ECW Press bucking the trends in publishing industry

For local book publisher Jack David, success isn’t about toasting 40 years of ECW Press.

It’s not about Giller Prize nods, the LA Times bestsellers list, or even knocking a wall out to expand ECW’s long-time office at Hammersmith and Queen.

“Here’s success,” David says. “You come into work, you put your key in the door, and they haven’t changed the locks.”

Co-publishers Jack David, front right, and David Caron, front left, gather with ECW Press staff in the local publisher’s in-house library. ECW recently celebrated 40 years in Canadian publishing, as well as the selection of two of its authors for the Giller Prize long list.  PHOTO: Andrew Hudson
Co-publishers Jack David, front right, and David Caron, front left, gather with ECW Press staff in the local publisher’s in-house library. ECW recently celebrated 40 years in Canadian publishing, as well as the selection of two of its authors for the Giller Prize long list.
PHOTO: Andrew Hudson

Today, ECW has 16 staff, and so long as their keys work, they can go into the room that holds ECW’s entire back catalogue and find nearly 1,000 books on the walls.

Publisher’s Weekly has called ECW one of North America’s most diversified publishers, and while David said he gave them that line, it holds true. Among ECW’s greatest hits are The Death of World Championship Wrestling and Joni Mitchell: In Her Own Words. Its all-time bestseller, Ghost Rider, is a motorcycle memoir by Rush drummer Neil Peart, who rode 55,000 miles to Belize and back after his wife and daughter died just 10 months apart.

But when David started it, in 1974, ECW was nothing like it is now — an indie press that publishes 50 books a year, on everything from Animals to True Crime.

“No, it was just a joke,” said David.

Back then, David was a grad student at York University. One day, while waiting for a poetry prof, someone asked what they should do with the money they got for the English grad students’ association — the year before, they got $400 and threw a beer party.

“Four hundred bucks could buy a lot of beer in ‘73,” said David, appreciatively.

But for some reason, that day he bucked popular wisdom and said, “Let’s start a magazine.”

David says he still doesn’t know why he said it. At that point, his only publishing experience was a pair of defunct newspapers — Camp and the New Moon Sun — that he had printed on wax presses while working as a summer camp counsellor north of Montreal.

But the magazine idea took off. Called Essays on Canadian Writing, it had two unpaid staff, David and fellow grad student Robert Lecker.

It ran at “break-loss.” But almost single-handedly, David and Lecker had doubled the number of serious Canadian literature journals to two.

“We were like, three years old,” David joked. “But we were very advanced.”

Academics paid very little attention to Canadian writers back then, he explained, especially for writers still on this side of the border.

One fuddy-duddy told David that you had to wait for a writer to die before you could write his or her biography, since you had to weigh their whole life’s work.

But when issue one of ECW came out, it had a picture of a nickel on the cover — a gesture to poet bpNichol, whose entire output was listed inside. He was 30 years old.

Later, David and Lecker did the same thing for Margaret Atwood when she had just three novels and a book of poetry out.

“At that point, or any point, people take you to task and ask, ‘Well, how do you know? How do you know he’s going to be any good?’” said David. “Of course, if you’d written about Paul McCartney when he was 19, you would’ve got the same reaction.”

In the catalogue room at ECW Press office, all the titles are ordered by year. Up to the mid-1980s, all the books are bound with solid blue or brown hardcovers — the snoozy stuff of university libraries.

In fact, David said, in those years ECW was basically doing the sort of “big, heavy research-orientated activity that a university press should have done, because they would have had the funding.”

While ECW did win some grants, and still does, it was struggling. And in 1995, when Mike Harris got elected Ontario premier, that struggle became life-or-death.

With no warning, Harris cut funding to arts council grants, a loan program and the Ontario Publishing Centre. Jean Chretien and Paul Martin soon made similar cuts at the federal level.

A few shelves over from the brown and blue “serious stuff,” David picks out the book that pointed the way out: The Duchovny Files: The Truth Is in Here.

Green and glossy outside, it has a full-colour photo spread on X-Files star David Duchovny in the middle, including one of him shirtless, plus instructions for a Duchovny drinking game and a reprinted Mad Magazine spoof of the show.

“It was fun,” said David. “We’d never done that before — we didn’t know what colour was.”

Duchovny Files was ECW’s first true trade book, designed to sell not just in Canada, but worldwide. It did well, as did the sequel on Duchovny’s co-star Gillian Anderson, Mulder, It’s Me.

That same year, ECW put out a huge biography of blues legend Muddy Waters, based on interviews with the likes of James Cotton and B.B. King. It, too, had a photo spread, 48 black-and-whites that show Water’s life from his childhood home to his grave.

ECW was delving into pop culture to reach a broad audience, but it still applied the research skills that worked in academia. Author bibliographies gave way to blues discographies and lists of the world’s worst TV wrestlers.

But now ECW could also print more Canadian fiction and poetry, an easy switch, David joked, since they had literally started out by writing the book on who all the best Can lit authors were.

Asked if its pop-culture titles were bankrolling more “serious” work, David flipped the question to ECW co-publisher David Caron, who joined the company in 2004 and recently took ownership.

“The answer is no,” said Caron. “The deal with each book is that it has to fend for itself.”

A book of poetry that sells 300 to 500 copies is a success, he said. For a Canadian novel, the number might be 2,000. To make a US bestseller list, the bar rises to about 40,000, though it can swing wildly from season to season and, in the end, not matter much to readers.

Whether it’s a Taylor Swift biography or Black Rock, by Beach mystery writer John McFetridge, Caron said the publishing rule of thumb is that a book needs seven hits to sell — a post on a trendy blog, a feature review, a radio interview, a Giller Prize nomination.

“But the primary thing that sells books is still word of mouth,” he said. “It’s still about people saying, ‘Oh man, I just read this book on Joni Mitchell — it’s fantastic.’”

Still, not all lists are created equal, and it was a red-letter day this fall when everyone at ECW found out they had not one, but two authors long-listed for the Giller Prize — Arjun Basu for Waiting for the Man and Jennifer LoveGrove for Watch How We Walk.

“It was as if you had a cat who was pregnant, and one little kitten popped out and you went, ‘Isn’t she cute?’” said David. “And then about 10 minutes later, another kitten popped out.”

Only a dozen authors made the Giller longlist this year, which was chosen from 161 books by 63 different publishers across the country.

“One’s a fluke,” added David, smiling. “Two is ‘Something’s going on.’”

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