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'The big guys keep being surprised by us' Add to ...

The house that first housed the House of Anansi is still standing near the University of Toronto on Spadina Avenue, its facade with the impressive Beaux Arts and Second Empire flourishes now squished between Daddyo's Pasta & Salads and the Wing Ho Funeral Home.

There's a heritage plaque by the front door, but it doesn't identify 671 Spadina and its dank basement as the rented quarters where, in the fall of 1967, two nationalistic university English graduates in their late 20s named Dennis Lee and Dave Godfrey started what would become one of the three most influential presses in the literary history of Canada, along with McClelland & Stewart and Coach House Press.

Hundreds of books later by the likes of Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, the press that Jack McClelland predicted would last no more than 18 months still lives on Spadina Avenue. But it won't be celebrating its 40th birthday in a basement. Anansi's home is now a light-filled eighth-floor aerie of blond hardwood and high ceilings far to the south of its original digs.

The environment says it all about the brightened outlook at Anansi. One British publisher recently called it "the red-hot centre of literary publishing in Canada." Owned since 2002 by Toronto businessman and poetry enthusiast Scott Griffin, the company last year reported sales of just under $5-million and now employs a full-time staff of 20. It wasn't so long ago, when Anansi was still part of the now-defunct Stoddart empire, that there were three staffers and annual sales hovered around $400,000.

Earlier this year, the Canadian Booksellers Association (CBA) named Anansi its publisher of the year after its 2006 triumphs, which included: an Anansi title, Peter Behrens's debut novel The Law of Dreams, winning the 2006 Governor-General's Literary Award for English fiction (with Rawi Hage's De Niro's Game also short-listed) and two books on the 2006 Scotiabank Giller Prize short list ( De Niro's Game and Gaétan Soucy's The Immaculate Conception). Meanwhile, the company's publisher since 2005, Lynn Henry, took the CBA's "editor-of-the-year" honours.

This week, Lee, now 68, learned his most recent volume of Anansi-published poetry, Yesno: Poems, was on the short list for the 2007 Governor-General's poetry prize.

Yet there's no resting on the laurels. "We'd like to become definitively the independent Canadian publisher that McClelland & Stewart was," Griffin said in an interview before tonight's 40th-birthday party for Anansi at Toronto's Harbourfront, a reference to M & S having been 25 per cent owned by a foreign subsidiary, Random House Canada, since 2000.

"To do this probably means we'll have to double in size," said Griffin, noting the company already owns a well-regarded children's imprint, Groundwood Books, which he bought in 2005. "And we'll have to be seen by both the international market and Canadian writers as a place where, if you publish with Anansi, you've arrived. I think we're well along that road."

Indeed, each year it seems Anansi is persuading more Canadian writers to grant it world rights at the same time as it nabs the Canadian rights for authors from the U.K. (A.L. Kennedy, Simon Armitage), the U.S. (Jim Harrison) and France (Pierre Mérot).

"Now," Griffin acknowledged with a smile, "I wouldn't say we're a threat to the big guys" such as HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster and Penguin. Sarah MacLachlan, Anansi's president since 2003, says the biggest advance she's ever paid an author is $75,000 - this more than 20 years after Peter C. Newman rocked Canadian publishing with what was then a record half-million-dollar deal from Penguin for his history of the Hudson's Bay Company. Still, observed Griffin, "the big guys keep being surprised by us."

Added Henry: "We can offer everything that everyone else offers and sometimes more," including a "history of breaking out writers" -- Lisa Moore, Michael Winter, Hage and Ken Babstock among them.

Griffin was not a publishing neophyte when he poured more than $400,000 into Anansi in 2002 just as its parent plunged into bankruptcy protection. He had founded the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2000. But he has been taken aback by "the time, thought and money the initiative has required." The publishing industry, to his mind, is "structurally flawed ... The returns system, for instance, means you never know if you've actually sold a book. Then there are these huge advances paid to authors that don't really relate to reality. And you have these thin profit margins and all these middle men. It's created a kind of gridlock where you have a lot of bright people trying to get around the obstacles, instead of removing the obstacles."

Still he's having "a lot of fun. Even in this game, Anansi can play it better than the others. As a result, we've been punching way above our weight."

Of course, the current House of Anansi is a long way from when Lee wrote of "the desperate anger about the fact that we've never taken this country seriously enough to fight for it" and Anansi was publishing urgent titles like A Manual for Draft-Aged Immigrants to Canada and Atwood's seminal Sur vival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature .

But Henry believes Anansi's current work "reflects the values" of its founders "and sometimes stretches them a bit."

There is, for example, Forsaken, a just-released book of photographs of Afghan women by Canadian-Croatian writer-photographer Lana Slezic. There's the ongoing publication of the annual Massey Lectures (the 2009 edition of which will come from Margaret Atwood), the unflagging devotion to poetry and to French-to-English translations, and, for the politically minded and socially conscious, titles such as The Everyday Activist: 365 Ways to Change the World.

"We haven't really left any of those founding principles behind," MacLachlan concurred.

The House of Anansi 40th Anniversary Event begins at 8 tonight at Premiere Dance Theatre at Toronto's Harbourfront. Speakers include Margaret Atwood, Shani Mootoo, Graeme Gibson and Roch Carrier.

The little House on Spadina

Top-selling titles from House of Anansi:

The Educated Imagination:

CBC Massey Lectures

by Northrop Frye (published

by Anansi in 1993, originally

published by CBC in 1963)

More than 110,000 copies sold.

A Short History of Progress:

CBC Massey Lectures

by Ronald Wright (2004)

About 110,000 copies sold

Race Against Time:

CBC Massey Lectures

by Stephen Lewis (2005)

100,000 copies sold

A Manual for Draft-Age

Immigrants to Canada

by Mark Salin (1968)

Close to 100,000 copies sold

The House of Anansi

book that has stayed

continuously in print

the longest:

The Circle Game: Poems

by Margaret Atwood

(1967)

Other books that have been in print since publication

The Collected Works

of Billy the Kid

by Michael Ondaatje (1970)

Civil Elegies

by Dennis Lee (1972)

J.A.

Follow on Twitter: @Jglobeadams

 

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