Biblioasis, a small, independent book publisher based in Windsor, Ont., uses a windmill as its logo. It was, says founder Dan Wells, a joke, of sorts, recalling a tilting Don Quixote, except in this case instead of the fight being against imaginary giants, it was getting the Canadian public interested in a small, independent book publisher based in Windsor, Ont.
"I realized that this wasn't going to get easy, and that this was a fool's errand," he says of the logo. "I am tilting at windmills, and it was a way to remind myself of that. … The logo is tied to the conception, though I wouldn't have framed it that way then, of managing disappointments."
Eleven years into his quest, things have changed. Last month, three Biblioasis titles made the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list, equalling the sum of the company's previous nominations and tying the record for most by an independent publisher since the long list was established in 2006. The books exemplify what the press does best: Anakana Schofield's wildly experimental and wickedly funny novel Martin John; young Québécois writer Samuel Archibald's first book of short fiction to be translated into English, Arvida; and Russell Smith's sophisticated story collection, Confidence, which was also nominated for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize this past Tuesday. Wells and his team have demonstrated what it takes to make a small press not only viable, but thrive, in an era thought to be inhospitable toward non-multinational publishers, and in the process have become the first truly great new Canadian press of the 21st century.
"I think he's going to be a driving force into the future of publishing, the likes of which has never been seen before," says veteran editor John Metcalf, who runs an eponymous imprint for the press. "He's going to make Jack McClelland look like a pig in a poke. You just hope the audience can rise up to meet him."
That's the question facing Biblioasis, a small press getting bigger by the year, but one trying to stay true to its mission to publish unabashed literary fiction (with an emphasis on short stories), discover untapped talent, rescue lost or forgotten books, and introduce North American readers to the work of authors from around the world.
"He continues to maintain the illusion that books really matter," says the author Ray Robertson. "But he seems to be succeeding by doing the thing that other people are afraid of: taking books even more seriously."
The story may be apocryphal, but Wells contends every word is true. When, in the early 2000s, the then (used) bookseller decided he wanted to sell his own (new) books, he sought the advice of a professor at the local university, a leading scholar of publishing history. He told her he wanted to start a press. She said he couldn't do it, and proceeded to list the reasons why:
He had no experience.
He had little money.
He lived in Windsor, Ont.
"She said I could be a vanity publisher, maybe," he recalls. "I am greatly motivated when people tell me I can't do anything. That put steel in my spine for a decade." The thing is, he adds, a bit sheepishly, "She was totally, totally right. I was just ignorant. I didn't know. That's the only reason Biblioasis exists: because I didn't know what I was getting into."
It was Tuesday morning, and Wells, a bespectacled 43-year-old originally from Chatham, Ont., was sitting in a restaurant on Bay Street in Toronto, nursing a green tea, a few minutes after the Writers' Trust announcement wrapped up. His train had been late getting into Toronto, and he missed the ceremony by about 20 minutes. Not that he wanted to be there, exactly, having e-mailed me the week before to say "even the thought" of attending "has my blood pressure spiking." He gets nervous at these sorts of things. When he was a welder in his pre-publisher days, his colleagues at the Chrysler plant where he worked nicknamed him "Panic."
Before Biblioasis was a publishing house, it was a bookstore, opening its doors in July, 1998, on Ouellette Avenue in downtown Windsor, where "all the Americans come to get drunk," according to Wells. Of the name, he explains that he "meant it as an oasis for book lovers in what might otherwise be a dry land. The truth of the matter is it was probably a little too clever because, the first phone call I got, somebody thought I was a Greek sandwich shop."
The year before he'd been just another graduate student with ambitions of becoming a writer, writing his MA at the University of Western Ontario on the Scottish Enlightenment. One day, he walked into Gardner Galleries, an auction house in London, Ont., where, among the lots for sale, he found "a giant room of books." He bought them for a song and, shortly thereafter, discovered it was "chock full" of first editions. "It was the best buy I ever made in my life," he says.
He decided to open a bookstore.
At the time, Wells didn't consider bookselling to be a long-term option. "Everybody told me it would fail," he says. His initial plan was to sell books for a while, and then pursue a PhD. There was only one problem: "I was a very good bookseller."
Running the bookstore introduced Wells to the city's literary community, and, in the early 2000s, he was part of a group that launched what is now known as BookFest Windsor, an annual literary festival. Around the same time, Wells hired a man named Dennis Priebe, a regular customer who'd offered to build shelves "for $200 a week." It was only weeks later that Wells learned that Priebe had spent years immersed in the British Columbia book-publishing community, working as a typesetter for the likes of Geist magazine and Arsenal Pulp Press. (Priebe served as Biblioasis's production manager until 2013.) Initially, they planned to release hand-bound, limited-edition chapbooks featuring the work of local authors. Their first book, published in 2004, was a collection of poems called Straight Razor by Windsor poet Salvatore Ala, followed by two collections by the Bosnian-Canadian writer Goran Simic.
Around this time, Wells met the editor, critic and author John Metcalf, who was in town for the literary festival, and whose 2003 memoir-slash-manifesto, An Aesthetic Underground, had impressed and influenced Wells greatly. They stayed up late "and drank quite a lot of Scotch and talked," recalls Metcalf, and, eventually, Wells asked Metcalf, who had recently parted ways with another small Canadian press, The Porcupine's Quill, if he would consider editing for Biblioasis. Metcalf agreed.
During those first few years, it was difficult to find authors willing to publish with a new, unproven press. "We had to be very creative, because nobody wanted to take a chance with us," says Wells. They launched a literary contest that offered a book deal to the winner, which led to what is probably their most notable early book, Kathleen Winter's debut short-story collection, boYs, published in 2007, the same year Wells partnered with University of Guelph professor and author Stephen Henighan to establish the Biblioasis International Translation Series. Still, for many years Biblioasis the press was kept afloat by Biblioasis the bookstore: "I stopped taking a wage and basically funnelled all the profits from the bookstore into publishing books," says Wells.
Despite Wells's "ambivalence" about them, it was an award that changed his company's fortunes – the 2010 Giller Prize, when Alexander MacLeod, who is serving on this year's jury, was nominated for his story collection Light Lifting, the only time a Biblioasis book has made the short list. The book went on to sell 20,000 copies, injecting "a burst of capital" into the press and attracting the attention of literary agents, authors and the media.
Still, Wells chooses not to put too much stock in prizes, not because he doesn't want his authors garnering attention, but because he finds them "bittersweet." Biblioasis published "five or six" books this year that could "easily have been" on this year's Giller longlist, he says, so why focus on a few "when there are so many other books we do that are as worthy of merit?" In almost a decade writing about the Canadian books industry, I've never met a publisher so convinced of the greatness of their every book; I've grown exasperated with him more than once when he's told me the slate of books the company was about to publish was the "best" they've ever produced. He says the same thing year after year.
"They get better every year," he argues after I bring this up. "I believe that."
He's not wrong. In recent years Biblioasis has published the likes of Diane Schoemperlen, Mark Kingwell, Chris Turner, Clark Blaise, Bruce Jay Friedman, and a second short-story collection by Kathleen Winter. They cannot offer as much money as larger publishers (the most Wells has offered for a book is $15,000) but Biblioasis seems to engender loyalty among its writers. Schofield made a splash with her 2012 debut, Malarky, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, but "when I came back with another book I just didn't hesitate," she says on the phone from Vancouver. "I guess it's like any relationship: You demonstrate how you feel about someone in the way you behave towards them, and I just feel he really does the very best he can for each book."
"What matters, I think, is integrity," says Robertson, who will publish his third book with Biblioasis, Lives of the Poets (with Guitars), next year. "If I go to a festival and Dan's there, and I see people talk to him now, it's not because, 'Oh, wow, you were on a [prize] list last year.' It's about, 'Wow, you publish really good books and treat your authors really well.' That's the kind of shit that doesn't go away. Because, believe me, you can go to a lot of second-hand bookstores in Toronto and find a lot of Giller-shortlisted books in there that nobody cares about any more, except for their authors. This stuff lasts. Word-of-mouth matters. And your reputation matters. And you can't buy that. A jury can't give you that."
Although it is more art house than Random House, Biblioasis now sports five full-time and two part-time staffers – plus Metcalf in Ottawa, Henighan in Guelph and poetry editor Zachariah Wells (no relation to Dan) in Halifax – and is coming off its best year ever, with $500,000 in sales. ("As impoverished as $500,000 might seem, we're probably one of the biggest independents now," says Wells.) The press has been profitable since 2010. In 2012, Biblioasis opened a new bookstore in an old building in Windsor's Walkerville neighbourhood, which also serves as its office. The translation series now encompasses 16 titles, including a pair by Mia Couto, the Mozambique writer who won the 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature, seen by many as the precursor to the Nobel Prize, and, even before the success of Samuel Archibald, Biblioasis was planning to introduce more Quebec writers to the rest of Canada. It launched ReSet Books in 2014, resurrecting old titles by the likes of Caroline Adderson, Terry Griggs and Norman Levine. Wells also continues to operate Canadian Notes and Queries, a feisty literary magazine he bought from The Porcupine's Quill in 2006 and which was redesigned by Seth, the Guelph cartoonist who serves as the publisher's de facto art director, branding everything from the bookstore to a series of Christmas ghost stories that Biblioasis will publish later this year.
"I want Biblioasis to be the Canadian version of Farrar, Straus and Giroux or Faber and Faber," says Metcalf. "I want us to become internationally important."
Wells, for his part, thinks it's possible.
"This is probably the only time in the history of publishing that regional publishers can actually have national or international significance," he says, pointing to Minneapolis, Minn., which is home to Milkweed Editions, Coffee House Press and Graywolf Press. "I think this is the golden age of independent publishing."
It's notable that he now describes Biblioasis as a regional publisher, considering it's a label he once did his best to avoid. Wells, who studied philosophy and history at the University of Windsor as an undergrad, admits to having a "love-hate relationship" with the city; in the early days, he downplayed the Windsor connection, not wanting to be branded just "another regional press," to the point that many of his customers had no idea their local bookstore was also publishing books.
"I used to think being in Windsor was a severe drawback," he says. "I didn't realize how lucky I was to be where I was." For instance, Wells bought the building housing the bookstore and office for $160,000. "Biblioasis doesn't exist in Toronto. I couldn't have done it."
Instead of hiding the fact that Biblioasis isn't located in Canada's publishing hub, they now play it up – "It's a Windsor press down to the core of its soul," says Henighan – and a couple of years ago they even cooked up a marketing campaign featuring the tagline "Imported from South Detroit," an allusion to the fact that Windsor is actually, geographically, below the Motor City. They've managed to get on the radar of the major American book sections, with reviews of Biblioasis books appearing in The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal during the past few months alone, and the U.S. accounts for between 20 per cent and 50 per cent of sales each year. Sometimes it feels as if their place on the map explains some of their editorial decisions, as if being 350-odd kilometres from Toronto gives them permission to do whatever they want.
"They are very sure of their taste, which tends to be adventurous, and they don't care about trends or fashion, or whether short stories sell or not," says Kathy Page, who was longlisted for the Giller Prize last year for her collection Paradise and Elsewhere. "There's a certain spunky, devil-may-care attitude to the wide world."
Wells says he's trying not to care, or think, too much about Monday, when the Giller Prize finalists are announced at the Art Gallery of Ontario. They've mocked-up covers of all three books with the Giller Prize logo, just in case, and are ready to print more copies if any of them make the short list.
"I'm not losing sleep over it," Wells says, then laughs. "I'm not getting much sleep, anyways."