Publishing / Origins of Polestar Press
January 13th, 2009
To support writing and publishing in British Columbia, we are collecting memoirs for www.abcbookworld.com, a free reference site hosted by Simon Fraser University Library.
Here Julian Ross, one of the province’s most popular publishers, recounts the 27-year history of the Polestar imprint he has operated with his wife Ruth Porter.
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As a boy, I played sports and told stories and read all the time. When people asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, I’d always tell them I was either going to be a writer, or ‘Rough-Necked Ross the Wrestler.’ As a teen, I remember sitting in class, looking out the window, and planning the weekends’ song lists for my band, just as years later I’d obsess over book lists for the spring and fall seasons.
But it wasn’t until I was 27 that I finally started on the path to publishing. In spring 1979, my wife and I decided to leave our Vancouver jobs and move to the Slocan Valley, buying an old cabin on a few acres near the West Kootenay town of Winlaw. Fortunately, that was when Fred Wah was starting the now-legendary Writing Program at David Thompson University Centre in Nelson, and I owe my life in books to being a part of the first class in fall 1979.
It was a glorious time of discovery and introduction to all aspects of the writing life – with courses in fiction, non-fiction, poetry and grammar—including many hours spent with David McFadden learning to do typesetting, layout and some editorial work on the first issues of Writing magazine, which later became the main publication of the Kootenay School of Writing. Many members of those classes, including my long-time friends Noel Hudson and Calvin Wharton, are still actively involved in the world of words.
Somehow, in early 1980, Noel and I convinced Fred Wah to let us publish a Canadian student collection of poetry and short fiction called Student Oracle. Fred lent us printing money from the department’s budget: Noel and I did the editorial, design, production and sales work, and eventually paid the loan back from individual book sales. Although it was a tremendous amount of work finishing the book plus keeping up with class assignments, I found the whole process absolutely exhilarating—I knew I was hooked on publishing, but wasn’t sure how to pursue it further.
The next fall (1980) we moved back to Victoria. In UVic’s Creative Writing department, I had writing classes with Robin Skelton, Joe Rosenblatt and Leon Rooke; a course on book design; and David Godfrey’s class on Canadian book publishing. But it wasn’t until Joe Rosenblatt introduced his friend Allan Safarik to our poetry class that my publishing realization happened. Safarik, who co-founded Blackfish Press, showed us copies of their books, including F.R. Scott’s Poems of French Canada and Jim Green’s North Book. Hearing Safarik talk, I became excited by the possibility of becoming a book publisher on a small scale.
The first Polestar book grew from material that fellow student Luanne Armstrong work-shopped in class. Castle Mountain, a book of poetry and short fiction based on her Kootenay roots, was printed after hours at UVic’s Martlet student newspaper print shop where I worked part-time doing layout and typesetting—the perfect job for a neophyte publisher. I’m sure it was the least expensive book ever published in Canada. Even the cover had a unique feature— when the first printing, a brown landscape on beige cover stock, looked too bland, we turned it over and printed again in a brighter colour. This gave us the added feature of printed endpapers—the first time I’d ever seen that.
Unfortunately, all this late-night book production was causing my class work to suffer, so I went to Leon Rooke, my inspired fiction teacher to apologize and ask for yet another extension.
“Why aren’t you writing, Julian?” he asked, with much more concern than my writing actually warranted.
“Well,” I said, “I’ve started a small publishing company, and the production on the first book is taking way longer than I figured.”
“Ah,” he said, “that’s wonderful! The world needs more publishers.” And then he shared with me one of his own Knopf contracts, so I’d know what to base the first Polestar contracts on.
Published in fall 1981, that first book introduced me to the rigors of deadlines. Based on my unrealistic assurances, Luanne had booked readings in her home town of Creston, rightfully expecting to have finished books on hand. The day before the launch we set out from Victoria with Ruth driving, our large white-haired dog in the passenger seat, and me in the back with the many disparate parts of Castle Mountain spread out around me. First, the individual pages were gathered and sewn into signatures, then the signatures sewn together before finally the scored cover was wrapped around and the spine glued on. After a few hundred kilometers, I tried trimming the outside edges to make them straight, but because the pages were too thick and I only had an x-acto knife, I couldn’t cut them cleanly. Fortunately, in Grand Forks we sought out a local printer. Thanks to their commercial paper cutter, Castle Mountain became a real book.
After I graduated, we moved back to the Slocan Valley in spring 1983 along with a new baby, a used Compugraphic typesetting machine, and a light table borrowed from a friend. Setting up shop in an outbuilding, I did typesetting and layout work for some printers and publishers. I also started planning more Polestar titles.
The view of the valley was fantastic but at night the bugs would congregate on the light table; it was especially bad during mosquito season. Sometimes at night the bears would disassemble our compost bin, which always made for an exciting walk home.
The second title grew from my own frustrations as a student to find an appropriate time-management agenda, so I decided to create The Original Student Calendar. Published in July 1983, it was the first engagement calendar designed especially for students. We foolishly printed 5000 copies, enthusiastically set off across the country to sell it and quickly found out the calendar buying season had already taken place months earlier. We lost money, but decided to try it again in 1984. After modifying it significantly, we printed much earlier, and sold out the print run. Twenty-five years later, it’s still selling well.
Attending the Banff Publishing Workshop, a week-long intensive program featuring veterans from the book world like Doug Gibson and Cynthia Good, gave me the knowledge and confidence to keep going, but I realized I needed to establish a distinct focus for the press.
I also knew that if we published only literary titles, it would be almost impossible to get the sales volume up high enough to attract national sales representatives. So, I decided to model Polestar on the larger book publishers and combine literary fiction and poetry, my first love, with topical non-fiction. Polestar became a small general trade publisher. On the non-fiction side, I focused on a few niche areas—hockey books and engagement calendars—two fields in which you could become somewhat of a major player with a limited number of titles. Most of the calendars and hockey titles we published were projects initiated by the press.
Soon after, we were fortunate to establish a long-standing relationship with Kate Walker & Co., a national sales force headquartered in Vancouver, and staunch supporters of Canadian publishing, with distribution by Allan MacDougall’s Raincoast Books. With our sales and distribution systems in place, we could concentrate on feeding them books.
In 1985, two early anthologies, Vancouver Poetry and Vancouver Fiction, helped attract attention to the press. For the launch of Vancouver Poetry, organized by its editor Allan Safarik, more than 600 people crammed into Canada Place to hear twenty poets, including ten Governor-General’s award-winners read.
The next year we published Paulette Jiles’ Sitting in the Club Car, a quirky genre-bending title that still remains in print. The first of three Jiles books for Polestar, it helped create a buzz around the press, attracting writers like Journey Prize-winner Holley Rubinsky with Rapid Transits and Other Stories, and George Elliott Clarke with his award-winning Whylah Falls.
Polestar became the first small press to consistently combine popular non-fiction with award-winning fiction and poetry. Sometimes the two interests combined, as in the hockey fiction anthology edited by Doug Beardsley—The Rocket, The Flower, The Hammer and Me. I remember how excited I felt attending my first national book fair. Our booth featured Grant Fuhr’s actual Stanley Cup-winning goalie pads (for Fuhr On Goaltending), plus large black & white author photos from our literary list. When one of Toronto’s largest bookstores ordered multiple copies of everything in our catalogue, I knew we were on the right path.
With growing titles, growing employees and a growing family, we built a large workshop and were able to commute to work by walking through the garden. Sure beat working in downtown Toronto.
As a publisher, I was always thrilled with the concept that a small independent could compete in a bookstore with giant multi-nationals, but I learned, early on, that you ultimately can’t control how well a book sells. There are just too many variables. But though we weren’t always successful, our goal was to try and publish each book in the best possible way, whether it was a slim first book of poetry, like Marie Annharte Bakers’s Being on the Moon, or a full-colour compendium on sustainable forestry practices, like Seeing the Forest Among the Trees by Herb Hammond.
Over the next ten years, Polestar published more than a hundred books. We created the first family organizer, the Polestar Family Calendar, and published more than twenty hockey titles. These steady sellers helped us to introduce the Polestar First Fiction series, which included writers like Holley Rubinsky, Jane Barker Wright and Caroline Woodward, as well as to continue publishing poetry, including titles by Kate Braid, Gregory Scofield, Tom Wayman and Glen Downie. On the children’s side, we introduced illustrated picture books by writers including Joan Skogan and Heather Kellerhals Stewart, while our many books for young people included novels by Ellen Schwartz and Sue Ann Alderson.
Sales increased significantly each year, as did the number of titles published, our expenses, and my level of stress. I was in charge of acquisitions and creating new projects, did most of the editing and typesetting, some of the layout, and all of the worrying. I was spending increasing amounts of time away from home visiting writers and distributors, printers and book fairs and bank managers, without having first developed the proper office infrastructure for the size of company we had grown to become.
Increasingly, it was the calendars, and the regular cash flow they created, that was paying for the books to be published. I also had to acknowledge that, after more than ten years of working almost non-stop, I was fast heading for burnout. And then there was the continual thought that I was never doing enough, no matter how hard I worked. Finally, it just all became too much.
That’s when we began the process of dividing the press into two companies: Polestar Calendars, which Ruth and I continue to operate, and Polestar Press, which was eventually purchased outright by Michelle Benjamin in 1995, after an initial three-year period in which we co-published. After operating Polestar as an independent, Benjamin sold to Raincoast Books in 2000. It continued as a separate imprint until Raincoast ceased publishing new titles in 2008.
There were many highlights over the years, including the launch for Vancouver Poetry, and readings at Vancouver venues like the Firehall Theatre, Court House and Vancouver East Cultural Centre, but my favourite occurred in the summer of 1994, in the Slocan Valley. At the Vallican Whole Community School there was a wonderful reading and launch for two first books by the Kootenay writers Vi Plotnikoff and Rita Moir. The stage was filled to overflowing with bouquets of fragrant garden flowers. Before Rita read from Survival Gear, the capacity crowd was serenaded by the Images Singers. Before Vi read, a Doukhobor women’s choir rose and sang in honour of her book Head Cook At Weddings And Funerals, the first fictional account of Doukhobour life written by a woman. It was a truly magical evening.
I had the privilege to edit some incredible manuscripts and work with many interesting writers and wonderful employees. I especially enjoyed the years co-publishing with Michelle Benjamin, and working with my wife, Ruth Porter, and the designer Jim Brennan.
To me, there is nothing that beats the extended rush of trying to create the perfect list, and of visualizing how to best transform a raw manuscript into a finished book. I still find myself thinking about publishing new books. We’ve secured the domain name for a new publishing company—Starry Night Books —in case the urge becomes overwhelming.
Essay Date: January, 2009