Wooldridge receives Douglas Award
September 27th, 2018
In September of 2018, Andrew Wooldridge accepted the Jim Douglas Award from the Association of Book Publishers of British Columbia on behalf of his company, Orca Books, at a dinner in Victoria at the Union Club. The award amounts to recognition for “publisher of the year” in British Columbia, restricted to members of the main publishers’ association. Here are some of his remarks for that occasion, after he appropriately thanked organizers and dignitaries, etc.
As people will tell you, this is the last place I will usually be found, standing in front of a group of people. That is partly because of who I am but also because what we do is a group effort. It’s also because out here on the coast, far from the centre of the universe, Orca has managed to grow and thrive and succeed by flying under the radar, by working quietly and doing what we know needs to be done.
First, a bit of history. When Ruth Linka came to Orca almost five years she asked me, when we were on a long car trip, for the history about Orca. I managed to get through it in a few minutes – between Duncan and Ladysmith. Since then she has asked me a couple of times for more detail. Here goes…
Bob Tyrrell founded Orca almost 35 years ago when he decided to publish a guidebook to pubs of Vancouver Island. With some frustration about his teaching career and a sudden realization that he could do this book thing he went in completely and started publishing regional guidebooks, history and even a massive tome about the BC Public Service called Slaves of the Lamp. While putting his house up and convincing an ever-supportive Avril that this was a good idea, Bob found he had a knack for it and the list grew. While it was a struggle, and as anyone who knows publishing will tell you, there isn’t any money in this, he persevered and soon built a successful small publishing company. When he turned his eye to children’s books and managed to have an angry logger try and ban a book – Maxine’s Tree – about saving old growth trees on the west coast of the island, Bob saw that maybe there was something in books for children – they could attract national attention and they could travel – and sell – outside BC.
The further proof of that was Waiting for The Whales, a classic BC picture book that won the Governor Generals Award, sold to foreign countries and has since gone on to sell well more than 100,000 copies – and is still in print today.
Which brings us to 1992. I had graduated from UVic and had taken a job mowing lawns for the City in Beacon Hill Park. And while I liked being outside during the summertime, my interactions with some of the lifers in the park taught me that maybe this wasn’t my future. So I went back to school. I took Russian film and Spanish and Calculus – for the third time. One day while wandering campus I went into the employment centre. There was a posting for warehouse help for a local publishing company. I called the number and polished up my fairly pathetic resume. When I got an interview, I put on a tie and went down to North Park Street. I met Bob and convinced him that I was the right guy for the warehouse. I worked part time through that school year and just as I was about to sign on for night-watering with the city the next summer, Bob offered me a full-time job. I jumped at it. And never left.
At that time there were three other people employed at Orca plus Bob. Susan Adamson was the glue that held things together. Susan left Orca some years ago but recently came back to us.
Christine Toller started at the same time as I did and was one of the reasons why I loved working at Orca. Anne Featherstone was an incredibly talented editor and brought to life many of the amazing books Orca published in those years.
My job was packing books in the warehouse and driving them to the post office – or packing up a car load and once a month – in a task I shared with Bob’s dad – driving them across the border to Point Roberts and mailing them into the US.
I soon started on customer service – invoicing, answering the phone etc, and slowly worked my way up to marketing, some editorial on guidebooks and nonfiction and anything else that I could get my hands.
If there is one thing that I could pin Orca’s early success on it was Bob and his ability to see opportunity and to know what to do next. I think the most important thing he ever taught me was to take chances. To keep looking for opportunity and to take it when it pops up. Bob always seemed to know that while the Canadian market was important, the US offered a huge amount of potential.
Instead of just chipping away at that potential Bob decided to go all in. We set up a distribution warehouse in Ferndale, Washington, took on a number of distribution clients including Douglas & McIntyre, Raincoast Books, Polestar and others. Adding these publishers to our list gave us enough heft to hire sales reps, develop the all-important wholesale arrangements and find new markets. And the rest is not so much history but an example of why this all works. The US now accounts for 65% of revenue and the distribution list has grown to 12 Canadian publishers.
In the years since the company has continued to grow and change. I became partners with Bob 15 years ago and in 2016 bought Bob out completely. Ruth Linka joined us in 2014 and this Spring purchased a 20% stake in the company. With almost 30 employees now we are in the midst of a fair amount of reorganization and change. One constant remains the staff and the people who I am so proud to work with.
Please bear with me as I thank a few people. First off, so I don’t forget anyone let me just say “thanks to everyone at Orca.”
More specifically, I would like to acknowledge a couple of people who are leaving us, either soon or recently. Teresa Bubela, our long-time art director and one of the most creative people I know, is moving on to work for herself and spend more time with her baby geniuses. We will miss her but are lucky to be continuing to work together on a freelance basis.
Elizabeth Kemp, our outstanding children’s editor, is going off on maternity leave to make her brood an even dozen. She will of course be coming back to us following the birth. Hopefully with just a week or two off.
Sarah Harvey, our long-time Senior Editor will be retiring at the end of this year. Sarah has been instrumental in many of our most important books and specifically she has almost singlehandedly built Orca’s growing reputation in the nonfiction area. Her vision for what nonfiction can – and should – be has helped us chart a course with important, personal and passionate nonfiction for young readers. The Orca Footprints, Speaking Our Truth, the Orca Origins…the list goes on. And the upcoming new series for teen readers – Orca Issues – which takes a stand on important, difficult topics. Sarah is also an accomplished YA author and we have had the honour of publishing a number of her novels over the years.
And…and… I wasn’t going to recognize everyone because of time- constraints but the success of Orca really comes from the people we are lucky enough to work with every day. I thought of doing this as a spoken word thing or maybe a rap song or a haiku, but no such luck. So quickly… [He lists all employees.] … None of this would work without all of you. One of the main reasons I come to work every day is because of the people. It’s like family, only less dysfunctional.
I feel like I am forgetting someone… Ah. Ruth. Ruth joined Orca almost five years ago after working her way through Canadian publishing and owning her own company – Brindle & Glass – before going on to the Heritage Group. After getting to know Ruth through the Association I realized that I wanted to work with her. It might have been the best decision I ever made. Ruth brought common sense and organization and drive, not always things I have excelled at. And it shows in the growth we have seen and the changes that have occurred.
Which brings me to the bigger picture. I love what I do every day. It is a fun job. But I also think there is something more important about all of this that applies to Orca but also to everyone else in the room. We are all engaged to some degree in the telling of stories, the creation of content, the education of others. And it seems to me that it is more important now than ever before that we continue to tell our stories and to educate. At Orca we are reaching largely children and we have consciously chosen over the last few years to take a stand on issues we see as important. As the world changes, as voices get louder, as it becomes harder and harder to hear the truth we have an obligation to stand up and be heard on important topics, to tell stories that matter and to give a voice to those who might otherwise be silent. Publishing is important. Books are important. Ideas are important.
Thank you all very much.