It is, in many ways, a world away from Canada’s book publishing center in Toronto. But even three time zones, several mountain ranges, and vast forests away, the West Coast is home to Canada’s second-largest concentration of English-language publishers.
“We have a pretty vibrant industry out here,” says Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of Orca Books in Victoria. “I think it is an interesting thing in these times to have such a concentration in one place so far from the center of anything. It’s a difficult spot to publish but it’s a place that seems to produce such a variety of publishing.” It’s difficult, he says, because 85% of the customers are within a couple hours of Toronto, so shipping and distribution are always problems for B.C. publishers.
And in spite of the pressures that the whole publishing industry is facing in tough economic times and the transition into the digital era, Michael Burch, president and owner of Whitecap Books, describes the B.C. publishing industry as “healthy.”
A number of the publishers are celebrating their 40th anniversaries, including D&M Publishers, Arsenal Pulp Press, and Talon Books, having all sprung up around the same time in the early ’70s during the small press revolution. Margaret Reynolds, executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia, says that at that time “there was a confluence of very good booksellers, high circulation in libraries, which is still the case, and a number of people who were willing to go out on a limb and produce books about this place,” she says. “I think there was a real cultural flourishing at that time that was also part of the interest in Canadian culture that came out of the mid-’60s,” she adds. “In some ways there was a unique West Coast character, which is maybe personified by Arsenal, which was just called Pulp Press in those days,” she says.
Publisher Brian Lam says Pulp Press in the 1970s was “very much an alternative political press with literary roots in the community, so we’re still very dedicated to books about the art and politics of the time.” These days Arsenal specializes in gay and lesbian literature and vegan and health cookbooks. Arsenal has also recently developed a line of alternative craft books, such as yarn bombing, the practice of people knitting an item and leaving it in a public place such as on a sign or fence. Yarn bombing, says Lam, has “become a worldwide phenomenon, and there was a feature in the style section of the New York Times a couple of months ago about our book. We’ve subsequently had huge interest. We were in a Time magazine blog and the Today Show,” says Lam. “We’re doing a follow-up this fall called Hoopla: The Art of Unexpected Embroidery [also by author Leanne Prain]. There’s also a political element to their art. For example, in Yarn Bombing there’s a picture of someone who has completely knitted cosy over a military tank. So there’s a subversive element to it, taking a very traditional craft and using it in unexpected ways.”
Back in the ’70s, Scott McIntyre, founder and chairman of D&M [Douglas & McIntyre] Publishing, now the largest independent English-language publisher in Canada, turned down good job offers from the big houses in Toronto to return to his home province at the time. “It was all brand new,” he says. Up until that time, “You couldn’t get a Canadian novel taught in a university because the profs were all Brits and Americans and completely disdained Canadian writing. And the librarians were all Brits and completely disdained ugly, badly manufactured Canadian books. But there was a strong loyalty to regional history, good bookstores, and a lot of energy,” he says.
The present industry evolved from there, McIntyre says. “A bunch of people who were passionate about books, stubborn, and wanted to stay here. Logic would have dictated that I go back to Toronto years ago, and I love Toronto and the game, but I think most of the publishers here really value their lifestyle and it is a glorious place to live and to raise kids.” One of Douglas & McIntyre’s lead titles for fall is a collection of Fred Herzog’s urban photography, primarily of Vancouver.
The publishers describe the scene in B.C. as a connected community with active and vocal members in the provincial association. Kevin Williams and his wife, Vicki, bought Talon Books from Karl Siegler, but Williams and Siegler have been working together until Siegler retires this month. Talon specializes in drama and poetry, but also does some brave nonfiction. This fall, Talon plans to publish Alain Deneault’s Imperial Canada, which examines the mining industry in Canada, in spite of early warnings of potential lawsuits from mining giant Barrick Gold. ”It became a bit of a cause célèbre for the freedom of speech stuff, but there were a lot of people involved in the book and some of them got queasy and pulled out, so it took a while to complete it,” says Williams, who built his career at Raincoast Books for 20 years before making the move to Talon.
Export markets are vital for many B.C. publishers. Lam says 55% of Arsenal’s sales are in the U.S., and both McIntyre and Wooldridge talk about the importance of their U.S. markets. And B.C. publishers are looking further afield for export markets as well. Orca distributes books in Singapore and is working on sales to China. “We continue to go to the Beijing Book Fair every year,” says Wooldridge. “We go there more often than Frankfurt because I think as a publisher publishing books in English, especially for school-age kids learning to read, it’s a natural market. It is going to become more and more important.”
Simply Read, which publishes both children’s and adult books, is a relative newcomer after only 10 years in business, but it, too, has important export markets in the U.S., Europe, and Australia, and sells rights in Japan and Korea. Publisher Dimiter Savof has a diverse list for fall that includes Thomas Aquinas Maguire’s retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Wild Swans fairy tale in a 104-panel accordion book, and Portland photographer Lisa Bauso’s book Bella’s Pockets, a photo record of all that she found in her daughter’s pocket over the course of a year. Savof says he sometimes wonders if he needs to have a presence in the East. “We are so far away, at the end of the world. On the other hand, I always felt that this gives us freedom and a lot less pressure [so we can] do what we want.”