Quill and Quire

Industry News

« Back to Omni

The preservationist ethos of publishing work posthumously

(Jason Schneider)

In April 2022, Dan Wells posted on the Biblioasis website something no publisher wishes to undertake: an in memoriam for an author he held in high regard. Celebrating Toronto-born writer Steven Heighton’s prolific career (republished by Q&Q), Wells writes of the intensity of the publishing process, his relationship with the author, and noted of Heighton that: “In this age of ironic detachment he risked being earnest, vulnerable, showing care and concern.” Heighton was diagnosed with cancer in February 2022. He had been given a prognosis of about a year to live, but he died unexpectedly mere months later. Heighton had already begun preparing a collection of short stories – the second title in a two-book deal with Windsor-based Biblioasis – that would be his final publication.

Biblioasis has been no stranger to publishing the work of authors posthumously recently. In the fall of 2022, they released the late Harold R. Johnson’s nonfiction work The Power of Story: On Truth, the Trickster, and New Fictions for a New Era, and in April 2023, both Richard Sanger’s final collection of poems Way to Go and Heighton’s story collection Instructions for the Drowning will be released. British Columbia publisher Heritage House and Toronto-based publisher Coach House Books will also be navigating the uncertain terrain of releasing books without the original writers to guide the reception of their various literary projects.

Historian Glen Mofford’s new nonfiction book about hotels and pubs of southwestern British Columbia (his third book of regional history) was meant to be an uncomplicated affair, but mere days before he was due to hand in the manuscript that would become Room at the Inn: Historic Hotels of British Columbia’s Southern Interior to Heritage House, catastrophe struck. Mofford died before any of the editing process had begun.

Coach House Books was put in a similar situation with RM Vaughan’s final novel Pervatory. One of Vaughan’s final wishes was for the work to be sent to the press with a view toward its eventual publication. A number of his backlist titles were with the publisher, including Bright Eyed: Insomnia and its Cultures, Troubled, The Monster Trilogy, and Camera, Woman. Coach House Books is now working with the Vaughan estate to ensure that the final piece of the New Brunswick–born writer’s sizable oeuvre honours his creative wishes.

It becomes clear when speaking with Wells, Heritage House editorial director Lara Kordic, and Coach House Books editorial director Alana Wilcox, that posthumous publishing requires a new orientation to the editing process – one that takes the form of a preservationist spirit. These presses must contend with the question of what happens when an author is unable to usher a long-gestating project through the publication process. In addition, there are the various ethical dilemmas that arise editorially when a writer is no longer present to give direction on how their work should be presented.

Wells says that Johnson and Sanger knew that their illnesses created a race against the clock, and that the editorial work for those books was completed as any other project in Biblioasis’s 19-year history. In the case of Heighton, his death meant that stories had to be left out of Drowning because editor John Metcalf had not been able to work on the pieces with Heighton’s input.

“You’re a little more limited in the editorial interventions and the push and pull that can go into a finished manuscript,” Wells says about the process. On the ethos of preservation, Wells is quick to point out that this “spirit enters the whole project,” and that there is an “extra layer of responsibility in these situations.”

These thoughts are echoed by Kordic at Heritage House, who believes that the best way to protect a writer’s legacy will always be to “respect the author’s vision for the book.”

“We didn’t change it drastically,” she says, “and we didn’t alter it to suit our own needs. We kept his work intact.”

Kordic does acknowledge that Karla Decker, the editor assigned to work on Room at the Inn, needed to take more of an “involved approach to editing” at times. “When you’re working directly with an author, you might have more of a lighter touch,” Kordic says. This approach became impossible, as there was no one to review suggested changes – Mofford’s literary executor also died during the book’s editorial process, which resulted in Decker making certain executive changes with the Mofford estate’s blessing. Kordic is quick to point out that the text survives as Mofford delivered it, and that changes could not be considered more than superficial “polishes.”

For Wilcox, the editorial pressures of shaping a posthumous title were informed by her previous work with Vaughan. “Richard loved to be edited ruthlessly,” she says. “I know we would have had an intense editorial process on this book, so I’m trying to imagine what that would be like without taking too many liberties.”

“It’s not my book and I don’t want to edit it into my book,” Wilcox says. “I’m aware it’s kind of his last word, and I don’t want to take away from that.”

Wilcox will run all substantive edits by the executors of Vaughan’s estate, who will have an “important hand” in deciding which proposed changes to reject or accept. “The ethics of all of it are being aware of what Richard would have wanted.”

Once a posthumous work has made it through the editorial process, the questions around marketing that follow are hardly straightforward. “How do you respectfully and appropriately market a book?” Wells muses. “How do you even give a book a public life when the author is deceased?”

Joan Johnson, Harold R. Johnson’s wife, CBC host Shelagh Rogers, and members from the Indigenous community ensured that The Power of Story received a “proper public send-off,” and Steven Heighton’s partner, the poet Ginger Pharand, will be “extremely active” in the media engagements for Instructions for the Drowning, Wells says.

Mofford had arranged for Greg Nesteroff, another historian, to write the foreword to Room at the Inn, which presented an elegant solution to the problem of framing the book (publishing in May) from a marketing perspective for Heritage House. Nesteroff will be speaking with the media as the book’s unofficial spokesperson, and will be able to convey Mofford’s footprint as a writer and historian. In the cases of Richard Sanger’s Way to Go and RM Vaughan’s Pervatory, discussions about how to market these books are ongoing, though no plans have yet been finalized.

Wells perhaps summarizes the philosophies of the three presses best when he says that one must “do no harm” when engaged in an enterprise as delicate as steering a literary career to a conclusion.

“Our goal is to be as true as we can to the understanding of what the author envisioned,” Wells says. “We’re always careful, but the care in this situation is of a different nature.”

Corrections, March 22: Instructions for Drowning was the second book in a two-book deal, not the first, as originally noted. The editor for Room at the Inn is Karla Decker, not Carol Decker.