Sam Hiyate vs. Dan Wells: Two visions of small presses

March 15, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

This past weekend, The Afterword book blog ran another instalment in its ongoing “Ecology of Books” series, this one dealing with authors who are lured away from small houses to major multinationals, usually with the promise of a bigger payday and a more powerful marketing push. The article included a quote from Sam Hiyate, founder of The Rights Factory, a Toronto-based literary agency:

“I’ve always seen the small presses as like the farm teams, to find and build writers … They shouldn’t ever expect to keep them once they reach a certain level unless they can match what the big publishers can give them.”

This comment raised the hackles of Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells, who is also quoted in The Afterword article. Wells responded in an e-mail, which The Afterword has posted online. Wells’s response reads in part:

We are not farm teams and this isn’t baseball. It doesn’t do justice to what actually happens in publishing … and it does not do justice to the authors on our lists. The quality of play on a farm team is almost always far below that of the majors: that just isn’t necessarily the case here. In baseball, if you’re one of the best, you move up to the majors, at least in part because excellence in the sport and commercial reward are very closely aligned. It just does not always work that way in publishing. Everyone, especially in the industry, or reporting on it, knows this. It’s simply not a question of a writer hitting their peak … then leaving. And how we judge “excellence” is not always the same. Are we speaking commercially? Aesthetically? There’s much more at play here than the quality of the work. No self-respecting publisher would view their press as a farm team. It’s a tired cliché, and an extremely disrespectful one. Coach House, Cormorant, The Porcupine’s Quill … they’re just damn good presses, with proud histories, who have made lasting contributions to Canadian literature and culture, and for frankly often very little reward. Perhaps it’s time that they get some.

Wells’s point is well taken, although the clear emphasis of The Afterword piece is on writers who defect to larger houses for financial reasons: the two writers used as examples, Joan Thomas (whose second novel, Curiosity, is published by McClelland & Stewart) and Andrew Kaufman (whose second novel, The Waterproof Bible, is published by Random House Canada), both cite financial considerations in their decisions to decamp from, respectively, Goose Lane and Coach House.

It’s interesting to note that the design of The Waterproof Bible is reminiscent of the books published by the American independent press McSweeney’s – in other words, it’s a large press book masquerading as a small press book. This is perhaps appropriate given Kaufman’s sensibility, which at first blush is more Coach House quirky than Random House mainstream. Wells envisions a day when Kaufman returns to a small press, and he may be right: the multinationals demand a return on their investment. If a first book doesn’t do well, they won’t sign an author for a second. (Kaufman, who signed a two-book deal, gets two kicks at the can.) Gone are the days when houses like McClelland & Stewart stuck with authors like Mordecai Richler through a series of lacklustre books on the understanding that the house was grooming him for the breakout they knew was coming.

This is where the smaller independent houses, far from being farm teams that publish authors’ apprentice work before sending them off to the majors, perform a valuable function. Smaller presses are more willing to invest in an author over multiple books, and a number of authors – such as Russell Smith, Cordelia Strube, and Maggie Helwig – have actually returned to small presses to publish books that are too esoteric (or, in Smith’s case, pornographic) for the multinationals to touch, or simply because that’s where they are most comfortable.

The aesthetic quality of the work does not, however, necessarily improve once an author makes the jump from a small house to a large one. Indeed, Canada’s small presses are publishing much of the most innovative, interesting, and aesthetically powerful books in the country. Money talks, but with the larger houses offering ever smaller advances, we may soon see more small press authors remaining with their initial publishers – and some large press authors returning to the fold.