Homegrown Publishers Bloom

One of a series commissioned by the Saskatchewan Arts Alliance

By Steven Ross Smith

Almost thirty years ago, amidst an optimistic current of social and cultural awakening, a new kind of seed was being planted in Saskatoon and Moose Jaw. The yield would be a new and fertile crop for Saskatchewan – books!

In 1973, at a Saskatchewan Writers Guild meeting, a group of Moose Javians – Geoffrey Ursell, Barbara Sapergia, Robert Currie, and Gary Hyland — were discussing the absence of publishing opportunities in the province and what they could do about it. By 1975, talk turned to action when they formed a production cooperative – Thunder Creek Cooperative – which would publish under the name Coteau Books.

Meanwhile, that same year in Saskatoon, Glen and Sonia Sorestad, Neil and Susan Wagner and some friends had begun 'table-top' publishing, using the name Thistledown Press. Two early participants were printer Al Forrie and high school teacher Paddy O'Rourke.

This early publishing was labour intensive for the originators. The text would be typed, then this master would then be copied on a photocopier or jobbed out to a printer. Next it was just a matter of stapling the pages along the spine, and – voilà – a small run 'mass-produced' book, at a relatively inexpensive cost. These books – chapbooks really — were slim, monochromatic, printed on regular bond paper, with relatively plain covers. The attire was modest but the writing was good. All that was left was to have a party in someone's living room to launch and begin selling the books for a few dollars each. This was the way the first few titles were done.

Today, these idealistically founded enterprises have become far, far larger than the dreams of 1975. Some of the starters have fallen away, retired, or moved on to other literary endeavours. Gary Hyland helped found the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw in 1996, where he continues as the artistic coordinator; and Glen Sorestad became the first Saskatchewan Poet Laureate in 2000.

Five originals are still involved in these two presses, and are operating with the same fervour. Geoffrey Ursell and Barbara Sapergia now live in Saskatoon (they are husband and wife). Ursell is the President and Publisher of Coteau heading an eight-member Board of co-owners. That Board still includes Bob Currie and Barbara Sapergia — who is also an important editorial influence — and members from other parts of the province. Al Forrie and Paddy O'Rourke remain as partners at the helm of Thistledown.

Coteau was started with each of the four members putting in $135 to publish the first books. Thistledown's costs and tasks were shared in a similar way. Today the total revenues of these two publishers amount to over a million dollars a year.

The personalities involved in the presses are distinctive. Geoffrey Ursell, a fiction writer, poet, playwright, songwriter, script writer and television producer is a quiet, and determined man. Barbara Sapergia is a writer, editor, television and film scriptwriter. She has helped develop the press's children's program and has edited over twenty of these titles. Geoffrey and Barbara have worked in the arts as creators and facilitators with remarkable dedication most of their working lives.

Al Forrie is a one-time printer who brought his printing knowledge to Thistledown in the early days, and then went on to become a high school English teacher at Saskatoon's Evan Hardy Collegiate, all the while maintaining involvement with Thistledown. He is the expressive and outgoing face of Thistledown. Paddy O'Rourke, a now retired teacher (also at Evan Hardy), brings a fever for language and literature, and a penchant for impassioned statements delivered with his Irish lilt.

The common thread for these four is an incredible tenacity fed by a passion for literature, a love of reading, and total immersion in the world of words, narratives, poetics, ink and paper — the materials of the literature of Canada.

So far these presses together have published over 500 original titles – trade books with well-designed, glossy covers, and perfect-bound spines. They have branched out to include writers from all parts of Canada and abroad, but maintain a very strong list of Saskatchewan writers including Arthur Slade, Lois Simmie, John V. Hicks, Rod MacIntyre and Shelley Leedahl, to name just a few.

Nowadays book publishing is a highly competitive field that requires considerable and multi-faceted knowledge and business acumen. In almost thirty years, these four publishers have learned volumes about financing, distribution, marketing, design, planning, and more – essential practices to insure survival.

There have been plenty of hard challenges, including the 2002 bankruptcy of Stoddart Publishers and General Distribution, which resulted in significant lost revenues for both presses. Both have weathered this storm, and found new distributors — Coteau with Fitzhenry and Whiteside, and Thistledown with Literary Press Group Distribution — and both have been experiencing strong 2002-2003 sales.

Successful books have helped keep these presses viable. Thistledown publishes, in O'Rourke's terms, “the most sophisticated young adult (ages 12-18) literature in Canada.” This seems proven by the fact that Thistledown has books on every secondary school curriculum in the country. “It's because of teacher response,” claims Forrie.

Two significant books that broke open the educational market for Thistledown are Blue Jean Collection edited by Peter Carver, and Paradise Cafe and Other Stories, written by Martha Brooks. Saskatchewan author Rod MacIntyre has a string of very successful books that he's written or edited for Thistledown, including Yuletide Blues and his brand new collection of stories entitled Revved. Emerging poet Sheri Benning's Earth After Rain won two Saskatchewan Book Awards in 2002. Recently, Tess Fragoulis' book Ariadne's Dream has been nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Very successful in financial terms is their 2000 title Prisoner in a Red-Rose Chain by Jeffrey Moore, which won the World Commonwealth Prize and has significant rights sales in Spain, Japan, Germany, U.K, and the U.S.A. In 2001 Thistledown launched a new non-fiction direction with The Eye in the Thicket, edited by Seán Virgo, the first of a series of collections of natural history essays. And Thistledown's list has an edgy quality, making room for innovative or unusual writing. O'Rourke says, “We're willing to publish risky books, for example In Light of Chaos by Béla Szabados.”

Coteau too has its winners, including the landmark success Gold on Ice: The Story of the Sandra Schmirler Curling Team by Guy Scholz. Since 1999 it has sold over twenty thousand copies and has given Coteau three years of strong sales, and access to new markets.

Just last fall, Coteau's A Song for Nettie Johnson, by writer Gloria Sawai, won the 2002 Governor General's Fiction Award. And Lori Miseck's eloquent and distinctive A Promise of Salt is on the short-list for the prestigious Pearson Writers Development Trust Non-Fiction Award. Saskatoon authors Martha Blum, Brenda Baker, Leona Theis, and Elizabeth Philips have all won Saskatchewan Book Awards for books published by Coteau.

Coteau credits the diversity of its list, now at twenty and more titles a year, with its growth in sales. They have also made a mark in novels for “middle readers” — readers ages eight to twelve. This includes their In the Same Boat series, which was supported by the Canada Council for the Arts Millennium Arts Grant program. Among other successes are the Tunnels series by Mary Harelkin Bishop, and Pelly by Dave Glaze. A new series, Canadian Chills, by Arthur Slade has just begun.

Thistledown and Coteau remain committed to publishing poetry, short stories, plays and novels. These form the foundation of a national literature. Literary presses (of which there are close to fifty in Canada) like these two are a vital part of Canadian literature, which is making itself known in North America and abroad.

These days, most international book awards contain Canadian titles on their short-lists. Such achievements have been fostered by forty years of assistance from public cultural agencies such as those that support Coteau and Thistledown – the Saskatchewan Arts Board, the Canada Council for the Arts, the Department of Canadian Heritage and other agencies.

This support is essential, as the publishers vie for sales in a market flooded with competition, especially from the USA. American books are backed by massive promotion budgets, and economies of scale which reduce production costs to levels unattainable for our own homegrown books.

However Ursell notes that sales are just one way to look at the value of Coteau and Thistledown. These businesses provide salaried jobs, revenue to writers, and they stimulate the provincial economy by employing local businesses and services. They attract dollars into the province that would otherwise not get here, from sales, and also from funding available from federal agencies. If there were no publishers in Saskatchewan to receive this funding, the money would all go to other provinces.

The economic impact of these two presses is hard to measure, but a modest multiplier factor of five is sometimes used. If we calculate total revenues of the two at $1,200,000 annually then we can estimate the 'ripple effect' of their presence in the province at six million dollars a year.

Aside from cash value, these industries are an important component in a literary and cultural community. The presses foster vitality in this community – a network of writers, artists, publishers, and organizations including the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, Sage Hill Writing Experience, Festival of Words, and other cultural enterprises. All these organizations stimulate cultural vitality and the general economy. But most importantly, Thistledown and Coteau assist the careers of Saskatchewan and Canadian writers by offering an avenue to publication.

Both presses credit their hard-working staffs and associates for significant contribution to their success over the years. “It's been a thrilling journey,” Geoffrey Ursell says. “There's been so much hard work by our Board and staff, so much to learn, but after all of that, there's the moment when you hold the book in your hand and know it was worth doing.” Sapergia agrees. “It's a thrill when people come up to me and tell me how much they enjoy the books.”

Paddy O'Rourke, an eloquent man, with a sharp and sometimes wry view of things says “It's a privilege to be in the position to bring new literature to the market. We're breaking the rules by being a publisher in the hinterland. We're creating a social fabric here, in a place considered to be the back of beyond.”

Coteau Books and Thistledown Press are driven by different personalities and literary tastes. Though they're in a kind of benign competition, they respect each other's presence. Al Forrie says, “We're two branches of the same tree, two rocks in the same river.”

And as we know, in this province, trees and rivers, and even rocks, are resources to be treasured.


Steven Ross Smith is a poet, fiction writer, and reviewer living in Saskatoon.

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