As a child, Rebecca Rose remembers cracking open cases of books published by Breakwater Books, flipping to the correct page and placing errata stickers over typos. Independent publishing was a family operation, and independent publishing on an island meant even more of the tasks associated with the business were taken on by the family behind the company.
Although the St. John’s-based publisher her father founded in 1973 with four of his university-professor colleagues and friends – supported financially in the early days by her mother’s social worker salary – was always a part of her life, Rose didn’t grow up assuming she’d take on the mantle of publisher herself. For one, as a teenager and a young adult, her behind-the-scenes vantage point revealed the challenges inherent in sustaining a business in the arts over the long term.
“I didn’t come to it easily. It took a lot of time to really commit,” she says.
Rose joined the company at the management level in 2002, and purchased Breakwater in 2009, becoming president and publisher. Before committing to the press, Rose says she had to separate the family dynamics from the business to identify what she was committing to.
“What that was for me was a belief in the talent of Newfoundland and Labrador, and Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, and an intrinsic desire to showcase that we are capable of telling our own stories, and we’re capable of making books as great and as high quality as those from the best publishers around the world,” she says. “That’s been my driving motivation more than anything in committing to this company and to this industry.”
This month, Breakwater Books, the province’s oldest independent press, celebrates 50 years. The founders, Rose’s father Clyde, Tom Dawe, Al Pittman, Pat Byrne, and Richard Buehler, were motivated in part by their shared frustration with the lack of published works by Newfoundland authors, and were tired of having to teach the same U.S. and U.K. books to their students, Rose says.
In its early years, Breakwater helped establish many of the province’s authors, including Bernice Morgan and Helen Fogwill Porter. More recently, it has helped to launch the careers of Bridget Canning, Megan Gail Coles, and Michelle Porter.
“Breakwater has made this huge, huge gift to writers in Newfoundland and Labrador, fostering the burgeoning community of writers here,” says author Lisa Moore, who teaches creative writing at Memorial University and has edited three fiction anthologies for Breakwater. Moore was born and grew up in Newfoundland, and says Breakwater’s list showed her that it was possible to be a writer from the province.
“It’s a powerful thing to see yourself in fiction. If you’re from New York, if you’re from Paris or London or Toronto or even Montreal, you’ve been seeing that for a long, long time,” Moore says. “It was powerful for me … to read the stories that were written on the ground here, to see your own place come into literature, the streets that you walk down on.”
Breakwater began life as a literary press, and has functioned as a hybrid publisher at times over the intervening decades with a shared focus on educational publishing. When she joined Breakwater, Rose consulted with the press’s authors to see what the publisher was doing well and what they could be doing better. Since then, she has rebranded the publisher to focus on growing and improving Breakwater’s trade program, expanding the list from 10 to 18 titles a year, and overseeing the 2008 merger with Jesperson Press and the 2017 acquisition of Creative Book Publishing, which increased Breakwater’s backlist to more than 600 titles.
Breakwater has published books in all four of Newfoundland and Labrador’s living Indigenous languages, Rose says, and she is committed to further diversifying Breakwater’s list moving forward, as well as refiningits approach to books by under-represented voices. The second volume of Towards an Encyclopedia of Local Knowledge (2022), for instance, was created in consultation with the Miawpukek First Nation band council.
“That’s a big focus for Breakwater moving into the future, digging into what we’ve always assumed to be our heritage and doing a better job at making sure we got it right and documenting our living knowledge,” Rose says.
Running Breakwater on an island – and in a province whose capital city lacks a dedicated independent bookstore at the moment – has made resilience and flexibility necessary for survival. Involvement with industry associations (including the Association of Canadian Publishers, the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association, and the Literary Press Group, which Rose currently chairs) and learning from peers has helped Rose adapt publishing best practices to the particular circumstances of Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We’re just a constantly changing and evolving model, responding to the circumstances of operating from an island that are quite unique,” Rose says. “Everything on the island is import/export; everything costs more to get here.”
Breakwater’s books are printed by printers across Canada and overseas, and book deliveries are reliant on ferry schedules often affected by inclement weather in the winter. The press had to build a distribution network of its own within the province to service gift shops and other non-traditional retail outlets. After moving to a new space in 2011, following a 2010 fire in a neighbouring building, Breakwater developed its own in-house retail space when it became clear that customers picking up orders from the fulfilment centre wanted to come behind the counter and peruse the shelves. Rose says Breakwater would like to expand the retail operation into a bookstore that carries other locally authored and published books “if and when we can afford to.”
For now, Breakwater has a packed schedule of anniversary events planned through the month and beyond and is enjoying reaching the milestone.
“I always said if I can get her to 50, I’ll feel I’ve done my part,” Rose says. “What do we do next? We’ll see what comes.”