I wrote a letter to Dundurn’s founder, Kirk Howard, during my first week as interim publisher. The gist of it was that I was promising to him and myself that I would work hard every day to ensure that the company he founded would thrive into the future.
I wrote the letter to assure Kirk that the company he led for some 47 years was in good hands. I also wrote it to remind myself that I was going to have to hustle. I’d taken over the leadership of a company that had been through a really tough time. Many key staff had left, authors and agents were justifiably worried, and the staff members that remained had become demoralized in the months leading up to the sale.
A lot of folks in and out of the company asked me what my plan was. And frankly, my plan was to keep the company afloat until I could get everyone feeling some normalcy again while I got my own bearings. Well, we survived the transition. We’re still here making books, and now the road forward is much clearer.
So what’s going to be new about the new Dundurn?
You can expect a much more focussed company. Looking at the past five or 10 years, I think we had a hard time integrating some of the publishing houses we acquired, and the result was a confusing catalogue. We used to have a very clear mandate to publish Canadian history, politics, and biography, and that grew into being a general trade house that didn’t have much of an identity. So we’re rebooting the kinds of books we’re doing. We’re a much younger and (dare I even say) cooler company now, so look for our nonfiction to be more progressive in its leanings and look for a stronger commitment to literary fiction focussing on universal themes that will turn heads nationally and internationally. We’re also investing more in art and design, because let’s face it: everyone judges books by their covers.
In order to compete in a market that includes multinationals, some excellent midsize independents, an array of amazing boutique houses, and self-publishing, I believe Dundurn must commit to providing the best author experience available. If absolutely nothing else, we can make our authors happy with their choice to publish with us. We’ll be experimenting with some different tactics to improve the author experience, and my strategic goal here is to make sure that every Dundurn author has the best experience possible, and that we are doing everything we can to support the author’s writing career.
You can also expect a much more internationally oriented Dundurn. I just bought a terrific debut novel, Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia’s Son of the House. I made the deal with Penguin Random House South Africa. Cheluchi’s journey to Dundurn is an informative one. She couldn’t find a Canadian publisher to give her the time of day and ended up with a small Nigerian house that then flipped some rights to PRH SA, which is where I got my hands on it. The industry is going to notice that we’re far more active buying and especially selling foreign and secondary rights. I’ll be hiring a rights manager sooner rather than later to support this new focus. This will also help our authors, who deserve a publisher that will work to get them deals around the world. I see this as a major way to spread Canadian influence and earn a bit of income for the company and our authors.
The last major plank of the short-term plan is to publish less. Dundurn got up to about 100-plus titles per year, and in my opinion, that was far too much. In order to ensure that we’re being selective, focussed, and able to put our best foot forward on every project, I’m scaling back our publishing program to somewhere between 60 and 70 titles per year. My bet is that this will improve our ability to market and publicize each book, and that our increased focus will enable each title to achieve more in the market. Less, I’m willing to bet, can be more.
All things being equal, it’s been an incredibly successful transition, but there’s a lot more work to be done. We’re still planning to move to a more affordable and more accessible office space. We’ve still got to fill some gaps in the staff. And we’ve got a lot more work to do getting our sales up, but what we’ve been able to achieve in less than a year will, I’m convinced, set the conditions for another 40-plus years of successful publishing.
Scott Fraser is the publisher of Dundurn Press.