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Publishing from the Margins


The history of Talonbooks is not one written by Horatio Alger; it is not a tale of rags being turned into riches. In fact there are no material riches in the picture at all. Talonbooks publishes from the margins of the Canadian publishing industry. These margins are geographic: as a British Columbia based publisher, Talonbooks could not be further from Toronto, the centre of the publishing industry in Canada. The margins are editorial: literary publishers specializing in poetry and drama are part of the avant garde, far from the more mainstream areas of trade fiction and non-fiction. The margins are also financial: Talonbooks, like almost all of the smaller, specialized Canadian publishers, has constantly been in a tenuous financial situation throughout its history.

This has not been due to financial mismanagement. On the contrary, it might be said that Talonbooks' president, Karl Siegler, has a better grasp of the finances of his company and of the Canadian publishing industry in general than do many of his colleagues. Over the years he has presented numerous papers on the subject to the Association of Canadian Publishers, and has lectured on "The Business of Publishing" at Simon Fraser University. Small publishers, from necessity, are forced towards efficiency: the economies of scale mean that profit margins are smaller on small print runs. Where the large general publishers can cross-subsidize marginal titles on their list with profits from the titles which have more popular appeal, specialized publishers do not have the same degree of flexibility.

Talonbooks' story can be seen as emblematic of the situation faced by any one of the many smaller, specialized Canadian publishers which are scattered across the country. These smaller publishers blossomed during the late 1960s along with their larger counterparts, encouraged by the spirit of nationalism which was prevalent at the time. James Lorimer's report on "The Politics of Publishing" describes the circumstances (Lorimer 1978):

Before 1970, publishing policies were of interest to few people beyond publishers, writers, and others involved directly in the business like librarians, booksellers, and wholesalers. But Canadian publishing began to change in the 1960s, and particularly after 1967. There was dramatic growth in the production of books for general readers [...] by Canadian writers and usually on Canadian subjects [...] Along with the established publishers, a number of new Canadian publishing houses were founded between 1967-70

In 1970 two prominent Canadian educational publishers, W.J. Gage and Ryerson, were sold to American interests. These sales, together with the threatened sale of McClelland and Stewart, set off "a flurry of government policy initiatives concerning book publishing and an explicit concern for this cultural medium" (Lorimer 1978). The granting programs which resulted from these initiatives provided much needed increases in the funds available to Canadian publishers throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Federal granting programs from the Canada Council and the Secretary of State (later the Department of Communications), as well as the various provincial programs (or the lack of them) all figure prominently in the history of any one of the many small, specialized Canadian publishers.

In this sense among others a history of Talonbooks illustrates the situation facing all publishers of culturally significant works in Canada. The fortunes of other such publishers may differ from those of Talonbooks in degree but not in substance: the external realities faced by all of them have been essentially the same.

The market available to Canadian publishers is less than one tenth the size of the American market. It is made even smaller for a house which focuses its list on works outside the mainstream of trade publishing. The higher unit costs which result from smaller print runs mean lower profits for the publisher. Publishing is an inherently risky business, and for a literary publisher the margin for error is that much smaller.

Talonbooks has published Canadian poetry since the publishing house was established in 1967, and has striven since early on to build a reputation as the foremost publisher of Canadian drama. Reality for a publisher with these specialties includes the following facts, drawn from the Canada Council Block Grant program statistics for 1986:

  • the average drama title sells 594 copies during its first two years in print
  • the average poetry title sells 405 copies during its first two years in print
Karl Siegler began his "Business of Publishing" course with the statement that "the primary goal of any publisher is to stay in business" (Siegler 1990). Given the small size of the Canadian market for poetry and drama, publishers of such titles cannot survive on sales revenue alone. Throughout its 24 years in business, grant income has been an essential factor in Talon's ability to realize that primary goal. As the following history will show, literary publishers such as Talonbooks are very sensitive to shifts in granting policy. The tides of Talonbooks' fortunes, and on more than one occasion Talon's very existence, have regularly been subject to the vagaries of government publishing programs.

This paper will not simply be a chronology of the significant events in Talon's history. Instead I will try to frame the major events of that chronology, as well as the evolution of Talon's editorial policies and list, within the broader context of the financial realities which face publishers such as Talonbooks.

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Talonbooks: Publishing from the Margins. © April, 1991 Michael Hayward