Douglas Arthur Brown was Already a Successful Author When he Founded Boularderie Island Press
Douglas Arthur Brown, owner of Cape Breton-based Boularderie (pronounced bull-la-dree) Island Press, was already a bestselling and award-winning author when he founded the press in 2012. The press has since brought forth more than 50 new titles into the world, a remarkable achievement for a small press in less than a decade. Brown kindly sat down to speak with us about his dual role as writer and publisher, and his “naive” assumption that the business would leave him plenty of time to write.
Atlantic Books Today: You already had a pretty nice career going as a writer when you decided to start Boularderie Island Press; what made you want to do it?
Douglas Arthur Brown: There were several converging factors before I created the company in 2012. I got a sense that online sales of books was quickly developing and would become an important element for the sector.
Another thing I noticed was that a lot of mid-list writers, who don’t write bestsellers but whose sales were strong enough to pay the bills at publishers, were being left out in the cold. There were some really major bankruptcies–Key Porter Books published a book of mine that sold really well. They went bankrupt before I received any royalties.
I thought maybe I could do something to give writers more direct control over their books. Social media was becoming more important. Writers knew they had to do a lot of work publishers used to do to promote their books. Publishers were laying off in-house editors.
Naively, I thought I could take on just enough work to allow me to buy three to four months [per year] for myself to just write. I never expected to co-publish over 50 books in eight years. The idea caught on.
When I hung out my shingle, I thought I might publish a few books a year. The first year I was really lucky–the first book I published, The Promised Land: A Novel of Cape Breton by Bill Conall won the Stephen Leacock Medal. That was one of the first societies to accept self or co-published books.
ABT: What were your worries at the time and what motivated you to take the plunge?
DAB: It was scary, but I was at a point where I was really disappointed with what happened with Key Porter books. Several Nova Scotian writers went through it too. My book [Quintet] won the Raddall Prize, got a half-page glowing review in the Globe and Mail, and I got no royalties.
Plus I’ve always taken risks. That’s just my nature. I do my research first though. When I started I had already spent two years doing research.
ABT: BIP I think is unique in the region in terms of its funding model and how it works with authors. Tell us about that.
DAB: When I started the business, we’ve always done traditional trade books where we cover all the costs and pay a modest advance. But we’ve also undertaken the co-publications, where the author pays a flat fee for a substantive edit.
We are not a vanity press. The edit is vetted by an editorial team, to determine that it has merit.
The editorial relationship is very important. It can take a year or more. Some want it on the shelf as soon as possible but if we put on our stamp on the book we have to be able to stand by it.
We’ve established very good relationships with booksellers. The writer need a solid marketing and promotional campaign with access to distribution. Writers invest their own money and that motivates them to work hard.
Booksellers really like our product. We do direct distribution so if they order the book we get it to them with 72 hours.
And we don’t accept returns. Our belief is, if a bookseller orders two or three books and needs to order more, that’s better than ordering too many and returning. Let’s build our relationship, and I’ll tell them if a title is not appropriate for them.
ABT: How do you balance the demands of these two careers, writer and publisher?
DAB: As a writer, I’m not in any hurry to get another book out the door. I’m a very slow writer and I’m content with a book every five years or so. I’ve had seven books published since 1998.
But, my last book came out in 2015. The next one I hope will be 2023. So the five year ideal has taken a hit.
I tend to get up around 4:00 am on a writing day and put in three hours
ABT: How do you deal with potential conflicts of interest?
DAB: I’ve published two books of my own since I started BIP. They went through the same vetting process every book goes through. One was a second edition of The Magic Compass, which I already had a market for, waiting for it.
The illustrations for that book were created by my brother, who was diagnosed with cancer and unfortunately died last year. I thought it was really important to bring that out for him.
ABT: As a publisher, what has been your greatest source of pride?
DAB: The strong relationship I’ve established with editors and designers; they’ve been with me since day one. We’ve collectively established an internal style guide. It fuels the creative process while strengthening our belief in what we stand for. Without one, how do you create who you are?
The creative triad between the writer, editor and myself has never faltered. I don’t interfere with the process between editor and writer.
ABT: Where do you see things in the next 5-10 years, both for yourself and BIP as a company? Any advice for aspiring writer-publishers in Atlantic Canada?
DAB: There’s no expiry date for writers and publishers. As I continue enjoying what I’m doing and strive for career-life balance, to continue to ripen with age. I’m only 61, so if my health is good then I’m good to go.
I’m still one of only a few writer-publishers. When I started I didn’t have a manual. I encountered some old-fashioned thinking and biases about what a legitimate publisher is.
If you decide to publish and artistic merit and freedom of expression are at the core of what you do and believe, you might face obstacles in our increasingly politically correct environment. That may send you running for the hills.