Publishing

What a little Moonbeam can do

Mark Abley May 7 1979
Publishing

What a little Moonbeam can do

Mark Abley May 7 1979

What a little Moonbeam can do

Publishing

John Flood lives in Moonbeam, 200 miles south of James Bay, and the wolves sometimes howl at his door.

He’s not a trapper or a miner, though; John Flood is a publisher. He owns and runs the Penumbra Press which in February published two books of poetry and Twelve Northern Drawings, a limited edition of Algonquin sketches by Carl Schaefer—a friend and near contemporary of the Group of Seven. In April Penumbra published an unpublished novel by one of Canada’s classic authors, Duncan Campbell Scott. Flood, an English teacher at Northern Ontario’s far-flung Le Collège Universitaire de Hearst, wants Penumbra’s books to be read across the country; Canada’s 4,000 major libraries are all on his mailing list. A few years ago Penumbra would have seemed incongruous: who ever heard of a publishing house not far from Kapuskasing? But with the rise of regional publishing, Flood’s venture seems anything but bizarre.

It has long been true that most Canadian writers choose not to live in Toronto; until recently, however, they usually had to submit their work to a To-

ronto publisher. But the ground has shifted, and nowadays a book is as likely as not to be published in Fredericton or Winnipeg or Windsor. One of Canada’s finest publishers is Black Moss Press, founded in 1975 by a Windsor Star reporter named Marty Gervais. Black Moss has not only published writers of quality (AÍ Purdy, Earle Birney and Ralph Gustafson, for instance), it has also balanced its accounts. “We’ve amazed a lot of authors in that we’ve been able to sell their books,” Gervais remarks. “A lot of people say, ‘Poetry doesn’t sell.’ It doesn’t if you don’t promote it.” Relying more on his own energies than on government subsidies, Gervais expects to publish 12 books this year—a trickle compared to Macmillan or McClelland & Stewart, but a lot for the handful of people who keep Black Moss alive.

Lacking the resources of the large Toronto houses, most regional publishers work on a shaky financial base. Many are furious at the literary chain stores, which rarely carry their books. The chain stores, like supermarkets, depend on a rapid turnover and are reluctant to

stock volumes that don’t sell fast. Gervais calls Coles “particularly scandalous,” while Flood is hoping to bypass bookstores altogether. “With their 40per-cent take,” he says, “bookstores force regional publishers into the red.” Talonbooks of Vancouver, the publishers of Michel Tremblay, George Ryga, and assorted other writers of note, is one of many short on money. No matter how good their books, they’ll never be read unless they reach the public. Part of the answer may lie in a new regional distribution system such as Serv-West, which aims to put B.C. books before the eyes of B.C. readers.

And in B.C. the publishing scene is lively, unstable but atmospheric. David Robinson of Talonbooks regularly takes authors he is wooing, or has signed, to a tiny restaurant called The Pink Geranium, an hour’s soothing ferry ride away from Vancouver on the gulf island of Galiano. The courtship routine must work because Robinson and partners Karl Siegler and Peter Hay have become Canada’s largest publishers of plays. Although the munificence of the Ontario Arts Council in Toronto is eyed constantly, Talonbooks is determined to stay nestled in the crook of the mountains. Robinson, in a voice as soft as ermine, insists: “We belong here.” Ironically, Talonbooks’ success has led them to a condition that must leave other “quality” publishers slack-jawed with envy—they believe they have exhausted their Canadian mandate of publishing.

Talonbooks is going international, opening a Los Angeles office within the

next six months and signing deals with Israel Horovitz (The Primary English Class), David Rudkin (Ashes) and negotiating others with Edward Albee and Sam Shepard. Half their new publishing, however, will remain Canadian, with the aim of becoming North America’s premier play publisher.

A voracious B.C. reading public that has allowed feisty local houses such as Douglas and McIntyre and Hancock House to thrive has also produced startling recent regional sales of two political books dealing with the carnival of B.C. provincial politics. The self-published 1,200 Days by Lome Kavic and Gary Nixon chronicles the NDP government of Dave Barrett from 1972 to 1975, and Morning Star Books’ Son ofSocred, by Stan Persky, did the same for Bill Bennett. With some 15,000 copies of the books sold and another 10,000 in print, they speak eloquently of co-author Gary Nixon’s happy observation that, “They treat their politics very seriously out here.”

Hurtig Publishers in Edmonton takes in more than $1 million every year. Its founder, Mel Hurtig, calls himself “not a regional publisher, but a national publisher who happens to be in a region.” Although his first project, Alberta: A Natural History, sold more than 70,000 copies, Hurtig doesn’t require huge sales in his own province. Abba! The Ultimate Pop Group, say, or The Best Modern Canadian Short Stories will sell just as well in Ottawa or Halifax as in Edmonton. The success of Hurtig Publishers shows that a large commercial press can flourish in English Canada outside southern Ontario.

Not everyone applauds the trend. “Regionalism tends to be a negative thing in this country,” says Toronto poet Greg Gatenby. “Where are our standards of excellence?” Nonetheless, Gatenby’s own Whale Sound—an anthology of poems and artwork by, among others, William Kurelek, Margaret Atwood and Harold Town—was entrusted to Vancouver’s Douglas and McIntyre. “Theirs was the best offer financially,” Gatenby explains, “and I knew they’d treat the book with attention.” Having sold more than 10,000 copies, Whale Sound is a virtual best seller. But it’s just one of many success stories in western publishing. Despite a lack of funding from an indifferent provincial government, more than 100 publishers now exist in B.C. alone. On the Prairies too, a growing pride in place has found expression among many small publishers, notably NeWest of Edmonton, Turnstone of Winnipeg and Thistledown of Saskatoon. It was Thistledown that finally persuaded the reticent John V. Hicks—“original, intense, precise, complex, sensitive, and admirable” are just some of the adjectives

Earle Birney uses to describe him—to issue his first collection of poems, Now Is a Far Country.

Some regional presses, Hurtig and Talonbooks among them, arose in the late ’60s on a wave of hopeful nationalism. But many more were founded in this decade, specifically to provide voices for a neglected or isolated area. One such was Breakwater Books of St. John’s, which began in 1973 with an anthology of Newfoundland writing called Baffles of Wind and Tide. “We’d been getting inquiries from American branch plants to contribute to anthologies,” says Clyde Rose, the ex-professor who runs Breakwater, “so we figured, why not start on our own?” In the last five years, Breakwater claims to have published more writers than in all Newfoundland’s previous history. And last year the firm expanded, printing novels from Nova Scotia and Labrador. In New Brunswick, Fiddlehead Books of Fredericton has just issued its 250th volume of poetry. (Fiddlehead was quietly producing before many of Canada’s new publishers were born.)

“It’s cheap to get involved,” says Valerie Thompson, former associate editor of Quill and Quire, the house organ of Canadian publishing (now executive editor for McClelland & Stewart). “All you need is the money to buy the paper and pay the printer. The big problem is that there’s often no money to promote the books and sell them; this is the author’s standing gripe.” The distribution systems are also far from adequate. In an effort to combat these problems and put their books before a national public, 29 small presses have banded together to form the Literary Press Group. Funded by the Canada Council and the Ontario Arts Council the group publishes a free catalogue and arranges regional meetings (the next will be held in Regina on May 3,4 and 5). But as long as the chain stores are unwilling to carry volumes from small presses, and as long as most regional publishers remain shut out from the lucrative textbook market, money will remain scarce.

The Canada Council’s officer in charge of grants to publishers is Roy MacSkimming, a former publisher himself. MacSkimming is committed to regional publishing. “Canada,” he says, “was the great unconscious country. Today it is awake, in part because of the rich variety of books being published.” Without the council’s assistance, some of the presses would go under, but regional publishing is not a trend dependent on the whims of government. If people like Flood of Penumbra and Rose of Breakwater continue to flourish, then Canada’s standards of publishing excellence might be set in Moonbeam and St. John’s, not just in Toronto.

Mark Abley