When Michael Finner and I began B House, I thought we would become a publisher of drama, for the simple reason that there are not a lot of good opportunities for play publishing nowadays. Also, I know all the playwrights in town so what was to stop us? I’m not sure how to answer that question. Only Lindsay Burns came forth and we published her two wonderful extended monologues, Dough and the Vajayjay Monologues in one volume. We then published my play Queen Lear, but since then, nothing. Like I say (in Part One of this piece) we have a number of plays in the works, and I hope B House will have some new drama books on the shelf this spring.
At the same time, though, we did manage to publish a number of poetry books. This happened for a number of reasons. I was becoming more involved in the poetry scene in Calgary, with readings at the Spoken Word Festival and Single Onion events. I’ve also become a mainstay at Jocelyn Alice’s wonderful eclectic “Art Saving Lives” events held at Higher Ground Café in Kensington the last Sunday evening of the month.
Calgary continues to confound the experts (ie, people not from Calgary) with it’s insanely vibrant theatre scene, yet I was surprised and delighted to discover that we are home to a very rich poetry scene as well. As far as I’m concerned, Calgary is home to some of the best poets in the land.
Our involvement with poetry began with a poetry anthology which came about as a result of the coffee shop I frequent, Caffe Beano. One day I was in there happily writing in my journal and I looked around and saw that five of six other patrons were doing the same thing. Suddenly the penny dropped and I realized that there must be a lot of poetry written by the people who frequent Beano, if not actually in Beano.
And so with the help of the ownership and a little arm twisting here and there, in the summer of 2008 we came out with the first Beano Anthology. In the slim volume, we published poems by over 30 writers – for some of them it was their first publication. We transformed Beano’s Stampede Breakfast into a book launch and sold 93 copies of the book that day.
This must be some kind of record, on many levels. Again, it confounds people’s image of Calgary, to think that the hot topic at a Stampede breakfast would be poetry, but that’s one of things I love about Calgary and my place in it. The minute you think you have it figured out, something like this happens and you have to reconsider your opinion of the city.
Other books followed, including an art book made possible by the City of Calgary and the Drop In Centre: reproductions of paintings of trees by “homeless” artist Reg Knelsen, accompanied by poetry by David van Belle, appropriately titled Reg’s Trees.
Our next book was Kirk Miles’ wonderful collection, of ash of brick, of water. When we published Kirk’s book, we were still following the classic model, that of paying for the design and printing costs ourselves, and then trying to offer (and deliver) Kirk a reasonable royalty. But I must admit by this time, two years into this venture, we were running a little thin. Our original manager, Stephanie Davis who did an amazing job for us in the early years, was moving on in her own life and so left us with the files but Michael and I, fair to say, are not good at the daily nuts and bolts stuff.
Personally, I was getting behind in my own work and was finding it hard to get to all the manuscripts that kept trickling in. Michael was getting tired of putting his Mastercard out for all our expenses. So when we decided to publish Tyler Perry’s book, Lessons in Falling, we were pretty much running on empty. We managed to get the book designed and printed, but from that point on Tyler became pretty much a one man show in marketing and selling his own book.
That said, thanks to his own initiative, Lessons in Falling is probably our best-selling book thus far. In fact, it was on the Calgary Herald’s best selling list for a few weeks, not bad for a local company publishing the work of a young writer. But it’s through no thanks to B House. The success of the book came entirely from Tyler himself.
The results of having a published book are intangible, of course. Tyler was recently short-listed for the City of Calgary Poet Laureate and wrote to thank me for helping publish his book, for without that publication he probably never would have been nominated. So you never know. And you can see how the rewards go beyond money.
If you are a Canadian poet or playwright or publisher and you go into this for the money, you’re not even mad. You’re not ever crazy. You’re just stupid, that’s all.
As self-publishing becomes more and more popular – in part this is due to changes in print technology that allows for small runs of high-quality books – maybe a small press like B House is destined to be an alternative. a clearing house for writers, allowing them total control of their book while offering an association of like-minded authors who, all in all, add up to a force greater than an individual author could create for him or herself. The success of your book then depends on your own ability to get out and promote it.
As this is increasingly where we’re heading, why not do this with a smaller company where you at least get something back for it? It’s 2012. No one else is going to do this for you. That’s just a reality these days.
In a sense, it reminds me of an old school writers’ collective, and I like it. No one’s going to get rich from these books, but it may make us more likely to get a coveted Canada Council grant or even become Poet Laureate.
I believe this may well be the future of poetry and drama publishing in Canada.
What B House offers at this point in time is quality control, I suppose. If you publish with us, we will make sure that your name will be associated with other authors who function at a certain level, who share a certain sensibility. Design-wise, there is a consistency to the look and feel of the books, as we have as our favoured designer Peter Moller, whom I happen to think is the best in the business. (I’ve added a link to his site, Egg Press, on my list of links on my website.)
A loose affiliation of like-minded individuals. Maybe that’s all it is. If B House continues to move in this direction, then I think the sky is the limit, and I believe we will offer a great service to local writers without totally burning ourselves out, creatively or financially.
A clearing house for good books by good writers. That’s something to aspire to.
Thanks for reading. . . .