Sunday, January 29, 2012

12 or 20 (small press) questions: Andrew Steeves on Gaspereau Press

Andrew Steeves was born in Moncton, New Brunswick, and studied criminology and English literature at the University of Ottawa and Acadia University before founding Gaspereau Press with Gary Dunfield in 1997. Since then he has made a modest living reading, writing, editing, designing, printing, binding, promoting and selling books, and thinking about the role they play in our culture. He has won national recognition for his typography and book design, and has three times been named the best literary publisher in Canada by the Canadian Booksellers’ Association, most recently in 2011. He lives near Black River Lake, Nova Scotia, in an off-grid house he built with his family in 2010.

1. When did Gaspereau Press first start? How have your original goals as a publisher shifted since you started, if at all? And what have you learned through the process?
Gary Dunfield and I started Gaspereau Press fifteen years ago, in February 1997, along with a literary journal called Gaspereau Review. I can’t recall what our goals were beyond publishing a few literary books each year, or why we thought the world needed another literary journal. I recall that the magazine had a strong regional bent (subscriptions were listed as being more expensive for Toronto residents), but the content was rather national in scope. We’ve learned plenty since then, having started with no formal knowledge or education related to the publishing or printing trade— but maybe that’s unchanged, and we’ve learned nothing. We’ve never had much interest in the normal or established practices and processes of the publishing trade; in fact, I tend to see trade publishing as largely dysfunctional, and much of what we do is in reaction to the belief. What we have gained in the past fifteen years is a technical understanding of the processes of editing, designing, manufacturing and distributing books—but even that we’ve mostly made up as we’ve gone along.

2. What first brought you to publishing?
Frankly, I needed to find a way to feed my family. I had a background in social work, English literature and journalism and had decided to move to a small town because it seemed more important to find a good life than to find a good job. I was working as an agricultural laborer, produce clerk and freelance writer and ended up creating my own opportunity. There’s a reason that the particular brand of publishing that I practice is sympathetic to my interests and skills: I made it up. This is the only job I have ever held in publishing. I suppose I could have become a poet-farmer like Wendell Berry or a poet-carpenter like John Terpstra. But there was something about editing, designing and printing books that drew me into this work.

3. What do you consider the role and responsibilities, if any, of small publishing?

In a nutshell, literary publishers share the same responsibility as everyone else in society: to pay attention, to engage, and to bother to do things well. Because of the nature of their profession, publishers are well positioned to seek out, foster and circulate the culture’s most elegant and engaging ideas. Those who do so artfully and with tenacity, in the grand tradition of humanist publishing, are more often pre-occupied with nurturing their community then with the mere mercantile affairs of the balance sheet; not that they ignore the balance sheet or dislike profits, only that they consider these things in balance with the greater good of their community and culture. Like farmers, they toil, and the fruits of their labours brought to market might sustain their community.

4. What do you see your press doing that no one else is?
Gaspereau Press is but a star in a great constellation of publishers. Better to ask someone else whether we are unique. All I know is that I work hard to achieve ideals that sometimes seem impossibly idiosyncratic, and sometimes seem commonplace.

5. What do you see as the most effective way to get new chapbooks out into the world?
We only do a few chapbooks each year, and mostly for a lark; most of our focus is on our trade books. But chapbooks are little different than poetry books when it comes to finding an audience. The best way to move them is to put readers in direct contact with the work or with the author, through readings, or through radio, or samplers. Trade publishers have adopted this mistaken notion that there is something to learn about marketing literary books from the world of potato chips and soap flakes—from the marketing of consumable items. Literature is not a consumer good, nor is it strictly speaking entertainment (though the hype around prizes in the fiction scene might suggest otherwise). To talk about literature in terms of consumer goods and entertainment is to talk about rivers and forests in terms of raw materials and natural resources—little good comes from it. Literature and culture are about human relationships, and so it follows that finding ways to foster direct and authentic encounters between a writer and an audience is the best way to promote a book.

6. How involved an editor are you? Do you dig deep into line edits, or do you prefer more of a light touch?
I’m usually in up to the elbows as an editor, though how deep you dig as an editor depends on the characteristics of the manuscript and at what shape it is in when it arrives. But I tend to stay out of the way as an editor if I can. The final decisions on the text are the author’s to make; it’s their vision, not mine, that we’re presenting. My job as an editor is to try and discover that vision and style and hold the author to it.

7. How do your books get distributed? What are your usual print runs?
We distribute our books directly, and always have. When we started out, everyone told us it wouldn’t fly, but we’ve never really had difficulty—or at least we have had no more difficulty than those using big distribution companies, and a great deal more control over costs and terms. Gary is quite technologically able, so he wrote all the software we required to run our system. We were one of the first book distributors in Canada to be compliant when the industry started moving towards Electronic Document Interchange (EDI) for ordering. We have workable relationships with Chapters/Indigo and Amazon, though their business are not really sympathetic to small ‘cottage industry’ suppliers. But we’ve always stood our ground and have managed to navigate their world without sacrificing our own needs and values. Our print runs are characteristically modest—from about 400 or so on a poetry book to 800 or so on a novel—but we feel it is better to reprint than to hold stale stock. I also like the way a reprint gives you the opportunity to tweak things in the text or design.

8 – How many other people are involved with editing or production? Do you work with other editors, and if so, how effective do you find it? What are the benefits, drawbacks?
On the editorial side it’s usually just me and an external proofreader named Christina McRae. Sometimes I’ll outsource the editing of a single book if we are particularly swamped or the work is specialized, but I’d rather do it myself. I’ve had great editorial staff in the past (Christine McNair, Kate Kennedy) but it’s neither economically viable nor particularly gratifying to share the editing work with others, so in 2009 I discontinued that position. I got into this business to do things, not to manage other people doing things, and that is why we’ll always stay small I guess. I’d rather do fewer books and keep all the editing and design in my own lap, making books my own way.

I do find that it’s fruitful to employ someone to coordinate promotional activities and other administrative tasks, which Trina Grant Adam does for me presently. And as well as running the accounting and sales side of things, Gary keeps the machines running and manages two full-time production employees (a pressman and a finisher) and some part-time help. I am involved in production as well, running the letterpress equipment and handprinting most of the book jackets on a Vandercook press. It’s a lot to keep on top of, but gratifying when it works.

9. How has being an editor/publisher changed the way you think about your own writing?
I was mostly writing and publishing poetry and book reviews before I started the press in my late twenties, and now I am in my forties and writing mostly prose, so it’s hard to compare. It has changed how I read and how I process and compile what I read, that’s for sure. I have two book projects underway at the moment—one about a visit the American ornithologist John James Audubon made to Nova Scotia in 1833 and the other a collection of essays on literary publishing and book design.

10. How do you approach the idea of publishing your own writing? Some, such as Gary Geddes when he still ran Cormorant, refused such, yet various Coach House Press’ editors had titles during their tenures as editors for the press, including Victor Coleman and bpNichol. What do you think of the arguments for or against, or do you see the whole question as irrelevant?
Well, I would and I would not. I’d certainly publish my own projects, no question, but not likely as books on our trade list. As a letterpress printer I’ve got one foot in the ‘private press’ tradition and would tend to publish my own work in small handprinted editions. But for the sake of argument, what of it if I did publish my own works as trade Gaspereau books? To write, design, print and publish my own work allows a sort of harmony of expression. Why would I want to haggle with a trade publisher to follow my own production standards and maintain the quality and integrity of that expression? And what’s the point of asking someone else to do for you what you can better do yourself? Do you really think that there is any de facto objectivity to be established in publishing my writing elsewhere? I don’t. And I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks; I’m not climbing a career ladder as a writer or looking for anyone else’s approval or confirmation. The writing can speak for itself; if it is good work, no one can say it is any less good on account of my printing it on my own dime and with my own hands. I feel the value of doing it myself far outstrips any possible negative implications. However, the reality is that I’m hardly crowding the Gaspereau list with my own puff. The only book of mine Gaspereau had done in fifteen years was an edition of Thoreau’s Walking, which I introduced and annotated, and which was in fact a limited-edition letterpress project, not a trade book. Neither of the two writing projects I mentioned above are likely to be trade books for the simple reason that I would rather print them by hand.

11. How do you see Gaspereau Press evolving?
I think we’re slowly understanding what level of publishing activity and staff is sustainable with the combination of sales revenue and public funding available to us. We were pretty devil-may-care about ‘the industry’ from the beginning, but I think we’re getting more-so as we enter middle age. My feeling is: This is what we do, this is who we are, take it or leave it. I’m not going to get bullied into business practices which are not sustainable or redeeming just because they appear to work for large multinational firms. I’m going to keep working to make good books in a sensible and sustainable way, and looking for readers who believe in the sort of books we publish and the sort of way we publish them. It only takes several hundred such loyal and astute readers to sustain our work, not thousands. Personally, I am trying to find the right balance that allows me more time for practicing and teaching letterpress printing alongside the trade work, and more time to write and think about how the ecology of publishing, typography and book design functions in the larger culture.

12.  What, as a publisher, are you most proud of accomplishing? What do you think people have overlooked about your publications? What is your biggest frustration?
I’m most proud of still being in business. This is a perilous trade, and it’s more perilous still when you try and practice it with care and integrity. I’m not sure how you assess what’s been overlooked; many of our books wait patiently for more readers, of course, but many of them have had great success and seeded cultural change. I’m skeptical about conventional ideas of recognition and success. Books are a sort improvised explosive device, and they will wait quite patiently for their readers. As to what’s frustrating: Our culture’s willingness to trade its birthright for a mess of potage; short-term thinking; lack of vision; lack of community concern; lack of pride in workmanship.

13. Who were your early publishing models when starting out?
Well, in Canada, certainly Coach House and Porcupine’s Quill were obvious influences, and Stan Bevington and Tim Inkster are close friends. In the deeper past, Christopher Plantin in Antwerp was perhaps the greatest publisher, ever. More contemporary models were Francis Meynell’s Nonesuch Press and Leonard and Virgina Woolf’s Hograth Press. But in truth, we started out without influences and rather buttressed ourselves with these models after the fact to support and explain what we had already started to do in isolation and obscurity. As we discovered these publishers, they gave us context and community.

14. How does Gaspereau Press work to engage with your immediate literary community, and community at large? What journals or presses do you see Gaspereau Press in dialogue with? How important do you see those dialogues, those conversations?
That sort of dialogue’s not really been a part of our dynamic; as I said, we’ve worked by and large in isolation. We publish a broad range of styles and authors from across Canada, but there is no special manifesto beyond doing good work and seeking out writers who are doing likewise. We are not in relationships with any journals or communities in particular. We are not associated with any movement or faction in Canadian literature, although we are not particularly avant guard or urban in our tastes in the same way that, say, Coach House is. We are just a good little publishing house publishing a range of good books.

15. Do you hold regular or occasional readings or launches? How important do you see public readings and other events?
I think readings and events are critical for fostering a literary community and a readership for the authors that we publish. We do not host a regular reading series, other than the annual readings that we host as a part of our Wayzgoose and open house at the press each fall. We have also been doing a poetry month event in Toronto or Montreal each April, our Spring Poetry Tra-La, which we usually do in conjunction with Coach House Books and Signal Editions. Besides that, we tailor the readings and events book-by-book, working with established festivals and reading series when possible.

16. How do you utilize the internet, if at all, to further your goals?

Mostly as a passive communication tool. We move a lot of files around by email and FTP, and use it to communicate with authors, event organizers and booksellers. We do some online sales, but this is an area for growth. We use a website and a blog (though the blog is mostly taken up with type history and book design). We had a brief fling with social networking, but didn’t find it was a productive tool. So, in short, we are still experimenting with the internet as a tool. Given the fact that I still hand-write 90 percent of my correspondence and spend a portion of every week printing on a handpress, the internet is just another tool in our pretty well-stocked toolbox.

17. Do you take submissions? If so, what aren’t you looking for?
Yes, of course. We publish poetry, fiction and literary non-fiction. All I can say is that we pick about eight good books a year from several hundred submissions. Your odds of being one of these books go up dramatically if you send us a manuscript to consider (paper submissions only), but beyond that it’s hard to explain what we’re looking for.

18. Tell me about three of your most recent titles, and why they’re special.
I was pretty excited about the way John Leroux’s Glorious Light: The Stained Glass of Fredericton worked out. It’s uncharacteristic for a Gaspereau book because it is full of colour reproductions. I was intent on keeping the thing from devolving into a coffee-table book, though, and designed it in an octavo format and kept equal emphasis on the strength of the text (which is set in Adobe Jenson). John looks at the way in which the multi-faceted ideological and spiritual character of that city is portrayed through the illuminated richness of its stained glass. John thinks it’s the only book ever to offer a comprehensive examination of a Canadian city’s stained-glass heritage.

In the fall we also released another installment in what is evolving into quite a body of literary essays by Don McKay, this one called The Shell of the Tortoise. Don is interested in the relationship between poetry and wilderness, particularly  into the characteristics of metaphor as a tool. I did a lot of work on tuning up the type for the book, which was F.W. Goudy’s Deepdene. Many digital types based on historical metal types require tweaking if they are going to stand up to the modern printing environment without looking ill-kerned and pale.

The third book I’d mention from fall is a novel: Heather Jessup’s The Lightning Field which explores the life of a cold-war era family whose father is an engineer on the Avro Arrow and whose mother is struck by lightning. It’s Heather’s debut work, and quite well done. I had a lot of fun playing with draftsmen’s drawings of the Avro on the title page sequence. I set the novel in a trial version of a new type by Rod McDonald called Goluska, a type he designed in memory of our mutual friend, the Montreal typographer Glenn Goluska, who died of cancer last summer.

12 or 20 (small press) questions;

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