In the spring of 1973, a fresh-faced graduate looking only for steady work-not a steady income, let alone a career-stumbled onto an art gallery in Montreal’s Plateau district.
“When I turned up,” says Simon Dardick, co-owner and publisher of Véhicule Press with his wife Nancy Marrelli, “I was looking for work. I had experience publishing a magazine in high school. So I started, and never left.”
Founded a year earlier as an artist-run gallery in the shadows of what was once the legendary nightclub Café Montmartre, Véhicule Art Gallery soon morphed into a printing/publishing business, and eventually into one of Montreal’s largest English-language publishing houses. It has since published more than 300 titles and over 225 authors.
Véhicule’s ability not only to survive but also to succeed in French-speaking Quebec says a great deal about Dardick and Marrelli. “It’s a very small operation that’s managed to hang in,” says Dardick of his press, a battle cry of sorts for anyone brave enough to try to grab such a small part of the Canadian reading public. Dardick, though, knows that to publish English books in Montreal, one needs a solid game plan, even if it’s come upon by accident.”
I don’t think we did it scientifically,” he says of Véhicule’s reputation for publishing literature within a local social context. “We published what we liked. If you look at the books we’ve published over the years, they are poetry, fiction, and books about the history of Montreal.”
And that’s where a small operation like Véhicule can blow the doors off its conglomerate competition. Take, for instance, Bill Brownstein’s Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen: The Story, a fast-paced glimpse into Montreal’s legendary smoked meat institution. An established name like Brownstein surely would have drawn interest from the big boys down the 401, but Brownstein chose Véhicule as his vehicle.
“When it comes to books in Montreal that have a local social interest,” Dardick says, “out-of-town publishers have tried to do it. But I live in the city, and I know how to promote the books. A large publisher can’t sell any more than we can when it’s dealing with a Montreal topic.”
David Widgington, owner and operator of another well-known English Montreal publishing house, Cumulus Press, agrees with Dardick. “It took a few years to evolve, to know what I was good at publishing, what I wanted to publish,” he says.
Cumulus eventually settled on producing books on social justice and activism, staple products of the Anarchist Book Fair, which is a favourite event of Widgington’s. Sadly though, as announced at the press’s 10th anniversary press conference, Cumulus will be shutting its doors as Widgington shifts his focus from publishing to filmmaking.
That a successful operator like Widgington has decided to close his doors after 10 years highlights the difficulties Montreal’s English-language publishers face on an ongoing basis. For Widgington, Cumulus’s do-it-all maestro, passing into a new bracket of Canada Council funding and having to increase his publishing commitment to four books a year gave him a firm nudge out the door.
“The thought of having to do four books in 2009 and 2010 was too much for me,” he says. “But I’ve been at it for ten years; I’ve done my part.”
Selling books without the built-in brand recognition of a name like McClelland & Stewart or Penguin is a tricky if not exhausting proposition, particularly in Montreal’s English niche market, Dardick believes. “You thought it was hard writing the book? You thought it was hard making the book? The really hard part is getting it to the reader.” Dardick attributes some of this difficulty to the erosion of library budgets and small independent booksellers, often the bread and butter of a small press. “They believed in Canadian literature and would carry our stock,” he says.
All this is not to say that a company like Chapters does not believe in or support Canadian literature. Rather, they simply insist on a title generating a certain amount of profit-not exactly a scientific calculation for publishers and sellers. Christina Manolescu of Prince Chameleon Press agrees. “Ask any small publisher what the toughest part is, and they’ll tell you it’s marketing,” says Manolescu, who started Prince Chameleon in England 15 years ago, and brought it to Montreal when she moved back here in 2001.
Manolescu takes a not-so-traditional approach. Turned off by the nuances of conventional publishing, she started Prince Chameleon as a self-publishing press, a segment of the industry with great support in the United Kingdom but seen as a poor cousin to traditional publishing in North America. “Traditional publishing is a closed shop,” she says. “And after many years, I decided it was time to try publishing myself. What is encouraging is that one can self-publish and go a bit of a distance on one’s own. Technology, in that sense, has been kind.”
Widgington agrees with Dardick and Manolescu on the issue of selling the books. “It depends on the title. I sell more at book fairs or at events that I tie the book into.” He adds, “But selling is difficult, especially if you rely on the traditional bookstore route.”
Small or large, all publishers are subject to the same industry trends and downturns, as well as an often fickle reading public. As rising production costs have bloated the price of books, consumers are choosing carefully-or, as Manolescu believes, not at all. “People are reading less, especially fiction, and other media are filling the gap. And it affects everyone. It’s a reality check for the publishers.”
For his part, Dardick disagrees “I’ve not found that at all,” he says of the supposed downturn. “I think it’s a huge market still. I think there’s more reading being done than ever. What’s changed is the way books are delivered.” Book sales may have levelled off over the past few years (which, factoring in population growth, can be seen as a decline) but there is so much reading being done that simply cannot be measured by book sales and publishers’ profitability.
With that in mind, Dardick is stepping up his interactive efforts, vamping up the Véhicule website in order to stay in closer contact with his readers through newsletters and podcasts. As he figures it, more content will lead to a higher number of hits.
While publishers like Véhicule and Cumulus try (or tried) to decode a complicated industry on their own, Manolescu has taken a different approach. In 2001 she founded the Invisible Cities Network (ICN), a group of local artists-including many self-publishers-who gather throughout the city to support, critique, and collaborate. The group initiates fiction, poetry, and theatre events, conferences, and highly successful self-publishing workshops. “It’s such a difficult thing,” Manolescu says of self-publishing. “Doing it yourself is tough. But quite a few writers have taken the initial plunge with this group.”
Although Dardick, Widgington, and Manolescu each hail from vastly different publishing corners, they can all agree on one thing: publishing English books in Montreal is not a gateway to riches, but a labour of love. It is a gruelling marathon in which one lives or dies with the closing of a small bookshop or the unexpected success of a small book that nestles snugly into a local niche.
“Sometimes you do this,” Manolescu says, “and the whole world ignores you. But I don’t regret what I did. My only regret is that I didn’t start it earlier.”
Widgington, who will pass on his titles to one-time competitors to keep Cumulus books alive under another name, looks back on his 10 years with nothing but warm thoughts. “Who knows what will happen in ten years?” he says with regard to a potential revival. “But if I didn’t love doing it, I wouldn’t have done it.”
And for the man who walked into the uncertain world of Montreal publishing not knowing if he’d be in it for a day, a decade, or a lifetime, it’s all based on a very simple maxim: “After doing this for thirty-five years,” Dardick says, “Nancy and I are still excited. Working with authors and publishing literature is just very exciting.”
Few publishers would disagree. mRb