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Q&A: Pedlar Press founder Beth Follett on her mission to become a “publisher of excellence”

Nov-PedlarPressIt was a stunning CanLit upset last June when Kate Cayley’s debut story collection, How You Were Born, beat Margaret Atwood, Dionne Brand, and Thomas King, among others, for the $20,000 Ontario Trillium Book Award. The subsequent flood of congratulations wasn’t just for Cayley, but also for her publisher, Beth Follett, founder of Pedlar Press.

Based out of St. John’s, Newfoundland, Follett, who eschews technology in favour of an old-school setup – no flashy websites or cellphones here – conducted this interview by pay phone during a trip to Toronto.

How do you discover writers? In all of Pedlar’s 19 years (except for one instance), I’ve never solicited a manuscript. I ask for a brief description of the work and get a sense of the author through email before reading their work. In the case of Kate, she queried me.

There have been years when I’ve worried that I wasn’t getting the number of manuscripts that I wanted, but I have great faith that excellence is out there and that Pedlar is proving itself to be a publisher of excellence.

After 19 years, has it become easier to find excellence? Things changed around the time that Roo Borson gave me a manuscript (Personal History), and we published Jan Zwicky (The Book of Frog) and Stan Dragland (The Drowned Lands, The Bricoleur & His Sentences) – these are older players in literary Canada, and I think that popped the house’s name a level or two. I was quite surprised when poet Phil Hall (The Little Seamstress) contacted me a few years ago.

Are more established authors approaching you now? Writers who are engaged with the avant-garde have lost their place in the publishing landscape so they are coming to me more often. Mid- and large-sized houses have different kinds of budgets and responsibilities – they can’t take risks like I can. My salary goes up and down, depending on what risks I’m willing to take, and what my personal life can handle.

What makes a Pedlar book? Proven capacity with language and quick, light metaphors get my attention. I’m always cheering for any kind of critical look at the broken systems that surround us at this time in history. I’m looking for the intellect of the writer and some passion. It’s not an “-ism” I’m looking for – though I am a feminist, so stories that are critical about patriarchy call out to me. But they still have to be literary and engaged with language and character.