While a border separates British Columbia from the rest of the Pacific Northwest, the parts of the region either side of that border have much in common. For starters, both have thriving publishing scenes. “I don’t want to call California a wasteland,” says Kevin Williams, president and publisher of Vancouver’s Talonbooks, “but the number of publishers in the PNW is amazing.”
When Bennett Coles, publisher of Promontory Press, moved to the region 25 years ago, it was a “sleepy corner of North America,” he says. “And then some things happened. Seattle became the coolest city in North America, with Pearl Jam, Frasier, Starbucks, Microsoft, and Amazon. And Vancouver had Expo and the Olympics.” However, while the PNW has always had a laid-back vibe, “the hippieness is kind of gone,” Coles says. “The professionalism has grown a lot in the last 25 years. Everyone is a professional now.”
B.C. publishers are trying to increase their presence in the U.S. One way to achieve this is to spend more time over the border. This year’s Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show in Tacoma saw the largest turnout of B.C. publishers ever. For the last two years, B.C. publishers have come to the PNBA show on a grant from the Western Canada Diversification Fund. Andrew Wooldridge, publisher of Orca Book Publishers, says that more B.C. publishers are participating in PNBA in part because they are “thinking of the region as a larger region, rather than just a Canadian or U.S. region.”
The B.C. publishing industry benefits from the financial support of government grants from the Canada Council for the Arts and from the B.C. Arts Council. For Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp Press, the grants are immensely helpful. Arsenal’s publisher Brian Lam says that the grants, which began in the 1970s, are “premised on the fact that books in the English language are dominated by American and British publishing.” The grants are intended to offer Canadian publishers more of a level playing field and to “foster the growth of Canadian literature at home,” he says. “Those grants have enabled us to keep alive our Canadian-author titles, even when the bottom line may not be that commercial, but culturally the books are very important.”
The financial backing allows Arsenal to take more chances on titles. “Without that support things would be much harder,” Lam says. “We wouldn’t be able to take risks on Canadian poets or short story authors. We’d have to focus more exclusively on commercial categories.”
This is important because Arsenal Pulp focuses on titles by a range of authors and in a range of subject matter and was one of the first publishers in Canada of LGBTQ titles. The press has had some big successes in that category, such as Blue Is the Warmest Color, a graphic novel that was made into a film that won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and When Everything Feels Like the Movies, a YA title about a gay teen, which won the Governor General’s Literary Award.
Lam says that the company has extended its reach into the U.S., and that U.S. sales now represent 55% of Arsenal’s total.
Caitlin Press has had long-term success with regional titles. Publisher Vici Johnstone, who bought the company in 2008, says that Caitlin started as a feminist press, but shifted to include regional titles. When she bought Caitlin, the backlist had 66 titles, but only eight of them were still selling. “The first thing I did was aggressively increase the list of books,” Johnstone says. “We’re over 200 now. I also kind of refocused [the list].”
Part of Caitlin Press’s mandate is to publish works about “rural living and rural stories,” Johnstone says. “Our tagline is Where Urban Meets Rural. What that means for me is that so many of our resources are developed in the rural areas but most of our people live in the city.” Johnstone says that there’s a big market of urban dwellers who are very interested in what’s happening in the rural regions. Even with the addition of regional titles, Johnstone started the imprint Dagger Editions this year, focused on publishing literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by and about queer women.
Vancouver’s New Star Books started as a “scruffy little publishing outfit,” according to publisher Rolf Maurer. “It didn’t have an original owner. It was a bunch of hippies and activists who wanted to change the world, who came together and founded it.”
What began as a literary supplement in a newspaper has grown into a small press that focuses on maintaining its literary roots while publishing titles about politics, social issues, and local history and culture, as well as poetry and fiction.
One of the dynamics in publishing is the “pressure to grow by adding titles,” Maurer says. “That’s also a strategy that has its risks.” He cites Merchants of Culture by sociologist John B. Thompson. “He has a very compelling argument why medium is the wrong size for a publisher and why the publishers that survive and thrive are either the small presses at one end, or the huge presses on the other. We’ve seen it many times here in Canada. The smaller presses that have striven to become a little bigger, the moment they’re in the middle of the road they get flattened. We are quite happy to be small sized doing five to 10 books a year.”
Some B.C. presses are moving away from focusing on regional titles. Publisher Andrew Wooldridge has been with Orca Book Publishers for 25 years. In that time, he says, the company has grown and changed a lot from being a small regional trade publisher. “We’re now much larger and much less regional. Our focus is much more on the school and library market rather than trade by itself. We used to publish many more adult titles at the beginning, now we’re completely a children’s publisher.”
One of the reasons for the shift is that “kids books travel much better,” Wooldridge says. “The market is much larger so you can publish not just for your region.” Orca has also developed a niche of publishing titles for struggling readers. Wooldridge says that Orca wants to publish more books on social justice, plus more nonfiction. And, with the environment and issues of climate change becoming increasingly central, the press’s series Orca Footprints focuses on titles around environmental topics such as extreme weather and climate change.
Orca has a staff of 24, a “very active” backlist of 850 titles, and it publishes an average of 85 titles a year. Digital is a big part of its business, currently at 25% and growing. The U.S. now accounts for 65% of its sales.
Promontory Press was founded by an author who wanted to change the industry. Publisher Bennett Coles self-published his first book, Virtues of War, in 2010. It sold 2,000 copies in two years and won an award, and as a result Coles got picked up in a three-book deal with Titan Books. “I looked at the publishing industry and I didn’t like what I found,” Coles says. “I saw that it was so hard for a first-time author to break in. Once you’re in, you’re in, but getting in is so hard. ”
When he started Promontory, Coles began with a traditional publishing model but experimented with offering authors services and hybrid publishing, but he dropped both efforts after running into various hurdles. But Coles still has the same goal he began with, of making the industry more accessible to debut authors: “We focus on first-time authors. That’s always been our specialty. Even though we’re just doing traditional publishing now, I still want to keep that going. I still believe that we owe it to talented new authors to give them a shot at the market.”
To that end, Promontory makes sure to have ongoing marketing support for its titles. “We never stop marketing our books,” Coles says. “There’s no such thing as a backlist for us.”
Promontory is open to all types of books. While mysteries and thrillers are its mainstay, Coles says that he “[doesn’t] want to be that publisher that says, we don’t take your kind.” He adds: “We’re open to all newcomers. If something wows us, we’ll take a shot at it.”
The B.C. press Simply Read was established by Dimiter Savoff, a former architect turned publisher, in 2001. The Vancouver-based press puts out an average of 20 titles a year, most of them children’s picture books.
One area the press has done well in is books published in the winter season, “because there’s not that many around,” Savoff says. “Three seasons in a row we’ve published books in the winter season and they are selling out in two months.”
Simply Read suffered some fallout when Target closed its Canadian stores in 2015. Savoff says that the retailer returned “80-something percent of the books,” causing a financial setback. Savoff says that the company has recovered and that going forward he plans to get more into chapter books. He is also excited about the press’s latest and most successful YA title, Whalemaster from Michael Moniz, calling it “Moby Dick meets Pirates of the Caribbean.”
Royal BC Museum
Michelle van der Merwe assumed the role of publisher at Victoria’s Royal BC Museum in 2015. The museum is celebrating its 130th anniversary and has published for 125 years. “The first 50 years was mostly checklists and reports and scientific monographs,” van der Merwe says. The museum began publishing for the general public in 1942, starting with its handbook series, which van der Merwe says is one of the press’s most recognizable set of publications, with some of its handbooks having been reprinted six times or more. The press puts out three to six titles a year including reprints, and van der Merwe says that there’s “a huge amount of potential to increase that number,” which is one of her goals.
The Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, first published in 1975, is still the press’s top-selling title. The most recent reprint alone has already sold over 8,000 copies. “It’s got a long life and we sell a lot of those in the States,” van der Merwe says.
B.C.’s the Heritage Group is home to three affiliated publishers: Heritage House Publishing, Rocky Mountain Books, and TouchWood Editions as well as Heritage Group Distribution. Rodger Touchie is president of all of these companies and publisher at Heritage House. Each company operates as a separate entity with its own staff and unique publishing program but occupy the same building in Victoria, which allows the individual presses to share overhead, administrative costs, and distribution, ameliorating the pressures they face as small to mid-sized publishers. Across the Heritage Group, sales were up 24% in 2015 over 2014. “That’s huge,” Touchie says. “It was a really great year.”
Touchie credits Heritage Group Distribution’s strong network and POS tracking system for providing a wide reach, allowing the publishing houses to enter many nontraditional accounts, such as gift shops along the highways and marinas up and down the coast. With approximately 2,000 customers in B.C. and Alberta, the distribution’s wide reach is “huge in terms of giving us a broad opportunity to get our books out there as soon as we publish,” Touchie says. “That’s a key thing that distinguishes us from other houses. The building up of the smaller stores is a strategy to not be so vulnerable to the big box or chains.”
Touchie says for Heritage House Publishing, roughly 90% of its titles are regional. The press’ first book, Wagon Road North, remains a bestseller with over 140,000 copies sold to date, and the list focuses on books that celebrate the history and spirit of western Canada, with most penned by Canadian authors. Regional titles combined with the recent boom in tourism is a recipe for success. He notes that it’s been a “very strong couple of years for tourism in Western Canada.” Touchie feels it’s a good time to target the regional market because of the vibrant tourism,and cites the huge growth of the cruise ship business into Victoria as another contributing factor to rising sales. “Tourism is up around 15% here. That leads to obviously more people buying books.” Heritage House is also doing more collaborations in the U.S. market, citing three recent copubs where Heritage has sold U.S. rights to the University of Washington Press.
Publisher Don Gorman took over Rocky Mountain Books in 2006. At that time, RMB was publishing two to three “very utilitarian regional titles per year,” he says. While the press had and continues to have a very strong backlist, Gorman wanted to grow the company “substantially,” he says. “So I ramped everything up.” Thinking outside the box, the outdoor publisher went from two to three titles to around 20–30 titles annually, with as many as 40 books some years.
Gorman realizes that this represents a massive increase, but feels that, because there aren’t more bookstores and big-box retailers opening, in order to grow, “publishers have to start publishing better and publishing more if they can.”
The topics that RMB covers include adventure travel, mountaineering, guidebooks, and outdoor photography. “We’re not trying to do things we haven’t done in the past. Everything we’re doing is sticking to our core mandate,” Gorman says, though RMB did add kids books about outdoor pursuits three years ago.
RMB sells through outdoor retailers, Costco, and indie bookstores, and it does 25%–35% of its business online, an area that Gorman says is not only very important but growing. “Booksellers are in a really tough position. They are being presented with more titles per season than at any point in publishing and bookselling history. I totally understand when a bookseller looks at our catalogue and doesn’t feel like they have the customer base to support them. The next step is for that customer to go online.”
For RMB the challenge is getting the attention of the media. Because it is a niche publisher, Gorman says that sometimes it’s difficult to break out of that label and get picked up for coverage even within the book industry. “Our name is Rocky Mountain Books. No one in Toronto or New York is going to take us that seriously, which I totally understand.”
But Gorman has come to the conclusion that being a “strong regional niche publisher is actually a fantastic thing,” he says. “It works really well. The minute you don’t beat yourself up about being accepted outside of your community, it’s such a beautiful gig.”
With 212 active titles on its backlist and an average of 25 new titles a year, TouchWood Editions is shifting direction to focus more on lifestyle titles in such areas as food and wine, home and garden, and pets, says associate publisher Taryn Boyd. She notes that, while she wants to make sure that TouchWood titles each either have a regional element—for example, a book written by a local chef—or are specific to the PNW (such as the title Food Artisans of Vancouver Island), she is hoping that TouchWood’s new titles have more trade reach. Boyd says that the press’s shift in direction is paying off. TouchWood is raising the aesthetic quality of its titles, and it aims to do a rebrand in the next year. “We want to freshen the whole thing up and make it really relevant,” Boyd says.
Independent of Heritage, Touchie is also president of Vancouver’s Greystone Books and equal partners with Rob Sanders, publisher of Greystone, which is known for its nonfiction list, particularly for books about the environment, including titles by well-known Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki. The press hit a home run this fall with the English-language edition of German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees, which has sold over 42,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 80% of print sales. They also had huge success with 2015’s Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ by Giulia Enders.
Looking toward the future, many B.C. publishers are focused on reaching out to the States, not only in terms of sales but also in terms of networking. Whether it be in B.C. publishers’ increased presence at PNBA, or in industry cross-pollination across the border of the two countries, B.C. publishers and the rest of the PNW are cementing their ties.
Kevin Williams of Talonbooks says that the press plans to strengthen its marketing in the U.S. and to send more of its poets to the States for readings. “I think people do feel an affinity between the two places, even more so when they start to look at the books,” Williams says.
Some publishers in Vancouver have found it necessary to band together in order to fight the crushing real estate market there, which has made it very difficult for publishers to find affordable office space.
Vancouver’s Arsenal Pulp is one of four organizations, along with Anvil Press, the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia (ABPBC), and Talonbooks, that has spearheaded a new initiative, the Literary Arts Centre Vancouver: a single location that will house a variety of the publishing community’s members.
Arsenal’s Brian Lam got involved, he says, “because we’ve moved four times in the last 10 years, all because of rising prices.” This situation made Lam go to the city of Vancouver for help. “They encouraged us to get together with other literary organizations, and we’re now working together with the support of the city, who have financed three feasibility studies so far.”
The Literary Arts Centre will not only provide office space to literary groups but will also serve as a community space. “The rationale for it has always been that the rental costs have been such that some of us are seriously considering whether or not we can even stay in the city,” Lam says. “So this would not only allow us to stay but would provide a public component, a public face to B.C. writers and publishers.”
Heidi Waechtler, executive director of the ABPBC, says that the Literary Arts Centre initiative is now in the phase of exploring properties and developing a governance structure. In addition to providing a long-term lease at a reasonable rate for its members, the center will act as an incubator where those in the publishing community can share ideas, and the center will also be able to function as an event space, which is important because Waechtler notes that there are fewer event spaces in the city than there once were.
Talonbooks, Canada’s largest independent publisher of drama, with a focus on publishing native voices, joined the Literary Arts Centre project because it too was facing booming rental increases. Talonbooks’s Kevin Williams says that the center is “our way of hoping to get around the ever-rising rent costs.” Not only was real estate rising, but so were taxes, forcing the publisher to move “every year or two,” Williams says. Aside from sheer financial advantages, Williams celebrates the social possibilities the Literary Arts Centre presents. “The theater people have already gone down this road and developed a shared space, and one of the main comments was just how great it was to have a larger circle of people to socialize with. That’s a really big benefit.”