Calgary literary imprint Freehand Books keeps up its quiet success

Company carries on despite past brush with financial struggles

By Eric Volmers, Calgary Herald

In the grand scheme of things, it was a minor blip in the impressive run of Freehand Books.

But in the late summer of 2011, the award-winning Calgary-based literary imprint announced it was freezing acquisitions and phasing out one its two employee positions. Sales had dropped and, even for the financially precarious world of literary publishing, times were so uncertain that making a long-term business plan just wasn’t practical.

It was short-lived. Within six months they were back soliciting material again. In fact, Freehand followed up this bit of doom-and-gloom news with an ambitious Spring 2012 roster of four books. Nevertheless, to this day, the acquisitions freeze continues to hover over the little-publisher-that-could like a dark cloud.

“Even over the last couple of months as I’ve been meeting people in the literary community, I’ve had people say ‘So you work for Freehand? Are you still publishing books?’ ” says Kelsey Attard, the new managing editor at Freehand. “Yes we are. I notice when you Google Freehand, the third or fourth thing that comes up is that acquisitions have been suspended. Acquisitions are underway. We didn’t miss a season at all.”

At the downtown Calgary offices of Freehand that she shares with a handful of staff from parent company Broadview Press, Attard is in the midst of preparing for the spring launch of two new books. Calgary author Ali Bryan’s comical novel Roost and a short-story collection by paulo da costa entitled The Green and Purple Skin of the World will both be released in April and are likely to reinforce the six-year-old imprint’s reputation for publishing strong, quirky and often award-winning work. Six months into her position as Freehand’s only employee, this will be the first list the 27-year-old has overseen for the company.

Replacing former managing editor Sarah Ivany, who left to attend law school in the summer, Attard was certainly aware of Freehand’s predicament when she came on board.

“I remember reading the stories at the time,” she said. “It was very uncertain in talking to everyone here. Legitimately, no one knew what was going to happen.”

And while Attard may see blue skies ahead for Freehand, it is facing some new realities in how it operates. Once a paid, part-time position, new acquisitions editor JoAnn McCaig works on a volunteer basis. Her predecessor, Robyn Read, perused everything that was sent to them, including those unsolicited manuscripts that would have likely been dumped in a slush pile at most other houses. It was time consuming, but would eventually unearth the occasional gem such as Ian Williams’ experimental short-story collection Not Anyone’s Anything. Freehand no longer accepts unsolicited material.

Meanwhile, the substantive and line editing and proof reading that used to done in-house by Ivany and Read is now contracted out. While the company may have recovered enough to quickly resume acquisitions, it still isn’t breaking even. The continued decline in the number of independent bookstores is not making the business side of things any easier.

Then again, Freehand never has been a particularly profitable enterprise. This year, the publisher did get an unexpected boost in sales thanks to Clem and Olivier Martini’s Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness. Published in 2010 it told the story of Olivier’s battle with schizophrenia through his own illustrations and prose from brother Clem, a prize-winning playwright and author. The University of Calgary, where Clem is head of the drama department, ordered 8,000 copies to give to all first-year students at the beginning of the school year, resulting in a nice sales boost.

“Our goal is to break even,” Attard said. “That hasn’t happened yet. Things like the sale of Bitter Medicine get us a lot closer. But we can’t expect that every year.”

All of which reinforces Freehand’s reputation as a labour-of-love, where artistic concerns soundly trounce commercial ones. Attard comes from the northern Alberta village of Hythe, where she says he grew up in the town’s small library. She studied English literature at the University of Alberta, which is where she first heard of Freehand Books, the little publisher that burst out of the gate in 2008 with Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault. Endicott’s book would go on to sell 30,000 copies and land on the Giller Prize shortlist. It has proven to be a hard act to follow. But it did quickly establish the upstart imprint as a major player in literary circles.

“Back when Freehand started with such a huge splash and Giller nomination, I was working at the Writers Guild of Alberta in Edmonton and I had just recently graduated from university,” Attard says. “I had done my English degree and was interested in local writing and publishing. I always had this dream of being involved in publishing. When Freehand came on the scene and immediately made a huge impact, it made me realize that maybe I don’t have to move to New York to do it. Maybe there are other options that are closer to home and I could be involved in something really worthwhile.”

Not long after that, she did a master’s degree in publishing at Simon Fraser University. She even attempted, unsuccessfully, to get an internship at Freehand. So perhaps it’s not surprising that Attard doesn’t see many changes in store for the company acquisition approach under her watch. The approach has been open and eclectic but also cautious over the years, building a backlist of 28 books that includes everything from Ian Colford’s 2012 harrowing political novel The Crimes of Hector Tomas to Jeanette Lynes’ 2008 poetry collection, It’s Hard Being Queen: The Dusty Springfield Poems, to non-fiction graphic novels such as Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother, and me by Sarah Leavitt. Attard speaks passionately about the upcoming titles, praising first-time novelist Ali Bryan’s knack for “laugh-out-loud” comedy in Roost and da costa, who once lived in Calgary and speaks at least four languages, for his global reach and command of language in The Green and Purple Skin of the World.

“Freehand is not on a search for the next trend or trying to follow a trend, it’s trying to follow books that are of genuine good quality,” Attard says. “You do get these comments in editorial board meetings like ‘Oh, this feels like a Freehand book.’ No one really knows what that means exactly, other than it’s good. A lot of them, not all of them, have the element of the quirky.”

Freehand’s next two books are already in various stages of prepublication as well. The fall list will include Calgary author Rosemary Nixon’s Are You Ready To Be Lucky?, a “fun” novel about a con man, and Edmonton Journal books columnist Michael Hingston’s debut The Dilettants, about a university student newspaper.

Given some of the gloomy news about Canadian publishing last year, most notably Vancouver’s Douglas and McIntyre Publishing filing for bankruptcy protection, the fact that Freehand appears to be following a slow-and-steady pace forward is positive.

“We are starting to look at spring of 2014,” Attard says. “For right now, we are doing at least two. That’s a good number that is quite manageable. Freehand’s esthetic is so eclectic that I think we have more freedom than other publishers because we can publish things that come along just because we like it.”

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