Publishing Talks: David Wilk Interviews Bruce McPherson

December 17, 2010 by  
Filed under Publishing History, PublishingTalks, 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.

I have had some really interesting conversations with people in the publishing industry this year.  The present is a time of great upheaval and change for many in publishing.  Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Andrew Steves of Canada’s relatively tiny Gaspereau Press, just before their book, The Sentimentalists won that country major book award, the Scotiabank Giller Prize.  Soon after, I was able to talk to Bruce McPherson of McPherson & Co., about his many years of publishing and the great news that his recently published Lord of Misrule by old friend Jaimy Gordon had won the National Book Award (quite a surprise for all!).  It’s unusual enough for a major national book award to recognize the work of independently published books, but to have two almost simultaneously in both the US and Canada must mean something about these times.  In other words, I don’t think these are outlier events.

As it happens, I’ve known Bruce and Jaimy for about as long as I have known anyone, going back to when Bruce began publishing as Treacle Press right after graduating Brown in the early 1970’s.  The first book he published was Jaimy’s superb and inventive novel, Shamp of the City-Solo.  I read that book because Bruce told me I must, and loved its wildly inventive story and Jaimy’s brilliant writing.  I’ve been a fan and reader of hers ever since.  Bruce has published a wide range of interesting books in film, art and fiction.  He’s developed a clear vision of who, what and how he will operate as a publisher, and has managed to invent a working business model that in many ways reflects his own independent thinking and unwillingness to compromise art for common business demands.

In many ways, the recognition of Jaimy Gordon as a great writer is a recognition of Bruce McPherson as a great publisher, and a validation of a somewhat old fashioned notion of commitment and loyalty to art, talent and human beings.  Writers as living, breathing, suffering artists whose publishers support them, prod them to do their best work, and love them unabashedly and without compromise.  That may sound sentimental in these harsh times, but it’s a sentiment I am willing to cherish and celebrate.  I admire Bruce and the body of work he has produced in more than 35 years of struggle.

Neither Bruce nor McPherson & Co. promote anything other than the books and authors themselves, i.e., it’s not about the publisher, it’s about the books.  I very much enjoyed the opportunity, therefore, to shine a bit of light on Bruce and his work, and hopefully to illuminate something of what his publishing has meant and means for our culture.  And of course the experience of winning the NBA is present throughout.  I hope listeners will enjoy this podcast in tandem with my current interview with Jaimy Gordon as well.

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…

Publishing Talks: David Wilk interviews Deborah Emin

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

I learned about Deborah Emin from an article about Sullivan Street Press and her “throwback” program called the Itinerant Book Show.  Deborah and colleagues (they call themselves “bookies”) travel to towns in the midwest as far as Iowa bringing books they select to events in art galleries, bars, coffee shops and the like.  Because they are featuring only books they have read and liked, it’s pretty easy to understand how they are connecting successfully with audiences.  And as she points out on the Sullivan Street website,  the real key is what Deborah as a publisher and writer can learn about audiences.  Face to face, one to one.  It’s invaluable intelligence for anyone concerned with understanding how a literary community works.

All of this resonates for me.  Her story reminded me of work some of us were doing more than thirty years ago, bringing books by new authors and publishers to booksellers and audiences around the country.  In the late 1970’s what was then called the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines (still going strong and known as CLMP) sponsored a number of grassroots efforts to bring independently published poets and writers into bookstores, which involved personal visits to bookstores, libraries, schools and even bars to sell books.

There were programs in North Dakota (where a budding young writer named Louise Erdrich interned), Rochester, NY, Minneapolis-St. Paul (where I was) and other locales, all sharing a commitment to connecting innovative new writers to new audiences, sometimes, one person at a time. Many then young publishers still publishing today, were introduced to their audiences through those early efforts.

So is everything old new again?  I think the spirit of independent publishing continues.  Writers find their readers, and readers their books one at a time, after all.  The magic of literary discovery still requires the kind of personal effort that Deborah Emin and the Itinerant Book Show put forth.  Which is also the kind of personal connection forged by booksellers with their customers.  Whether the books are printed by hand on custom paper using handpresses, or created digitally using HTML or ePub, learning about a book you will love is ultimately about a deep connection between the writer, and the reader, with one or more intermediaries making the hand off.

Sullivan Street Press consists of Deborah Emin, an editor and writer, Ron Lebow, a computer technologist, a business development professional and also a writer.  It’s a pretty interesting and obviously fertile group of minds and talents.  The work they are doing is challenging and rewarding, and offers valuable lessons for publishers of any size and ambition.

« Previous Page