Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Andrew Steeves

November 11, 2010 by  
Filed under PublishingTalks, Technology, The Future

In this series of interviews, called Publishing Talks, I have been talking to book industry professionals and other smart people about the future of publishing, books, and culture.  This is a period of disruption and change for all media businesses.  We must wonder now, how will publishing evolve as our culture is affected by technology, climate change, population density, and the ebb and flow of civilization and  economics?

I hope these Publishing Talks conversations will help us understand the outlines of what is happening, and how we might ourselves interact with and influence the future of publishing as it unfolds.

These interviews give people in and around the book business a chance to talk openly about ideas and concerns that are often only talked about “around the water cooler,” at industry conventions and events, and in emails between friends and they give people inside and outside the book industry a chance to hear first hand some of the most interesting and challenging thoughts, ideas and concepts being discussed by people in the book business.

Andrew Steeves and his partner Gary Dunfield, founded Gaspereau Press in Nova Scotia in 1997, starting out, as many have done, with a literary quarterly and moving into publishing books, three in their first year, eight by 2000 when they moved to the small town of Kentfield.  In Canada, there is a long tradition of government funding of the arts, including literature, through support grants to publishers of all sizes and kinds.  Bordering the giant culture machine to the south, this is an important mechanism to keep in place a vibrant and local Canadian literary scene.  Gaspereau publishes in the tradition of the long running Coach House Press (founded by Stan Bevington in 1965 and still going strong) and the wonderful Montreal based Vehicule Press, among other highly successful independent Canadian literary presses.

But there’s much more going on here than a well run independent literary press putting out a small number of excellent books each year.  Gaspereau is also, significantly, a printer, not only of their own books, but for commercial and private customers as well.  The operation maintains a great deal of equipment too, from hand set metal type printed on hand cranked proof presses, to semi-modern offset presses that have alot of miles on them.

I’ve been deeply interested in and have admired Canadian publishing and writing for a long time.  But I only heard about Gaspereau fairly recently, when reports started circulating about one of their new books, Johanna Skibsrud’s The Sentimentalists. was nominated for the major Canadian literary prize, the ScotiaBank Giller award.  I looked up the Gaspereau site, and was immediately taken with their approach to publishing and book design, and contacted Andrew Steeves to talk about the work of the Gaspereau and its fierce commitment to publishing books by hand.  We had a great talk, and that is the interview presented here.

If course a couple of days later, the big news hit – The Sentimentalists, perhaps a dark horse previously, won the Giller for its 30 year old author and her publisher.  Now in the midst of a great deal of celebrating and joy, Gaspereau is trying to keep up with the almost unbelievable demand for the book that the award has spurred.  Canada’s National Post headlined “Literary community weighs in on Gaspereau’s Giller dilemma.”  There’s a huge uproar in Canada and alot of ire directed at Gaspereau for not being able to instantly print the thousands of books needed by stores to meet demand.  Author Skibsrud is on vacation in Istanbul happily celebrating her good fortune (a $50,000 CN prize comes with the recognition) so we don’t know what she thinks about any of this.

Andrew and Gary do not want to sell the book to a bigger publisher to meet demand.  They want to maintain it as a Gaspereau book.  Personally I am on their side, but I understand the difficulty for everyone involved, including the author, and of course the many readers out there who want to read the book now.  On the one hand, selling the book off solves lots of problems, makes readers happy, puts many thousands of dollars in the hands of the author and Gaspereau, but loses them an author they have discovered and takes them out of the publishing equation, just because they are small and committed to high quality, hands on publishing.

I’d love to hear from listeners on this question: should Gaspereau stay its course, remain committed to its mission, and refuse to sell off The Sentimentalists to another publisher?  Or should they accept that the demand of mass culture is too great for an artisanal press, and maybe keep their own edition in print as the original, and license a lesser trade edition to a larger house that is built for this sort of publishing?

In any case, please listen to Andrew Steeves talking about Gaspereau, its mission, history and vision for the future.  And keep in mind that when we talked, he had no idea what was about to happen to his life. And by the way, The Sentimentalists sounds like a truly wonderful novel, and like thousands of readers north of our border, I want to read it as soon as possible!  I’m guessing I might be waiting awhile…