sees UK ebook sales plunge 17% as readers return to print.” The Gaurdian, April 27, 2017. Accessed September 21, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/apr/27/screen-fatigue-sees-uk-ebook-sales-plunge-17-as-readers-return-to-print

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. “Canada’s Residential Schools: Legacy.” The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 5: Accessed September 16, 2017. http://www.myrobust.com/websites/trcinstitution/File/Reports/Volume_5_Legacy_English_Web.pdf

Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. 2015. “Canada’s Residential Schools: Reconciliation.” The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada 6: Accessed September 16, 2017. http://www.myrobust.com/websites/trcinstitution/File/Reports/Volume_6_Reconciliation_English_Web.pdf

Twenge, Jean M. 2017. “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?” The Atlantic, September 2017 Issue. Accessed September 17, 2017. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/

United Nations. 2008. “United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Accessed September 17, 2017. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf

Washington State University. 2013. “Powering cultural preservation: New grants expand archiving of indigenous treasures.” Washington State University News, October 10, 2013. Accessed September 15, 2017. https://news.wsu.edu/2013/10/10/powering-cultural-preservation-new-grants-expand-archiving-of-indigenous-treasures/#.VD77cRYXOVo

 

The Canadian publishing market has a very interesting conflict at the heart it’s funding and pricing. It is very clear from my time as an mPub student, that publishing houses are not making enough selling books. One reason, and possibly a very important one, is because of how books are priced. Currently in Canada and America, books are priced according to the free market, which means booksellers can sell books at whatever price they see fit (after paying the publishers 50% of the retail price). Many countries in Europe including Spain, Austria, France and Germany have fixed pricing, and so booksellers set the price of their books and booksellers are required to sell them at this price. In Canada, publishers receive government funding to create books, but since they are still subject to the free market system, books are valued at the price that is given to them by sellers rather than by the publishers who make them causing a discrepancy between their value as it is deemed by the government and how sellers, and in turn, buyers value them. Canada is in a unique spot (as it has been for many years) between the United States model and the European model in regards to their funding and the pricing and selling of books. But is this the best way for the Canadian publishing industry? Let’s explore.

 

First, it is important to consider how Canada currently prices books. There are many factors that should contribute to the cost of the book, or so you would think considering every book is slightly different in content, form, design, and production. Sadly, this is not the case. Publishing houses are entirely reliant on comparative titles to price books. That means, look for a few books, like your book, see how they are priced and do around the same. Non-fiction is priced higher than fiction, for no other reason than pre-established norms (“How to Set the Retail Price of Your Book”). There is no true rhyme or reason to it. It has very little to do with the item itself (page quality, count, variety of ink), and instead has everything to do with how buyers price compare. Since price is determined by other books, it would be difficult for publishers to break the mold. If they price a book to low, they will get sales but will also have difficulty making a profit, and if they price to high, buyers might pick the book like it that they can get cheaper. Knowing how books are priced can help publishers looks at the models around book buying and pricing and can inform decisions they make in future.

 

So how does pricing work in other countries? If we look to Europe, there is a very different system in place regarding pricing, as they have fixed prices meaning no discount can be added. Many independent bookstores have closed their doors in free market countries because of not being able to competitively sell or offer discounts like bigger stores can do (Nakayama). In a fixed price market, there is more of an attachment to the store since you are not bargain hunting, but instead looking to what the store can provide as an experience (Mitchell). Having fixed pricing allows bookstores to also ensure they don’t lose funds when discounting a book and compete with other stores fairly (Blanche). Furthermore, since best sellers are not heavily discounted, there is less of a phenomenon behind their rapid and sky-rocketing sales. Best-sellers made up 1.7% of the market in France in 2005, whereas in the U.K. they were 16% of the market sales (Blanche).  Publishers also benefit from this system since they can create work that will be treated the same as all other works, since there will be no discount offered to encourage sales of particular books. Also, it is important to help independent bookstores since they are more likely to hand-sell a book to consumers.

 

Fixed pricing also has many disadvantages that can affect sales and the creation of books. By offering discounts you are potentially encouraging someone who would not have initially bought the book to do so. In the world of the internet, it is easier and in some cases cheaper to buy from another country that does not have price fixing and therefore renders fixed pricing moot (Stone). Also, price fixing is considered a “dirty” idea because it doesn’t allow the competition for more efficient booksellers that have more money and use price competition to increase their share in the market (Towse). Also, this potentially could reduce the incentive of booksellers to improve their book titles or aim to increase profitability. A lack of competition between publishers could lead to a lack of effort.

 

When we look to the United States, we can see the free market at work. In a free market, there is the expectation that the customer is first. Prices have to be competitive to encourage the customer to spend and by having offering discounts it gives the customer more freedom to choose how much they want to spend (Agarwal). Also by being competitive, it encourages publishing houses to improve their products and services (Towse 239). They have to study trends to meet customer needs and publish the books that people want to read. Quality has to be high to compete. The free market has been in place for many years in Canada and it is something we can easily recognize as consumers.

 

There are also many disadvantages of a free market for publishers. For smaller publishers, it is almost impossible to compete with bigger names who have a more flexible budget. They are not able to promote their books like one of the “big six” and therefore can barely break into the very competitive sales space. Therefore a book that is promoted well is likely to have a lower print cost meaning the publishers can make more money from it. Also, the use of data to ensure you get sales is problematic in book publishing, especially with smaller companies who cannot afford to publish every book that they come across. If publishers only paid attention to data, there are many books that would not get published, simply because they have not been audience tested. In a free market system, where your books should be selected to be competitive, it is difficult to image that counter-culture books would get made without the support of the government. Furthermore, the main argument for fixed pricing is that books are “both economic and cultural assets” and it is important to ensure they are protected and so are the publishers that create them (Stockman 54). In France, one of the major proponents of the fixed price system, they classify the book as an “essential good” (Marosevic). In a free market system, it is very clear that books are an item like any other that must compete to be bought, which is not how they are viewed in a fixed price system.

 

It is also important to note that in countries with fixed prices, there is also a lot of government funding given to publishers and writers to continue serving this cultural good. In Canada, we also have a lot of government grants for publishers to encourage creation, but is this a good idea in a free market?  In Matt Barnes’ paper, “Book pricing: publisher, vendor and library perspective” he defines price, which is “value or worth”. When it comes to books, value is much harder to place, but if we constantly discount and allow for books to be devalued through price reductions, it gives the appearance that it is not as worthy of its cost (Barnes 88). The money that is being put into books still does not provide enough to help them compete in the huge market, as they usually have very small marketing budgets, and ultimately helps the books sellers more than the publishers who continue to make a profit and define the value (both monetary and cultural) of the book. You could also argue that discounting books does put it into the hands of more people, but there is this constant expectation that we are paying more than we need to if the book is full price rather than just accepting the price as necessary because of what it is providing.

 

Sadly, there are many factors that would complicate switching to a fixed price system in Canada. No matter where you are, online shopping companies, especially Amazon has complicated fixed pricing. In Susan Stone’s article on the digital book market’s growth in Germany, she interviews a book seller who states, “Sellers like Amazon have other possibilities to offer certain titles at discounts as promotional items, and to attract customers. That’s something we just can’t do, it’s beyond us.” This has drastically changed their sales in English language books as Amazon sells them cheaper. They still have to abide by the fixed price in the country, and in the German shop of Amazon, but some people are also looking for the convenience and would be willing to buy outside of the country for the delivery and cheaper deals (Stone).  There are ways that countries have tried to fight this cross-border dealing. In France, they passed a law so that Amazon and other sites like it could not offer free shipping in combination with a 5% discount as a to curb people buying through them (Marosevic). Amazon retaliated by offering 1 cent shipping, proving once again that big business is the best business. Still, it is encouraging that laws would be passed to combat buying with Amazon and encouraging small business spending.

 

Amazon also doesn’t do any of the promotion around book-selling unlike more independent chains or official bookstores. By having a location, they can host readings, encourage hand-selling of books, and offer an easy space for browsing (unlike the tailor-made lists you receive from Amazon). Stacey Mitchell states “In the absence of fixed prices, discounters, including Amazon and big supermarket chains, can “free ride” on these services, benefitting from the increased demand for books, but not sharing the costs. Bookstores then lose market share and revenue, and decline in number. I don’t believe that Amazon is an evil corporation, but it has certainly made business for publishers extremely difficult. Beyond what I previously mentioned and their dropping of prices which changes the expectations of the cost of books, they are a retailer that has pushed publishers to sell to them at an insanely steep discount (Mitchell). The prices they set have become the norm and so to compete, other sellers have had to match or provide a unique experience.

 

Beyond booksellers, the other option that publishers have used is to raise the price of the books initially to make more a of profit. The price of books has grown considerably over the years, and not as a natural cause of inflation (Dreher). Due to retailers taking around 50% and returns, it is necessary to have the cost of the book be high to recoup expenses.  As stated in Christopher Dreher’s comprehensive article “Why do books cost so much?” “discounting has made it easier for book prices to creep upward while maintaining the illusion that consumers are getting the books inexpensively”. Publishers are currently maintaining to price relatively high (in comparison to countries with fixed pricing) to make a profit on books that do sell, considering how little they make off their list generally. Vendors look at the list price to decide what discount they will ask for (Barnes). By having higher prices, publishers are more likely to make money, but this does discourage some people from buying. As Dreher states, people are not keen to spend the money. His interview with a supervisor at a bookseller stated, “No matter what the prices are, they say it’s too expensive. The first thing they ask about is price, and the reactions range from a grunt to an outright whine.” Considering the reaction booksellers get from the price of the books, it is probably not the best option to raise prices further.

 

So what if we lower prices? In Breher’s article, he interviews Michael Cader, the creator of Publisher’s Lunch, who argues that prices should come down since there is more competition out there as more books are printed every year. There are new technological shifts, like print-on-demand, that can improve book production costs by eliminating inventory, shipping, returns and markups by sellers, thus putting money back into the hands of the author. Most book sales currently are on the lower end as most big businesses end up selling books when they are discounted. Lower prices in the current free market are the only way to actually compete and encourage buying, but it has not been the most effective system for publishers.

 

So, as it currently stands, Canada operates under a free market, but receives funding as if it were a fixed pricing system. The government deems it important to produce the literature and have it readily available, but makes very little effort to encourage its value through its cost. With fixed pricing of books, there is a possibility that both publishers and booksellers could find more stability and ultimately provide customers with a different experience, either through the expectations of a bookstore or through what is being published. Considering the passion in the industry to create meaningful works, despite the low pay, I doubt they would ultimately give up and stop creating good work, simply because they don’t need to cater to audiences in the same way. This also does not eliminate library sales for people who cannot afford books without discounts. The challenges that Amazon presents will still be an issue, but as it stands, they are currently still a huge competitor and would be taking certain sales regardless. The government also would be able to pass legislature to help protect prices, like France has done. Fixed prices also remove the challenges of raising or lower prices since once a price is set, people will be willing to spend and accept that cost. It also could be a lower cost than the current averages that exist. I’m not certain about how the Canadian government views price-fixing (since everywhere I’ve looked finds it extremely shady) and so it might be met with some scrutiny initially, but ultimately it could help the industry thrive and protect more publishers.

 

In conclusion, I believe Canada could benefit by looking to how other systems price their books since the market as it currently stands does not seem to be helping publishers or booksellers. Publishing as an industry is very reliant on all parts functioning well to thrive. Certainly it is difficult to gauge whether fixed pricing is the way to go, but it has benefited other countries that receive government funding to survive, because it contributes to the culture of a country.  With fixed pricing, smaller Canadian booksellers could fairly compete with companies like Amazon and Chapters Indigo, as could the publishers themselves. If books are priced the same across the board, your loyalty is to who is putting it out there not to whoever offers the best deal.

 

 

Works Cited

Agarwal, Prateek. “Free Market: Advantages & Disadvantages.” Intelligent Economist. N.p., 25 Mar. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Barnes, Matt, Jon Clayborne, and Suzy Szasz Palmer. “Book Pricing: Publisher, Vendor, and Library Perspectives.” Emerald (2005): 87-91. Emerald Insight. Emerald Group Publishing Ltd. Web.

Blache, Catherine. “Why Fixed Book Price Is Essential for Real Competition.” International Publishers Association. International Publishers Association, 16 Jan. 2016. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Dreher, Christopher. “Why Do Books Cost so Much?” Salon. 03 Dec. 2002. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

“How to Set the Retail Price of Your Book.” Set The Right Retail Price to Sell Your Books Competitively. Millcity Press, n.d. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Marosevic, Zeljka. “France Passes Anti-Amazon Law.” Melville House Books. N.p., 27 June 2014. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Mitchell, Stacey. “Why Publishers, Not Amazon, Should Set Book Prices.” Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 23 June 2011. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Nakayama, Moè. “For What It’s Worth: Fixed Book Price in Foreign Book Markets.” Publishing Trendsetter. N.p., 6 May 2015. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Stockmann, Doris. “Free or Fixed Prices on Books – Patterns of Book Pricing in Europe.” Javnost – The Public 11.4 (2004): 49-63. Web.

Stone, Susan. “Digital Wave Threatens Germany’s Fixed-price Book World.” DW. Ed. Sam Edmonds. N.p., 29 May 2010. Web. 01 Apr. 2017.

Towse, Ruth. A Handbook of Cultural Economics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2003. Print.