The Sunday Magazine

The unlikely literary success story of Biblioasis — and the fallout of COVID-19

Fifteen years ago, Windsor, Ontario’s Dan Wells took a flyer and started a bookstore and publishing house called Biblioasis. It became one of North America’s most successful small presses, in terms of sales, awards and critical success. Michael interviewed Wells in early March. But it was quite a different story this week when they had a followup conversation. Biblioasis has been completely sideswiped by the pandemic.
Dan Wells of Biblioasis publishers. (CBC)

Experts had told Dan Wells he couldn't do it. He didn't have the money, the expertise or the right location. But he ignored the naysayers. Fifteen years later, his one person operation has grown into one of the most successful small book publishing companies in Canada. 

Biblioasis authors have won or been nominated for almost every literary award in Canada. In 2019, Ducks, Newburyport, Lucy Ellmann's 1,000-page novel was nominated for the prestigious Booker Prize. In the same year, two other titles — Adam Foulds' Dream Sequence and K.D. Miller's short story collection, Late Breaking — were nominated for the Giller Prize.

Wells spoke to The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright before and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here are some highlights from their conversations, edited for clarity and condensed.

How did you get into this business?

Most of the trajectory of the press has been almost accidental. I was at Western, doing a masters in the history of the Scottish Enlightenment. There was an auction house there and I walked in one day. There was this wall of three, four thousand books; and the guy called for the bid and I put up my hand for — I don't know — $20, $50, $100 dollars, whatever it was. Nobody else bid. So all of a sudden I had this library of thousands of books. I figured, well, I could start a bookstore, it would fail and I could get it out of my system. Then I could go on and do something else. And it just never failed. [I bought] thousands of books. I loaded them all into the back of my truck and I carried them to my one little bedroom apartment. … There were first editions of James Fenimore Cooper, Hemingway and Tasha Tudor. It was worth tens of thousands of dollars and I had no idea, but that became the basis of the first bookshop.

How did you come across Ducks, Newburyport?

It started as a conversation between us and this other wonderful publisher Ellie Miller, who runs Galley Beggar Press in the U.K. She read this book two years ago and emailed us to say, "This book would be perfect for you."

It wasn't 1,000 pages at the time, it was 750. When you get a 750-page, single-sentence novel you're looking for a reason to refuse it. We read it and it was mind blowing … one of the most unique things we'd ever received. She put us in touch with the agent, who initially didn't want anything to do with us. We were unknown to them and it's obviously a very American book. So they wanted an American publisher. We had to pursue it for about six months, as they knocked on doors elsewhere. It was turned down serially by, I hear, more than two dozen American houses. We really got it in this instance because we were the last person standing.

Writers in this country earn very little. What about publishers?

They probably make less, or some of us do. One of the benefits of being located in a provincial outpost like Windsor is that my wife is the principle breadwinner of the family. We've been able to consciously make decisions to develop the press and support these writers. We haven't had to worry as much about the money the press is bringing in for the family … I don't think there's anybody in publishing that is here for the money. For the effort that we put in we could make far more money doing anything else ... I do think the majority of small publishers are not making much more than the writers that they publish.

What kind of impact have chains like Indigo Chapters and Amazon had on booksellers?

Amazon has decimated bookselling in this country. Everybody assumes with Amazon — they've trained us to believe this — that you can get books faster and more cheaply with them. And though that is still sometimes true of frontlists, Amazon's now in a position where they're not discounting books and often they don't have them in stock. They've gone through a third-party system. So we're actually at a moment in time where it is often cheaper and faster to order a book through an independent bookstore than it is through Amazon.

I would really like to direct people to supporting their independent bookstores across this country. I'm deeply worried about the survivability of many of them at this point.- Dan Wells

Since our first conversation a lot has happened. Did you have any inkling about how COVID-19 would affect your business?

It's been amazing how quickly things have changed … we had to close [the bookshop] for health and safety reasons. We didn't have a web presence to speak of, so we had to do a very quick pivot to do online sales. On the press side, everybody started working remotely. So it's been very difficult to try to figure out. We've got a very close knit group of people. We work very well together in person. To sort of on-the-fly — when we weren't ready — try to figure out how to work remotely has been very difficult. And we're only getting to the other side of that at this point. The real thing here is just how quickly everything changed. It turned overnight. So no.

How has this impacted your staff?

Everybody is far more determined and in some ways this has brought us closer together. We're all doing whatever we can. You know there has been, on the press, no layoffs at this point though I've had to reduce some hours on a rotating sort of schedule and everybody understands and is working towards a common goal. On the publishing side, though it's really tough because it's hard to know how to move forward when your chains of distribution and sales have collapsed. Marketing plans, author tours and everything you'd set up has sort of evaporated. On the publishing side we're really trying to rethink our model and having conversations with authors about how they would like to see us proceed.

What kind of concerns are your writers having?

They're incredibly anxious. There are repercussions to this, tied to revenue for example. If a book is delayed, the possibility of advances being delayed is very likely. So the financial worries … we're working with them to address those.

Are people ordering books now? If they do, how do you get them to the customers?

They are. There's two ways. So a lot of people are ordering through the press and we've seen an uptake in orders that way for sure. There are a lot of bookstores like us across the country who even though we're closed, we're doing home delivery or shipping. If you have an independent bookstore in your community, who can deliver or ship orders from them, they're going to need your support as much or more than we will. I would really like to direct people to supporting their independent bookstores across this country. I'm deeply worried about the survivability of many of them at this point.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full conversation.

Calgary-based publisher Rocky Mountain Books has created a map showing close to 150 independent booksellers across Canada that are currently taking online orders and providing home delivery and/or curbside pickup during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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