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Keeping a Body of Critical Literature Alive

Canadian Politics

Errol Sharpe does not have a corner office in a towering skyscraper. The view from his desk is not of the Toronto skyline, but of Croucher, Wood and Strawberry Island in the quiet cove of St. Margaret’s Bay. It is here, in Black Point, Nova Scotia, that Fernwood Publishing has its national office, publishing critical non-fiction that challenges existing scholarship on issues of race, economics, trade, globalization, gender, labour and numerous other social issues.

Topics Bigger Publishers Wouldn’t Touch

Sharpe is a managing editor and founder of Fernwood Publishing, which began operating in August, 1991. Since then, the company has published over 200 titles. Fernwood’s focus is in social sciences and humanities, with an aim to “get out perspectives that aren’t normally talked about and get out voices that aren’t normally heard,” according to Larissa Holman, Fernwood’s manager of promotions and public relations. As a result, many of the books published by Fernwood are by first-time authors, often from under-represented groups of people, like First Nations communities. “We publish books by people who otherwise might have a hard time getting published on topics bigger publishers wouldn’t touch.” explains Sharpe.

“Publishing a book is a political act. It’s not just an economic act,” insists Wayne Antony, Sharpe’s business partner and a managing editor for Fernwood. “The big publishers see it only as an economic act, but it’s still a political act. Their kind of politics.” Antony is concerned by the limited perspective being published today: “There are so few voices. More and more, book publishing is being taken over by huge multinationals. It’s hard to find books in the anti-capitalist or anti-racist genre. And today’s world needs those books. And wants those books.”

The Struggle to Read

Whether people want them or not, they will have difficulty finding them in the sprawling big-box bookstores that have become fixtures of North American suburbia. It is not only publishing that is being taken over by large multinationals. According to Sharpe, 70 to 80 per cent of the retail market is controlled by Chapters. “It’s a huge struggle,” says Beverly Rach, manager of production for Fernwood. “In the big-box world, there are very few independent bookstores, and within those few there are fewer that try to offer an alternative perspective. The market is tenuous, because there are a couple of big companies that are dictating the terms to small publishing companies like us.”

Fernwood has evaded this problem to some extent by establishing a niche market in academic publishing. The small publisher sells the bulk of its books to universities, where professors are looking for an alternative and distinctly Canadian perspective. “I think that it’s important for Canadian students to be educated in a milieu that’s Canadian, not American,” says Sharpe, who is disturbed by the fact that many of the large textbooks still used in Canadian universities are, in fact, American. “If education takes place within a context where you’re talking about the U.S. instead of Canada, our cultural identity begins to break down.”

A Marketing Outlet for the Left

Fernwood Publishing has gladly taken up the role of publishing the risky Canadian stuff, and Fernwood Books is luckily around to distribute it. Long before Sharpe became involved in publishing books, he was selling them. “I guess when I started Fernwood Books, one of my feelings about the Left was that we tended to publish books, but didn’t do much about marketing them or selling them. The idea was to provide a marketing outlet for a lot of Left books and to distribute them across the country.” Sharpe co-founded Fernwood Books in 1978, and today it distributes for 17 independent publishers in Canada, including Zed Books, Insomniac Press, Between The Lines and, of course, Fernwood Publishing. “For me, what’s been most rewarding about this is that we’ve been able to disseminate a lot of these progressive books to a lot of people that probably wouldn’t have seen them otherwise.” Sharpe’s interest in the book industry has clearly been guided by his politics rather than economic or business interests. And, according to Antony, that’s part of what makes Fernwood what it is. “Everyone who works for Fernwood is quite politically active. What we do for work is just an extension of that – I love what I do. I love books, and I love the kinds of books we publish.” And, in today’s working world, having a job that you love and believe in is pretty radical in itself. “The opportunity to work for pay in an environment that was involved in leftist politics was something I was very interested in,” says Rach. “I had been working a lot as an activist, but never for pay. Even though working at a publishing company isn’t grassroots organizing, to have an opportunity to be employed in leftist work – that’s pretty great.”

Challenging the “Centric” Mentality

Even better is the fact that Fernwood offers meaningful work in areas outside of southern Ontario. Fernwood has offices in both Black Point, Nova Scotia and Winnipeg, Manitoba. “I think it’s a political act in and of itself,” says Rach. “To challenge the Upper-Canadian-centric mentality that this country has: that, if you want to operate as a national organization, you have to be Upper Canadian-focused or Toronto-based.” Antony believes Fernwood’s locations have produced a more diverse spectrum of authors. “Having us in the maritimes and prairies gives people in those areas more opportunities to be published.”

Fernwood’s politics extend beyond what books and authors are published, to how books are published. Although Sharpe was the technical owner of the company for several years, it has always been important to him that Fernwood operates in a way that encourages everyone to feel ownership over the work that they do. “I’ve always believed that if people are interested in what they’re doing and like what they’re doing, then I’d like to give them as much freedom as possible to do what it is they want to do. Because then it becomes theirs, and they can feel more involvement in it and ownership over it,” says Sharpe, who applies the same philosophy to how Fernwood works with its authors. “We’ve tried to not take a manuscript from an author and take it away from them. A lot of the big publishers – once they’ve taken the manuscript from the author, they do whatever they like with it. We want the authors to be involved in it as much as possible. We always discuss titles and cover design with them and debate over various issues.”

The drive from Halifax to Fernwood’s office in Black Point seems to emphasize the importance of books that challenge the status quo. Much of the route is lined with strip malls, the highway is being widened to allow for more cars, and housing developments have added thousands of suburban homes to the small fishing community. But Fernwood is holding its ground. “I think today, given the propaganda that’s floating around the mass media, it’s important to keep a body of critical literature alive,” says Sharpe. He adds with a smile, “We might need it some day.”

Hillary Lindsay is a freelance print, radio and video journalist in Halifax. She co-produced and co-edited a documentary to be released this spring, entitled “From Sea To Rising Sea.”

This article appeared in the May/June 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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