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It was supposed to be an easy victory lap. When Sarah MacLachlan announced in early March that she would step down at the end of June as president and publisher of the storied independent publisher House of Anansi Press – the home of Lynn Coady, Lisa Moore, Tanya Talaga, Alix Ohlin, Patrick deWitt, Gil Adamson, and others – and president of its children’s press Groundwood Books, she figured it would be a smooth three months. Then came COVID-19.
In the first interview since her departure, MacLachlan reveals what that final stretch was like, the anxious state of Canadian publishing, and her own future plans.
I’m told you’re leaving public life because you’re tired of being mistaken for a certain singer songwriter. True or false?
Haha. I wonder if she ever gets mistaken for me. Yeah: false. I love being “Sarah MacLachlan,” it gives me great joy. I can start every speech with that.
Then why retire?
I turned 60 last Sunday. I realized there was less time in front of me than behind me. And I’m quite tired [laughs]. And I just thought, you know, it might be nice to see what not having to be so completely responsible for something looks like.
What was that last day like, after more than 16 years with the company?
Leaving a job in the middle of the COVID crisis has been a strange thing, because there’s nobody there. Although it was kind of a relief not to be super sad, physically leaving people.
You mean, walking out the door as everybody stands there beside a half-eaten sheet cake?
Exactly. We did a little Zoom goodbye, which was hard enough.
What are you most proud of during your time at the helm?
We made it a priority to go out and actively find Indigenous voices. We found some spectacular ones: Katherena Vermette’s The Break, Tanya Talaga’s Seven Fallen Feathers. Doing Leanne Simpson’s short fiction, and now her novel is coming out this fall. Billy-Ray Belcourt’s poetry. I just feel like we found exceptionally talented writers that are bringing voice to the most important issue in Canada.
Vermette is no longer with Anansi.
No, her next books are with Penguin Random House.
Right. So, Anansi was great at finding new talent, but those writers – including Sheila Heti, Zoe Whittall, and Rawi Hage, whose manuscript for De Niro’s Game was famously pulled from your slush pile and became a bestseller – often left for big publishers. On a scale of one to 10, how frustrating is that?
Um. Six. You know, it’s the mathematics of publishing. It’s a difficult game to play, and when you’re not deeply resourced in the way that the big multinationals are that are working in this country, it can be frustrating not to be able to pay the writers what they arguably deserve. But we’ve actually held on to many more. Publishing with an independent press like ours offers writers a very personal, bespoke experience. We know that it can take some time for a book to find a place in the world, and we take that time, and more often than not it has paid off.
What we like to say is that we can't do big advances, but we sure do like to pay royalties. And every year we pay out $1-million-plus in royalties to writers.
What is Anansi’s annual revenue?
When I started, we had a million bucks in revenue and five staff. I’m now leaving with 35 staff, and last year close to $8-million in revenue. This year will be a different story.
What will you not miss?
I will not miss the anxieties that arise in the middle of the night. I mean, I sort of thought that I was going to have this nice coast out of my job, and then COVID hit. And suddenly we were faced with the shuttering of bookstores, the shuttering of Indigo, in the United States the shuttering of libraries and the wholesale market that is so big for Groundwood.
You pivoted quickly.
Our backlist books really performed. People wanted to read Indigenous stories, they wanted to read Black-authored stories, they wanted to read about COVID. We have Dr. Bonnie Henry’s book [Soap and Water & Common Sense] on our backlist, and with her okay and help from her sister, Lynn Henry, who used to work for us, we were able to get that book back into circulation.
Has it gotten harder to publish Canadian books in the last 16 years?
I was looking back at a file from 2005 and there is a copy of Saturday Night magazine in it. It’s when we were publishing Stephen Lewis’s Massey Lectures. And there was this huge feature on him, and it made me think very nostalgically about what the media landscape has become, and how difficult and how not obvious that is anymore, in terms of who can influence people in their decision to buy a book, or read about somebody and think, ‘Oh, I want to read that book.' Um, Indigo is a very dominant player in Canada and a very big account for us. And that can be problematic, because if they’re having a bad time, you’re having a bad time. I think the copyright legislation has been hell: So, books that would have been course-adopted [for educational purposes] and paid for, that [revenue is] no longer there.
Anansi is owned by Scott Griffin. Do you need a philanthropically minded backer to be an independent Canadian publisher these days?
His support has been integral to the success of the house, both in his monetary investment and in his hands-off approach to letting us run the company. He brings us ideas and we talk. If we need an investment of cash – although I will say, we haven’t had to have one in quite a number of years – but in the early days, he was there for support. And when Groundwood came knocking with the idea that we might purchase them, he very eagerly did that. So, yeah, I’m not gonna lie. It’s hugely helpful.
He’s in his early 80s. What’s the succession plan?
I think you’ll have to ask him that. I don’t know it so I don’t feel like I can say anything about it.
Rumours are that you’re going to be doing something out east. What’s the plan?
We [my husband, Noah Richler, and I] have a big old boarding house in Sandy Cove, N.S., and it is our ambition to create a kind of arts hub out of that building and do some artist residences – not just authors, maybe painters and musicians. But I have to get out there and look at the state of what we’re looking at. And of course COVID sort of ground all that to a halt for the moment.
Your own Fogo Island?
Let’s say Fogo Island Redux, because, yeah, I don’t quite have that budget.
Do you have a novel in you? Maybe a roman a clef about a scrappy independent publisher?
God no! Being a writer is a really, really tough job, and I am deeply admiring of people who write, because it’s you and the computer and that’s it, you know? And I don’t have that kind of grit. I’m very good at telling people why some things are good, and putting it out in the world, being a cheerleader. But I don’t have the discipline to sit down for hours at a time and try to hash out a story.
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