Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Some Thoughts on Publishing

Many years ago Stan Bevington caught me going through the recycling bins outside the Coach House on bpNichol Lane. I was looking for paper to make my own smallpress books. I had been dumpster diving for scraps for a while, following the lead from a few micro publishers I admired. What I'd found was used to make books like One Night (a collection of poems I claimed to have written in one night -- a lie) and Box of Legs (which was a sheaf of unbound poems inserted into a pocket envelope of sorts onto which I had printed the title -- the title came from the window of a butcher shop around the corner from our apartment near Bloor and Ossington). I'd also made some journals that I kept daily notes and poems in. This time not only did I find some useful paper, which I stuffed into my backpack, I also found myself "employed" by Bevington in the bindery at Coach House Printing. Which I think surprised John, his print manager, since John didn't really have anything for me to do. 

On my first day I was given the task of punching holes in sheets upon which had been printed the contents of a computer software manual. This would allow them to be bound into wire-o binding. There were fifty million of them, and I arrived one morning at 9am and began punching. you could only insert about ten or twelve sheets at a time into the puncher, so each manual took about six or eight repetitive motions: I picked up a little stack of paper, inserted it into the machine, and tapped a pedal with my right foot to trigger the punch. And I did that maybe fifteen million times amidst the cacophony of the churning printing presses and the grind and kerthunk of the perfect binder. After my fifteen million and oneth punch I looked up and noticed that no one was around. It was strangely quiet. After a quick search I discovered everyone was upstairs in the coffee room at the communal table having lunch. "Didn't anyone tell you we take lunch at noon?" said John. 

The coffee room was (and continues to be) an interesting space -- many who know it think of it in romantic terms, the place where Canadian literature changed forever, perhaps, or where dropouts and poets hung out and smoked dope and drank coffee and talked and talked; or where some people passing through town even slept in nooks and crannies. Ok, yes, it is interesting for such literary historicities and nostalgia, which I suspect the archive of books lining the walls remembers better than most. But it is also interesting because it is a space where two sets of people co-exist -- both of whom "make" books. Coach House is one of three interesting literary spaces in Canada that are both publishers and printers. Along with Porcupine's Quill and Gaspereau Press, these companies have editorial offices and printing presses on site that operate in parallel universes that are, in fact, part of a larger whole. And I, being the smallpress writer person that I was at the time, I felt that I made books more like the printers and the binders did. I made physical books. I didn't feel a lot of kinship with the editors who were also sitting around the table, perhaps not quite understanding what it was they did in the acquisition and editing of manuscripts. Maybe a little, but not a lot. And I was nothing like the publicist or the managing editor who were also there -- the business and the promotion of books was completely alien to me. I thought a publisher was someone who made books -- publishing was a physical act, one in which an individual did all the work, from writing to designing to printing to binding. Labour. Small press. I ate my lunch, and then went back to the bindery were I repeated the same action that I'd completed all morning another twenty million times, and then I went home. That night I couldn't sleep because of the incredible pain in my lower back caused from lifting tiny stacks of paper over and over and over. 

I lasted about a week and a half in the bindery, not because I didn't want to work there, but because John ran out of things for me to do. He did, after all, already have a staff in place. At one point I did get to watch someone else with more binding experience than I use the puncher I had been using to bind an "Old Coach House" limited edition book by Roy Kiyooka with paintings by David Bolduc, and I did get to meet some interesting characters, like Johnny Barbados and the infamous collator slash night watchman known as Rono (both of whom are still there as far as I know). And Nicky Drumbolis was working there too, binding books amidst his famous but largely unheard grumbles about literature and publishing. And I met a musician who gave me his first CD called Fear of Zen that I really liked and years later I realized that Andrew Whiteman had graduated from the bindery to play with Broken Social Scene and as Apostle of Hustle, two musical acts that were in high rotation in my world. But enough of brushes with greatness. 

All of this was a long time ago. Maybe ten years later I did work in the publishing offices at Coach House Books for about a year and a half, and there I learned how to edit a book and to work with difficult authors. I also learned some basic book design skills from Stan who is one of Canada's great (if not the greatest) typographers. But because of the proximity of those printing presses downstairs, the idea that I was physically making a book was never far from my thoughts. Now, years later, I am a publisher. I am now in the business of making books. Sure, I do a little of everything at BookThug (and then some), but I suspect that's what one does when they run their own business regardless of what that business does. When I am at events like Word on The Street or an arts festival, standing behind a table of books I have made, I am often asked two things by members of the public. The first is: "how much would it cost to publish my book?" And the second is:  "where do you keep your printing press?" And I always smile at that second question in particular because I, like most publishers, have never owned a printing press. It always strikes me as odd what the public idea of publishing is, though I don't understand the inner workings of, say, banking or real estate, so fair enough. But when I was asked the other day what "to publish" means, I answered (to myself, nearly an automatic response) that to publish is to make books. And as it turns out, neither I nor the public who ask me those questions know what to publish means. For to publish literally means "to make public." Thus publishing has as much to do with marketing and promotion -- the activities that get books into people's hands so they can read them -- as it has to do with making books. I did not think about this as I stood in the bindery at Coach House Printing punching five hundred million holes in fifty billion pieces of paper, and I guess my assumptions have lingered with me ever since -- the ghost of some youthful thought.

Now all I have to do is decide what "public" means, for as an aside I might mention that no one who asked me either of those naive questions ever walked away with one of my books, either. 

1 comment:

  1. Good posting, Jay. I, too, have made use of those recycling bins behind CH. -- In a novel. Stan has a cameo. But when I worked with him and John, it was simply as a customer. Another (excellent) publisher/printer with (I believe) a couple of presses: Marnie Parsons at Running the Goat.