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English publishers in Quebec display resilience and innovation in developing new markets

Linda Leith (photo: Judith Lermer Crawley)

Linda Leith (photo: Judith Lermer Crawley)

There’s no shortage of literary talent in Quebec, and I’m talking not only about writers working in French. Remarking on a 2016 “Lucky 13” piece about the best books in English by Quebec writers, Montreal Gazette columnist Ian McGillis noted there was a time, not so long ago, when it would have been hard to come up with 13 titles. “Now,” he commented, “it’s a matter of cutting it down – agonizingly, painfully.”

The proliferation of good writing is just part of what accounts for this bounty. Behind much of that is what Simon Dardick calls a “small but hardy group” of English-language publishers. As co-publisher of Véhicule Press, which next year celebrates 45 years in the business, Dardick knows a lot about hardiness.

It has always been tough to create local buzz around an English book release in a province in which the majority speak French. Indeed, Keith Henderson, managing editor at DC Books, sees “developing a market for English titles is the main challenge” that publishers like him face. The Secret Mountain’s Roland Stringer, who publishes children’s books and CDs, says, “It’s amazing to see just how resilient Quebec publishers have been,” given how “little support they get from national media.”

There’s been growth as well as resilience, and several new presses have sprung up in the past few years. The Association of English-language Publishers of Quebec now has 14 members, up three from just a year ago. Montreal’s Atwater Library has become the western hub of the anglo literary milieu, hosting the offices of AELAQ and Quebec Writers’ Federation along with the Atwater Poetry Project and the Pop-up Holiday Book Fair. Paragraphe and Clio are key bookstores in the city, and Librairie Drawn & Quarterly is the Mile End nexus not only for writers and readers, but also book launches for publishers from here and away.

And there’s a new air of excitement. The reason for this? “In a word: immigration,” says Stringer. “Different writers, different readers. It’s a very exciting time to be a publisher in a city like Montreal that attracts so many creative people from all over.”

Writers and publishers here have an “international palate,” suggests Anna Leventhal, AELAQ executive director and publisher of the Montreal Review of Books. They’re looking to America and the U.K. for titles, as well as to Ontario and the rest of Canada. The very fact that it’s so difficult to create local buzz around an English book release, Stringer argues, “forces publishers to look beyond the border and find partners abroad. It’s a great deal of work, but in the end, I think that we are truly independent, and better for it.”

What strikes Dardick most immediately is “how engaged we are with the majority francophone literary community. Which makes sense of course.” As Leventhal puts it, “There’s a fluidity between languages that has long existed in daily life, at least in Montreal, and this seems to be finding its way into literature. English-speakers and French-speakers are reading each others’ books to an unprecedented degree.”

This fluidity within individual publishers is notable. The house that I founded in 2011, Linda Leith Publishing, is not only actively involved in buying and selling translation rights but, like the Secret Mountain, publishes in French as well as English. Comics publisher Pow Pow Press is a French-language house that has, since 2015, published books in English. Baraka Books last year launched a translation imprint called QC Fiction, headed by Peter McCambridge (see review, p. 32). Half of Véhicule’s annual fiction list consists of translations from the French, and the press has ongoing relationships with both new and established francophone Quebec publishers.

There are publishers across the country translating literature from Quebec, of course. The difference here, according to Dardick, “is that’s we have our noses to the ground, so to speak.”

Notwithstanding the fact that anglos have become closer to the francophone milieu, they remain marginal to the majority culture. This may be inevitable, given the need francophones feel for protection from the power of the English language. But another change is that several English-language publishers now consider their marginality a strength rather than a weakness. Like those stray dogs that have evolved to negotiate the Moscow subway system, English-language publishers here have figured out how to adapt and turn challenges to their own advantage. “There are benefits to existing on the margins,” says Dardick.

It helps that Montreal is an affordable city. This “has been a huge asset to me over the past few years,” says Ashleigh Opheim, who started up Metatron in 2013. “I’ve been able to get by working part-time jobs, giving me ample time to devote to the press. In other major cities – Toronto and Vancouver for example – people need to work full-time, which doesn’t leave them any extra time to devote to their passion projects.”

The newest of Quebec’s English-language houses is Metonymy Press, which specializes in literary fiction and non-fiction from emerging writers. Metonymy has so far published just three books, but can already boast a Dayne Ogilvie Prize for Kai Cheng Thom and a Lambda Literary Award for jia qing wilson-yang. As co-publisher Oliver Fugler says, “There is strong enough English-language work coming out of Quebec to be recognized on national and international levels.”

McGill-Queen’s University Press, the most established of English-language presses here, has taken the lead in international outreach, having earlier this year announced plans to open a U.K. office in London (where Richard Baggeley has just been named the new acquisitions editor) and add 20 to 30 titles annually to its list.

Drawn & Quarterly has had “incredible growth” over the past decade, publisher Peggy Burns reports, and has “quadrupled in size, in part due to opening our bookstore in 2007, but also on the publishing side.” Before opening the retail outlet (see p. 18), D&Q had four full-timers and two part-timers in the publishing house; now they have 11 full-timers and one part-timer in the office and 10 more employees in the store.

D&Q has had many New York Times bestsellers, too. “Our penetration in the U.S. market grew due to the success of our distribution relationship with Farrar, Straus & Giroux,” says Burns. D&Q’s biggest challenge? Having to compete with Penguin Random House and the other large publishers to sign their authors.

Publishing has always been a business that demands resilience, and that has rarely been truer than it is of Quebec’s English-language presses. It’s also a business that rewards imagination and innovation, and these are qualities that the oldest and most established English-language houses in Quebec exemplify, each in its own way, with the newest kids on the block. And the best news, of course, is that there are new kids on the block.