In all the recent media coverage of Gaspereau Press we haven't heard much from the people behind Gaspereau themselves. The small Nova Scotia press publishes beautiful books of prose and poetry, among them Johanna Skibsrud's Giller Prize-winning novel, The Sentimentalists. Co-founder Andrew Steeves, who describes letterpress printing as "the most natural thing I've ever done," spoke with Maisonneuve about why Gaspereau does things the way it does.
Amelia Schonbek: You've written on Gaspereau's blog that "Every time we make a book here, we change the world a little, not only because of what those books have to say, but because of what the way in which we make those books [has] to say too." Let's talk about the principles behind Gaspereau's way of making books.
Andrew Steeves: There's an important integrity, I think, in human gesture-in the act of making something, and in the act of making something at least partially by hand. It's the ability of the person making something to control how it's made, and to care. So when you take a process where you have a very small number of people making books, so that the same people who are signing manuscripts and then editing them and designing them and then making the film, and making the plates... the whole list. When you have the same small group of people doing those things, working closely together, and working largely together because they see some real value for themselves and their community in that act, I can't imagine that it wouldn't make an object different than something that's simply just spit out of the end of a machine.
Now, integrity has a lot to do with the people involved, as much as it does with the actual act. So what this isn't-I guess this is the best way to say it-is some kind of slavish celebration of things that are the slowest, or things that are the hardest. It's not some kind of fetish of physical process. In fact, we use a really broad range of processes here, from really old to really cutting-edge. And we like to sort of mash them together, actually, and use them on the same object. In service of the text and in service of the reader. And I know of people who are able to run much bigger operations with a lot of automation and do it with the same level of passion and care that we do on a small scale. So I guess I'm always looking for that integrity, that passion, when I'm dealing with writers, or I'm dealing with people who make paper, or anything. And you don't always find it, you work around other people's indifference, or apathy.
A. Schonbek: Can you tell me about the unique way small presses fit into the Canadian literary ecosystem?
A. Steeves: You know, there's as much diversity among small presses as there is among small presses and larger ones. But on the whole, [small presses] often tend to be the gateway into the literary world for some people. They're less commercially driven, just not as economically viable on the grand multinational scale as Harper Collins or Random House. So they tend to be more in tune with their community, whether that's a geographical community, an aesthetic community... They're more in touch with the grassroots. New people coming up through tend to go to [small presses] first. So they function, in that kind of role, often, because of the closeness of their nerve endings to the surface of the skin, relative, say, to the large corporate situation where the balance sheet is actually what speaks loudest.
The other thing is that they're bringing as much creativity and as much energy and passion to the art of publishing as the writers are to the art of writing. So you find a companionable scenario there, that you often don't find... you know, big companies are willing to put up with all kind of things as long as they make money. Small companies are less worried about making money, as long as they can make a subsistence living.
A. Schonbek: Maybe this is a good time to back up and ask about the thinking that went into establishing Gaspereau, and what your aims were?
A. Steeves: Gaspereau happened somewhat haphazardly, initially. I had no intention, either going into school or coming out of school, of being a literary publisher or printer or book designer. But in 1997 Gary Dunfield and I decided it would be a really good idea to start a literary magazine and a press-and not a physical printing press, just publishing a few books of poetry a year or something. And I don't know why we ever thought it was smart, or viable. I guess we knew just little enough, perhaps.
We're two semi-rural southern New Brunswickers who grew up making things and doing things and building things, around grandparents and parents who, though we grew up separately, had the same kind of ethic, of doing things with your own hands, and not just receiving the wisdom everyone believes to be true, but actually testing things and looking hard. To take the watch apart-you don't just wait 'till it breaks, but you take it apart because you want to know how it works.
So those are probably the roots of the company and what got us into printing, because we looked it over at different points... first it was binding. A printer would bind a book for us and they'd do a bad job, and we'd ask, "Just how hard can it be? We could probably do that better, and maybe it'll save us money." And eventually we started doing more and more -the disease progressed [laughs]! And here we landed.
A. Schonbek: How do you think the way you've come to do things serves literature better than the way bigger publishers do things?
A. Steeves: Well I think bigger publishers could do likewise. I've seen good stuff come out of big companies and I've seen really bad stuff come out of small companies. Neither one is a formula-it's not a binary thing in that sense. But I think, like we talked about earlier, when you're closer to the ground, when you're hungrier, when you share a common fate with your community... I mean, the biggest problem with [big publishing houses] is that they provide cheap goods, but they don't share our fate. The mom and pop restaurant, if things go bad in the community, they go bad for them too. They share the successes and they share the problems in the community. I'm using the term, community, not necessarily geographically, but to refer to the whole community of Canadian culture.
A. Schonbek: One thing I loved amid all this is that you told The Canadian Press that you would make it your first priority to fill orders from independent bookstores. Why was that important to you?
A. Steeves: Well that's who we are. Our best customers, and our main customers, have always been and always will be the smart independent booksellers who can sell books and know their clients and know the merchandise they have on their shelves. They are our base. We still sell books in Chapers/Indigo, but we have to sell them carefully, because their practises are not particularly kind to their suppliers. They could care less whether we existed. They do not share our fate, like I was saying. When they're done... I mean, I've never met her, and she could be a lovely person, but when Heather Reeseman is bored of playing around with being a bookseller, she will sell [Chapters/Indigo] for a lot of money to some foreign company, and everybody will move on. I don't think she's really committed. I mean, I hope I'm wrong. I would be pleased to be wrong about that. But her business practices don't demonstrate a great commitment to the culture of this country. What they do show is an ever-improving commitment to do well for her shareholders. That's what corporations do. And I'm not mad at them for that; that's their genetic makeup, that's what they do: corporations make money for their shareholders. In their case, that means fewer real books and more remainders and more candles and more cards.
And it's hard to get this across in an interview but I don't say this ... this is just a statement of the lay of the land. So when we get a call on Wednesday morning from somebody at Chapters/Indigo, and they basically wanted to know when they were going to get their books. Fair question. And when I said "Gary will be back in the office on Thursday; he and I will discuss what we're going to do, and we'll call you back"-a completely sane, rational, respectful, adult answer to a client who wants to buy a book-well they just railed. It wasn't good enough. As if I somehow didn't understand what was at stake. I mean give me a break. Do you think I'm not paying attention? Do you think I'm not actually in business to sell books? This is what we do.
A. Schonbek: Were you bothered by the media's response to Gaspereau's decision-making process after Johanna Skibsrud won the Giller? Quill and Quire described the media as being "out for blood."
A. Steeves: You may as well complain about blackflies in the woods. [The media] is just a factor. It's part of our scene and our culture. You know, if there's the chance of an ambulance, these guys are gearing up to chase it. It doesn't matter if it's the main story... And I have to say, in balance, we predicted it. Gary [Dunfield] went to the Giller [ceremony], but before he went, we sat down and I said "let's play a game. I'm going to say something outrageous, and you need to respond to it instantly, because this is how it's going to work if Johanna wins, or even if she doesn't. People are going to stick the microphone in your face and say outrageous things, and what are you going to say?" And so he said okay, and I said, " Why do you hate your author?" And he said "What! No!" And I said "No Gary, really, why do you hate your author"? And we talked about it-what people were going to say if we won, and we stuck to what we planned at that point-which was initially, until we figured out what we were going to do, we were going to talk about what we do. Which is, we make books, and we make them our way.
But I think what's puzzling, generally, about the Giller thing, is this idea that somehow small presses want to be big presses. And some of them do, in fairness. But you're not paying attention if you think we give two shakes about being like all these other [publishing houses]. And it threw Chapters for a loop, it threw the Giller people for a loop ... nobody really got it. They just assumed we must be either the stupidest people in the world, or irrational, or a drunk on the table with a broken wine bottle. People didn't really know what to make of it. I wish I could say we could say that we learned something through this, about the incredible breadth of possibilities in our culture, of ways of handling yourself, but I don't think anybody did.
But I absolutely think that this was a very positive week in terms of getting the bigger public talking about not just this book, but also about where books come from. Opening up the window that there's a possibility of more than one way of doing things. And there are a whole bunch of people who didn't hear any of that. They just heard a story that led them to conclude, "what a bunch of idiots. These guys don't know anything" But there are people who already think about these things that were galvanized by the David and Goliath aspect of this. And neither of those groups really interest me, because their minds are made up. But there's a whole lot of middle in there, [people] who were exposed to this really interesting story about where their books come from, that not everybody's just chasing the biggest, richest deal, that there are people looking for a way to do things with integrity first-not that there isn't integrity in the other stuff, but where integrity is the main priority-for me, that's a good outcome.
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