Publish and Perish — Part 2   6 comments

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.

I actually took this cover photo but forgot to credit myself. Oh well!

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. . . .

6 responses to “Publish and Perish — Part 2

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  1. I simply had to appreciate you again. I’m not certain what I would have gone through in the absence of the creative concepts contributed by you concerning such a industry. It previously was the challenging matter for me personally, but taking a look at a new skilled style you treated that took me to weep for joy. I’m just happier for the help and pray you find out what a powerful job you are always getting into training many people via your webpage. I’m certain you haven’t come across any of us

  2. I don’t believe we have ever met, but we have one friend at least in common – the brilliant, young Ellen Close. She grew up down the street from us and was good friends with my daughter through school. Nancy is also a good friend and no doubt is a good spokesperson for Calgary theatre at city hall these days.

    Small publishing houses like yours have the potential to make literary careers. Tyler Perry is an example. My own story is similar to Tyler’s. I graduated from U of C with a M.A. in English (Creative Writing). I sent my poetry masters’ thesis manuscript (that’s a mouthful) to several publishing houses. The poetry scene in Canada can be very localized. Small publishing houses tend to publish those local writers who have a chance of selling their books in their own demographic. And the big houses seem to work with writers who draw a national audience – like Ondaatje and Atwood. I couldn’t find an Albertan publisher for the manuscript, but Silas White (Nightwood Editions) out on the Sunshine Coast liked it. I don’t know if that was because it dealt in canoes, or the fact that I tried to take on all the myths associated with Canadian canoe poems and post-modernize them. Silas told me that he publishes a few best-selling crossword puzzle books so that he can publish more first-book poets like myself. How wonderful that he can do that! My book won the W.O. Mitchell book prize in 2007. That prize meant that the Faculty of Humanities could promote me successfully as a candidate for Queen Elizabeth High’s Writer-in-Res. Being writer-in-res led me to Lisa Murphy-Lamb and Wordsworth camp for young writers. The prize meant that book clubs in Calgary who shunned poetry wanted to hear me explain poetry and my work with them. The prize meant that I could jury other prizes, and on and on…. And now, I too am short-listed for poet laureate. It all starts with that first book. The second book isn’t any easier to get published, but while I wait for that next book to find a print market, I can call myself a poet and be recognized as one.

    Hang in there. You offer writers a place for hope and beginnings. We do have a very vibrant poetry scene. Before long poets will be poetry-slamming against your door.

  3. Nice entry Eugene, I can imagine the challenges of running a small publishing company, especially as plays and poems have such limited audiences. A couple of years ago, Stephen Massicotte contacted me about a 10-minute play festival anthology through B House, but then I never heard back…whatever happened to that project? I think it’d be an interesting one to revive…10 10-Minute Plays from the 10-Minute Play Festival…we could sell them at the festival itself!

  4. I really enjoyed Tyler Perry’s book. Its amazing how many great writers Calgary is home to.

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