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Biblioasis: thinking like a bookseller

The Biblioasis team (photo: Kim Moir)

The Biblioasis team (photo: Kim Moir)

Bookselling is very much a part of Biblioasis’s DNA, and Wells credits that experience for being his apprenticeship as a publisher.

“A used bookshop very much reflects the personality of its owner,” he says. While reading Metcalf’s literary memoir An Aesthetic Underground, it occurred to him that building a publishing list is a similar exercise in curation. “Biblioasis took the shape it did as much out of ignorant enthusiasm as anything else,” he says. “Thinking about a press from a collecting point of view very much informed the early years of how we approached things.”

The bookstore also provides the sort of instantaneous customer feedback many publishers only dream of. Wells and his team can see immediately what titles are selling, and how customers are responding to a particular cover design or sales pitch. The shop has also become a significant source of revenue for the publishing operation: last year, it generated about $80,000 in direct sales of Biblioasis titles.

Wells has seen several manuscripts focusing on local history come through the shop. A pair of titles on the fall list – Patrick Brode’s The River and the Land: A History of Windsor to 1900 and David Newman’s Postcards of Essex County – were acquired this way.

That hands-on experience has inspired Biblioasis to foster direct relationships with their most important accounts, which Wells identifies as libraries and (other) independent bookstores. Wells has created a special “bookstore liaison” position for staffer Jesse Eckerlin, who splits his time working for the press and in the bookshop. (Eckerlin is a former co-owner of Montreal’s Argo Bookshop.) “He’s working directly on ensuring we keep bookstores up to date on what’s working in their area, and getting a sense of what they want from us,” Wells says.

Customers are starting to notice. David Worsley, co-owner of Words Worth Books in Waterloo, Ontario, says he appreciates the fact that Biblioasis doesn’t rely solely on sales reps. “They are booksellers. They don’t mind picking up the phone,” he says. “It makes an indie account feel a little love, which we could use.”

Worsley calls Bibliosis his “favourite Canadian publisher, full stop,” and believes the press is starting to make inroads with the public. It helps that his store vigorously hand-sells Biblioasis titles, and promotes them with events and an in-store display.

“[Biblioasis] runs very much against the grain of what I am starting to see Canadian publishing becoming. They are unapologetically literary, and yet there’s enough punk rock in them that they’re approachable about it,” says Worsley.

Indeed, Biblioasis has always been a proponent of noncommercial forms, such as short stories or reprints of overlooked Canadian classics. A centrepiece of the press’s 10th anniversary list is a new series that will see reissues of four to five titles per season. The series kicks off this fall with a new edition of Metcalf’s An Aesthetic Underground, as well as fiction from Kathy Page (Alphabet), Clark Blaise (Lunar Attractions), Ray Smith (Lord Nelson Tavern and Century), and Ray Robertson (Heroes).

Wells views the reprint series (which, at press time, was still in search of a name) as a corrective of sorts to McClelland & Stewart’s New Canadian Library collection, the bulk of which he believes “isn’t very good at all.” However, the purpose of the Biblioasis series is to champion lost classics, as opposed to disparaging the existing canon – an impulse very much connected to Wells’s background as a bookseller.

“As antiquarian booksellers, we became very aware early on that the focus – especially in a government-funded literary publishing system – is always on what is new,” he says. “You’re always better off to put out a new writer than to go back and reissue something – both financially and even when it comes to [media coverage].”

However, he believes the reprints are “important to a richer cultural landscape.”

“We believe in these writers tremendously, and we simply do not want these books to be forgotten,” he says.