What knowledge and expertise have I gained at Pedlar Press over twenty-five years that might be important to pass on to young, current and would-be literary publishers? Are there bits and pieces that apply universally across class, race, gender, ability? Yes, I believe there are. First and foremost, to quote Rainer Rilke: “Be with those who know secret things, or else alone.” Literary publishers know things that aren’t generally discussed when publishing is discussed in the media. Literary publishing is not a smaller version of commercial or large-house publishing. Our markets are absolutely different. Be with other literary publishers. Join The Literary Press Group of Canada. Belong to a group, even though you’re going it alone.
Even within a group, group mind will sometimes emerge that will not embolden bright and innovative ideas, so one must have the courage to go on alone, be true to oneself. When Pedlar proposed to fellow LPG publishers that we collectively boycott Indigo Books in order to be heard, our needs being so different from those at large houses, no one would come along, afraid that authors would have negative feelings about such a move, would feel betrayed. I went on, canvassed Pedlar authors, who mostly replied, Do it!
I had the very good fortune to spend an evening in 1996 talking with American poet Adrienne Rich about my vision for Pedlar Press. She said one thing I shall never forget: “Don’t fall in love with the boys’ machinery.“ And what would I say is the boys’ machinery? Media space given over to awards talk and Best Of lists instead of reviews. Five-hundred-word reviews instead of complex critical analyses. The politics behind dumbing down. Technology’s reliance on algorithms which dictate taste, habits, purchases, ads, etc. Dictate lives. Ignorance about how readers of literature read or live in the world, and resultant misdirected and wasteful promotional campaigns.
Online activities change the way the world receives us. Pedlar has encouraged local gatherings in the sensuous rather than the virtual world. Here’s Zadie Smith on books you hold in the hand: “A book does not watch us reading it; it cannot morph itself, page by page, to suit our tastes, or deliver to us only depictions of people we already know and among whom we feel comfortable. It cannot note our reactions and then skew its stories to confirm our worldview or reinforce our prejudices. A book does not know when we pick it up and put it down; it cannot nudge us into the belief that we must look at it first thing upon waking and last thing at night, and though it may prove addictive, it will never know exactly how or why.”
I would say it’s necessary to struggle against the intense pressure to become a larger and more digitized enterprise than is suitable. I do not believe the size of the literary market in Canada has grown that much since 1996. Larger lists, larger print runs, ebook production: none of these match current literary market demands. What has grown, what is being demanded, is diversity of voice. Pedlar has been a home for marginalized excellence. Marginalized by whom? By those who believe that poetry and avant-garde fiction are irrelevant, and that a small market suggests there is little need for it. In that belief you can hear ignorance coupled with narrowly construed power. You can see how whole systems — machineries — can flow out of that belief.
A literary publisher is often incomprehensible to arts councils, governments in general, media, even some customers. You must everlastingly speak up, decline to capitulate to reductive versions of what you do. When someone benefits from an activity made invisible by their own complacency, that is the capitalist project. Because, in truth, literature makes living in this world possible for everyone. Literary publishers know that literature — work made in air — is essential.
There can be no complacency. Literary publishing is a calling, an obsession, a service committed to culture. It isn’t a career with a nice salary and two kids in the yard and a yearly vacation. Okay, rob mclennan has two kids in the yard, but ask him. Ask Alana Wilcox. Ask Gap Riot. Carl Jung said laziness was the greatest malaise of the 20th century. If you love excellence, you will not seek ways to legitimize laziness.
Back to Rilke: “it is clear that we must trust what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.”
Beth Follett is the founder, publisher, and general manager of the Canadian literary publishing house, Pedlar Press. Her first novel, Tell It Slant (Coach House Books 2001), was followed by YesNo (Fieldnotes, 2011), an essay in chapbook form, and two poetry chapbooks, Bone Hinged (paperplates, 2010) and A Thinking Woman Sleeps With Monsters (Apt. 9, 2014). Her second novel, Instructor, will be released by Breakwater Books in February 2021. Follett lives in St. John’s, NL.