Feature

It’s Not About the Money

“They have a passion to do it. They’re highly intelligent, deeply in love with literature. They’re often writers themselves. They’re a very interesting group of people.”

Steve Luxton of DC Books is talking about his confreres in the community of Canada’s small literary presses. While they may not boast instant name recognition among Canadian readers, the story of this country’s writing in the last 40 years would be unthinkable without them. And all the qualities Luxton lists apply equally to himself.

Born in Coventry, England in 1946, Luxton came to Canada with his family at eleven, and studied at the University of Toronto and Syracuse University. A crucial experience was encountering the senior poet Louis Dudek when he was a guest lecturer in Eric Domville’s poetry class at the U of T. “His advice was ‘Don’t wait around for something to happen. Do it yourself,’” Luxton recalls. Though publishing had never been a direct ambition – “It was something I sort of scuttled into sideways, crab-like” – the chance to put Dudek’s advice into practice presented itself when Dudek himself sold DC Books for a dollar to Luxton and Keith Henderson in 1986. The willingness to take it on is something Luxton suspects may have its seeds in his coming of age in the sixties, as did many other long-running small publishers.

“That period bred a kind of spiritual and cultural entrepreneurialism, the notion that you were the one who was going to make the new world. Assuming you weren’t lying on your back smoking dope all the time. And I must say part of the appeal of publishing for me was as a counterbalance. Writing is such a lonely pursuit. Publishing kind of populates your life.”

Currently an English teacher at John Abbott College in the West Island, Luxton divides his time between a house in the Eastern Townships and a shared pied-à-terre on the Esplanade in the Plateau, where previous roommates have included Yann Martel and Anne Stone. Full workload notwithstanding, he has three poetry collections to his credit (see review of Luna Moth and Other Poems in this issue), and has been at work for more years than he cares to mention on a large Western-themed novel. (“My epic folly,” he refers to it wryly.) “I segment,” he says of his work habits. “I get up, and first thing in the morning, before I think of anything else, I spend an hour and a half to two hours, five or sometimes six days a week, on my own writing. Then I teach, then I do publishing work at night.”

A big part of “publishing work” is sifting through manuscripts. DC receives roughly 250 a year, of which five or six will see the light of day. (Fellow writer and longtime friend Robert Allen plays a crucial role in selecting what gets published; he spotted Dimitri Nasrallah, whose first novel Blackbodying is reviewed in this issue.) For aspiring writers the sheer numbers are daunting, and Luxton doesn’t try to sugar-coat the pill. “If you’re unknown – by reputation or by contact – then you’ll have even more difficulty than the normal large amount of difficulty. When I teach creative writing, I’m always encouraging students to build their own support networks. You can’t wait for the world to come to your doorstep.”

Once published, a book faces the whole added challenge of getting noticed. “It’s harder for poetry than for fiction, but it isn’t easy for either,” says Luxton. While many factors – the writer’s track record, name recognition, topicality, ethnicity – go into a book’s marketability and likelihood of being reviewed, after a certain point you just hope for the best. “It’s like standing in fog on the side of a lake and skipping stones across. You don’t know how far they’re going to go,” Luxton says, adding that one way writers can help their own cause is by knowing the ropes.

“If the writer is conversant with the context of literary publishing – someone like Jon Paul Fiorentino – then they have realistic expectations. Not only that, but as promoters of their own work they can be extremely helpful. If writers know nothing about that realm, they have a tendency to have very unrealistic expectations. Publishers moan on each other’s shoulders about this all the time. As much as I can, when I offer publication to someone who appears not to know the context, I try to gently underscore the limits. I hope that the book will sell thousands, but more likely, if it’s poetry, it may sell two hundred copies, and if it’s fiction, five hundred.”

Books from small publishers do sometimes get struck by the proverbial lightning and cross over (into mega-sales). “Yes, but it’s unpredictable. Not to say that the ones that have been struck by lightning aren’t good, but clearly they’ve managed to pluck the right strings somehow, somewhere.”

It’s a very Canadian irony, of course, that a bestseller can be a curse as well as a blessing. “Yes, it can be a real problem in small press publishing. In trying to fulfill orders, doing reprints that until recently were very expensive to do, you can literally bankrupt yourself by mis-guessing the phases. There have been cases where a publisher has had such trouble coping with one bestseller that when another book has shown signs of taking off, they’ve simply refused to deal with it. They’ve shut down the process. I wouldn’t want to have to explain that to the writer, but there is a strange form of logic to it.”

Cover design is another area where feathers can be ruffled, to say the least.

“It can generate disputes, yes. A significant factor in a design is its commercial appeal. We’re not just talking about potential readers, we’re talking about the retailer who has to order it in the first place. The problem, again, is that writers sometimes don’t have much sense of that. They tend to want to design things exclusively in terms of the content. An example of that is a writer who’d written a postmodern novel involving the erasure of the protagonist and wanted, as an analogue for this, to have the author’s name on the cover so small that it was barely readable. It had to be explained that nobody was going to buy a novel if they couldn’t see the name of the author on the cover.”

Over the years DC Books has amassed a long and wide-ranging backlist. “We try to be both old fogey and young asshole, you know what I mean?” says Luxton. Pressed to pick a few personal favourites, he comes up with Napoleon’s Retreat by Robert Allen, Barry Sherwood’s The Pillow Book of Lady Kasa, Andy Brown’s i can see you being invisible, and Heather O’Neill’s Two Eyes Are You Sleeping. On the poetry side, he mentions Jason Camlot’s The Animal Library.

Naming the model operations among his fellow presses, Luxton cites some of the old stalwarts – House of Anansi, Coach House, The Porcupine’s Quill, Talonbooks, Simon Dardick’s Véhicule’s Press. But he also mentions a relatively newer name. “Andy Brown (conundrum press) is an example of the new young publishers. He has all of the traits. Highly individualistic, highly disciplined, very autonomous. The trade kind of requires all those things. He’s also an articulator and promoter of that sort of postmodern, multi-media, ironically autobiographical school of writing.” Luxton, like all other Canadian publishers, acknowledges the Canada Council’s essential part in supporting (some would argue even creating) the business as we know it today. But he points out that advancing technology – moving at a rate so fast that it’s a full time job keeping up with it – is creating a very different looking playing field.

“The Canada Council requires that you off-set print a certain threshold number – four hundred for poetry, five hundred for fiction. While that has its upside in that it forces promotion and hopefully guarantees a certain visibility, it can be bad too because a lot of those books, even the ones that are ordered, don’t see shelves. There’s an expression used among the Literary Press Group: Gone Today, Here Tomorrow. Because so often they all come back. [Booksellers can return books for a year at 100% credit.] But now, with print on demand, you can print books in quantities of ten. You could argue that it’s approaching a situation where you could literally print them as you need them. This has potentially radical repercussions.”

It almost seems as if the conditions are in place to see at least a partial return to the pre-grants, seat-of-the-pants days of pioneers like Louis Dudek. Luxton can’t help but see a certain irony in this.

“I’ve met people who claim that since they ‘professionalized,’ they do more work and make less money than they did when they ran it essentially as a labour-of-love shoestring operation. So it’s a mixed bag. Personally, if you took all the money I’ve ever made and factor it out over the nineteen years I’ve worked on it, it would add up to between six and seven dollars an hour. Minimum wage or slightly less, in other words. But having said that, the fact that I have a day job does cushion me. I’m not worried about my mortgage every time the latest Chapters/Indigo misadventure threatens everyone with bankruptcy.”

Luxton, though he has been at it for nearly twenty years, is still something of a junior member in the small press community. It’s a calling that appears to attract lifers.

“There’s definitely something about it that attracts that survivor mentality, yeah. The longer you last, the longer you last. Your life grip tightens.”

What about passing it on, the way Dudek did?

“I’ve thought about that, sure, but succession is a problem. The personality type that would want to do it is also the type that would want to have its own baby. But I’m always, in some degree, looking out of the corner of my eye for the next generation.”

“Having whinged about it all, though, I realize that on some level I love the adventure. Because I’m a writer myself, I like the thrill of seeing writers get published. You know what it’s like, that feeling of having your first book in your hands. It’s better than sex. To be able to do that for writers is really something. As someone once said, ‘For that which is beyond money, no money shall be paid.’ There’s something in me that really believes that great literature is the most valuable thing in the world. I’m a bit religious about that.” mRb

Ian McGillis writes about books and visual arts for the Montreal Gazette. He is the author of the bestselling novel A Tourist’s Guide to Glengarry, and is currently working on a memoir about life as an obsessive fan of soul, reggae, and hip-hop.

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