Small Presses | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Small Presses

Traditionally the difference between small press publishers and trade publishers has been one of scale, purpose and ideology. Trade publishers are entrepreneurs with large operations, comprising many departments and geared to market books that will be profitable.

Small Presses

Traditionally the difference between small press publishers and trade publishers has been one of scale, purpose and ideology. Trade publishers are entrepreneurs with large operations, comprising many departments and geared to market books that will be profitable. Although small presses do not disdain profits, they are often started by writers and staffed by themselves and several friends. Their beginnings can be traced to PRIVATE PRESSES, which produce books in numbered, limited editions that are set by hand and printed on old-fashioned presses. In the past small presses were principally associated with experimental and avant-garde writing, for they and their authors often worked apart from the literary establishment. Small presses, as we use the term, appeared in the late 19th century in England and the United States. The first of these was William Morris's Kelmscott Press, which served as the inspiration for Copeland and Day of Boston, the publishers of Bliss Carman, and the Hogarth Press of London, run by authors Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

Small Presses in Canada, 1930s to 1960

Small presses appeared in Canada in the late 1930s and early 1940s as offshoots of LITERARY MAGAZINES because the Great Depression forced cutbacks in publishing programs among Toronto houses. Writers associated with modernism took their lead from expatriate presses in Paris such as Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare & Co and Edward Titus's Sign of the Black Manikin, which published Morley Callaghan's No Man's Meat (1931). Canadian poets founded little magazines such as Contemporary Verseand Preview. In Montréal John Sutherland's First Statement Press, for example, started as the magazine Northern Review (1943-1956) and the first book in its New Writers' Chapbooks was Irving LAYTON's collection of poems Here and Now (1945). In 1945 professors Alfred Bailey and Desmond Pacey began The Fiddlehead (Fredericton) and in 1952 the University of New Brunswick inaugurated the Fiddlehead Poetry Books Series, which by 1958 was edited and published by Fred COGSWELL. In 1952 Raymond SOUSTER and Irving Layton launched CONTACT Press (Toronto) in order to publish their poetry and that of Louis DUDEK. One of Dudek's many small press ventures was his McGill Poetry Series, which introduced Leonard COHEN's Let Us Compare Mythologies (1956) to the world. In 1953 the Montréal poets Jean-Guy Pilon, Fernand Ouellette, and Gaston Miron formed Les Éditions de l'Hexagone. Influenced by the 1948 manifesto of artist Paul-Émile BORDUAS, Refus Global, which called for the rejection of an authoritarian past dominated by clergy and politicians, the Hexagone publications were the first in Québec to express a new vision of society and the arts. Up to the end of the 1950s, when chansonnier Gilles VIGNEAULT began Les Éditions de l'Arc (Montréal, 1959) and William and Alice MacConnell began their Klanak Press (Vancouver, 1958), most small presses were almost exclusively literary, and their book distribution numbered in the dozens or hundreds. Small presses would soon become a significant fringe industry all over North America.

Small Presses in the 1960s and 1970s

Between 1965 and 1975 there were several dramatic changes in Canadian publishing. More and more, the major Toronto houses concentrated on mass-circulation titles and rejected books that lacked nationwide sales appeal. Because many of these firms were evolving into public companies and/or subsidiaries of international corporations, publishing decisions often had more to do with the bottom line than the vision of one person. By contrast, small press owners maintained hands-on control over all aspects of publishing, from the manuscript to the finished book. The development of offset presses and computerized printing made possible the production of low-cost, attractively designed books, most of them in paper covers.

Three other factors facilitated this process: One was the establishment of the CANADA COUNCIL in 1957 whose mandate to encourage writers and assist Canadian-owned publishers was an unforeseen blessing for small presses. The Council's grants and subsidies were intended to enrich the national culture and identity, but in fact the Canada Council and the other provincial arts councils helped decentralize cultural activity itself. Second, just as important as the Canada Council's role was the prospect of a new social and political order that prompted so many ambitious young publishers like André Major, Clyde Rose, May Cutler, Victor-Levy Beaulieu, Dave Godfrey, James Lorimer, Mel Hurtig and David Robinson to strike out into uncharted territory. Whereas avant-garde literary writing had been the main preserve of small presses-and continued to account for much of the quality and excitement of alternative publishing-political activism in the 1960s found its forum in small presses. This activism had international as well as Canadian roots. Political repression in Czechoslovakia, strikes in French universities, and especially demonstrations on American campuses over the Vietnam conflict were as influential as the self-consciousness and pride that surged from the QUIET REVOLUTION in Québec after 1960 and the euphoria surrounding the centennial of Confederation in 1967. A third factor was the new market for books that had been created by expanding universities and colleges and chiefly nourished by the paperback revolution that had originated in the United States. Almost simultaneously, writers and audiences developed a curiosity about their own part of the world, which inspired a host of memoirs, local histories and literary works that had limited national appeal but enthusiastic local sales. Small presses in every part of the country catered to these needs, and in short order some of them rose above the disparaging connotations of that term "regional."

And so, a whole generation of writers, university professors, journalists, former employees of major houses, members of the CBC and Radio-Canada, and neophyte book designers set up as small publishers. Many of these aspiring publishers began their operations in a home or basement or garage, and turned their kitchen tables into editorial offices. They were assisted by part-timers and volunteers, and sometimes even their authors helped with the printing and binding. The following account scarcely touches the richness and complexity and significance of the small press movement.

The Atlantic Provinces

Small presses throughout the Atlantic provinces restored an important cultural industry and a sense of identity to a region that had not seen such activity since the late 19th century. Newfoundland was a subject waiting for authors and publishers. In St John's, Clyde Rose and several friends at Memorial University began Breakwater Books (1973), which printed anthologies about the culture and folklore of Newfoundland and Labrador, and plays by Al Pittman and Michael Cook. Ray Guy's That Far Greater Bay (1977) won the STEPHEN LEACOCK MEDAL FOR HUMOUR. In an effort to reduce the stranglehold of American and Toronto textbook publishers, Breakwater entered the provincial educational market as well. In Charlottetown, when Harry Baglole was unable to sell his book on regional resources to McClelland and Stewart, he helped set up Ragweed Press (1973). Its next owner, Libby Oulton, issued poetry, fiction, biographies, and history and art books about Prince Edward Island, and her successor, Louise Fleming, added the Gynergy Books imprint for women's books.

Nova Scotia has many small presses. Lesley Choyce of the Pottersfield Press (1973) of Lawrencetown Beach, east of Dartmouth, publishes writers associated with the Maritimes such as Rita Joe and the Nova Scotia Black writers George Elliot Clarke and Maxine Tynes. In 1991-92 Pottersfield issued Clarke's two-volume Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing. In Halifax William McCurdy set up Petheric Press to publish limited editions of rare material, usually connected with Maritime history. Nimbus Publishing (1979), begun by John Marshall, represents a number of other small presses in the Maritimes and the eastern United States. Nimbus has reissued Thomas Raddall's works such as The Nymph and the Lamp, general interest books such as Calvin Ruck's The Black Battalion, 1916-1920: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret (1987) and photography and art books, including several about folk artist Maud Lewis. Another Halifax publisher, James Lorimer and Company, began as a radical activist in Toronto in 1968 with books by John Sewell, Heather Robertson and James Laxer. Lorimer relocated to Halifax in 1981, and with his wife Carolyn MacGregor continues to issue works on politics and economics, and textbooks. The Lancelot Press of Windsor and Hantsport was founded by retired minister William Pope in 1968 and closed down in 1996.

In New Brunswick, Michael Wardell established Brunswick Press in 1950 to promote the culture of the province. In the 1980s Peter Thomas, who took over Fiddlehead Books from Fred Cogswell in 1981, created Goose Lane Editions for his biography and fiction imprints. Now under publisher Susanne Alexander, Goose Lane also represents several small specialty presses such as Acadiensis Press, the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and the University College of Cape Breton Press (1974). These organizations issue books, tapes, videos and CD-ROMs related to literature and the arts. Goose Lane's own titles range from Laurel Boone's edition of The Collected Letters of Charles G.D. Roberts (1989) and poetry by Douglas Lochhead to fiction by Lesley Choyce and T.F. Rigelhof. At the Université de Moncton, the educational and media centre of Acadian culture, Raymond Gallant and a group of colleagues founded Les Éditions d'Acadie (1972), the first publishing house devoted to books in French about Acadian history and literature. Its first volume was Raymond LeBlanc's Cri de terre (1973). The Centre d'études Acadiennes at the Université de Moncton publishes scholarly works about Acadian culture. By making the past alive once again, the small presses challenged Maritime writers to new creative efforts.


In the late 19th century Montréal lost out to Toronto as the centre of English-language publishing and distribution, but it remained the hub of French-language production. Since the 1960s many small presses have sprung up to serve both language groups as well as more recently established ethnic communities, while political uncertainties and controversies have had a decidedly invigorating effect on artists and writers. Parti pris (1963-68), the cultural magazine founded by André Major and his friends, and their publishing house Les Éditions parti pris (1961) supported the use of joual as the appropriate language for Québécois writers. Among their literary publications were Claude Jasmin's Les Coeurs empaillés, nouvelles (1967) and Jacques Ferron's La Nuit (1971). Poet and professor Gatien LaPointe began Les Écrits de Forges in 1971 to publish new and unknown poets. Like small presses elsewhere, the Montréal publishers since the 1970s have applied postmodernist theories to literature as well as to political and social writings. Victor-Levy Beaulieu's Les Éditions de l'Aurore (1973) survived only 2 years of financial problems, but his VLB Éditeur (1976-84) and his Les Éditions Trois-Pistoles proved more resilient. Beaulieu published many of his own works through his presses, such as Don Quichotte de la demanche (1974), Monsieur Melville (1978) and Beaute féroce: une histoire d'amour pas comme les notres (1998). Disputes with Les Éditions du Jour caused a group of authors, among whom were Marie-Claire Blais and Jacques Godbout, to form the publishing co-operative Les Quinze. Nouvelle Optique specializes in books on the condition of women. Poet and novelist Nicole BROSSARD has published with Quinze and Nouvelle Optique as well as with the press she founded, L'Intégrale éditrice (1982), which specializes in feminist writings.

Small presses provided a means for Québec's English-language writers to regain their voices. Two of the earlier ones were Harvest House, begun by Maynard and Ann Gertler in 1960, and the internationally renowned Tundra Books (1967), established by May Cutler to publish children's books. Cutler published Saskatchewan artist William Kurelek's A Prairie Boy's Winter and Ann Blades's Mary of Mile 18, and many of the Tundra books have garnered awards around the world. In 1980, poet Gary Geddes founded Quadrant Editions as a subscription publisher, but the 1981 postal strike almost destroyed his operations. Five years after Andrew Wheatley assumed ownership (1982), there were problems with authors over royalties and with the Canada Council. In 1986 poet and critic Steve Luxton took over DC Books, which Louis Dudek, Michael Gnarowski and Glen Siebrasse had started in 1965 as Delta Canada. Black Rose Books (1970), under the direction of Dimitrios Roussopoulos, has specialized in anarchist writings. Black Rose published Mark Achbar's Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media, which was based on the NFB documentary of the same name. Véhicule Press (1972) began as an artists' co-op associated with the Véhicule Art Gallery, which printed art books and the poetry of Ken Norris, Endre Farkas and Artie Gold, and sponsored poetry readings. Véhicule was founded by Guy Lavoie and Simon Dardick, but in 1981 Dardick and his wife Nancy Marrelli became sole owners and shifted the emphasis to trade books of local interest, along with fiction and jazz. Norris and Farkas also operated The Muses' Company, which included among its publications 2 anthologies edited by Farkas, The Other Language (1989) and Québec Suite (1995). Guernica Editions (1978), which takes its name from the painting by Pablo Picasso depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, was launched by poet and critic Antonio D'Alfonso, and publishes works on ethnicity and gender, such as his own Duologue on Culture and Identity (1998), co-authored with Pasquale Verdicchio. Guernica also publishes translations of Québécois writers into English and Italian and of Italian writers into English. Karen Haughian began NuAge Editions (1986) as a student project inspired by Gary Geddes, and NuAge has specialized in translations of Québec playwrights into English. In 1983 the English-language houses formed the Montréal Publishers' Round Table to improve their marketing outside the province and to raise their profile with the federal government.


Small presses all over Ontario serve a large variety of markets. In Sudbury, Éditions pris de parole publishes Franco-Ontarians such as novelist Pierre Paul Karch, poet Patrice Desbiens and playwright Jean-Marc Dalpé. Ottawa is home to Oberon Press, begun in 1966 by Michael Macklem and his wife Anne Hardy, who encouraged new writers with their short story anthologies. Among their extensive backlists are Hardy's Where to Eat in Canada as well as fiction by Hugh Hood, Marie-Claire Blais and W.P. Kinsella and poetry by Gwendolyn MacEwen, bp Nichol, Raymond Souster and Bronwen Wallace. Glen Clever of the University of Ottawa established Borealis Press (1972), which published the early poetry and criticism of Carol Shields. The Kingston area has been associated with many writers and publishers since the 1960s. Quarry Press (1965), co-founded by several poets at Queen's University in Kingston and now owned by Bob Hilderley, began life as Quarry magazine and remains primarily a literary press, although it also publishes art books and local histories. Near Kingston is Camden House (1977), launched by James Lawrence of Harrowsmith magazine, and later taken over by Frank Edwards. Then in 1980 Edwards and his associate, illustrator John Bianchi, set up Bungalo Books to publish their own books for children. Potlatch of Hamilton has always maintained a balance between works of local interest to the Niagara area and southwestern Ontario and works of wider national appeal. London, as the centre for literary activity in southwestern Ontario, is the location of Brick Books, whose authors include Michael Ondaatje, P.K. Page and Dennis Lee.


In Toronto itself are 2 of the most famous small presses. Coach House Press was begun in 1965 when Stan Bevington set up his huge hand press in a garage. Assisted by editors Wayne Clifford and Victor Coleman, Bevington's beautifully designed and printed poetry books soon became collectors' items, and his printing presses have produced many fine books for other firms as well. In 1990, several years after Bevington decided to concentrate on commercial printing, Coach House split its publishing and printing operations. When the publishing business was cut off from funding by the Ontario government in 1996, there was an outcry from the Toronto cultural community. The printing operation still flourishes. The House of ANANSI (1967), founded by writer Dave GODFREY and poet Dennis Lee, embraced modernism, social change and Canadian nationalism, and took its name from a West African trickster god associated with storytelling. The Anansi imprints include George Grant's Technology and Empire, Northrop Frye's The Bush Garden, Margaret Atwood's The Circle Game, and translations of Québec books like Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater (1979). Godfrey went on to establish New Press (1970) with James Bacque and Roy MacSkimming. The first of their social action books, David and Nadine Nowlan's The Bad Trip, helped kill the proposed Spadina Expressway. Another of Godfrey's undertakings was Press Porcépic (1970). When he moved Porcépic to Victoria in 1974, his colleagues Tim and Elke Inkster renamed their part of the operation The Porcupine's Quill and moved it to Erin, Ontario, where they have issued beautifully designed books by such writers as George Johnston, Matt Cohen and John Newlove. Women's Press, a collective founded in 1972, is devoted to feminist issues ranging from sexism to health care. The house has survived a 1988 dispute among its members over the appropriation of voice in one of its anthologies and a 1996 crisis when provincial funding was reduced. Besides fiction, poetry, children's books and writings from Québec, it publishes The Everywoman's Almanac (1976- ).

In 1972 two enterprises were launched to make the growing number of Canadian plays available for amateur and professional production. Hungarian-born Rolf Kalman, the former editor of Performing Arts in Canada, founded Simon & Pierre, which was named after his 2 cats. Kalman published plays by Len Peterson, W.O. Mitchell, Mavor Moore and Eric Nicol. Connie Brissenden established the Playwrights Co-op on a shoestring, and she and her staff turned out new plays on a Gestetner mimeograph machine. Two of Canada's half-dozen major publishers of children's books began modestly in the 1970s at a time when sales of 3000 to 5000 copies of a children's book was considered a success. Rick Wilks and Anne Millyard founded Annick Press (1973). Kids Can Press (1973) began as a feminist collective that issued books for children, but after 1979-when Valerie Hussey and Ricky Englander took over-the press shifted to high-quality children's books on crafts and science. They had a worldwide success with Pauline Bourgeois's Franklin in the Dark (1986), which was even marketed by the cosmetics firm Avon Canada. By the 1990s, a successful children's book might have sales of 40 000 copies in Canada and abroad.

ECW Press (1977) was founded in Montréal by David Lecker and Jack David, and grew out of David's periodical Essays in Canadian Writing. It began as a scholarly and reference publisher, most notably of the series The Annotated Bibliography of Canada's Major Authors. ECW Press has moved into trade books and into the American market. In 1981, 4 small presses founded Garamond Press, an independent academic publisher focusing on the social sciences. Among Dundurn Press's academic publications is the series Profiles in Canadian Literature, in which each volume consists of research essays on well-known authors. Valley Editions/Mosaic Press began as 2 separate entities: Valley publishes creative writing while Mosaic is oriented more towards ethnic and scholarly works.

With Toronto as the destination for many groups of immigrants from around the world, this city's small publishers have reflected the multicultural realities of Canada since the 1970s. Among them was Sixty-Eight Press (1968-1991), founded by novelist Josef Skvorecky and his wife Zdena Salivarova in order to publish books banned in their native Czechoslovakia. Sister Vision Press (1985) issues works by black women, Asian women, and women of mixed racial heritages. Among the newer small presses, Mike O'Connor of Insomniac Press (1993) publishes handsome books of poetry by new and younger poets, and garnered notoriety with Lynn Crosbie's Paul's Case (1997) about sex-murderer Paul Bernardo. Sam Hiyate of Gutter Press (1993) publishes gritty, erotic works like Bruce LaBruce's The Reluctant Pornographer, and markets his books aggressively in the US. Sal Nensi's Omrikon is a new kind of enterprise, a conglomerate that acts as a literary and marketing agent and consultant.

The Prairie Provinces

While the contribution of Western writers to Canadian literature throughout the 20th century was considerable, the small presses accelerated literary activity and helped to establish trade publishing in the three Prairie provinces for the first time. In the 1960s this state of affairs contributed to a sense of freedom from cultural domination by Toronto. Although Harlequin Books (1948) began its phenomenal international success in Winnipeg, it never was part of the small press movement. The first of the new publishers in Manitoba was Peguis Publishing, launched by Mary Scorer after a successful career with Eaton's Winnipeg book department and with her own Mary Scorer Books. Turnstone Press (1975), conceived in a pub by its first board of directors, has specialized in new writers - among them Sandra Birdsell and Miriam Toews - and in the 1990s branched out into gothic, fantasy, and science fiction books. In 1987 two undergraduates at the University of Manitoba, Gordon Shillingford and Peter Atwood, began Blizzard Books in order to publish Western drama and multimedia plays. Their first book, Maureen Hunter's Footprints, was issued to coincide with its premiere. With his own firm, J. Gordon Shillingford, Shillingford publishes poetry from all parts of Canada as well as books of general interest. By the late 1990s, between 70 and 90 new titles were published each year in Manitoba in English, French and Cree.

In Regina the Saskatchewan Wheat Pool established Western Producer Books (1954), which had a long and enviable reputation for publishing books about Saskatchewan life. Its publishing director Robert Sanders departed in 1987 to work for Douglas & McIntyre of Vancouver; and in spite of good sales, when WPB fell on hard times in 1991 it was absorbed into Douglas & McIntyre. But Regina still has Coteau Books (1975), which was begun by four writers from Moose Jaw, Bob Currie, Gary Hyland, Geoffrey Ursell and Barbara Sapergia, to publish Saskatchewan poetry. Under publisher Geoffrey Ursell and editor Barbara Sapergia, Coteau publishes a broad range of beautifully designed books that now includes juveniles, women's books, multicultural works, art books, and calendars. Coteau's titles reflect the Prairie social fabric in such works as Louise Halfe's poems of Native life, Bear Bones & Feathers (1994), Sapergia's novel of Romanian immigrants, Foreigners (1995), and the anthology of Ukrainian-Canadian experience, Two Lands, New Visions (1998), edited by Janice Kulyk Keefer and Solomea Pavlychko. Thistledown of Saskatoon has published the poetry of Ken Mitchell and Andrew Suknaski.

Edmonton's best known publisher was Mel Hurtig, whose company (1967) evolved out of his successful book store, which was founded in 1957. Hurtig's books reflected his activities as a Canadian nationalist, and two of his earliest best sellers were The New Romans (1968), edited by Al Purdy, and Harold Cardinal's The Unjust Society: The Tragedy of Canada's Indians (1968). In 1985 Hurtig issued the first series of The Canadian Encyclopedia. Poets Stephen Scobie and Douglas Barbour co-founded Longspoon Press while they were professors at the University of Alberta. George Melnyk began NeWest Review in 1975 (it relocated to Saskatoon in 1981) and founded NeWest Press in 1977. Its first book was Rudy Wiebe's stories Getting Here. When Melnyk left in 1979, the Press was incorporated and run by a board of writers and academics from the four Western provinces, including Douglas Barbour, Rudy Wiebe, and Diane Bessai. NeWest publishes poetry and fiction, and plays by Sharon Pollock, Ken Mitchell, and Brad Fraser. Red Deer College Press (Red Deer, 1972), which was established by the Alberta Cultural Activities Trust Fund and became an independent corporation in 1975, has functioned both as a university press and an alternative literary press that publishes several series: illustrated children's books, cowboy stories, and dramatists, along with novels like Aritha Van Herk's Restlessness (1998).

Vancouver/British Columbia

The publishing industry in and around Vancouver, the Lower mainland, and Vancouver Island is now so extensive as to compare with Montréal and Toronto. Much of this activity began around 1960 when Vancouver exploded with underground, alternative, and politically engaged writers, some of whom were associated with the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing Department. The experimental magazine Tish (1961-69), founded by a group that included George Bowering, Fred Wah, and Frank Davey, launched many West Coast writers, and itself issued books. bill bissett operated Blew Ointment Press (1967-1992) and the magazine of the same name, which published many of the country's new poets in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Talonbooks (1968), which grew out of David Robinson's poetry magazine Talon, has specialized in publishing attractive editions of plays. Now known as Talon Books and run by Karl Seigler, the house gained prominence with James Reaney's Colours in the Dark (1969), George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1970), and the works of Québec playwright Michel Tremblay. Its lists also include John Gray's Billy Bishop Goes to War (1981) and plays by David Freeman and David Fennario. What helped subsidize Talonbooks' poetry list was a best-selling cookbook, Susan Mendelson's Mama Never Cooked Like This (1981).

Douglas & McIntyre (1971) is no longer a small press, having expanded its operations to become the largest national publisher outside the Toronto area. New Star Books (1972) evolved from the Georgia Straight Writing Series, which had been issued by several of the group associated with the newspaper Georgia Straight. New Star has shifted its focus from primarily left/social justice issues to include literary works in the 1990s. Groundwood, one of the country's major children's book publishers, has published many award-winning books. Arsenal Pulp Press (1974), which Stephen Osborne started as an alternative to the avant-garde, and Press Gang Publishers (1975) publish books about gay and lesbian life. Pulp Press originated the Three-Day Novel-Writing Contest in 1978. One of the most aggressive publishers' groups in the country is the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia, which began issuing its annual catalogue Books from British Columbia in 1975.

In Victoria, J. Michael Yates started Sono Nis Press (1968) to publish avant-garde poetry and fiction; it was named for a fanciful character in Yates's The Man in the Glass Octopus, the first book issued from his press. For two years he operated out of the remote Queen Charlotte Islands [Haida Gwaii] and then relocated to Mission. After Yates sold the firm (1976) to his printers, the Morriss Company, the lists were extended to local histories, biographies, criticism, and scholarly books. Richard Olafson's Ekstasis Editions (1982) was launched in the basement print shop of Victoria's Gallerie Untitled, with the aim of producing handsome books of poetry, fiction and criticism. Dave Godfrey's Press Porcépic in Victoria continued to publish literary works, but under new owners and renamed Beach Holme Publishing, the firm branched out into feminism and science fiction, and had an international best seller with Robin Skelton's The Practice of Witchcraft (1990). Ron Smith's Oolichan Books (1974) of Lantzville, Vancouver Island, has a list of authors who have received many awards for poetry, fiction, autobiography and history, chiefly of the West Coast. Encouraged by Ron Smith, Randy Fred, a member of the Tse'shaht tribe, began Thetyus Books (1981) in Penticton; his first book was Robert Kroetsch's Gone Indian. "Theytus" is a Salish word that means "preserving for the sake of handing down." Under Fred - and, later, Greg Young-Ing - Thetyus has concentrated on West Coast issues, in particular works by and about the first peoples and more recently works by Chinese-Canadian writers. Harbour Publishing (1974), founded by Howard White in Pender Harbour, had a phenomenal success in its first year with Raincoast Chronicles First Five. With this book (composed of the issues of his magazine of that name) and other oral histories, White has preserved the past of the West Coast stretching from San Francisco to Alaska. As in other parts of Canada, the small press industry publishes everything from avant-garde poetry to cookbooks, from local interest to international issues.

Problems: Survival, Financing, Distribution

The constant concerns of small presses are survival and funding. Like all publishers, they have expenses for overhead, warehousing, distribution and advertising. The smaller print runs of small presses mean a higher unit cost per book, and they need to sell more copies to reach a break-even point, especially in the case of expensive productions like children's books, cookbooks, and scholarly works. Cash flow, then, is an almost daily concern, and small publishers have depended on either the banks, which have traditionally been cautious about loans to publishers, or on government handouts. Even the need for subsidies has been questioned. Novelist and critic John Metcalf has argued that subsidies sustain mediocrity, condone dependency on public handouts, and encourage recipients to answer to bureaucrats and awards committees.

Distribution beyond the local community presents challenges, especially when events like the postal strikes of 1975 and 1981 damaged several small firms whose distribution was halted and accounts were unpaid. Even the 1986 tariff placed on English-language books imported into Canada - a measure introduced by Canada in retaliation for a US tariff placed on Canadian cedar shakes and shingles - backfired when firms like Annick Press had to cancel overseas co-productions; they and their Canadian authors suffered because their books would be printed abroad and subject to duty. Ottawa relented nine months later. For these reasons publishers co-operate on matters of mutual concern. Most provinces now have local publishers' associations; the four Atlantic provinces have joined in one organization. The most vigorous of these groups is a national organization, the Independent Publishers Association (1969), whose first members were the nationalist proprietors of small presses. Through its newsletters and submissions to Ottawa, the IPA lobbied so successfully for Canadian ownership of the cultural industries that larger trade houses joined the group, which evolved into the Association of Canadian Publishers. In 1975 the ACP established the Literary Press Group in order to issue a joint Catalogue of its members' publications and provide a central ordering and distributing network across the country. Computerization of daily transactions helped this industry immensely. In time the LPG, which is now a subsidiary of General Publishing, arranged with American and British distributors of small press titles to handle Canadian books. The University of Toronto Press also acts as distributor for small presses.

Although the most publicized takeovers involve major publishers or Canadian subsidiaries, small presses facing extinction or bankruptcy have on occasion been saved by the same process. In the late 1980s and through the 1990s, economic downturns forced massive cuts in public funding to cultural industries. Furthermore, competition among the larger publishers and the multinational book corporations, as well as changing arrangements with booksellers and the super bookstores, squeezed the small publishers. In 1989 Ann Wall sold the House of Anansi to Stoddart Publishing to be its literary imprint, and in 1991 McClelland and Stewart purchased Hurtig of Edmonton when it ran into serious financial straits, and Douglas & McIntyre took over Western Producer Books. Arsenal Pulp Press purchased Blew Ointment's backlist in 1992.

Since the 1960s small presses have evolved through two generations. Very few now possess hand-presses, with the exception of some that still produce poetry or small monographs or broadsides. Their books are printed in any part of the world. They have nurtured promising authors like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, Nino Ricci, and Diane Schoemperlen; these and other international names (Northrop Frye, for instance) still appear in small press imprints. Equally important, many firms have developed impressive backlists and have become integrated into international distribution networks.

Indeed, the term small press or small publisher as now defined by Statistics Canada in its surveys of the publishing industry excludes some of the firms mentioned in this article that began as small presses and have since become "major" in terms of annual sales. The Statistics Canada survey of small publishers for 1994-1995, based on 89 Canadian-owned firms with revenues between $50 000 and $250 000, indicated that they published 634 titles. Well over 90% of these were Canadian-authored, and most of them were literary works (fiction and non-fiction) and niche books (poetry, regional history, biography, children's books). Very few have the resources for expensive scholarly, reference, and technical manuals, but a substantial group publish textbooks. They had total revenues of $12 571 000, of which 18% came from grants and 12% came from exports. But 40% of the 89 firms, all of them Canadian-owned, had losses, which amounted to $678 000 in total.

The Outlook in 2000

The small presses have been the mainspring for new voices, both individual and collective, whether geographical, as in Newfoundland, ethnic, as in Acadia, or scattered, as in native and Aboriginal societies. Moreover, the small presses welcomed writers who rewrote their community's past, appropriated by others in earlier times. These publishers are still the preserve of the literary avant-garde and the domain of the alternative and counter-press community. They issue most of the poetry volumes published each year in Canada. Several of them have developed niche markets for specific multicultural interests, women's issues, and gay and lesbian matters. They are the stronghold of most of the exciting children's literature published in Canada.

Even though their nationalist fervour has abated since the late 1970s, the small presses changed the literary culture of English Canada and French Canada in the 1960s: they were the means through which activist and committed writers interrogated the political and business establishment. Their presence contributed to the resurgence of regional identities, never dead in Canada, but almost submerged between the First World War and 1950. In the ongoing tensions between the centre and the periphery that characterize Canadian society, they diminished, but did not entirely destroy, the long-held Canadian notion that the best literature must come from London or New York. Meanwhile, Ottawa and the provincial capitals have dispensed their subsidies, often with the barely concealed intent of promoting an official culture, whether this is defined as Canadian, Québécois, bilingual, or multicultural. Yet even as the small presses sometimes condoned, sometimes protested, such manipulation, they have maintained the tradition of the free discussion and exchange of ideas, and upheld their role of promoting literacy and education for as wide an audience as possible .


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