We walked down a few steps into a room piled with recognizably book-shaped boxes. The Véhicule Press offices are on the lower floor of co-publishers Nancy Marrelli and Simon Dardick’s house on Roy Street, just east of Saint-Laurent Boulevard, where they’ve been since 1981, when Véhicule shifted from a printing and publishing co-operative model to that of a small publisher. Only Simon was in the office; Nancy was stuck in traffic outside of town, and the heat-wave had inspired everyone else to go home. However, it was dim and cooler than everywhere else we went that July day.
But what do introverts like better than being in a small group, with no audience? We are in a business of public production from a very private place. Simon brought us fresh lemonade while we sat to talk about this unusual trade, and he showed us the bookshelf in the office that holds one of each of the 494 titles they’ve published since 1973. The slow growth and persistence of the company, now in its 45th year, not to mention the perseverance of its long-time helmspeople, was obvious from that shelf. The packed shelf reminded us that, being in our third year at Metonymy Press, we are still only at the beginning.
Metonymy Press: Do you have advice for other publishers about how to be sustainable and remain relevant?
Simon Dardick: I feel that whatever Nancy or I would say would probably sound like a cliché. Publishing is such a difficult thing to do. And I think stubbornness, definitely having that stick-with-it-ness as part of your being, really is important. We both feel that if you continue to publish good work and approach it properly in terms of your design and how you promote your authors, you’re probably not going to make a lot of money, but if you do persevere, not only will you make a contribution, there’s a good possibility you can survive. The important thing is to set it up right. You have to have a good relationship, be able to get along. And then, it’s just a hope and a prayer.
MP: I’m looking at the chronology that you sent us…. These things move slowly. There were four books a year for a while.
SD: One thing I should mention: there’s a book we published in 1998 that’s still in print, which is also a foundational book in that it contributes to the bottom line of the press. It’s on wine-making. It’s one of the top ten best wine-making books in America. Nancy – she’s Italian – her mother a number of years ago was like, “I have a friend who has a manuscript on wine-making…” [And we were] rolling our eyes, saying, “We do not do books like that.” [But] we did do it. I don’t know what we were thinking, like it would sell a few copies… It mostly sells in the States. And we’ve reprinted it every year since 1998.
I have to thank Nancy’s mother. That was serendipity, we just tripped over it.
MP: What about the significance of social history in your mandate? How do you balance being a national publisher with maintaining that rootedness in Montreal? You focus on Quebec social history, but Montreal specifically, and English-language Montreal.
SD: Véhicule publishes literature within the context of social history because, for both Nancy [who’s an archivist by trade] and I, it’s not enough to bring out the books, but the history, the background of our culture and society [are important too].
Our relationship with translators in particular and francophone publishers are some of the most exciting and satisfying things that we do. I think the most important book in that regard that we brought out is Canada’s Forgotten Slaves by Marcel Trudel. We wanted to do that book for years; it came out in 1968 and had never been translated to English. It’s such an important book. People had no idea of our histories, and our history is not really taught in schools.
MP: What kind of obstacles have you come up against (beyond the obvious)? Were there major stumbling blocks or things that you had to sacrifice?
SD: In 2001, our distributor went bankrupt. And we weren’t alone. There were about 199 other publishers across Canada. And we thought it was all over; it was really terrible. We didn’t have any books to sell for a year. But through the grace of someone we had a great relationship with at the company, they managed to ship our books to us. I wish we had documented this.
We had two little kids at the time, and [the distributor’s shipping company] delivered the books to us. All of a sudden they arrived. They just dumped them in boxes. [The boxes] went from Hôtel-de-Ville to Laval [streets, filling the sidewalk of a whole city block], with no labels on the boxes. We called all our friends. Now, of course, this would be on Instagram and everything; it would be fantastic. The office was full to the top; eventually we made new arrangements.
But that was scary. It had seemed like it was going to be all over, and I remember sitting cross-legged on the living room floor, saying, “What the fuck, what are we going to do next?”
MP: Are there any aspects of the way you functioned as a co-operative or any of that spirit that persists?
SD: We actually started as a group of people hanging around a printing press that had been abandoned, and eventually became a co-op after a few years. So we would go off unemployment and go onto a grant. Plus we did a lot of printing for artists in terms of invitations and broadsides, small chapbooks, poetry books, and a lot of stuff for community organizations. We were the non-sectarian printing press. It was an interesting time. We would do lots of experimental things like doing our own colour separation.
When we incorporated we were the first and only publishing co-op in Quebec, which lasted until 1981. The whole collaborative approach of working on a book encompasses everything, from working in the office to working with suppliers. [It comes down to] respecting other people’s work.
MP: Do you have a favourite step in the publishing process?
SD: Working with writers. Editing is the best part. It’s so important, because, as you know – not that the author has to accept everything you say – I think sometimes it’s the first honest response that a writer gets to their work. It’s not just a friend or relative that says, “This is great.” It’s the job of the editor to say, “This is great, but this could be better,” and you begin the whole back and forth. I love seeing the exchanges. Then you arrive at a thing you all believe in. I think it’s the foundation of the whole process.
MP: What does your acquisitions process look like right now?
SD: It’s the curse of the editorially driven publishing house. We find a book, acquire it, and then figure out how to sell it.
Probably the most exciting book we’ve done recently is Zebedee Nungak’s Wrestling with Colonialism on Steroids: Quebec Inuit Fight for Their Homeland. It was an education for us, being publishers from the South, and learning how to work with an author from the North. I think what’s happening now is this efflorescence of books coming out by Indigenous authors. I think publishers and non-Indigenous society as a whole probably needed a real kick in the pants. And it was a good thing. So what’s happening now is terrific.
For publishers, the learning process is an ongoing one, of course. Staying relevant and shifting strategies and upgrading equipment is hard work. Véhicule and Metonymy were both started in part by white middle-class people, and in some ways we both work to undermine our own relevance. CanLit is, after all, a dumpster fire, and it’s the least we can do to not participate in the rhetoric that reinforces our own dominance and self-protection.
Véhicule has survived for forty-five years, building slowly, being rewarded, shifting focus as the structure changed, and ultimately thriving. They have been generous with us as new publishers, and they put a lot of work into what they do and the relationships they nurture and maintain. We want to wish them a happy anniversary! mRb