In his last regular column with us, Chad Pelley reflects on the vision and verve of Atlantic Canadian publishers
There is a theme of history running through this issue of Atlantic Books Today, so what better time to reflect on and celebrate Atlantic Canadian publishing? Because there was a time when most Atlantic-published books had their readership and acclaim anchored to our eastern shores, but that time has sailed.
One long-standing and notable feature of our publishing scene is the absence of international houses on our soil, like Random House, Penguin or HarperCollins, whose biggest books of the year, the ones they really push, are by authors from the UK, USA or India. By contrast, virtually every Atlantic publisher is independent, publishing almost exclusively Canadian authors and, particularly, writers local to their provinces.
But how much do authors benefit from signing book deals with our hometown houses, in terms of readership and acclaim? It’s a fair question, because you can write a brilliant book, but, if no one knows it exists, how can they buy it?
If success with awards is one way to measure how well Atlantic publishers are doing, then Halifax-based Invisible Publishing is worth a mention. Invisible is relatively young, but a proven source for hip new CanLit (Anna Quon, Dani Couture, Andrew Hood), and its steady momentum culminated in a Giller Prize longlisting last year, for Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s How to Get Along with Women. She’s since signed an impressive international book deal for her forthcoming novel, The Devil You Know (HarperCollins Publishers). So, can publishing with Invisible Books launch your career in a big way? Yes, and they’ve proven it.
Pedlar Press in St. John’s has achieved its reputable status by eschewing considerations of “saleability” when acquiring a book – it focuses 100% on literary merit and originality in hope that those qualities will shine through for readers. This selection process is working: Pedlar is no stranger to award short lists and trophies, even those as esteemed as the Governor General or the Pat Lowther Memorial Award. In 2011, Pedlar won in 2 of 3 categories for the ReLit Awards, and Souvankham Thammavongsa won this year’s Trillium Book Award for Poetry.
Equally important in the evaluation of a publisher is whether or not they’re “in” with media and festival organizers. How else are we to reach readers in other provinces? Getting books reviewed and authors appearing country-wide requires a driven publicity staff with verve, vision and passion. Like the crew at Breakwater Books in St. John’s or Goose Lane Editions in Fredericton, NB, who have charmed their way into the good books of festival directors nation wide and editors at Canada’s powerhouse publications like Quill & Quire, the Globe and Mail and the National Post.
Thanks to its massive population, and the fact that most national media outlets are situated there, Toronto will always be the heart of the book industry, and books published there will by proxy be on the radars of more readers and editors. But it’s nice to see so many Atlantic publishers with their gloves on, fighting that geographical reality.
The internet is certainly helping their efforts by making the world a whole lot smaller and more connected. Undoubtedly, the shareability of links through social media has played a big role in helping Atlantic publishers reach a wider audience with their authors’ books – a phenomenon only five or six-years-old that may have finally given us a level playing ground.