Fertig’s new poems

“Poet, publisher and long-time supporter of the writing community, Salt Spring Island-based Mona Fertig (left) has released her first collection of poems in 14 years.” FULL STORY

 

A publisher for BC

July 04th, 2024

On the way in somebody asked me if I am now the oldest active BC publisher. It’s a shock to think I just might be, depending on how active David Hancock is. I spent most of my career being regarded as more of an angry young man of BC publishing and I was much more comfortable in that role. It seems to have switched around in the blink of an eye.

I have never spent much time thinking about our time as Canadian book publishers as a historical fact or pondered upon what sort of figure our work might describe in “the great overall,” because for me, until now, there has been no great overall. I see it all as a series of daily skirmishes, not a grand campaign.

For instance, how we got started publishing in the first place. I had grown up in Pender Harbour, which was then a tiny working-class village far, far away from Vancouver, which was a mythical place most of my classmates had never been to. Mary and I are still in Pender Harbour and it is still tiny but it is no longer working-class and it is now so close to Vancouver you can go to a Canucks game after work and be back home the same evening.

Don Stewart and Howard White at the event “100 years of BC Books” held on May 22 2024. Photo by Rod Mickleburgh.

It took a long time for the rain-soaked Sunshine Coast to be discovered by the outside world, and some of the first to do so were American draft dodgers. They started swarming in, in 1969 and caused an uproar like nothing since. There were regular beatings outside our two beer parlours, the RCMP set dogs on some hippies squatting in an abandoned logging camp, and the Village Café in Sechelt refused to serve some longhaired friends of mine who were actually minor Vancouver poets. There was a very reactionary local newspaper editor named Doug Wheeler who loved fanning the flames of prejudice and cheered on all this violence against the seekers of peace and love with constant references to drugs, godless sex and body lice. Mary and I, being young, disaffected and looking for something useful to do with our English degrees, decided to start an underground newspaper to bring some balance to public discourse in the region. Our paper was called the Peninsula Voice, and the first issue featured a front-page cartoon depicting editor Wheeler as a rat. The masthead also misspelled Peninsula, accidentally I think, as PENIS-ula. It was an early lesson in the importance of proofreading.

We kept the Voice going for 6 years from 1969 to 1975 and came out on the right side of that skirmish. I don’t think it was two years before the hooligans who had been roving around in muscle cars looking for longhairs to beat up were back pursuing the same longhairs with their own hair just as long wanting to score some of that formerly maligned “marihoochie.” And definitely wanting to try some of that mythical free love.

One of the realizations I’ve had looking back over this 50-year voyage upon the ocean of words, that despite appearances, we really didn’t have a clue where we were headed. We thought we did, but really, we didn’t. Mary and I had the vague notion that in an ideal world we’d like to have something to do with writing and books. Then we started the paper in a moment of indignation. Then we ended up with a working print shop, and people began bringing us manuscripts. At first, we demanded they pay for the printing but their cheques bounced so we had to start selling the books ourselves to get our paper and binding costs back. That sort of worked. So, people brought more manuscripts and the thing snowballed.

Howard and Mary White at the BC Book Prizes, 2014.

We didn’t realize we had become book publishers until we’d been doing it for ten years. In the early 1980s Mary went to the summer Publishing Workshop in Banff and came back with the news that what we were doing was actually a recognized activity not totally unique to ourselves and we could begin calling ourselves publishers. I still thought of myself as mainly a garbage dump attendant, which was my day job at the time, but she was very insistent. It was right around this time she went out and spent $8,000 we didn’t have on the very first commercially available Apple computer, which had, I believe 48 K of memory. Not 48 megs, 48 K. That’s when I realized one of us was quite serious about making this expensive hobby into a paying business. To this day I can’t believe she bought that computer. Nobody we knew had a computer. But the dealer—a moonlighting science teacher—assured us it would pay for itself overnight and furthermore this device was so advanced we could throw away the typewriter and the adding machine and never have to spend another cent on any kind of office equipment. Good one. I don’t know if anybody remembers what that first Apple looked like. It came in a hard plastic case that looked like something from Mattel. The keyboard was built in. The monitor sat on top and was the size of a six-pack. It had no fan and would get so hot from processing all the digits the chips would pop out of their sockets and you’d have to manually punch them down. I’d see Mary pulling back the lid and banging away every 15 minutes, cursing in only the way she can. But even at that, the thing made an amazing difference. It did pay for itself in short order and put our wonky little operation in Pender Harbour at the cutting edge of automation in the publishing industry. It, and a long parade of upgrades, led us to pioneer desktop publishing, create Canada’s first interactive digital encyclopedia and electronic reference library over the next 25 years.

People are fond of saying Mary was the real brains behind Harbour Publishing. I take this to mean it couldn’t possibly have been me, and they’re right. They don’t know the half of it. I might have been trying to steer the good ship Harbour but she was the chief engineer steadily stoking the boiler and pushing us forward. She kept that up until a couple years ago when she said, “ok I think you’ve got the hang of it now, I’m going to go play my ukulele.” That’s what she probably wishes she was doing right now. The readers and writers of BC owe her more than they know.

In the dying days of the Peninsula Voice, I started filling the empty spaces left by cancelled real estate and grocery store ads with feature articles I had begun writing about earlier times around the Harbour when kids attended school by boat and groceries came in once a week on the Union Steamship line. These were relatively recent memories that hadn’t previously been accorded the status of history and locals loved it. I loved writing it too, so we applied for one of Pierre Trudeau’s Local Initiative Program (LIP) grants to start a magazine devoted exclusively to local history. To our amazement we got a cheque in the mail for $12,000, which was not only more money than I had ever seen in one place, but more than most of our neighbours had ever seen too. It was incredible.

Collectors edition of “Raincoast Chronicles: First Five”.

We had no idea how to go about publishing a magazine but such was the influx of educated dropouts in 1972 we were able to hire a semi-experienced designer, several freaked-out artists, and a roster of novice writers in time to get out several issues of the new journal, which we named Raincoast Chronicles. A word about that name. We made it up ourselves. I was looking for something that would sound a contrary note to the “Sunshine Coast” label the Chamber of Commerce was promoting for the region, which I viewed as false advertising. Scott Lawrance, one of our impromptu journalists, had worked on a project called Radio Free Rainforest, and suggested using the word “rainforest.” I liked the rain part, but I didn’t want to limit our scope to just “forest” because I envisioned our subject as being equally water-based. We went to bed the night of the final final final deadline still dithering about our title, but when I got up in the morning, the word rainCOAST was dancing before my eyes. So, it became Raincoast Chronicles. That was the first public appearance of that neologism to my knowledge.

When we put out that first issue of Raincoast Chronicles, I unblushingly declared, “If BC has any identity problem, it is like that of the Canadian Nation. It stems more from the diversity than the lack of character among its settlers. What we hope to achieve is put just some of that character on display.”

I had no idea if this was really true. I didn’t know if there was an underdeveloped BC coast identity or not, and if there was, I didn’t know how to flush it out of hiding. Would it be a wild goose chase? Were people chuckling up their sleeves at our presumption? We set out with a blank slate and followed our noses. The first issue had articles on rum running, Indigenous whaling, steamer stops of the coast, Indigenous rock art, the Haida potato, a BC leper colony and an interview with a half-Indigenous matriarch, although in those days you didn’t dare mention the half-Indigenous part.

These were not entirely novel topics, but we saw ourselves as bringing them up to date by looking at them through a contemporary filter—1960s style.

The Chronicles struck a nerve. I remember the Vancouver Province running a second front page by Lorne Parton with a big picture of our cover, saying the magazine captured the spirit of the coast like nothing else before it, but cautioning such magazines “blossom and withered like mayflies.” With no sales force, no distribution network and nobody who really had a clue what they were doing, the first printing of 3,000 copies sold out. The second issue of 5,000 also sold out. For Issue No. 3, we printed 10,000. Eventually we had five issues all sold out and people clamouring for us to reprint them but no money to do it. The grant was all gone. I noticed that when this happened to Foxfire magazine, they collected all the back issues in one bound volume, which became a New York Times bestseller. So, we tried that too, and it worked. Raincoast Chronicles First Five sold out in two weeks and is now in its 13th printing. We continued the practice of collecting every five issues into bound editions up to the present with the appearance of Raincoast Chronicles Fifth Five this fall, containing issues 21 through 25. In the minds of old timers who have been following us since the 1970s, Harbour Publishing is still known as the home of Raincoast Chronicles. It is one of the coast’s enduring brands.

Allan MacDougall when he was president and CEO of Raincoast books in 2004.

Funny story there. Mark Stanton and Allan MacDougall were then feisty young book salesmen representing mainly Toronto publishers in western Canada and they decided to start up a book distribution service which they wanted to call Raincoast Books. Mark phoned me to ask if that would be okay—he knew we had invented the word—I was a bit hesitant because of the potential for confusion, but Mark argued I should view it as an honour and I relented. Fast forward a few years and Allan MacDougall stops me in the parking lot and says he has a book I might be interested in. I can hardly believe this myself and Mark Stanton is probably going to say it’s complete bullshit, but this is what I remember. They have a distribution deal with the English publisher Bloomsbury but sometimes they are required to take on a book that’s too niche. They have one now he thinks might be just right for Harbour, a kind of old-fashioned boy’s book in the Narnia mode called “Harry Potter Something Something.” It was the first of a series and in the UK, it had sold only modestly. If I would agree to take if off their hands, I could have the rights for all North America. Well, I figured we were having it hard enough without taking on Raincoast’s rejects, so I said, “sorry Allan, I think you’re stuck with that one.” It was just months later the Harry Potter craze exploded and made Raincoast the richest publisher in Canada. It tells you everything you need to know about my publishing acumen that when Allan offered to give me another kids’ book series he didn’t want called Timmy the West Coast Tug, I said, “Now you’re talking!”

The most annoying part was that when Raincoast Books starting to make headlines with lineups stretching around the block to get the latest Harry Potter sequel, everybody back in Pender Harbour thought Raincoast Books was us and we were hiding the fact we had become overnight zillionaires. So, we lost the chance to become the North American publisher of Harry Potter and retire to a Caribbean beach at 30. Probably just as well. It would have interfered with our mission of exploring BC character. And we did quite well with Timmy the West Coast Tug.

****

While the sixties folk culture boom was in full swing, our Raincoast Chronicles series and its book spinoffs were quite popular in Vancouver and Victoria but as the years wore on and the Granola Generation was superseded by the Me Generation with its fondness for disco music and glitzy urban modernism, interest in the folk literature of rural BC declined. This was our first lesson in how quickly modern mass culture burns through fads and created our first crisis of direction. Was the bloom of coastal culture going to be that brief? And if so, what kind of books would the world want next? We started thinking maybe we needed to do a little market research. We went to trade shows in Chicago and New York and looked at what other presses were doing. Mary went to the giant international trade show in Frankfurt but came back discouraged. So many books, so many publishers. How could we hope to make any meaningful contribution from our tiny, obscure corner of the BC rainforest?

Anne Cameron, 1938-2022.

Really it was the authors who saved us. They just kept pumping out the manuscripts and we kept following where they took us. They are the real heroes of this story. First there was Peter Trower, aka Pete the Poet. Pete was an elementary school dropout and a logger. A real logger, one who spent twenty years wrestling gnarly cables and hefting backbreaking blocks. I was warned he was a lay-about and troublemaker but he became the most prolific contributor to Raincoast Chronicles and over our long association gave us six books of excellent poetry and three novels.

Along about 1980, Thora Howell, the saintly Nanaimo bookseller began campaigning to put us together with a writing friend of hers she called Cam. This was Barbara Cameron aka Cam Hubert aka Anne Cameron, who had already achieved notoriety by writing an underground bestseller called Daughters of Copper Woman and a novelized film script called Dreamspeaker but was having trouble finding a publisher for her next book, a collection of erotic lesbian poems called Earth Witch. Nobody wanted to touch it, not even Press Gang, the feminist collective that had sold 100,000 copies of Daughters of Copper Woman. I read the manuscript and—learned a lot. I decided we could do no better thing than to publish this dynamite little book, which we did in 1982. It went into numerous printings and sold 10,000 copies, unheard of for a book of poetry. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. We ended up publishing more books by Cam than any other author—36 in total.

Now You’re Logging! book jacket.

There are so many other milestone books by game-changing authors; I couldn’t name them all if I had a week. The saintly Hubert Evans, one of our first, who at age 87 wrote his fine novel O Time in Your Flight, a photographic remembrance of daily life in the year he turned 10, which was also the year the 20th Century began. Bus Griffiths, another logger with little formal education who wrote the story of his life in the form of one long comic book called Now You’re Logging! now considered Canada’s first graphic novel. Edith Iglauer, the sophisticated New Yorker writer who went out on a salmon troller to do a story on commercial fishing, married the skipper and spent the rest of her long life in the tiny fishing village of Garden Bay. Not only did she give us half a dozen fine books including the classic Fishing with John but she eventually seduced my father and married him into the bargain. Ken Drushka, the former Toronto hippie who rode across the Rockies on horseback, started a flaky shake-cutting effort called Cosmic Logging and eventually became BC’s leading historian and critic of the logging industry. Chris Czajkowski, the ex-British nurse who moved onto a mountaintop in Tweedsmuir Park and spewed out a great stream of books about living in the wilderness. Mas and Stan Fukawa and their detailed histories of the Nissei fishing community, Alan Haig-Brown covering the waterfront, labour historians Rod Mickleburgh and Geoff Meggs, the marine life specialists Andy Lamb and Rick Harbo, the mad cartoonist Adrian Raeside, the great poets Patrick Lane, John Pass, Tom Wayman and Al Purdy, who we had the honour of publishing for much of their distinguished careers.

Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

In the 2020’s the great development has been the welcome emergence of a generation of confident new Indigenous writers like Michael Nicol Yahgulanaas, Frederick Macdonald, Roy Henry Vickers, Joseph Dandurand and Darrel J. McLeod. It’s so dangerous to start listing names because so many must be omitted. We are grateful to them all, even the ones who drove us nuts.

I suppose the thing we will always be remembered for, besides Raincoast Chronicles, is the Encyclopedia of BC. Truly a milestone in BC publishing and one we got a lot of kudos for, but there again, the credit really goes to a writer, Dan Francis. He had worked on the Hurtig Canadian Encyclopedia and thought one could be done just for BC. I was up for anything in those days and said sure, let’s make it a Millennium project. And by God, come the spring of 2000, we hit the market with 15,000 copies of a beautiful, big 800-page encyclopedia of BC. Within weeks we had to order another 15,000. It was the biggest project ever in BC trade book publishing. I couldn’t believe we pulled it off. I can’t to this day. But it was mostly Dan’s doing. He wrote 75% of those 800 pages himself. One of the most amazing individual feats of research and writing since Samuel Johnson.

Wow, that only gets us to 2000. I still have 20 years to cover.

Mike McCardell

We actually published more books by more authors in the last 20 years than in the previous 30 and they were better books, better edited and designed, by better known writers on the whole—but somehow, they just don’t stand out as much in my mind. They didn’t all scar my psyche so deeply as the earlier ones. This was the era when we began publishing real historians with PhDs like Dr. Jean Barman and Dr. Barry Gough. It’s also the era when we published Mike McCardell’s books. Mike was almost too easy. An editor of one of the North Shore papers grabbed my sleeve one day and said, “You should get McCardell writing books. When he did a column for us it was the most popular thing in the paper. He has a vast following and they’re all nice old ladies who buy books.” So, I phoned the number he gave me and: “Hey Mike, how about writing us a book?” “A book, really? Okay.”  Three months later, plunk, a finished manuscript from Mike McCardell. It tops the bestseller list for months. Next year, “Hey Mike, how about another one of those?” “Really? Okay.” Plunk, another terrific, funny, heart-melting manuscript from Mike. He’s right up there with Anne Cameron for the author with the quickest draw in the west. Chuck Davis was at the opposite end of the scale. He took so long to finish his History of Greater Vancouver he missed the biggest deadline of all—his own demise. We had to finish it for him and publish it posthumously. The all-time record for fastest book went to Alan Twigg, whose biography of Bill Vander Zalm only took one month from concept to finished book including lawyering.

I don’t take on those crazy projects anymore. I remember Edith Iglauer looking into my baggy eyes during the runup to the Encyclopedia and saying, you are going to kill yourself if you keep this up. That I’m still standing is a credit to an excellent staff who have grown in the job and made order out of chaos. Finding people who are willing to work the kind of hours book publishing demands for the kind of money it pays is hard anywhere, but really hard in an up coast village. We re-purposed film technicians, water taxi drivers, liquor salespersons and bought-out reporters. We early became big fans of the various work experience programs run by BC universities. We hired our first co-op student from UVic in 1981 and she was terrific. Another of our early interns was Marisa Alps, who had grown up on Quadra Island reading Raincoast Chronicles and stayed with us 28 years, becoming the heart and soul of our office and a legend in Canadian publishing. The intern programs were our secret weapon, not only providing excellent short-term help, but supplying key positions long term. Right now, our sales manager Megan, our marketing manager Annie, and our US marketing manager Berglind are all former interns. Anna Comfort-O’Keeffe came as an SFU intern 20 years ago and is now a partner in the company and my main hope of ever making it to the Caribbean beach of my dreams.

People always say I must have a pretty sharp pencil to have survived in an industry where most of our competitors went under and it’s true, but the pencil has been wielded by a series of unbelievably dedicated bookkeepers from Mary to Karen Esplen to Ashia Bonus. My pencil is pretty dull and does most of its work on the back of envelopes. I mostly ignore the spreadsheets and go, “lessee we got 10 books, they’re gonna’ cost say 10 grand each, that’s say 100 grand and we’ll probably sell about 10,000 copies at around 10 bucks net, that’s only a breakeven—we better either cut some costs or find a couple more good sellers.” Not very sophisticated but I still believe a successful company needs somebody somewhere keeping this kind of rough total in their head, and it’s best if it’s the guy calling the shots. Our biggest competitor, Douglas & McIntyre, had two full-blown chartered accountants on staff and did cashflow analysis that went on for 10 pages of fine print. I know that because in spite of all their careful analysis they went broke in 2012 and we bought their assets at a fire sale. There are many theories about why D&M went under, but I suspect the real reason was that there was no longer anybody at the top with a dull pencil making sure the income matched the outgo. It is one of the perils of getting too big.

Wade Davis

So, in 2013 we bought out our biggest competitor, the publisher in whose shadow we had languished for 40 years. It sort of made your head spin, plunging in ever deeper at a time I’d begun to dream of escaping the book business to pursue my dream of retiring to a Caribbean beach to write mystery novels, but it just seemed something we had to do. All those great books we had envied over the years by Wade Davis and Robert Davidson and Hilary Stewart suddenly needed a home. Really, really good backlist; pure publishing gold. Mary was also looking forward to that Caribbean beach and wasn’t initially convinced. But it was getting harder to find 25 good titles each year just in BC and I thought maybe D&M would help with that. It had established distribution in the Ontario market and drew on authors from all across the country. That proved true and the takeover worked out quite brilliantly. But it pretty much took that Caribbean beach out of the picture, along with all my mystery writing dreams.

So, what about the next 50 years? As soon as people learn I am in book publishing they tend to look pitying and say, “I guess you’re having a real struggle what with the internet and eBooks and all.” I have a set response to that: “Yup.”

Thing is, there has never been a year in all these 50 when Mary and I felt we could lean back and say, “okay we got ‘er made now.” The road ahead has never been clear and straight. If it were, it wouldn’t be the book business. In our wildest dreams we never believed we would still be going half a century on, bigger and better than ever and we have no right to be anything but thankful. It has been an unimaginable privilege.

2 Responses to “A publisher for BC”

  1. Dear Sirs, Madam:

    I moved from Mission in the Fraser Valley in 2020 to Roberts Creek on the sunshine coast and came across your interesting website. Please check my bio:neemresearch.ca/klaus-ferlow-curriculum-vitae.
    I am the co-author of the book “7stepstodentalhealth” published 2010, author of the books:
    “Neem: Nature’s Powerful Skin Remedy” published 2013
    “Neem: Nature’s Healing Gift to Humanity” published 2015
    Book received at the annual 2019 Living Now Book Awards the GOLD MEDAL in the category “Health & Wellness” from the Jenkins Group of Independent Publishers, Traverse City, MI. The third revised edition will be published in 2024
    “Neem: The Tree that heals Nations” published in 2024. I would be interested getting in touch with Howard White and we are in the process of joining the BC Book World. I can be reached at: 778-508-7249
    Thank you for your attention.

    • Beverly Cramp says:

      Google Harbour Publishing, and when you get to the website, you will find Harbour’s address and phone number under “contact”.

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