Mount Allison has plans to give Chindigo CEO Heather Reisman an honourary degree. But not everyone is happy. ‘Ninja friend, editor, professor, and drop-dead awesome poet, Amanda Jernigan sends in the following open letter, which does a great job of contextualizing much of the anti-Indigo sentiment has developed over the years.
To: Dr Robert Campbell, President and Vice-Chancellor, Mount Allison University; Dr Stephen McClatchie, Provost & Vice-President, Academic & Research, Mount Allison University; Ms Gloria Jollymore, Vice-President, University Advancement
Cc.: Dr David Thomas, Dept. of International Relations, Mount Allison University; Dr Karen Bamford, Chair, Dept. of English, Mount Allison University; Stuart Woods, Editor, Quill & Quire; Martin Levin, Books Editor, Globe and Mail; Dru Oja Jay, Editor, The Dominion; George Murray, Editor, Bookninja; David Stonehouse, Editor, Telegraph-Journal (St. John); Al Hogan, Managing Editor, Times & Transcript (Moncton); Kim Jernigan, Editor, The New Quarterly; Tim and Elke Inkster, Publishers, The Porcupine’s Quill; Andrew Steeves, Publisher, Gaspereau Press; Ellen Pickle, Bookseller, Tidewater Books
12 May 2010
Dear President Campbell, and Vice-Presidents McClatchie and Jollymore:
I am writing this open letter to add my voice to the chorus objecting to Mount Allison’s decision to grant an honorary degree to Heather Reisman, President and CEO of Indigo Books and Music Inc.
I read with interest and alarm Dr. David Thomas’s letter regarding Ms Reisman’s involvement with the HESEG foundation. I agree with Dr. Thomas that “universities and intellectuals have a special responsibility to create a just society and to oppose war and militarism,” and it seems clear that tacit support of the HESEG foundation, through the planned honorary degree, runs counter to that responsibility.
I have my own reasons for opposing Ms Reisman’s honorary degree, however. I studied English literature at Mount Allison University from 1997-2001, and have since returned (in 2009) to teach in the English department here. In the intervening years, I worked in the world of Canadian small-press publishing, and so had a front-row seat on the depredations of Chapters/Indigo in the Canadian book trade. A recent article in THIS Magazine paints the picture: “Some 350 indie bookstores closed across Canada in the past decade, and, according to Susan Dayus, executive director of the Canadian Booksellers Association, much of that had to do with the arrival of the Chapters chain. ‘Those closures happened very quickly when Chapters opened,’ Dayus says. ‘The leadership of Chapters was very predatory—they opened across the street or kitty-corner to successful bookstores. And those who didn’t have strong financial backing went under.’”
It wasn’t just the independent bookstores that Chapters threatened; small publishers felt the squeeze as well. It wasn’t that Chapters didn’t buy our books (I say “our” because I was working for Porcupine’s Quill, Printers & Publishers, in Ontario at this time): they did buy our books — and then returned them, in ruinous numbers. Publisher Tim Inkster kept close track of the situation:
“In 1998 Chapters (& Indigo) ordered 13,293 copies of Porcupine’s Quill publications. And returned 4,052 — less than 30 percent, which was somewhat higher than industry standards at the time but not excessively so — leaving us with a net sale of 9,241 units, worth about $90,000 which was not bad at all. I remember David Peterson, chairman of the Board at Chapters at the time, talking about ‘growing the market’ for Canadian books. I was keen.
“In 2004 (six years later) Chapters ordered 2,797 copies of PQL books. And returned 1,415 — more than 50 percent, which left us with a net sale of 1,382 — which means quite simply that we have lost 85 percent of the business we once did with Chapters over the course of those same six years.
“In the calendar year 2005 Chapters returns are running at 68 percent, which is disastrous — maybe not catastrophic — but pales in the face of Chapters’ returns in the current fiscal year-to-date (since 31 May 05) which weigh in at 167 percent of sales. This is ruinous, and this cannot be permitted to continue.” (Canadian Notes & Queries)
Porcupine’s Quill is a small press; Tim and Elke Inkster print and bind all of their books in house. A Chapters order, in the thousand-copy range, would have necessitated special print runs, and an up-front cost well in excess of what the press would have spent in a normal year. Like many small presses, the Inksters swallowed the cost, banking on Chapters’ promised sales. When the books were returned, in droves, the press was nearly put out of business.
This huge discrepancy, on Chapters’ part, between orders and returns, is hardly emblematic of the corporate “responsibility” the company claims to espouse.
I can only think that the rationale for Mount Allison’s decision to grant Ms Reisman an honorary degree is Ms Reisman’s “success” in business. Since my return to academia, I’ve had limited professional involvement with the business world — but my years working in the book trade gave me huge respect for certain business people. I have huge respect for Tim and Elke Inkster, who have sustained their small press for 36 years against heartbreaking odds. I have huge respect for Ellen Pickle, Sackville’s own independent bookseller, who has sustained Tidewater Books in Mount Allison’s home community for 15 years, as many of her bookseller-counterparts have gone under. But I cannot respect a corporation like Chapters/Indigo that operates by bulldozing competitors, expanding unsustainably, and abdicating its responsibility to the communities of readers and writers it depends on.
Writers get their starts with small presses; small presses are sustained by independent booksellers who care enough to carry and hand-sell their books. The whole ecology of writing and reading at the grassroots level has thus been threatened by Chapters/Indigo, in a way that seems to me have frightening implications for the intellectual life of our country.
Mount Allison, as a small, liberal-arts university, is deeply invested in that intellectual life, and must work to sustain it. Granting an honorary degree to Heather Reisman runs directly counter to this imperative. I must ask the administration to reconsider.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter.
Department of English Literatures,
Mount Allison University