Quebec’s specialty publishers run on the enthusiasm of their readers (and writers)
by J.B. Staniforth
In a province where more than 75% of residents speak French as a mother tongue, English publishing is a challenge to begin with. Yet among Quebec’s English-language publishers, there are those who specialize even more precisely, and they manage to soldier on, delivering books that might not find a mainstream audience but delight small pockets of specialty readers.
Possibly Quebec’s most specialized publisher is DC Books’ Railfare imprint, dedicated to publishing books about railroads and railroad-related matters. Railfare began independently under editor David R. Henderson, and was successful from the outset. David Henderson teamed up with his brother Keith, managing editor at DC Books, to create Railfare DC Books in 2005.
“The audience is specialized, but loyal and willing to spend money on books,” explains Keith Henderson. “Many are associated with niche organizations, some quite important, like ExpoRail, the railway museum in St. Constant, of which my brother was a founding member. Many members of the Railfare DC Books audience are model railroad enthusiasts who want to know as much as possible about the models they collect. It’s important to note the importance of railways to Canadian history and to the origins of our country.”
Part of the enthusiasm of the “railfan” audience extends to those producing the books. Henderson is taken with “the coterie of aficionados,” such as amateur researchers and photographers, involved in making each book happen.
“Many [Railfare books] feature full colour and are replete with photos, though the text is also detailed and considerable,” Henderson says. “Without [aficionados], these books could never be affordably produced.”
Because the aficionados are connected with organizations offering newsletters, mailing lists, and magazines, Henderson reports “Flyer inserts and direct mail work wonders. A number of the books Railfare DC Books has produced have sold many tens of thousands of dollars worth of books, with no insubstantial international component. For a small press, this is no mean accomplishment.”
Sheer enthusiasm also drives Dr. Michelle Schwartz, editorial director of Bunim & Bannigan, which publishes German and Russian literature in translation along with other titles. Though literature in translation has had a banner decade – thanks to the successes like Ann Goldstein’s translations of Elena Ferrante, Don Bartlett’s translations of Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian – Schwartz says her motivation for publishing translated works is existential.
“Walter Benjamin wrote that the translator’s work is a task of redemption, as it retrieves lost meanings,” she says. “Metaphysics aside, I always enjoyed and worked with ‘other’ languages and cultures. When I was asked to translate the letters and poems of Ilse Weber, a Jewish poet who was murdered in Auschwitz, I was introduced to a world that literally died. Becoming exposed to it made translating works from this destroyed world important to me.”
Because all the works Schwartz translates from German are from, or about the leadup to, World War II, she is very much actively attending to the 20th century’s pile of unfinished business. She is presently working to translate Jewish German author Alice Berend, whose popular, humorous but critical novels about Berlin society were banned by the Third Reich in 1933. Robbed of her earnings by her husband, and of her public by the Nazis, Schwartz reports, “Berend died lonely and penniless in exile.” Her works remained relatively forgotten in Germany until recently, when publisher Aviva Verlag reprinted them. In her work on Berend, Schwartz and Bunim & Bannigan are helping bring back to the public consciousness an author readers don’t realize has been collectively forgotten.
“As for finding readers – it’s always a challenge,” Schwartz reports. At least the works from German have found a more general audience, but, she notes, “our Russian translations are read mostly by academics and students of literature.”
Like DC Books’ Railfare, Bunim & Bannigan’s works in translation are run primarily on the enthusiasm of the people making the books.
“It is mostly a work of passion rather than the result of rational calculation of sales,” she says. But, she’s quick to add, “translation is still as relevant as ever, perhaps even more, in bridging between people and cultures.”
J.B. Staniforth is a Montreal writer and reporter.