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Filling the need for high-quality Canadian illustrated books

When D&M Publishers filed for bankruptcy protection in October, 2012, three senior managers began talking about forming their own company. Figure 1 Publishing launched a few months later, with a focus on high-end illustrated books. It's tiny compared to D&M, and one of the three original partners left to focus on his design career, but the company has made a few strategic hires, and expects to move into an office space in June.

It is also out with its first spring list, and has just published the trade edition of Emily Carr's long-lost journal Sister and I in Alaska, which they published last year as a limited edition reproduction of the diary from the artist's 1907 trip to Alaska with her sister Alice.

The Globe and Mail met with the remaining principals – publisher and president Chris Labonte and associate publisher and vice-president, sales and marketing Richard Nadeau– over lunch at Farmer's Apprentice (another new little enterprise, which won Restaurant of the Year at this week's Vancouver Magazine Restaurant Awards).

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How did the company rise from the ashes of D&M?

CL: When Douglas & McIntyre was going to be broken up and sold in pieces, the three of us, Richard, me and Peter Cocking, who is no longer with Figure 1, decided, "Well, what are we doing next?"

Douglas & McIntyre had been in the process of developing a distinct imprint that would work directly with galleries and restaurants to produce books for them and also bring them to market.

I was in the process of developing that imprint when all of that happened, so we thought, "Well, why don't we just take this model that I've already been working on and we know so well and why don't we just do that?"

There's certainly going to be a need in the market. There aren't a lot of Canadian publishers publishing high, high-quality illustrated books. When Douglas & McIntyre disappeared in that form, that kind of went away.

There are a few others that are doing it but – not to boast – but not at the level that we aspire to. We're trying to push the bounds of what an illustrated book can be.

What was that time like for you?

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RN: It was quite devastating. We all really loved our jobs within the company, so it was really tough to deal with. It took a long time before we sort of got over it.

CL: One of the best ways to deal with that transition is to start a new company, because you just have to bear down, and it's exciting, but it's also so demanding. You're working all the time. You have to process what you've just been through as you're building something new.

What is the vision for Figure 1?

CL: The bottom line is really about high-quality publishing. Which means well-written, well-edited, beautifully designed, with a focus on illustrated books: art books, design, architecture, illustrated history. And we're working very closely with galleries and artists and restaurants to produce books that we bring to market, but they also buy copies for their own purposes. It's a form of publishing that's been around forever. And we wanted to do it at a level that is as good as what you'd see from Abrams or Taschen. Why can't we do that in Canada? A great example is if you look at the cookbooks that Phaidon produces, they are like art books.

As publishing moves toward the e-book model, is this one area that works for print?

RN: That's one of the reasons we're doing it; it doesn't seem to have the erosion from e-books that other genres have. People still want that object.

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CL: In an age where a link or a digital something is highly disposable, it doesn't have the same sort of weight as something that's tangible.Somebody asked me earlier today how is it that cookbooks are still doing really well when you can get any recipe online? It's really about the fact that it's a beautiful artifact. And if you're going to give a gift, you're not going to say, "Oh, here's a link to a free recipe I found online."

How did you get involved in the Emily Carr project?

CL: [Former Sotheby's Canada president] David Silcox had been talking to [publisher] Scott McIntyre prior to Douglas & McIntyre folding about this lost journal. Once Scott knew we were going to start our own firm, he sent David our way, and we started talking about how to do a beautiful reproduction of this journal that's over 100 years old. He came to town and showed it to us; it was wrapped in this delicate paper and looked like it would turn to powder. He'd already taken beautiful photography of it. The reproduction is quite amazing for something that old.

The limited edition reproduction was selling for $350 – and it did okay.

CL: It sold out in a day-and-a-half, and I still get requests every now and then.

Do you feel hopeful about publishing?

RN: I feel much more hopeful than I was, say three or four years ago, when everybody was in a panic about e-books and whether that was going to be sustainable. I think things have changed a lot, but it does look like publishing is stabilizing and the Canadian industry is still going.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author
Western Arts Correspondent

Marsha Lederman is the Western Arts Correspondent for The Globe and Mail, based in Vancouver. She covers the film and television industry, visual art, literature, music, theatre, dance, cultural policy, and other related areas. More

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