CANADIAN BOOK-BUYING choices changed direction in 2008. In our informal survey of independent bookstores across the country, we learned that sales of environmental books weren’t down like the stock market, but they were different from last year.

The blockbusters of 2007, Heat, An Inconvenient Truth, The Weather Makers and even the The Geography of Hope, gave way to “how-to” books. Readers sought out anything with “manual,” “guide,” or “handbook” in its title. David Suzuki’s Green Guide turned out to be a big seller at stores across the country, including Banyen Books in Vancouver, Pages Books and Magazines in Toronto, and BookLore in Orangeville, Ontario, among others. Both The Concise Guide to Self-Sufficiency by John Seymour and The Renewable Energy Handbook by William H. Kemp popped up regularly. A quirky title in Lanark, Ontario’s Nature Lover’s Bookshop was Mongolian Cloud Houses: How to Make a Yurt and Live Comfortably by Dan Frank Kuehn. The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith, as well as Earthbag Building by Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer caught the attention of the customers of Fertile Ground bookstore in Toronto, and Serious Straw Bale by Paul Lacinski and Michel Bergeron, and Change the World for Ten Bucks were popular at Chat Noir Books in New Liskeard, Ontario. Finally, Thomas L. Friedman came up with a how-to title, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – And How it Can Renew America, that caught the attention of business leaders who frequent Books for Business in Toronto.

Dave Starr, manager of Toronto’s Pages Books, says, “Any book that you sell every week is a major title.” His top environmental seller in 2008 was HTO: Toronto’s Water from Lake Iroquois to Lost Rivers to Low-flow Toilets, edited by Christina Palassio and Wayne Reeves.

Based on our survey, three things lead to increased book sales.

First, books sell at events. For instance, most of the sales of HTO at Toronto’s Pages Books came about on the night that the authors came out to launch it. Similarly, The Bookshelf in Guelph, Ontario, sold multiple copies of Urban Meltdown written by Ottawa’s Clive Doucet after it was the selected as the book Guelph residents should read. Maude Barlow’s Blue Covenant became a top seller for Nature Lover’s Bookshop when the store had Barlow drop by for a reading. And Andrew Nikiforuk’s exposé, Tar Sands, wasn’t just the bestselling environmental book for Calgary’s Pages on Kensington bookstore, but also the highest on the overall sales charts. Many, though not all, of those purchases happened when Nikiforuk made an appearance.

Tar Sands, like HTO, also took advantage of the second key to better sales: cover a local issue.

The third key comes from Nancy Frater at BookLore. She pointed out that books about food were her salvation. Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon’s The 100-Mile Diet, in particular, hold appeal for foodies across the nation.

Interestingly, none of the hottest selling titles named in our survey was published in 2008. They include Alan Weisman’s surprisingly hopeful The World Without Us, which was a New York Times bestseller in 2007, Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest, William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle and, finally, Adria Vasil’s Ecoholic, another how-to guide.

Nicola Ross is the former Editor of Alternatives Journal, and is a member of the editorial board.

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