Alana Wilcox, editorial director at Coach House Books
Puritan staffer Jasmine Gui sat down with the editorial director of Coach House Books, Alana Wilcox, to talk about the publishing business, digitization, and books as books.
Jasmine Gui: For bookmakers and booksellers, books have a very specific value. There’s the manuscript, the production process, and of course, the book’s economic value. How do you balance and negotiate between these different kinds of value as an editor?
Alana Wilcox: I don’t know that I need to distinguish between them. I think they all contribute to greater value. The writing is the most important, and everything has to be in service of that, but we also want to make a book that readers want to own, enjoy, feel engaged with, and connected to.
The defining characteristic of publishing is finding a way to marry and balance art and capitalism. That’s the challenge.
We’re lucky in Canada because we have some support from our government, but I can’t have a season where I publish eight experimental poetry books. I have to try and shape each season to balance books that will probably sell more copies with books that might not sell as many, so that bigger sellers can support the others.
It’s a bit intuitive, and I’ve been doing it a long time, so I have a sense of how these things go, but often we’re surprised at what sells and what doesn’t. Publishing is a risky business. We try very hard to fit the design around the book. You don’t want to misrepresent the book, you want to highlight and showcase the content, instead of the other way around.
One of my favourite designs from this past year was Sina Queyras’ book of poetry, MxT, and it was one of those pieces where we did the opposite. I called Sina, struggling with the cover, and said, “Your book is about death, and grief, and so what I would like to do is print your cover on hot pink paper.” She said, “That is absolutely the perfect thing.”
Jasmine Gui: I see, so it’s sometimes counter-intuitive until you engage with the work itself.
Alana Wilcox: Exactly.
Jasmine Gui: Coach House puts so much emphasis on designing the book as a physical object. It does change, as a reader, when you read it on a tablet. How do you deal with that?
Alana Wilcox: It makes us a bit sad that we can’t make eBooks more attractive: control the typeface, the text boxes, line breaks, all the things we’re so careful about in print we don’t really have a say in digitally.
Jasmine Gui: How does digitization change the way we engage with manuscripts? How does it change our reading consciousness?
Alana Wilcox: It’s a good question, and one that affects me because I think we’ve saved several forests by switching to electronic submissions, and I read all submissions on the iPad now. It doesn’t affect my judgement, but I find that if I’m reading for pleasure, I don’t retain as well online. There’s something beautiful about the tactile experience of holding the book, feeling the paper and turning the page, and I miss that feeling of when you’re working through the book, of this half getting fatter and the other half getting smaller.
Jasmine Gui: There are constant tensions between really big book retailers and smaller independent retailers. It seems like nowadays people are interested in small, personal, independent businesses, but is it enough?
Alana Wilcox: It’s interesting what will happen over the next couple of years. In the US, things always happen a couple of years sooner, and the indie bookstores have really rebounded there. It’s a beautiful thing to see, new stores are opening all the time, some of the stores are really thriving, and overall sales are up. There’s a sense of optimism.
In Canada, our indies haven’t done that yet, but there’s maybe some hope that the wave will cross the border.
Indigo has recently recommitted to focus on books, so maybe it’ll be less candy and yoga mats, and more books. So that’s a positive development.
Amazon remains a huge problem because they’re not interested in the industry.
Publishing has always been a gentleman’s business, where there’s mutual trust and respect all around. Everyone knows that it’s in everyone else’s best interests to play well together, and Amazon doesn’t have that. They don’t care if we’re gone, because books are just there to sell more lawnmowers for them.
Jasmine Gui: The digital world certainly impacts how we sell and buy things. I can now support independent presses from Singapore, because media platforms allow me to do that.
Alana Wilcox: Yes. I wish that people were more aware. We think about where our coffee is from, and make decisions about buying clothes from sweatshop factories, but it doesn’t translate into books. People don’t always think about it. I’m always surprised when writers don’t think about it, because it’s a question of an ecosystem. If you don’t support the publishers and the bookstores, you’re not going to have a place to publish your own work.
Jasmine Gui: What about your opinion on libraries that don’t have any books in them? You can check out an eBook, and it automatically restricts access when your loan period is over.
Alana Wilcox: It’s troubling to me because I think we should all be motivated by an ideal of accessibility. I guess at this point, most people have access to some kind of screen but not everyone.
The beauty of a library is that anyone—you don’t even have to have a home—can go to the library, and read books, participating in literacy and literature. If you limit that to people who have a streaming Internet … I find that a bit distressing.
I also just love libraries.
Jasmine Gui: Right. Because books.
Alana Wilcox: Because books.
Jasmine Gui: Everyone in publishing obviously has an inherent love for books, a little bit of an obsession almost, with paper types and font, etc.
Alana Wilcox: Yes. We try to use Canadian typefaces; we are careful about the decisions we make around productions. I think my aim is to balance that kind of book nerdiness, to find some sort of middle ground where the object is important, and valued, but not prioritized over the text.
Jasmine Gui: Like you said, it’s an ecosystem, everything is connected, and it makes sense to want everything in the book to be cohesive with everything else, each thing supporting the other without interfering.
Alana Wilcox: That’s the plan.