Andrew Steeves, Gaspereau Press
In Jan 2007, pagesbooks.ca editor Shaun Smith interviewed Gaspereau Press publisher Andrew Steeves about operating his (and Gary Dunfield's) award-winning Kentville, Nova Scotia small press. Read the interview below, and read about some of Gaspereau's books by clicking on the cover images at right.
"Gaspereau Press, in Kentville, Nova Scotia, plays an important role publishing contemporary literature by both emerging and established Canadian authors, and as one of the few Canadian publishers that continue to print and bind their own books in-house. Gaspereau Press offers a unique but traditional publishing model that brings printing and publishing together under one roof. Its publishing program stresses the importance of quality across the entire process, from editorial and design to the manufacturing stage." – from gaspereau.com
|Publisher Andrew Steeves (R) and type designer Rod McDonald at Gaspereau Press. (photo by: Stan Bevington) |
Shaun Smith: What is your role at Gaspereau Press? Who are the other key people at the press and what do they do? What is the mandate of the press?
Andrew Steeves: Gary Dunfield and I founded the press in 1997. There's no hard and fast division, but Gary manages the printshop and the day-to-day business of accounting and banking, while I manage the publishing, the design and the letterpress side of things. Truth is, however, that its a real partnership; a great friendship underlies the business. We sometimes disagree, but I don't think we've ever argue. We simply work toward a consensus.
Kate Kennedy has gradually taken on a greater role as the editor. I suppose that she's the closest thing we have to a junior executive around here. On the whole, though, it's a team effort. There are four other people on staff right now, including Connie Sheppard and Freda Bezanson in the bindery, Marilyn MacIntyre operating a printing press, and Beth Crosby working part-time organizing readings and author tours. We ran a little bigger crew for a while, but I think that the present size better represents a staffing level that we can sustain.
On a typical week, my time is spent on a combination of planning, typesetting, reading, writing, editing, and letterpress printing. I'm pretty happy with the mix of white and blue collar work.
The press's mandate, if it has one, might well be to publish books that are as well made as the texts that they contain. We publish a range of literary texts by Canadian writers. I can't say as I have any other mandate in mind other than that main one, to publish the best work in the best way. It's the old humanist mandate.
Shaun: Gaspereau Press is in a very small group of publishers in Canada that still uses letterpresses. What is a letterpress? How does a letterpress function? What model/type of letterpress are you using?
Andrew: Letterpress, simply put, is the old printing technique developed in the 15th
|Letterpress artist Will Rueter using the Vandercook 219 press at Gaspereau Press. (photo by: Stan Bevington) |
century where raised type (usually cast in metal) is inked and impressed into paper. Likely less that 5% of the printing we do is letterpress. Most of what we do is modern offset printing. Our offset printing is done on 18 x 25 inch sheets of paper on one colour Heidelberg KORD presses. We still employ letterpress printing for most of our book covers as well as for a number of limited edition books. I don't think any other literary publishers in Canada employ letterpress in trade publishing the way that we do, however.
We do most of our letterpress work on Vandercook proof presses. They are slow but they offer great control. We also use Chandler & Price and Golding platen presses, and an Albion handpress made in 1833. Our main letterpress, a Vandercook 219, is actually located in my office, which should indicate the extent to which I'm using it.
Shaun: What qualities does using a letterpress bring that you might not be able to achieve otherwise?
Andrew: Well, the printing industry moved away from letterpress printing and adopted photo-lithographic or 'offset' printing in the twentieth century for a number of reasons, but three important ones were speed, cost and the increasing importance of photo reproduction in printing. Now we're seeing more and more reproduction being done with toner based 'digital presses' like laser printers and photocopiers. All of these reproductive techniques have pros and cons, but none can ever wholly replace the others. They all have their place, like tools in a toolbox. Of these three types of printing, I've always felt that sharpness and crisp impression of letterpress printing best served typography. I have a great interest in typography and therefore am quite fond of letterpress and use it as much as I can. Because a letterpress-printed page is three dimensional, ink impressed into paper, it's also very tactile.
Shaun: Design is obviously a huge consideration for your books. Each one seems to be almost an artifact, and some have some quite elaborate and beautiful detailing. Can you take us through a typical design process for a Gaspereau book? Who designs the books and how are the designs achieved?
Andrew: Well, yes, we do care a great deal about design, but not in the art-school sense of breaking rules and showing off just because we can. The design and manufacture of our books are meant to honour their content. That's it. End of story. It's less about creativity and self expression and more about typographic tradition and good craftsmanship.
The books are almost always designed by me; Robert Bringhurst and I have done a few things together too. The process is really quite simple. I read the books, talk with the writers, and then set the type in the best way I can think of. Covers come last (which is unusual in the trade). I don't like to set the covers until I've got the guts of the book working and really have a handle on the thing. I suppose the only reason I can get away with this is because I don't have a marketing department breathing down my neck for a cover image eight months in advance of the book's release. Being small has some real advantages.
Once, while delivering a talk at a university, I answered a similar question about design in a similar way, and I was accused by someone in the audience of being coy. After the talk was over, the same person approached me and asked me to give them the 'real' explanation of the supposedly complicated and magical process of designing books. Wanting to be a helpful and polite guest, I proceeded to give exactly the same answer as I had the first time, but I used more words. Somehow this satisfied the fellow. But the truth is that there is no magical process. If I've left anything important out, it is only the fact that I've been reading and thinking about type and book design night and day for over a decade now, teaching myself the way a carpenter learns to select a true board or a birdwatcher learns the calls of birds: Trial and error, practice, passion.
Shaun: Your papers in particular are very fine. How do the papers you use differ from the types of papers more commonly used in books?
|Publisher Gary Dunfield at Gaspereau's Vandercook Universal 1 press. (photo by: Thaddeus Holownia) |
Andrew: There's nothing particularly special about our text papers as far as the pulp involved goes, but they tend to be off white and often have a laid paper. It's not that expensive to get a reasonable paper, yet still so many publishers let their books be printed on terrible crap to save a few bucks. Anansi, for example, published some great books on paper that's lower grade than what we stock in the Gaspereau Press outhouse. We're not publishing the daily stock quotations here. We're publishing books which I want to be around and useful long after I'm dead and gone.
Some of our covers and jackets are printed on expensive stocks, however. We sometimes use handmade papers from the St. Armand mill in Montreal, as well as machine made stocks by mills like Neenah, Mohawk and Domtar which are textured and richly coloured. I prefer to use good papers and type instead of colour pictures reproduced on bland stocks and laminated.
The other thing about paper is this: If the physical book is going to survive into the next century against the onslaught of digital alternatives, publishers need to invest it their physicality. If we don't offer well made books, books where the media matters and is part of the overall experience, well, we may as well be reading off a screen. While I would be just as happy to never see another tree used to print a telephone directory or reference book, the physical book still has a role to play in our culture and is worth the investment of a tree or two.
Shaun: In terms of content, how do you choose the books that you publish each year?
Andrew: Ha! The magic question. Well, we try to pick books that we ourselves would actually like to read and re-read. We also like to be able to sell the books we publish, so we also have to think about the marketplace and what it will accept. I've sometimes published books that I knew we'd have a hard time selling, but I've rarely published books that I wouldn't personally want on my bookshelf.
I was born in 1970, so the world of Canadian literature I grew up with was partly invented by Jack McCelland and his philosophy of publishing. Like Jack, I've always felt that a publisher should publish authors, not books, so a good number of the books that we publish each year come from our stable of regulars – Tim Bowling, Jan Zwicky, Peter Sanger, Don McKay, Robert Bringhurst, John Terpstra, Susan Haley and so many others. The balance of the list is made up of books we went looking for and things we plucked out of the great pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Again, as with design, there's no magic process. You just select the books that you feel passionately about.
Shaun: Gaspereau holds an event called Wayzgoose each fall. What is a Wayzgoose and what sort of activities do you get up to at the Gaspereau Wayzgoose?
Andrew: The wayzgoose was traditionally an annual dinner given by the owner of a printing establishment for his staff. In recent times, the word has been used to describe gatherings where printers and binders show off their work for enthusiasts and collectors. We've tried to take it back to the idea of celebrating the role of a single printing establishment and to make it an event for the whole community. On a weekend in October, we bring in as many of the authors that we've published that year as we can handle and host readings, workshops, tours, and all that sort of thing. There's music, and special guests, and just a whole lot of hanging around talking. It's a real community event. It's usually the highlight of our publishing year. There are more details about wayzgoose on our website if anyone wants more background or information.
Shaun: From your perspective, what is the role of small-press publishing in Canada? Why are small presses so important to the culture?
Andrew: Small is an economic distinction having to do with the volume of books you sell or the number of people you employ. In every other sense, there is nothing small about literary presses. Their role is the same as the role of every humanist publisher since the invention of the printing press – to make the best writing and thinking of the day public and to thereby spread knowledge and understanding. Size has nothing to do with this. When a small press is on top of its game, its methods of editing, design, production and publication can contribute to the cultural dialog every bit as much as the texts they publish. Large publishers can make important cultural contributions too, but most of them do so only incidentally as the only real motivation a corporation can have is to be profitable for its shareholders. Small presses tend to have other motivations, and although they must also operate in the marketplace, profit is not their primary concern. Culture is their primary concern.
Shaun: 2007 was your 10th anniversary. What's in store from Gaspereau over the coming years?
Andrew: Well, on the production side we've just started making hardcover books in-house – something Gary and I have been working toward for some time. Most of the process is being done manually, a hundred books at a time sort of thing, but they are intended as trade editions, not specials. I'm pretty excited about that. I've also be talking with a friend of mine about setting up and making some handmade paper in a serious way, but that dream might be a long way off yet.
We've also got several new limited edition letterpress projects underway for 2008, with authors like Tim Bowling, Don McKay and Henry David Thoreau (who refuses to answer my emails).
On the trade publishing side, we're still developing the list. Here, it's not so much a question of innovation as it is one of consistency and diligence. It's important that people know that when they buy a Gaspereau book it's going to be worth reading and re-reading, that both the text and the book will be sufficiently well made to be a life-long companion. That's a big challenge.
Customers will always find a wide selection of Gaspereau Press titles in our small press, poetry and other sections at Pages Books & Magazines. And if it's not in stock, we'll be happy to order it for you.
(All photos courtesy of Gaspereau Press.)