Beth Follett, Pedlar Press
Beth Follett started Pedlar Press in Toronto in 1997. She has since issued books by such celebrated novelists, poets and artists as Camilla Gibb, Ken Sparling, Souvankham Thammavongsa, Fiona Smyth and Lorenz Peter. You can read about some of her books by clicking on the cover images at right. Beth's authors and books have won such honours as the Toronto Book Award, The Trillium Award, the ReLit Award for excellence in poetry, the Doug Wright Best Emerging talent award, and an Alcuin Society citation for excellence in book design. Her own novel, Tell It Slant, was published in 2001 by Toronto's Coach House Books. Looking back over a decade of publishing, Beth Follet talks with pagesbooks.ca editor Shaun Smith.
Shaun Smith: What were you doing before you started Pedlar and what compelled you to start the press?
Beth Follett: For about 23 years I worked in social services. Mostly I worked with native peoples in Manitoba, and I worked with women coming out of psychiatric hospitals here, sexual abuse survivors, the homeless, battered women. In a number of different capacities. Finally I was working in an administrative position and it was very far away from my dream to write and to be involved in the publishing industry. Not as a publisher. I never had a dream to be a publisher. But I had a dear friend named Donny Morden. Donny had been a social worker also and it had drained him as it was draining me, and he kept saying, "Honey, you should get out of social work and get into the arts." So, this had been his mantra for me for many years. There was just this confluence of activity. I left a contract job working with Homes for Society, in Toronto. And less than a month after leaving, Donny died of AIDS. I knew he was dying. It wasn't unexpected, but it was sudden nevertheless, and I was the executor of his estate.
I had no job. I was on Unemployment Insurance at the time, and they had just introduced a self-employment assistance program at the federal level, and my project officer looked at me and said, "You could run a business. You have all the skills to run a business. What would you like to do? Isn't there something you'd like to do?" And I was a little bit insecure, I was vulnerable, because I was tired from social services, I was grief stricken, and I had this voice inside my head saying "stop working in social services". And it was just around that time that the original Coach House Press went down, and that was a publisher I had discovered when I was 16. I really revered Stan Bevington and Coach House, and I thought, that is such a gap. I thought, I'm going to start a literary press. Crazy. I mean, I had never worked in publishing. I didn't even know if I could edit. I'm not the dullest bulb in the chandelier, but you've got to learn a lot of things to run a press single-handedly. But I was a little bit desperate too. I was not happy being so far away from my own writing. It was a bit of a wildcard that came to me, so I did it. I put out notices in writers' periodicals and the writers' union asking for manuscripts. It took me a year to find one that I was ready to publish. The first book, Sex Libris, by Antonella Brion, was published in 1997.
Shaun: Where did the name Pedlar Press come from?
Beth: I was always aware of Pushcart Press in the United states, so I liked what was being suggested by that name. Then I found out that Walt Whitman pedaled Leaves of Grass door to door in America. Can you imagine? A queer poet in a time when if you were a door-to-door salesman you'd better have something that was important to have in the house, useful and important. And so he did.
I thought if I can remember that story at all times while I am directing and envisioning Pedlar, that would be good. Just the idea of someone having so much courage, and so much grace and so much love with this book of literature - which at the time, he didn't know what it would be - I love that. The idea of talking to people is important to me. I'm a bit of a luddite. I resist certain types of technology and certain types of promotion for Pedlar. I would rather be seen on my bike with the books and make myself into more of a curiosity, rather than the same-old same-old.
Shaun: I think for a press of this size, ten years is a real accomplishment. What has given Pedlar its longevity?
Beth: Donny left me his estate. I had forty-thousand surprise dollars to sink into Pedlar in those first years, so I wasn't in debt as I started up and produced those first four books. And I was also, for that first year, collecting Unemployment Insurance because I was successful in that self-employment assistance application. I was given a full 52-week extension when I was accepted into the program, and I went through a 5-week intensive program on how to write a business plan. So that money helped me.
Also, I have watched start-up literary publishers who, maybe unlike me, are dug in with their lifestyle and need a certain amount of money to keep things going. But I am a little bit of a gypsy, and I don't mind not making very much money. In fact, it is kind of thrilling, in a way, to see that you can survive, and somewhat well, on very little money. I wasn't trying to make a lot of money. I never had the idea that I could possibly make money. I mean, it's surprising to me now how much knowledge I actually had about Dennis Lee's life, Stan Dragland's life - you know, the people who started Brick Books and House of Anansi. And Stan Bevington. I knew these were not people who were rolling in dough, but they had done things for the culture that were irreplaceable. And that's what I was interested in.
So, I think partly it was because I had that great gift from Donny that helped me, and partly because I didn’t have high needs of my own, which meant my draw could be $10-thousand or less for those first years. Well, actually there was no draw. But I got to the place where Pedlar was eligible for Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council money, so I met their grant requirements.
Maybe the third thing is that I spent a lot of time on, and am careful about, creating beautiful books. That has always been seriously clear to me from the start. People use to pick up Sex Libris and say to me, I'm going to frame this after I've read it. And I could tell that beauty is key for a lot of book buyers. They're excited by that.
Shaun: What's the most challenging aspect of running a small press?
Beth: I think it's important to say it is a one-woman operation. Which means I have to take care of everything. So it can be challenging to keep all the balls in the air at all times. And watching the industry go into the place where it is currently is frightening. So I think managing my anxiety about resources can sometimes be more challenging than I can talk about. I'll start my day working in my notebook and I'm counting ... counting, counting, counting ... with always the question, can I stop worrying? Where do I think real money is going to come from? You have to live on a bit of faith and a lot of uncertainty. But still do everything. You can't suddenly panic and go off in one direction madly and leave a lot of things undone. You have to keep the whole thing rolling along, so it has to go slow. Whatever is dragging has to be taken care of.
I get a lot of people telling me what I should do. They don't understand a bloody thing about how important it is to keep the whole thing rolling as one. But, oh, people have a lot of ideas on how I could be even more successful!
I'm one person with my own life and the things I mean to do in it. I'm trying to be a writer and have a community that I support and care about and that cares about me. It is very interesting how free the world is with telling me how I can do something better when in fact I think I'm doing a very good job.
Shaun: What's the most rewarding thing about running a small press?
Beth: I find it very rewarding to have at this time very well-respected authors approaching me with their manuscripts. My mandate is to publish new, lively work by either emerging voices or well-established voices, and some very well-established literary voices are approaching Pedlar. I think it is because of the house's reputation for excellence. And that makes me very happy. They must know that it will be a great help to the house, to lend their names. They're going to bring larger audiences and it's going to help the house have greater resources to direct towards younger writers. My heart sails when I get such a call.
Shaun: With a fairly limited number of books issued each year, how do you decide what to publish?
Beth: There's an instinct in me that's hard to break down and describe. This is not the first time an interviewer has asked that question. There are a number of things that can make or break the decision. I could be looking at the exact same quality of work, or level of expertise, or gift with language, but I'm reading something else - and this must be my years as a therapist and person working deeply with the human heart and soul - because if I think there is a person who has a deeper commitment to the enterprise, and who is not maybe looking for instant fame and fortune - and I can pick this up very quickly - I'm going to go with that type of person, who isn't going to be as high-maintenance for the house. I am always going to go in that direction, because a high-maintenance author can take this house down. I only have so much time. So if I have someone who is always phoning, or always needing something and requiring attention and taking attention away from others, that's a bad scene. Excellence is always the key issue. Sometimes I just feel something in a young voice, but the manuscript is going to need a lot of work from me. I'm digging in and they're learning, so it's like a workshop. But there will be something about that manuscript and something about the author herself or himself that makes me think I want to support this person - I want to support this person the writer, and I want to support the manuscript.
Lorenz Peter is a perfect example. He needed a supportive other to come into his life and break his isolation. He did not have confidence and he did not know how to see himself in relation to other graphic workers. He had worked too much in isolation. His life had had its own troubles. But I thought he had some great talent there. And Fiona Smyth confirmed that there was some talent there that needed to be supported.
Lorenz just blossomed after that first book, Chaos Mission, was released in 2003. And then in 2005 we did the second work, Dark Adaptation, which is about the death of his mother. And then he won the Doug Wright Best Emerging Talent award in fall 2006. Who was on that jury? Atom Egoyan, Gail Singer, and Chester Brown. Fantastic. So now, he has this kind of support in the world. Nothing is changing in terms of his practice or direction, except that he now has more confidence. He's still being as experimental as ever.
Same with Souvankham Thammavongsa. Michael Ondaatje and Dionne Brand got behind her. You know, powerfully, as a debut poet. Forget about the human now, we're talking about these literary works coming into the culture. And they live long. Maybe these are works that will not be forgotten in twenty years, but rather around for a while, or at least be pointers on a map somehow to people coming behind.
(Photo courtesy of Beth Follett.)