Canada’s oldest independent publishing company celebrates its humble beginnings 60 years ago by going back to where it all began, with a chapbook
In 1954, Fred Cogswell, a faculty member at the University of New Brunswick and editor of the university’s literary magazine, The Fiddlehead, responded to the death of literary publications by founding Fiddlehead Poetry Books. The fledgling publisher’s initial work, a mimeographed and stapled chapbook titled The Stunted Strong containing 16 of his sonnets about the harsh realities of rural New Brunswick life, created a literary legacy that continues today as Goose Lane Editions.
Now Canada’s oldest independent publishing company, Fredericton-based Goose Lane celebrates its 60th anniversary, with publisher-president Susanne Alexander and creative designer-vice president Julie Scriver at the helm. That the company has survived in a business beset with takeovers is worthy of celebration, however, they’ve done much more, achieving critical and commercial success while staying true to Cogswell’s ideals.
FOR THE LOVE OF LITERATURE
During his 27 years at the helm, Cogswell published 307 volumes, many self-funded after the university withdrew its initial financial support and before the creation of Canada Council for the Arts grants. Undaunted, he always carried a briefcase full of books to distribute wherever he travelled. His unwavering belief in his mission established him as friend and mentor to an entire generation of Canadian poets, publishing works by Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Dorothy Livesay, Norman Levine, Joy Kogawa and Roo Borsen.
In 1981, he sold Fiddlehead Poetry Books for $1 to his UNB colleague Peter Thomas who expanded to include fiction, beginning with Nancy Bauer’s Flora, Write This Down, and non-fiction, particularly New Brunswick history under the Goose Lane Editions imprint, its whimsical name inspired by the company’s second location in Thomas’ Saunders Street garden shed, once farmland where a woman used to run her geese.
Scriver recalls working for Thomas in 1985 as “fascinating and gypsy-like, with boxes piled in the middle of the shed furnished with a high dresser and low chairs Peter brought from Wales. He was a one-man show, exuberant, enthusiastic and determined, but as his ambitions grew it was clear the company needed full-time commitment, more than he could offer.”
Then in 1988, having just put in place the New Brunswick Arts Board, Alexander took a leave from her provincial government position to help Thomas reorganize, staying on first as managing editor, then three years later becoming publisher. “At first I did everything – I processed orders, packed books, looked after publicity, author tours and grant applications, and even cleaned the sink,” she says. She also brought in new authors and expanded the non-fiction offerings to include art books.
PUBLISHING ON THE EDGE
Goose Lane has long since vacated the shed and now enjoys spacious accommodation on the third floor of 500 Beaverbrook Court, while the original staff of two has grown to eight, with dozens of editorial and design freelancers. It publishes 25 books annually, many garnering awards, including the 2003 Governor General’s Award for Fiction for Douglas Glover’s Elle.
Goose Lane has grown, says Alexander, but retains its Maritime values. “Every author who comes to us is important. They’re intimately involved in the editorial and design process, which is not true of larger companies. I think one of the things writers like about us is that we’re very much a writers’ press… at the same time we have an amazingly supportive readership.”
Still, publishing is like “living on the edge all the time. You don’t know if a book will resonate with the audience,” Alexander says. “Sometimes a book you consider to be absolutely the best won’t reach the audience you hoped it would, so it’s hard to predict.” Then there’s the challenge of e-publishing. “All the publishers are doing it and no one is recouping the cost, but we think it’s important. Growth is a challenge, because when you have a good year you have to continue having a good year. You can’t ever go backwards.”
The 2014 catalogue indicates an outstanding year, including such remarkable books as Alex Colville, designed to accompany an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario and Angular Unconformity, the collected works of poet Don McKay, Griffin Prize and two time Governor General’s Award for Poetry winner. Editor Philip Lee’s The Next Big Thing, addresses the contemporary practice of journalism, which Alexander calls “a big ideas book.” Marking the momentous occasion of turning 60, is the collection six@sixty, six tiny, perfect stories spanning the company’s publishing history. The set is collected in a nifty sleeve and sold individually as eBook singles, a contemporary take on the humble chapbook that launched the adventure 60 years ago.
*The print edition of this story included Goose Lane Editions’ current location as 500 Brunswick Court instead of 500 Beaverbrook Court. The online version of the story has been amended.