In Praise of Small Presses (and booksellers and librarians)

Actually, the presentation was to booksellers and acquisition librarians and sales reps at the spring book fair hosted by ABRA (Alberta Book Representative Association) on February 23.  I was there under the sponsorship of my fine publisher, Oolichan Books, and pleased to have the chance to tell librarians and booksellers once again how much I love them.

And of course I had other things to say as well:

First off, I’m wondering what all of us are doing here. Why have you booksellers and librarians come here to buy this out-of-fashion art?  Given the doomsday forecast for the book as we know it, you should be at career counselling, planning your exits from this business. And me? Well fiction is already dead, I’ve been told.  The appeal of the type of fiction I write is long past. I should retire, move to Sun City, where, if I want to produce art, I can probably take a pottery course.

But happily, we aren’t sailing alone on this ship of fools. We have the good company of the people on whom we all depend, the publishers. I’m speaking particularly of the small presses. I know there are brilliant, passionate editors in the big publishing houses but they become less and less a possibility for most of the writers I know.  Fortunately for us there are still small literary presses. I have had fine experiences with NeWest Press and Oolichan Books—and have recently been blessed with a new publisher at Oolichan, who is not only enthusiastic and supportive but courageous and passionate enough to have acquired a literary press in these dire times. So I want to include small publishing houses on the list of those for whom, as an emerging writer, I have been deeply grateful.

A few years ago when I was looking for a publisher for my first novel, Running Toward Home, I did an internet search for regional presses because my writing is so geographically specific, that book set in Calgary.  I turned up a website that described one of the presses high on my list as a “not-for-profit publisher.” At that point I knew the likelihood of supporting myself as a writer.  NeWest, I thought, I’m your gal.  Because I seem to be a not-for-profit author.  We turned out to be a good match for far better reasons, and NeWest became the home for my first book.  And a good home it was.

What I learned in the release of that first book, and the next two, was that there is a very small window of interest and opportunity for a book, and that publishers have very little in their not-for-profit budget for promoting books, even the new season’s books. What they have provided is appreciation for the work, and huge encouragement. So like most of my colleagues I have become committed to promoting my own work, to going wherever I needed to go to speak and read, to donating books when I felt that a bit of generosity might make a difference.  Libraries and bookstores are among my favourite places to hang out. I know many of my writing friends feel the same way—if you invite us, we will come. And we have a strong community, so chances are good that we will turn up in your stores and libraries to support one another.

I’ve  also discovered that if I can get myself invited to book discussion groups, I get to sit and schmooze and sip wine or sometimes even have lunch with smart readers. What a pleasure to visit with people who’ve read my books.  The feedback I’m getting is affirming – people telling me they love finding places they recognize in stories, and they love engaging with characters who feel as though they could have been lifted out of their own lives. But a surprising number of the avid readers to whom I mention books by other local authors have never heard of these books, because their discussion groups lean toward the highly publicized books coming from big presses. So my mission has been to recommend Canadian and in particular Alberta books and to suggest the authors I know who’d be happy to share a glass of wine and talk about their work. If you have book clubs consulting you, I would entreat you to please recommend us, your local writers to these people.

One of the other things I’ve learned from book clubs is that isn’t always easy for the members to find the work of local authors. When someone calls  me about an author visit and asks where they can find copies of my books I’m pleased that I can direct them to the library.  Thank you Calgary Public Library for consistently supporting local writers.  But of course one of the goals of even the not-for-profit author is to sell books, so thank you as well to the bookstores to whom I can send people.  Thank you for having special sections for Alberta authors and for being familiar with the work of your local authors. Because if you keep doing that, then I can keep on doing what I do, because we all know that fiction will never die. It is innate in human beings to tell stories. In many cultures the tradition is oral, but in North America it’s our literature that will keep our stories alive. We make art to make sense of the world, and my medium is words not clay so I would never make it as a potter. I need to write. I write domestic fiction, about the life I know — about home and families and relationships and the secrets and lies that are part of it all.

I was a social worker in another life and try though I do to avoid any kind of agenda in my writing, that experience keeps crowding into my stories. In my last position with an adoption agency part of my job was to do adoption searches and reunions. And in that work I learned more about difficult decisions and family secrets than in any other place I’ve worked.

I had been involved in adoptions on and off throughout my social work career. As a young social worker I worked with unwed mothers and felt quite sure that adoption was the best option of all. I was sure it was certainly what I would do in those circumstances. Later, when I worked with adoptive couples I continued to feel that way, but I was troubled by the secrecy around adoption. When I came back to adoption after raising my own family and worked with open adoption, I began to see beyond the adoption triangle to the wide family circles of both the family who was receiving the baby and the family relinquishing a child. I was heartened that the element of secrecy was being removed from adoption. But still troubled by the prevailing public sentiment that adoption was always the best choice.

There were two experiences that affected me profoundly and in a way became  under-pinnings for this novel, Delivery. One was an encounter with a man who was initiating a search for his birthmother at the urging of his wife.  She, wise woman, knew that unless he went looking for the truth, he would never form the necessary scars over deep wounds from his belief that he was rejected because he was an “ugly baby,” an unloveable child.  The other was a conversation with the mother of a pregnant teenager who was considering adoption. This woman, I realized as I spoke to her, was no different from several of my friends who were anticipating the birth of their first grandchildren, except that their anticipation was filled with joy, and her’s was laden with sadness. She faced the possiblity of losing this grandchild at birth.  When I asked her how she would feel if her daughter placed the baby for adoption,  she looked at me for a minute and said, “If it were you, and your daughter, how would you feel?”  And before I could even answer, she said, “You would want to grab that baby and run, wouldn’t you?”

And that is precisely what Lynn, the grandmother in Delivery does.

I read two short excerpts from the novel, and thanked this attentive audience for listening, and for doing what they do. Which I hope they will continue to do, because we writers need them.

My final thanks are to Randal McNair, Ron Smith and Oolichan Books for giving me the chance to offer these thoughts, and for turning my stories into beautiful books.

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One thought on “In Praise of Small Presses (and booksellers and librarians)

  1. Loved reading about the genesis (or perhaps “conception” would be a better word!!) of this book, bjH. And loved reading it, from its earlier (but still incredibly polished) stages in the workshop, to the final, finished product. I honestly don’t think I’d ever been as excited to get a book through the mail…

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