Many of us dream of creating beautiful books; few of us want to do the bookkeeping that keeps the books coming
Behind every influential author works a dedicated publishing team. Atlantic Books Today spoke to a sharp founder who still finds joy in the fernwoods, a poet who planted an Acorn that outgrew her, and a rose who grew up in the publishing garden she now tends in the breakwaters.
Errol Sharpe got into publishing in 1978 with Fernwood Books. He sold books – but didn’t publish them.
“I had intended to act as an acquisition editor while I was out selling and get projects that I would give to the publishers,” the Nova Scotian man says. “After three years, none of the projects that I’d put forward were taken up. So I decided I’d better do them myself.”
He started Garamond Press and ran that until 1991, when he left to establish Fernwood Publishing. “We weren’t sure that there was a business case for it,” he laughs, “but it turned out okay.”
Running a small publishing house means filing grant applications, bookkeeping for tax and salary purposes, tracking and paying royalties. Each book starts on the slush pile and has to be read, developed into a manuscript, formatted, printed, distributed and promoted.
“It all adds up to a considerable amount of work,” Sharpe says. “The things that keep you going is the books you publish – the interest that you have in the books, the importance of the books.”
If you love reading a book in hard copy, imagine reading it while it’s soft and malleable. Sharpe enjoys helping a manuscript solidify into a book. He names a few recent titles as examples: Nta’tugwaqanminen (Our Story), a history of the Mi’kmaq of Gespege’wa’gi (Gaspe Peninsula), and Viola Desmond’s Canada, by Graham Reynolds.
To would-be publishing founders, Sharpe says you’d better have a lot of time – or a lot of money.
The Founder Sells
Dreamers, turn your attention to Laurie Brinklow. In the 1990s, the poet and single mother worked for PEI’s now-defunct Ragweed Publishing and visualized running her own press.
Her first two Acorn titles were smash hits. First up was David Weale’s An Island Christmas Reader, which sold out two print runs before its first Christmas and pushed out 7,500 copies that first year. (A Canadian best-seller sells 5,000 copies.)
Brinklow followed that up with The True Meaning of Crumbfest, a children’s book written by Weale and illustrated by Dale McNevin. It remains Acorn’s best seller.
“But the next book after that – I was stuck with printing bills all of a sudden and … had to take out a loan to pay the printer,” Brinklow says.
It turns out that best-sellers aren’t typical when you’re working out of the smallest provincial market in Canada. But she kept the titles coming, all the while working full time at another job and raising her children. Her little Acorn grew into a solid publishing tree.
“I often thought of it as cultural philanthropy, but I had no money!” she jokes.
She did all the proofreading, kept her books, filed her taxes, hired and paid staff, tracked royalties and paid writers. And went to meetings. And talked to distributors. Bookstores. Printers.
And then she did what so many self-started publishers later dream of: she sold it to Terrilee Bulger, a like-minded Islander who wanted to take it forward.
“She’s taken it to a whole new level, for which I’m grateful,” Brinklow says.
Rebecca Rose’s father, Clyde, started Breakwater Books in 1973 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, with a similar drive to see local books in schools and stores.
As a kid, it was a fun place to be – especially for launches and when the media came knocking. “Of course as I got older and got seriously involved in the industry, I got a much better understanding of the realities of what’s involved in making something like that happen.”
She saw just how hard it is to start a publishing company, and then keep it going year after year, funding cut after funding cut. “It’s not a profitable model. It’s not secure by any means, when you’re involved in grants and rely on investment from government.”
Staff – if you can get them – are usually so busy with publishing books that the admin work piles up. It gets “daunting and overwhelming,” but it still needs to get done. All to get you to part with $20 to help keep our voices audible.
The worst part? When they come back as dreaded returns. “I can feel that I have a best-seller, and spend accordingly, only to have it all come back,” Rose laments.
She knew how hard it was before she ever worked a day in publishing. So why did she follow her father to Breakwater? “The motivator was still that same mandate. I’m a big ambassador for Newfoundland and Labrador,” she says. “I think it’s crucial that our stories are published.”
Because of the two Roses, Breakwater has put 500 books into our world.
She points to this year’s Racket, where the established writer Lisa Moore uses her position to introduce us to ten new Newfoundland writers.
“Maybe it’ll be available in libraries for another young kid to see that someone, only ten or fifteen years older than them rather than thirty years older, can write and actually make a living pursuing a passion.”