Story by: Elizabeth Palermo
An upswing of small press publishing is promoting and preserving a diverse range of Canadian voices
INSIDE THE BUSTLING storefront of Books & Company in Picton is an arresting display of 50 titles spanning poetry to nonfiction, all printed by a local independent press, Invisible Publishing. A small but mighty force, Invisible Publishing is located in a snug office at the back of the bookstore. Its mission is to introduce the voices of new writers to the community and to sustain and encourage creative writing within that community.
Invisible’s publisher Leigh Nash has a knack for identifying unique voices. It’s part of the company’s mandate and is how it came to publishing New Brunswick-born Michelle Winters’ debut novel, I Am a Truck, which promptly landed on the 2017 Giller Prize shortlist, Canada’s richest literary prize. According to Leigh, Invisible publishes a lot of first books and unusual titles that may not find homes elsewhere. “We joke that we’re the farm team for the bigger houses,” says Leigh.
No joke. Margaret Atwood, who started out with small Canadian publishers, once said that “any loss of the independent presses could snuff out the next generation of talent.” That was when Random House finalized its takeover of seminal Canadian indie press McClelland & Stewart in 2012, the same year that Canada’s largest independent publisher Douglas & McIntyre filed for bankruptcy protection and other Canadian big publishing houses were being bought up by foreign owners.
Despite these losses and a dwindling retail book market at the time, Canadian small presses persevered.
Of the 245 identified English-language publishers across the country, 78 per cent are small presses dedicated to publishing diverse and debut books, with a dozen right here in Watershed country.
Restoring a niche market, indie presses, also known as the small press and the oft-quirky micropress, publish an influx of emergent voices. The revival of the do-it-yourself aesthetic empowers young writers, and at the same time allows seasoned writers and small presses to persist in the precarious business for the sheer love of beautiful prose and recording regional history.
Invisible Publishing was founded in Halifax in 2007 as a non-profit company, a rare move in Canadian publishing that was organized by a group of friends looking for an economical way to incorporate. Eight years later, then publisher Robby McGregor asked Leigh to take over as the company teetered on a ‘grow or die’ position. Leigh said yes, and moved Invisible Publishing to Prince Edward County, keeping it as a nonprofit. The nice ethos of this nonprofit is that all the money goes back into paying staff more and hiring guest blog editors to gain paid publication credits, which are essential for grant eligibility.
“We don’t need to ensure a book is going to sell hundreds of thousands of copies in order to publish because we don’t have shareholders that we have to appease,” says Leigh, who publishes about 10 books a year with funding from arts councils. This fall the company hit the sales threshold to receive financial support from the Canada Book Fund. “One of the great benefits of government funding is that I can take that money and publish local work, take chances on younger writers and nurture them at all stages of their career. I’m not sure there’s room for that at the multinational level that’s all about profits.”
While referring to herself as a traditional publisher, paying advances and royalties, editing, designing and marketing – essentially taking on all the risk of putting a book in the world – Leigh, like so many small publishers, shares the workload with authors. “Once publication became a sure thing, it was gruelling work from there on in,” says Michelle Winters, who was convinced after four years of sitting in a variety of slush piles that her novel, I Am a Truck, would never be published. But when it came time to promote her work, she played a significant role. “I had all these visions of what a book tour would be. With a small publisher, you launch a book in any town where you know 15 people, that’s how glam it is. I was comfortable to do the work, and so glad to be published that I didn’t care.”
Being nominated for the Giller Prize catapulted Michelle into the world of agents, book deals and upper-tier publishers – at once hectic, demanding and amazing. “You go into it understanding you’re not going to make a lot of money. I have friends who haven’t broken triple digits with a small press,” says Michelle. She’s taking advantage of every opportunity that’s stemmed from the nomination in case they’re the only ones to come her way. “I’m still not surefooted with the success. I’ve been mainly focused on writing, but cramming in some painting and, of course, still working my regular software job.”
Barely breaking even is a reality for small presses. But the good news is indie presses are prevailing in the wake of e-books. There is resistance to the conventional wisdom that digital everything is the new normal. Recent studies suggest that the reading public, especially millennials, aren’t as enamoured with digital reading as was expected. “There’s a beautiful renaissance of people in their 20s and 30s starting up small presses. Not to sell thousands of copies, but to create a home for new writing,” says Cobourg based writer, poet, and editor Stuart Ross. He read Michelle’s book in its earliest stages and endorsed it to Leigh, once again proving instrumental in promoting the publication of debut writers. Pivotal in Toronto’s small press scene in the 1980s, Stuart is well-known for wearing a sign around his neck selling chapbooks – small collections of poetry that are generally no more than 40 pages – on Yonge Street.
“I sold 7,000 chapbooks over that period, which is unbelievable to me now. I actually started building an audience. They were serious and came back year after year to buy my books,” says Stuart, now an award-winning author of twenty books of poetry, fiction and essays. Winning the 2019 Harbourfront Festival Prize for his contribution to Canadian literature, Stuart joined company with past recipients Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. This year he’s celebrating the 40th anniversary of his micropress, Proper Tales Press, and publishing his hero, Canada’s former Parliamentary Poet Laureate George Bowering. “He knows I’m a great fan…He’s won the Governor General Award several times and is incredibly established, and he gave me a chapbook to publish!”
Stuart started out with a post-punk DIY vision for books as objets d’art. In 1987, he and poet Nicholas Power founded the Toronto Small Press Book Fair, which evolved into The Indie Literary Market that continues today. Back then, writers – hugely influenced by pioneering visual poet, jwcurry – wrote poems on the soles of running shoes and published scores of thought-provoking pamphlets. “It drove home to me the importance of micropresses as laboratories where really experimental things can be done,” says Stuart, whose extensive publishing credits include Cobourg writer Allison Chisholm’s first chapbook and full-length poetry book. “The real reason to have a chapbook press is because of the tiny audience, because of its experimental nature.”
Serving small audiences with niche market books is the very backbone of regional publishing, a smart move for the small press. Traditional stories and histories have considerable cultural impact and connect people in communities. “Lots of people write books to the audience in their area and big publishers won’t go for it, so the independent press is ensuring a regional public record,” says Orland French, long-time journalist, author and Watershed contributor.
Orland has published 25 books about local and personal history from his home in Belleville under the imprint Wallbridge House Publishing, including his own Letters to Vimy (2017) and Wind, Water, Barley and Wine (2013), a popular read in regular reprint about the geology of Prince Edward County and how it affects the region’s development.
“Nobody gets rich in the independent press business. It’s a labour of love. And most of us don’t know when – or how – to stop.” ORLAND FRENCH
Last June, Invisible Publishing released Tanya Finestone’s book, Don’t Honk Twice: A Prince Edward County Anthology and 1,500 copies promptly sold out. Profits were donated to the Prince Edward Learning Centre, fulfilling another aspect of Invisible’s mandate: supporting other local nonprofits. Regional marketing projects are the main focus for the Ontario Book Publishers Organization (OBPO) based in Picton. With two-thirds of English Canadian publishers located in Ontario, Executive Director Holly Kent says there’s a penchant for local pride versus province-wide. The OBPO represents the needs of 48 publishers to government and arts organizations, but the ultimate goal “is to harness that local pride and focus on books by county writers, county publishers, and books set in the county.” By increasing local advertising, hosting events, and displaying local books at the Drake Devonshire and the Belleville Chapters, they saw a spike in sales and an enthusiastic response from County residents.
At best, most small presses operate from a home office, and are no stranger to the kitchen table. After 20 years, and at age 75, Orland packed up his small press last summer. “The trick is in sales and marketing. Wallbridge House Publishing, while it sounds lofty, consisted of a couple of computers, printers, a camera or two, and various odds and ends. The staff consisted of myself, my wife and the dog,” says Orland. “Nobody gets rich in the independent press business. It’s a labour of love. And most of us don’t know when – or how – to stop.”
For author and publisher Richard Grove, his Hidden Brook Press in Brighton shows no sign of stopping despite nearly always being in the red. After 30 years of publishing his own writing, that of friends and colleagues, and eventually eminent writers like Don Gutteridge and John B. Lee, Hidden Brook Press is gaining greater recognition.
“I like the CanLit world. I’m in this for the love of people and being introduced to quality writing,” says Richard, whose anthologies offer new writers the chance to be published. Climbing the literary ladder is a long process, and small presses can serve as rungs in that ladder. “It’s quite rewarding,” he says of authors like Kate Marshall Flaherty and Allan Briesmaster, “to publish a couple of their books and next thing they’re published elsewhere with a better contract.” After three fall releases, including his own novel, Some Sort of Normal, his biggest undertaking is next: publishing In a Fragile Moment: A Landscape of Canadian Poetry, a critical study of 31 Canadian writers.
The publishing world has changed dramatically with unprecedented access to the market, print-on-demand services, and digital distribution. While Hidden Brook Press reaches stores worldwide with Ingram global distribution, Invisible Publishing pays Publishers Group Canada and Raincoast Book Distribution Inc. to do the heavy lifting of reaching Canadian audiences. Cobourg author and indie publisher Shane Joseph established Blue Denim Press in 2011 as a hybrid form of self-publishing with a collective of authors promoting each other online and on the road.
“Technology made publishing a democracy. [In the past] there were only a few ways to get books into publishing houses and once they had a stable of writers, they tended to stick to them because they were tried and true. If you didn’t get noticed, you were always a commoner,” says Shane, who published four books last year, including his latest novel Milltown and the Spirit of the Hills anthology, Hill Spirits 4. He and fellow authors share the all-consuming task of marketing by attending readings in Toronto to gain exposure. “I’m doing this for others like me struggling to get published. It’s a pseudo form of publishing where I have my work vetted and edited by a pool of authors. Our liability is stamina – not financial.”
Thanks to independent publishers pressing on, more Canadian stories are being produced into physical books, folded corners and all. The hardest thing for small presses is getting authors known to readers. Seeking out and buying small press books, and requesting them at libraries, directly supports Canadian culture, and authors and book producers earning a wage for their art. “Nobody else is going to keep our voice and stories alive for us,” says Leigh. “That’s what small presses do best. As humans, we’re built to tell stories.”
The Untoward Assassin
It wasn’t a matter of whodunit, but who would do something about it, when prolific Prince Edward County mystery writer Janet Kellough wasn’t getting booked at literary festivals. So, she created Women Killing It, a crime writer’s festival now three years running, with fellow author Vicki Delaney. “Crime writers are producing incredible stuff. Literary festivals will have only one mystery panel and book the bigger names again and again. We said, ‘What the heck, we’ll do it ourselves.’”
Known for her Thaddeus Lewis Mystery series set in 19th century Upper Canada, now at seven books with The Untoward Assassin, Janet self-published her first two books in the early 2000s. She feels fortunate that an agent who came calling proved legitimate. “It’s a huge boost to confidence to have someone in your corner. Standing out as self-published is a challenge. You get a lot of spam offers.”
After producing most of the Thaddeus Lewis series with indie imprint Dundern Press, she then started to explore the possibility of writing a speculative fiction thriller. “That parachuted me into another world. I went to the Ad Astra sci-fi conference in Toronto and had a wonderful time. And if you’re not having fun, why do it?”
Fearless and Determined: Two Years Teaching in a One-Room School
Linda Hutsell-Manning didn’t know she could write, nor that she was dyslexic until she went to university as a mature student in 1970 and gravitated to English courses. The teacher of a one-room school in Hamilton Township from 1963-65 wanted to continue onto a Master’s degree, but two professors thought she had talent. “They said, ‘You don’t want to be an academic. Write fiction.’ They threw me into the lion’s den of rejections.”
At 41, while raising three children, she started submitting short fiction to literary magazines, which were promptly returned. Her children’s book, Wondrous Tales of Wicked Winston, was rejected 32 times before Annick Press picked it up in 1981. Linda left teaching and published children’s books for the next 20 years.
When her story about a one-room school begged to be told, the now 79-year-old interviewed 18 former students. Her memoir Fearless and Determined: Two Years Teaching in a One-Room School, was released in October with Blue Denim Press to an overwhelming response. Linda shows no sign of stopping with ongoing poetry and short fiction to finish. “Oftentimes a character starts talking and keeps coming back to bother me until I write it down – because life gets in the way.”
Writing longer than she could hold a pencil, Katie Hoogendam would dictate stories to her mother for the books they made together. Nowadays, writing poetry feels necessary for her well-being. Her first chapbook, mothertongue, was handmade and selfpublished last year as a fundraiser for her mother’s medical needs at the time. “The joy was in the doing, not the selling, and I really didn’t want to wait six months or six years for somebody else to deem my work good enough to market.”
Katie shares her writing in varied ways: on the Spirit of the Hills radio show “Word on the Hills,” at the Cobourg Poetry Workshop’s “Third Thursday Series,” and onstage at SOTH’s fall festival with her 10-minute play, Plan X. Raising a family in Cobourg, she’s known for reading autobiographical stories by listeners on Northumberland 89.7.FM. “I truly loved the experience of reading personal stories aloud to the listening world, from joyous to sorrowful.”
While compiling her second chapbook, Courage, Katie is writing a young adult novel. “Simply to see if I can do it. I write in flurries and then let the thing sit for months on end. My main goal is not perfection, but rather completion.”
What Shirley Missed
Working with small presses is about personal connection for Port Hope author Donna Wootton. She’s tried self-publishing, but nothing beats the editorial guidance that Hidden Brook Press offered with What Shirley Missed, her new novel about a 61- year-old woman who never grows up. “It’s way better to work with an editor and publisher. The first chapter is always the hardest. It was probably rewritten a dozen times!”
Although writing is typically considered creative work and math as logical, for Donna, writing has its own logic. “A writer makes up their own world and truths relative to the context of the story.” As a member of writers’ groups and retreats, Donna receives valuable feedback. She’s also received support in processing the recent loss of her husband. “I thought I’d never write again, but they helped me write through it.”
Being an author is all-absorbing for Donna. Now that her husband is gone, she’s having to upkeep everything he did around the house. “Sometimes writing can take over and you’re not paying attention to life around you. It’s a great imposition to have to be practical. It’s very important to be in your own world to be creative.”
The Prince of Leroy
Growing up on a farm in Prince Edward County, Brian Way was writing before he knew how, copying comic strips from the Toronto Telegram as a kid and having his parents explain what the “bubbles” were saying. An avid young reader and writer of comics and poems, stories abounded in Brian’s home, especially in an era before electronic media. He’s continued writing creatively all his life. “Writing for me is as natural as breathing.”
A celebrated poet and author of diverse works, Brian’s studies at Queens University and Western provided the opportunity to read everything from Beowulf to Purdy, from the metaphysical to contemporary poetry, plays, novels, essays, diaries, literary criticism, philosophy, painting, and electronic media. “Who knew that a world-class poet could and would someday stride forth from my own backyard!”
Brian’s latest work includes a 4-part book, Bee, that’s geared to elementary students and was given as prizes at the Ameliasburgh Fair, and his novel, The Prince of Leroy, that’s published by Hidden Brook Press and is becoming a screenplay. His writing encompasses contemporary, new modernism, magic realism, and literary fiction. “Attempting to be genuine – really, that is about all any writer can do.”