A small complaint about Canadian Small Presses

I really should get into discussing the terrible transformations of traditional publishing over the past several decades, but references to the insidious changes in that industry can be found elsewhere in my writing, and, in spades, from other writers. Not all is well with the government-funded small presses either, as the following letter–in a small way– indicates. My complaint is only one of many that could be leveled against these firms, which is not to say they aren’t absolutely vital to Canadian culture, if only to counteract some of the evils of the big guys!

4 February, 2002
Mr. Gordon Platt
Chief Officer
Writing and Publishing Division
The Canada Council

Dear Mr. Platt,

I suppose that the Writing and Publishing Division at the Council sometimes gets feedback from writers about their experiences with Canadian publishers, and that is what this letter is.

I have dealt with five separate Canadian small presses during the past twelve months, either as a published writer, or as one submitting projects, and some of my experiences seem worth reporting, since I know the Council is interested in and spends time and money monitoring those arts organizations (including publishers) that it supports.

As you may or may not know, I have written fairly extensively about Canadian culture, and am a great supporter of government funding of the arts, even though I have occasionally criticized or challenged details of various programs, where I thought there were problems, and in order to stimulate discussion about the status quo. I am familiar with most of the difficulties that small presses in this country presently face and am sympathetic to the difficult task of the Council in funding our arts groups creatively and fairly, so as to continue to build on the fine achievements of previous decades.

To put it bluntly, I believe the Council should assume and probably does assume that since it distributes taxpayers’ money to our small presses, arts companies etc., it has the right to require some basic standards of performance and administration, which is why these are monitored regularly.

I am writing to report a particularly shoddy performance on the part of one publisher and to suggest, from other experiences, both good and bad, that there is a real need for a set of standards, or guiding principles, so that the treatment of writers dealing with Council-supported firms will not vary so absurdly from instance to instance.

Nobody wants–and writers least of all–and I think the Council is sensitive to this–the dead hand of a uniformizing bureaucracy laid on our small presses. On the other hand, some basic principles of ethical and professional behavior ought to be demanded of firms that are using taxpayers’ dollars to stay afloat. From a libertarian or “arm’s length” point of view that may be a pity—but there it is.

I’ll begin with the bad experience.

In December 2000, I submitted the manuscript of a mid-grade novel A Message from Galador to Annick Press, Toronto. This was done in proper format, with a covering letter explaining my credentials, a summary of the novel, the actual manuscript, and a stamped self-addressed envelope, so that they could acknowledge receipt. (Because of a millennium bug my computer dated my cover letter December, 2001, instead of 2000, but Annick’s response doesn’t quarrel with the submission date I cite), and my postal records show that it was December 19, 2000. The year 2001 was a busy one for me, however, and I did not follow up with a query on my submission until September 2001. Annick replied at that time that they had not received the manuscript until June 26, 2001. Now either the postal service was unthinkably bad or else, as another small press publisher promptly suggested to me: “they’re lying.” Would I have heard from them at all if I hadn’t queried? Probably not.

In the same letter Annick told me that I would “likely” receive a response in October 2001. I did not, and on January 15, 2002 I queried them again. They did not answer, but on January 28 I received a “communication” from them (dated 22 January, 2002). I am enclosing a copy of this amazing document. Upon receiving it, I requested that they let me know the amount of postage I should send to get my manuscript back (in my original letter I had said they needn’t return it). So far they have not replied. Nor—no doubt for obvious reasons—will they.

Before I summarize, let me repeat that I understand that Canada’s small presses are generally understaffed and swamped with submissions. I know this not only from reports, but also first hand as a writer, and because my younger son interned with such a press for a week during 2001. I don’t expect any small press to decide on submissions in a few weeks, or even months, and I know that many of the manuscripts such presses receive are not worth seriously considering. The following is also true, however.

It took Annick thirteen months to reply to my queries, and they did so only minimally and under pressure. This is bad enough, but would not have been unforgivable if I had received a serious reply at the end of that time.

Their reply, however, is not only inadequate but also insulting. One might possibly expect form replies from a magazine, or might understand why a publisher would use a checklist for obviously deranged submissions, but one should certainly not hold the work of a serious professional author for that length of time, without reading it–for their checklist betrays all too clearly that they in fact never read the manuscript. That it “does not fit their publishing program” is nonsense–if that were the case I would not have submitted it–although I realize that is a code term for “we just don’t want to deal with it.” Fine, but then return the manuscript immediately, not under pressure from the author thirteen months later, after discarding the manuscript—against the expressed wishes of the writer with whom you have exchanged emails.

Certainly the fact that Annick have not replied to my request for its return indicates to me that they probably discarded the manuscript some time ago, or as soon as they sent their checklist rejection. That is inexcusable, since I asked them in advance (see the enclosed copy of our email exchange) to let me know about the postage. I have good reason for wanting the manuscript back, because a computer problem resulted in my losing part of the revisions, which I presume Annick’s terrible performance has now rendered irrecoverable.

If you look at Annick’s web site, you will find that consider themselves a responsible and leading publisher of children’s books; in fact they credit themselves with being “one of Canada’s most successful children’s book publishing companies,” [with a] “a commitment to developing high-quality books for children and teens that both entertain and challenge.” You will see also that they do in fact accept unsolicited submissions. In my opinion the gap between their claims and their performance suggests either professional dishonesty or downright inefficiency of the most blatant kind.

Other Canadian small presses are dealing well with manuscripts. During the same period, I also submitted projects and manuscripts to Broadview Press and Orca Books. Broadview immediately acknowledged the submission, kept me posted on changes of date connected with their reading of the material, and sent me an exhaustive evaluation of the project, one that has enabled me to begin to execute a creative revision. The managing editor of Orca, a very small press, I believe, immediately wrote me a letter explaining how long it would take him to get to the manuscript. He kept to his deadline, and although he decided against taking on the project, his letter showed that he had read the manuscript. Both of these responses took about six months, a very reasonable waiting time.

May I suggest that the Council could do Canadian professional authors a great service by insisting that the firms they subsidize adhere to something like the following principles:

If a firm has no efficient means of handling unsolicited manuscripts it should not accept them.

If such manuscripts are encouraged, they should be processed within a reasonable time (six to eight months maximally).

Authors who submit manuscripts that are held for that length of time should receive at least some minimal commentary on the work submitted. A check-list will simply not do.

Authors’ inquiries, assuming they are professional and straightforward, should be answered promptly, and firms should not pretend that manuscripts sent months before have “just arrived.”

I have had many other dubious experiences with Canadian small presses in the past few years, some of them rather unbelievable, unless one is in the business. One firm lost its computer version of my manuscript, thus delaying the book’s arrival by several months; the same firm changed large bits of my editorial copy without informing me (I only caught it at the last minute). They also sent the wrong books to one launching and no books at all to two other launchings. When the Canadian Embassy in Mexico asked to buy a dozen copies of the book the same firm refused to bill them without a special purchase number. I ended up using mine, thus losing the royalty payments on the books. Another firm asked me to rent a car for part of my book tour, used the car for other purposes when my tour was over, and got a traffic ticket for which I was billed! It took them seven months to pay for this and for the cost of my launching, which they had urged me to incur. This firm, however, was great at communicating and their editorial work was superb. I guess you can’t expect everything!

In the middle of putting together this letter I got an email from a another writer complaining about several aspects of his treatment by a small press–not one of the ones mentioned above–but if I were to add the second-hand stories I get from other writers about their experiences I would have to write a book about the subject. (Please be reassured that I don’t intend to!)

It is apparent to me that Canadian small presses are so improvisatory and so eccentric in their derelictions in regard to their own published writers that regulation or monitoring is nearly impossible. But it should not be impossible to create a set of standards for dealing with authorial submissions.

I know I can go to the Writer’s Union about many problems that arise between writers and publishers–and may yet do so in this case– but I wonder if the Council doesn’t have a role here as well? Would it not serve writers well if the Council insisted that subsidized firms maintain certain standards, however minimal, in their dealing with professional authors submitting manuscripts? Surely the price of subsidy is regulation—at least some regulation.

I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on this, or perhaps you could inform me of the Council’s policy on such matters. Why fund firms that behave in an irresponsible manner to Canadian authors?

Yours sincerely,

Tom Henighan


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