So… that drive from Winnipeg to Toronto is long, eh? I broke it up into three 8ish hour days, but damn. Doing the drive in April is interesting, too. First, the majority of roadside stops—points of interest to gas stations—are closed, most of them still snowed in. Second, it seems the only other vehicles on the road are semis. For every passenger vehicle I saw (especially true between Winnipeg and Thunder Bay), there were about 7 trucks. Maybe even more. Third, people really dig the inuksuk. There was at least one atop each giant rock-face on either side of the highway. What is it about climbing something hard and then leaving something behind to prove it?
Anyway, I made it, and I made it without incident. Well… maybe a bit of a transmission issue. But the risk of being stranded in the middle of northern Ontario is no longer a concern.
I got into Toronto at about 8:00 pm on Monday the 15th and breathed a sigh of relief. Big City, I’ve missed you.
My first morning in Toronto I wake up before my alarm, excited (and nervous) to start meeting Toronto’s publishers. Skipping breakfast, I leave early, knowing that I’ll likely have trouble navigating. What I don’t expect is to have trouble understanding how the roads work here. Non-straight straight roads and numberless street names aside, it takes me a while to realize that here you can drive on the streetcar tracks. Totally freaks me out, but I’ll get use to it.
ECW Press is first on deck. They are located just two streets up from the lake in the area known as The Beach… or The Beaches. Despite a recent referendum that decided it was indeed “The Beach,” people are still divided on the subject.
The ECW office is a welcoming space. Soon to be owner, David Caron, introduces me to everyone at work today. The staff is relatively young, composed mostly of women. Turns out almost each staffer is a representative graduate from either the Centennial or Humber publishing programs for each year working backward from 2012. (2009, I believe, is the only year missing).
The lease on their space is ending soon and they are looking at the possibility of buying a space in the next year. The requirements?
a) something they can afford
b) something that is easy for staff to get to, and
c) something that will make trips to and from trucks easier—right now any time a truck arrives everyone is up from their desks and lugging heavy boxes of books up and/or down stairs.
Founder of ECW, Jack David , arrives. I get the sense he’s like papa bear to the rest of his crew. Jack has heard of me. I was at a party in Edmonton that his friend from Victoria was at (apparently he tried to take her out on a date when he was 13). Small world.
We kindly kick editor Jen Knoch (sorry, Jen!) out of the boardroom and sit down to talk. Behind Jack is a wall of books about publishing, the overflow of his personal collection from home. Behind David, the beginning of the ECW library, starting with the first books: Essays on Canadian Writing.
I’ve found that every conversation I have with publishers tends to lean toward a side of the industry that I don’t know yet, and today it’s about the distribution debacle of the early 2000s when a major distributor went bankrupt. This was catastrophic for a lot of presses in Canada. Some of them lost the battle, but ECW didn’t.
Leaning on a lesson ECW learned in the 90s, they decided to sell their way out of the crisis. But how does one just simply sell more books? I know the process is more in depth and perhaps beyond my understanding for now, but what I got is that with ECW you can’t just make and sell a book based on market trends. For ECW, the necessary ingredient—the yeast, if you will—is passion.
ECW is a passion press. They specialize in subjects in which they take particular interest. They know their subjects and they know the niche market of those subjects. Here, niche is key, because niche is something that the larger multi-nationals don’t typically do.
This is how the press got to have such a range in titles, from collections of poetry (such as Jamie Sharpe’s Animal Husbandry Today) to books about wrestlers in the WWE (for example, Bob Holly’s The Hardcore Truth). The books are therefore reflections of the staff. (It’s Jack who’s the big wrestling fan, btw).
*CORRECTION* Jack is a wrestling fan, yes. But Michael is the big wrestling fan.
One of the permeating energies in the ECW office is a sense of calm. Both Jack and David use the word “kaizen” at points in our conversation, and I think that’s it. Kaizen is a concept I was introduced to late last year and it stuck with me—so much so that I’ve been contemplating making the Japanese symbol a first tattoo.
The philosophy is improvements in small increments toward being better. I suppose it’s really just a more zen way of saying baby steps. Upon researching the word it seems while some have appropriated Kaizen as a Japanese philosophy, the Japanese may have originally used kaizen as the word for improvement and nothing more. Either way, I’m certain that the balanced approach to slowly and surely making progress, while rolling with the tides, is what ECW press can attribute its success to.
Our visit lasts for more than 2 hours. Suddenly my stomach growls. A real loud one, too. I’m sure both men have heard it, the recording probably caught it, and that’s my cue to take my leave.
“What it speaks to is that whatever it is that we’re passionate about—whatever it is that we choose to do—we can find the means to make it work.” – David Caron