Origins of Harbour Publishing
April 02nd, 2008
Harbour Publishing was in some ways an accident, or a series of accidents, though they were accidents that allowed my wife, Mary Lee White, and me to do something we dreamed of doing. We just never thought we would really be able to make it happen here in BC in the 1970s. We were both English majors from UBC and we were both looking for something worthwhile doing when we found ourselves stopping over in my home town of Pender Harbour in the fall of 1970. The first hippies and back-to-the-landers were coming in and the local police were beating them up, putting dogs on them and illegally trying to banish them from the Sunshine Coast—“get out of Dodge City by sundown” type of thing. Our sense of outrage was aroused so we started a one-issue newspaper to compare the cops and the local rednecks to southern US segregationists.
We were surprised at how much support we got and how much even those who disagreed with us appreciated having a local voice. We called the paper the Peninsula Voice and kept publishing it until 1974. At first we printed it in Vancouver, but after a couple years my dad and I built a building and I bought a printing press and taught myself how to print while Mary mastered the darkroom, typesetting and bookkeeping. Mary and I both came from families where the mother and the father worked as a team running small businesses so it came naturally to us. I did all the dreaming and Mary did all the ordering of supplies and collecting of bills and meeting of schedules. We were a good team.
Almost immediately people began coming around with books they wanted us to print. They wanted us to print them, but they didn’t expect to pay for it. Somewhere they all had picked up this idea that it was immoral for writers to pay for having books printed and looked at me very askance when I brought the subject of payment up. I began printing books about building floor looms, tuning dulcimers and Chinook Jargon without payment. When the bills for the paper came in, I found myself knocking on bookstore doors trying to sell copies of Dulcimer Tuning and Floor Loom books, which it turned out the writers also felt it was immoral to have anything to do with selling, though they certainly expected a share of whatever we sold.
This was how we became book publishers.
In 1972, Prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who was a bit of a hippie himself, began giving all our hippie friends grants to experiment with chicken raising or make composting toilets, or whatever they happened to be doing, so we got a grant to do what we were doing, only we had to make it sound good so we proposed turning our newspaper into a journal about the coastal area we were living in, and so in October 1972 we published the first issue of a perfect-bound, 56-page publication called Raincoast Chronicles, which we said would explore BC Coast character. I have often said it was inspired by a very popular magazine from the Ozarks called Foxfire, but in fact I had never seen a copy of Foxfire, I had only heard about it from some American hippies. What I had seen was Canada West, a little staple-bound journal that had for several years been published in Summerland by Bill Barlee. Bill wrote about the ghost towns of the Boundary country that I loved exploring myself, and I wanted to do for the coast what he was doing for the interior. The name Raincoast was my personal reaction to the name of the place I lived, which a real estate promoter had dubbed the Sunshine Coast even though it is cloudy 10 months of the year. I wanted our journal to sound a contrasting note of realism and truthtelling. We were playing around with various combinations of “rainforest” and “coast” and it was a poet named Scott Lawrance who finally made the obvious agglutinization “Raincoast.” We were the first to use the name. Raincoast Books and a host of other enterprises followed our example, which we always felt complimented by. When someone explained to us we also needed an imprint name for our publishing operation, we chose “Harbour” because everything in Pender Harbour was Harbour this or Harbour that—Harbour Diesel, Harbour Hairdressing, Harbour Septic Tank Pump-out Service, etc. Unfortunately there was also a Harbour Pub, and our deliveries still get confused.
Raincoast Chronicles was right for the times and by the third issue we were printing 10,000 copies per issue. Even then we ran out, and by issue five we were in the position of having a publication that was in great demand but no stock. I got the idea of putting all five out in one bound edition and tested the idea on the only book publisher I knew, Jim Douglas. He said, don’t do it. People had already bought the journals in softcover for $1.25 and were used to the low price. Following up a paperback edition with a hardcover was just something you didn’t do in book publishing. It was conventional wisdom, the type I might give to a young publisher myself today, but we had fallen in love with the idea of a big handsome Christmas book and decided to go ahead anyway. Raincoast Chronicles First Five came out in November 1975 in a hardcover 272-page edition priced at $12.95. It sold out by Christmas, won the Eaton’s BC Book Award and is currently in its 14th printing.
That is the event that committed Mary and me to a life in book publishing, though it was five more years before we quit our day jobs and dared to refer to ourselves as publishers. For years we never really believed book publishing would support us and our anticipated family over the long haul, and were continually surprised when it did. But the First Five proved to us that there was a very strong market in BC for regional non-fiction if it was well-written, well-produced and well-marketed. We followed that discovery with a series of books like Now You’re Logging by Bus Griffiths, Keepers of the Light by Don Graham, Spilsbury’s Coast by myself and Jim Spilsbury, and Fishing with John by Edith Iglauer, all of which sold over 10,000 copies. Many of these books were expansions of subjects we had first essayed in Raincoast Chronicles.
Over the 32 years since First Five was published we have followed it with approximately 500 books all exploring various aspects of BC character and all addressing that regional interest market we first tapped in 1975. From the avails Mary and I raised two sons who are now well established in their own literary careers and we currently employ 15 people who seem to take it as the most natural thing in the world to work in book publishing in Pender Harbour.
Essay Date: 2007