Former CBC host Bronwyn Drainie is editor of The Literary Review of Canada.
RICK EGLINTON/TORONTO STAR
In a brutal modern media industry of ever-shrinking margins and shuttered publications, a small niche magazine has survived 20 years, all with limited newsstand availability and a small cache of loyal subscribers.
The community around The Literary Review of Canada, a non-fiction book review magazine, celebrates two decades in 2012. Many outside that community have wondered how they did it.
“I think it’s this sense of loyalty to the importance of books and ideas, and the sense of that being threatened,” said Helen Walsh, co-publisher of the periodical.
The magazine was started in 1991 by a passionate civil servant who worked on it out of his basement. It approached, but never quite reached, the brink of collapse many times in the following few years and only seemed to hit its stride when current editor Bronwyn Drainie joined the publication nine years ago.
“Let’s face it: book review pages are being slimmed down in a lot of newspapers now and concentrating more on what I would call popular fiction,” said Drainie. The LRC reviews many of the books produced by university presses each year and is one of the few places where those books are covered. It’s a niche Drainie and her team of volunteers and home-office scribes are happy to fill. It may also be what has kept the magazine’s presses chugging along all these years.
“To make it through to 20 and not having anybody repossessing the computers is really to be celebrated,” said Ryerson University publishing expert Lynn Cunningham.
Drainie, a former CBC host and well-known arts and culture reporter, brought with her a stable of well-known and respected writers and willing contributors.
Some of the best writers in Canada wrote for them right at the beginning of her tenure, including Margaret Atwood. “There’s a kind of virtuous circle that’s created when you bring certain people in and have them write for you, then they’re constantly on the outlook for other interesting writers who might be good for us,” said Drainie.
Those “certain people” include newsmakers like Conrad Black, who still pens pieces for the magazine from his American jail cell. He caused an international stir when he apologized in The LRC’s pages to Margaret MacMillan for a review of Nixon in China that he later decided was a little too patronizing.
Drainie describes her readers as elite: 85 per cent are over 45; 61 per cent have household incomes over $100,000 and 41 per cent have PhDs, according to their most recent reader survey. They’re educated generalists, she said.
“Really, right across the spectrum of intelligent, thoughtful people who care about Canada and what directions it’s going in,” she elaborated. This includes politicians, the people who run think-tanks, policy analysts, journalists, other writers and academics.
Cunningham says a clearly defined audience is one of the key factors in a publication’s success and may help explain The LRC’s longevity. That and a loyal group of contributors who are “not getting rich” off the work they do for the magazine.
But when asked if she was looking forward to another 20 years, Drainie was cautious. “I would love to say that it’s only going to get bigger and better, but these are very difficult and precarious times for a print magazine.” They’re currently developing the web side of the business aggressively.
Yet, with a circulation of 6,500 a month, The LRC may be better able to survive because of its size according to Cunningham. Smaller magazines generally don’t have much of an advertising base, which means the great decline in ad sales of 2008 didn’t hit smaller publications as hard since they weren’t big enough to attract advertisers in the first place.
Publisher Walsh is more optimistic.
“I think as print gets threatened and as general interest magazines struggle, specialty magazines end up getting more support. In fact we’re at our most stable funding period than we’ve ever been, 20 years out,” she said. Their government grants are also higher than they’ve ever been, she added.
The magazine received charitable status last year for its educational focus on public policy issues like culture, history, economics, and immigration.
They’re now branching out to hosting events around the magazine. “A brand of serious lively discourse is going to explode in the next year for us,” said Walsh
If it’s up to her, those loyal readers and any new ones that come along can expect The LRC to be around for another 20.