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Snapshot: Dundurn Press founder and publisher Kirk Howard

Dundurn Press was founded in 1972 as a niche publisher of Canadian history, but since then the Toronto-based firm has expanded its focus to include all major categories, from literary fiction to children’s books to cookbooks and lifestyle titles. Thanks to its appetite for acquiring smaller firms, Dundurn is now one of the two largest Canadian-owned publishers (the other is D&M Publishers), releasing 110 titles per year and realizing annual sales of more than $5 million. Q&Q asked founder and publisher Kirk Howard about his experiences during 40 years in Canadian publishing.

Why did you start Dundurn?
I was teaching Canadian Studies at a community college in Sarnia, Ontario, and I felt there was a need for more material on Canadian history. I had no experience in publishing whatsoever. I thought, “Gee it must be so easy. All you do is print the stuff and sell it.”

What did the Canadian publishing industry look like at the time?
It was still coming out of its shell of the 1950s, when the branch plants dominated publishing. There were very few Canadian-owned companies, and those that were around were primarily pushing American product. By the early 1970s, a lot of new companies were just beginning – House of Anansi Press, Peter Martin Associates, etc. – seven or eight companies that, in a nutshell, started independent publishing in Canada.

Did you have any mentors in the industry?
None whatsoever. In my third year of university, I applied for a summer job at Clark, Irwin & Company, but I didn’t get it. My approach was pretty much, “Do things yourself and find out whether they work or not.”

What’s changed most about the industry?
The way we produce books. Books can certainly be done more quickly than they were when I got into the business, and I think they can be done more cheaply, too. I started off in the days when you cut and pasted things. We would get things typeset into galleys, and then proof them and double-check them for any errors. If you saw a mistake, you had to go back to the typesetter and get a line that you could paste over. Invariably, of course, you would find mistakes 20 minutes before the courier was coming to pick up the proof to go to the printer.

How has Dundurn managed to remain an independent, Canadian-owned publisher while so many others have not?
I think partly I’ve tried to keep an eye on the bottom line: we only spend money when we have to. As well, I’ve always been keen on making use of the new technologies that have come our way. We had our first Macintosh in 1985, one year after it came out. We did our first ebooks in 2005, and we’re still making money out of those. And I guess the other component would be that I’ve tried to buy up small companies as the owners have decided they’ve wanted to sell. We’ve been on a growth trend because of that: since the 1990s, we’ve bought up about 12 companies.

How healthy is the Canadian-owned sector?
I think we’re at the beginning of a new phase, but it is very difficult to predict what will happen in that phase. About 5 per cent of our revenue now comes from ebooks. Will it go up to 30 per cent in the next couple of years? I don’t know, but we’ve invested heavily in it.

What lessons have you learned after 40 years in the business?
Patience is a good one. Also, try to see things from the author’s side. In our case, we’re doing 110 books per year, which in effect means two books a week. Each of those books is very important to the author, and I think it’s important for the publisher, the editor, the marketing people, and those working with the author to remember this is something that has occupied his or her life for years.

What publishing projects are you most proud of?
In terms of our growth, we got a contract from the federal government in the 1980s to publish background papers on the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing. These were 46 volumes of essays by academics, half in English, half in French. It was the largest publishing contract the federal government ever commissioned, and it gave us the confidence that we could do big projects, and that we could publish in French.

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