February 01, 2016
On a quiet January afternoon, a writing friend popped into our office just as I was getting ready to head out to the bank. Both of us mid-errand, we paused to chat, and he picked up one of our recent books to look at. He loved the cover and had even read the little write-up we had for it online. He turned it around in his hand for a while, and then held it out to me and asked, “What’s it like, really.” I laughed.
I know what he meant was, “Will I like this?” So I responded the best way I could think of: “Julie Gordon at J.H. Gordon Books really liked it.” People trust booksellers more than publishers. I remember Dan Wells at Biblioasis complaining about that to me a few years after he’d started publishing. People would trust him implicitly as a bookseller, but when he recommended a title as a publisher, they figured he was just selling something. Dan was flummoxed because the books he liked as a publisher were the same books he’d have liked as a bookseller, but obviously something had changed.
As publishers, we are selling something. We’re selling authors, stories, ideas. But with indie publishers, one thing you can count on is that we’re not publishing anything just to make money. When Paul or I acquire a book, one of the last things either of us is thinking of is whether or not we can sell it. We’re probably doing the whole thing backwards, but that’s the truth. Paul has brought books to the press with reasons such as, “I read the whole thing in one sitting. Then I stopped, picked up a pen, and started again, making editing notes” or “My hands were shaking as I read the last few pages; it was incredible.” One of my favourite moments was Paul shaking his head and throwing his hands up disarmingly as he told us about a quirky, hard-to-describe manuscript: “It’s just so delightful.”
I acquire for similar reasons. Stories that need to be told, voices I can’t get out of my head, authors who make you feel uncomfortable, but in the best way. I’ve had some great comments on the books I published. On one local book I brought out, another of my authors remarked, “Well, the guy sure can’t write, but I can see why you published him. The history in there.” A friend in the industry told me, “I gave this to my sister who just bought a farm. She was in tears when she read it.” And there are those moments when an author just stops you in your tracks. For me, this can be a poem that talks about refugee camps or prose that points out where all the rare earths that make up a laptop computer come from, the human toll to extract them, all while the author is wrestling with her own complicity. Of course, there was also the author who slyly compared the Twilight series to sheep manure twice in an essay. How could I turn that down?
We can work with authors for years before their books come out. Encouraging them, suggesting ideas, reading pieces of work. I think Paul once spent ten years encouraging an author to bring him a manuscript. The most for me so far is five, but those are only the manuscripts I’ve managed to get. We’re in this for the long haul.
So what are our books about, really? Everything we bring out, we publish for a reason. We’ve been hooked by a story, or a voice, or an idea. These are books we couldn’t turn away from. We see a lot of manuscripts, and there have been a few we could have brought out just because we thought they would sell. But our hearts weren’t in it, so we didn’t. Will you like our books? Maybe. If what catches our eye catches yours. I had one author say to me, when we were talking about why he brought me his manuscript, “Well, I like most of what you publish.”
But if we’re pressing a book into your hands, it’s because we believe in the book and we want you to love it. Sure, we like the sales, but the important point is that we feel people should be reading what our authors have written. Those stories need to be out there.
Did my friend buy that book he asked me about? Not right then. He was on his way to another meeting and didn’t feel like carrying it around. He figures the story is right up his alley, though, and he’ll probably pick up a copy from Julie at her bookstore. But he may talk to her a bit about it first.