Storypanda and Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver BC


After going to the wrong address and using iMaps (bad choice) to end up at a second wrong address, I had to call Pavel of Storypanda and meet him on a corner in the heart of downtown Vancouver. As the kids say, facepalm!

Storypanda publishes interactive mobile ebooks for kids. Their media kit is impressive.

Pavel Bains and James Chutter, friends and colleagues from previous careers in writing and gaming, created Storypanda for the kids in their lives. In searching for interactive e-books, they came up with nothing that matched their expectations.

Simply put, Storypanda is the brainchild of two men who were unable to find what they were looking for, so they made it themselves. Now they are a team of seven with plenty of space to grow and a strong grasp on the market.

The red panda family.

The red panda family.

When you download the Storypanda app to your device of choice, you might notice that the logo isn’t your expected black and white furry friend. When deciding on the name for their startup, Pavel and James looked to their kids. Pavel’s children identified James by his red hair. Meanwhile, James’ nieces and nephews had a hard time saying Pavel’s name and called him panda instead. And there it is: a red panda + the word “story” (for obvious reasons) = Storypanda.

We chatted in a nearby coffee shop, but first I got a quick peek at the office, located on the upper level of a mall (they share the space with a local video game company).

The Storypanda office

The Storypanda office.

This is the first office I’ve been into (and I suspect will be the only one) that doesn’t have a bookshelf. In fact, there are hardly any print books around. And for a group that creates such visually appealing content, the walls are stark. Pavel notes that there isn’t a lot of time right now for the esthetics of their space. As the company continues to grow, Pavel sees large prints of scenes from their books on the walls.

As a publisher, StoryPanda finds its authors in many ways. Some are sought out, some arrive with their own story, and some books are acquired through print publishers. Profits are split–a revenue sharing model.

Pavel Bains

Pavel Bains takes the photo op as a chance to quickly answer an email.

I asked what was more important when assessing a new book: story or art? Art, Pavel said, as the medium is obviously more about visuals than text. But a good story can easily be paired with an illustrator.

What I like about this business is that it is truly about its audience. It’s not surprising that any books in “proof” format go to the kids for testing. They often offer feedback and ideas; James is currently working on a story idea from Pavel’s 5-year-old daughter. If it gets published, her name will go on the cover.

Fave quote: We aren’t doing a See Spot Run kind of thing. – Pavel Bains

Arsenal Pulp Press

A few streets down and into China Town I browse the shops and markets while waiting for my appointment time with Arsenal. I’m starving, but I can’t read the signs and the time available to grab a bite is right between enough and maybe not enough so I’m wary of making a blind choice that could result in my being late for a second time today.

I passed marketing manager Cynara Geissler on the street during my promenade, but didn’t know it until recognizing the blue streak in her hair when I find her right up front in the Arsenal Pulp office.

Arsenal Pulp Press has a detailed history. Founded by Stephen Osborne (from Geist) in 1971 as Pulp Press, it is now run by Brian Lam who came to Arsenal almost 20 years ago as a coop student.

This story has already been told, though.

Arsenal would not be the publisher that it is had it not been conceived and brought up in Vancouver.  The press is known for its more subversive and/or alternative content and its very successful cookbooks. For example one of its most recent titles How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir is about sex work and queer identity. And you’ve probably seen La Dolce Vegan around, an Arsenal cookbook that has been through five printings. The success of its cookbooks is what allows Arsenal to justify the costs of other political books and LGBT(QA*) titles that might not have as large of audience (and would therefore come up in the red).

Staff at work in the Arsenal Pulp office.

Staff at work in the Arsenal Pulp office.

The staff at the office work in an open room, the desks and space a little cluttered as I’m finding EVERY PUBLISHER’S OFFICE TO BE (so y’all coming up don’t be so shy about it). For a space with five people, it’s unexpectedly quiet. Cynara says that despite being meters away from one another, a lot of their discourse happens via email, in part to limit interruptions, but also to ensure a “paper trail” of communication.

Brian Lam reading through a manuscript. Here at Arsenal, a lot of work is still edited on paper.

Brian Lam reading through a manuscript. Here at Arsenal, a lot of work is still edited on paper.

Go figure, Arsenal will be moving later this spring into a smaller and less expensive office one floor above their current space. Meanwhile, the historical building across the street (their office view) will be torn down for more condos. Arsenal has moved three times in the last decade due to rising rent costs.

But let’s switch back to the cool stuff! While snooping through their office, I find it… the proverbial slush pile. Associate editor Susan Safyan tells me they receive over 300 submissions a year. From that selection they might choose one unsolicited submission to publish. Most of their books come from previous authors or successful pitches. Sometimes an idea might come from in-house and they will seek out a writer suited to it.

Here it is, folks. The slush pile.

Here it is, folks. The slush pile.

Inevitably the interview turns into a conversation between myself, Cynara, and production manager Gerilee McBride. It steers from talking about Arsenal to talking about publishing in general. Of note is the idea that it can be difficult to find work in publishing because while there are a lot of intelligent and qualified people in the industry, not a lot of jobs are available, and those that find them tend to stay in those positions for a long time.

We also talked about the difficulties in planning launches—about having no way of knowing how the turnout will be and about how to keep them accessible to as many people as possible. One thing is certain, though. Do not plan an event in Vancouver on a night there is a Canucks game on.

Despite the challenges, though, Arsenal Pulp is doing well. There is a sense of peace here, and of purpose. The publisher is hard at work on their Fall 2013 list. In five years, they hope to be well ahead of schedule and working on their 2025 list. There is also some talk of a writer dungeon, but that will depend on the inheritance of a haunted house from a rich aunt.

Cynara is hilarious and a goldmine for great quotes about publishing, but my favourite is:

Most people don’t know where their book sausages come from. – Cynara Geissler

Okay, she get’s two.

Publishing is very opaque from the outside. – Cynara Geissler

Moving On

With that, my BC Leg of the tour has ended, and I realize just how many other publishers I missed. It might merit a trip back to meet more of them.

I finished out my evening doing one of my favourite things: making crepes for my friends. Julia and Joel were great hosts and I owe them big for putting me up for the week. Thanks J&J!

Next up: A quick stop home in Edmonton before making my way down to Calgary to start the AB leg of the tour. And snow. More. Snow. Seriously.

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