Behind the scenes at Breakwater Books
From humble beginnings in 1973—in the basement and garage of Clyde Rose’s St. John’s, NL, home—Breakwater Books has emerged as a major player in the Canadian publishing industry, having produced over 500 education and trade titles over the years.
“I literally grew up in the business,” says company president and owner Rebecca Rose, recalling her after-school job of wrapping and packing orders. Her father had founded the business with four university colleagues who shared his displeasure that the majority of education texts in the region originated in the US or the UK. “They saw a lack of Newfoundland and even Atlantic Canadian content in schools,” she says. “That inspired Breakwater’s mandate to publish Newfoundland and Labrador voices.”
A family affair
While she was at university, Rebecca received on-the-job training at Breakwater, which by then occupied office space downtown. After working full-time in production and marketing, she took on managerial duties, and in 2002, when Breakwater purchased Jesperson Press, she took on the role of publisher. Clyde retired after the companies amalgamated in 2008, and Rebecca took over.
“There are only two other familial successions in the Canadian publishing industry I’m aware of, so it’s a bit rare,” she says, noting that she has taken the company in a slightly different direction than her father might have. “Dad focused more on educational markets, and when I took over, I put more time and attention into the trade lists, but we’re still a hybrid publisher. If we have educational projects, we do fewer trade titles, but on average we do 12 to 15 trade titles a year. For 2014 we have 16 lined up, with nine to be released this spring.”
She says one of the things that keeps publishing interesting is that no day is the same as the next. “We’re blocking in and contracting our books about a year in advance of publication, and for each one you have to go through editing, design and layout, marketing, promotion and distribution—but because each book is different, you approach each one differently.
“I love the collaborative process of publishing and all the creative people I work with, who constantly amaze me,” she says. “Here at Breakwater, we’re always walking in and out of each other’s offices, because it’s not just the designer who works on the cover; she consults with the author and with sales people. The editor does the same thing when developing copy for the back of the book. So it’s not a singular process, but really a collaborative, hands-on process.”
She offers an example: “Right now we’re working on Wow Wow and Haw Haw, a children’s picture book, and in that scenario we have writer George Murray, illustrator Michael Pittman, the in-house editor and designer, two freelance designers, our marketing coordinator and myself—with all eight of us wanting to perfect this 32-page book. We take into consideration the children’s enjoyment of it, the parents we’re hoping will buy it, the opinions of the bookstores and libraries we’re hoping will stock it, and the opinions of sales reps and reviewers. So we’re all working collaboratively, and that’s the part I love the most.” [Find a review of Wow Wow and Haw Haw here.]
Even though Breakwater Books is widely recognized for the quality of its publications, the company is not immune to issues affecting the industry nation-wide. “We’re losing brick and mortar stores every year,” Rose says, “which is forcing us to look for non-traditional markets. That has advantages, because we’re being exposed to new readers, but non-traditional markets don’t always understand the difficulties faced by smaller publishers, so if you’re dealing with companies like Walmart or Target, you’re looking at high discounts and heavy returns.
“E-books are also an issue,” she says. “We’ve been converting titles since 2008 and we’re still not seeing a return, but it’s important to play in that field, and it does present opportunities, as it allows us to cross borders and to export in ways we couldn’t before.”
Ever optimistic, she’s excited by Breakwater’s spring list of novels, short stories and poetry, an anthology of contemporary Newfoundland plays, and two non-fiction titles including the pictorial Newfoundland and Labrador Field Guide and the second in their series of socially relevant essays.
“Atlantic Canadians have always been supportive of our own writers,” she notes. “I encourage people to maintain that support of local content.”