Vancouver’s Raincoast Books keeps its offices over a 44,000-square-foot warehouse on the banks of the Fraser River. As the Canadian publisher and distributor of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the company’s headquarters has become a kind of paean to Potter paraphernalia. When you walk in, pennants and a huge pair of handmade quilts — depicting cover art for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix — frame the entranceway. Four conference rooms (Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin) are named after the houses at Harry’s fictional alma mater, the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. And there’s a prominent spot for Rowling, too: her only visit to the complex, seven years ago, is captured in a large photograph hanging near the front desk.
It’s been nearly a decade since Raincoast landed publishing’s equivalent of the Alberta oilsands, and the numbers still boggle the mind. When the sixth novel, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, was published in July 2005, it sold more than 650,000 copies during its first weekend alone. This in a country of 31 million, where a brisk seller might move just 15,000 copies. When Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final installment in Rowling’s series, becomes available on July 21, Raincoast will have published more than 10 million Potter books in Canada.
After all these years, it’s natural to wonder: How did a mid-sized, independent Canadian company somehow end up with the biggest bestseller of them all? And as the seven-part saga draws to a close, what comes next?
“There was something different [about it],” recalls Allan MacDougall, Raincoast’s publisher, president and CEO, during a recent interview. He saw the first novel, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, in manuscript (and wrapped in a pink ribbon) at Rowling’s British publisher, Bloomsbury, in 1996. “But it wasn’t like I had incredible radar here and that I was picking [the novel] up.”
He wouldn’t do that for two more years, at the 1998 Frankfurt Book Fair, where MacDougall won the Canadian rights in a joint venture with Bloomsbury. Thinking back, he remembers the buzz, the sense that something was building, something that, even today, he still can’t pin down. But then again, the “reign of Harry,” as one industry figure labelled this past decade, might just be proof of how overrated reason and logic can be. Could anyone have known the magnitude of the Potter phenomenon?
With only two months until the publication of Harry’s swan song, Raincoast is nearing its own watershed moment. “We’re a fairly lean company,” MacDougall says confidently, noting that staffing levels aren’t about to fall post-Harry. But where do they go from here? Will Raincoast husband its profits, sinking resources into its hugely successful distribution business? Or will it take its earnings and scour the scene for a new superstar?
Michael Tamblyn, president and CEO of BookNet Canada, a not-for-profit agency, suggests that hunting for blockbusters can be “a kind of fool’s errand.”
“The true mettle of a publisher comes when one lands on your lap,” he says. “I think one of the most interesting things about Raincoast’s experience with Harry Potter is that with an organization that had been less skilled, it could have buried them.”
Author J.K. Rowling. (Ian Torrance/Associated Press) Author J.K. Rowling. (Ian Torrance/Associated Press)
By most accounts, Raincoast did brilliantly. Mounting the massive Potter campaigns with almost military precision (and secrecy), they invested heavily in what Tamblyn calls “supply-chain innovation”: software, sales analysis and all the tools Raincoast needed to get books swiftly across the country, one of the primary challenges for any Canadian distributor. But others had wished for something more.
“Raincoast is one we all had our eyes on,” observes Roy MacSkimming, author of The Perilous Trade, the definitive history of Canada’s book business. “They were making good money, and they were in a position to plow some of it into new Canadian books.”
MacSkimming says the Canadian-owned publishing sector has been “battered in various ways.” As former stalwarts have dissolved (Toronto’s Stoddart, for example, or Edmonton’s Hurtig), there’s been a hope that other Canadian houses would somehow survive and compete, despite slim profit margins and the increasingly dominant multinationals (from HarperCollins to Random House).
Earlier this month, a group of B.C. investors acquired a majority interest in Vancouver’s widely admired Douglas & McIntyre, while one of Raincoast’s own partners, the California distributor Advanced Marketing Services, recently went bankrupt. (Part of AMS’s operation has been taken over by U.S.-based Perseus.)
To MacSkimming, Raincoast’s infrastructure is its indisputable strength. As a wholesaler and distributor of more than 40 Canadian and international imprints — including Bloomsbury, Chronicle (U.S.) and Lonely Planet (Australia) — they run an operation similar to the multinationals, something an independent company requires, MacSkimming says, “to control its own fate.” Raincoast was named distributor of the year by the Canadian Booksellers Association three years in a row; they’ve been nominated again in 2007.
Even when the company launched in 1979, as an outgrowth of MacDougall’s sales agency with then partner Mark Stanton, speed and service ruled. According to industry observers, MacDougall is a smart and extremely pragmatic businessman. He began as a Toronto-based McClelland & Stewart salesman in 1972.
“Allan is cautious,” MacSkimming observes. “But he’s still got this task, which maybe he’s now really grappling with, of having to define . . . what kind of publisher he’s going to be.”
With Potter’s phenomenal success in the late ’90s, Raincoast had the cash to ramp up its Canadian publishing program. They’d had a small list before that — books on British Columbia, for instance, or gardening — and they’d also had a full-blown bestseller: B.C. author Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine trilogy (1991-93). Soon, however, Raincoast became more ambitious, hiring a larger staff and venturing into serious adult fiction. MacDougall now admits they moved too quickly, cycling through a number of plans (and editors). While they published many critically admired Canadian writers — such as Colin McAdam, Anosh Irani and Anne Fleming — the company, ultimately, felt uneasy drifting away from its bottom-line ethic. The fiction division, a perennial economic drain, was abandoned last year; Raincoast’s publishing staff has shrunk to just seven, essentially half of what it once was.
“The fact of the matter is, to publish fiction effectively in Canada, you have to have very, very deep pockets,” MacDougall observes. “And you can say that we have relatively deep pockets, but the payback doesn’t work, I think, unless you’re a multinational. . . . I just think it would take a long time and a lot of money to get you somewhere that may not be that attractive [financially].”
Perhaps that’s why the literary agents I spoke with are taking a wait-and-see approach to Raincoast. In the past, the advances the company paid to authors were too modest, its identity too opaque, to lift the company into the top tier. As one agent explained, financial losses are unavoidable in publishing. A great publisher goes for an idea first, then figures out how to make it work.
Publishing, albeit of a more modest kind, remains central to Raincoast’s plans. “We’re dialing back to a place where we think we can make money,” MacDougall says. That includes, not surprisingly after Harry Potter, a range of children’s books, as well as more non-fiction. Raincoast’s upcoming catalogue doesn’t shy away from gutsy projects, from former Walrus editor Joshua Knelman’s Hot Art, a true-crime take on the world of art theft, to Daniel Sekulich’s Sea Terror, an account of the “new face” of maritime piracy.
Raincoast will also have to feed the ongoing demand for all things Harry Potter. Sound business fundamentals should allow them to realize these profits for a very long time. And they’ll need to. The multinationals, MacDougall observes, have resources “way beyond anybody else’s. They have the heft to withstand a few bad years.”
After Harry, Raincoast’s mantra couldn’t be more sensible: Give us growth — slow, steady growth. It’s hardly something romantic, but as MacDougall says, “We want to be one of the survivors.”
*Greg Buium is a Vancouver writer.