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Publisher Profile: An In-Depth Look at Stonehouse
by Peter Midgley
When bookstores closed and book distribution channels got disrupted because of the pandemic, Stonehouse Publisher Netta Johnson grabbed the mitre saw and built a chicken coop. She also used the opportunity to provide her daughter with a lesson in practical geometry and angles.
Stonehouse Publishing is a small operation, which means they do whatever is needed to make books, and fill their days doing what employers like to call “miscellaneous other duties.” On the day we meet to talk about what Stonehouse Publishing does and what their hopes and aspirations are, Netta is just back from trying to water her chickens. They would have none of it. As she was telling me about the chickens, I kept wondering what Unsworth, the Stonehouse Cat, made of the attention they were receiving while she wilted in the 38°C heat wave.
Lisa Murphy Lamb, who does acquisitions and post-production engagement (among other things) at Stonehouse, looks as fresh as if she had spent the morning in the bathtub at Loft 112, which is where she spends much of her time when she’s not vetting manuscripts or working on design and production.
The other Stonehouse staff—Julie Yerex, editor, and designers Janet King and Anne Brown—are not part of the online meeting, and Hayat Abdulhakim, the Stonehouse intern, has left to return to university.
Despite being cooped up during the pandemic, Stonehouse has managed to maintain its current publishing schedule, although, says Netta, they may have to adjust their upcoming catalogue just to catch up with the backlog that resulted from disruptions to the publishing distribution and supply chains over the past eighteen months.
While we do not yet know the full effect of COVID-19 on the publishing industry, we do know that the Canadian share of the North America book market has dropped significantly over the past decade and a half. The More Canada report notes that between 2005 and 2018, Canadian-authored books dropped from 25% of the market share to 13%. Publishing in Canada is not for chickens.
When Stonehouse Publishing started in 2014, the intent was to publish good historical fiction—a niche the founders, Netta Johnson and Julie Yerex, felt was lacking at the time. However, as Netta points out, “The world has changed since 2014 and our focus has shifted. We are looking more at the world in terms of social justice and recognize that there is a morality in publishing that asks that we be a part of the world and are good global citizens. This has affected our acquisitions.” This shift is evident. The latest catalogue includes books like Anna Marie Sewell’s Humane, which explores what it means to be human, and humane, in an Indigenous context, and Robin van Eck’s Rough, which uses the Calgary floods of 2013 as a backdrop to talk about homelessness and family.
Being a small publisher allows Stonehouse to do only books they love, and to get to know their readers’ likes and dislikes better. Stonehouse still publishes good historical fiction, says Lisa Murphy Lamb, and it remains a favoured genre, but even in this genre, the kind of books they are publishing has changed. “Readers demand a different kind of story now, but many of the manuscripts that come in still tell a colonial story. Readers no longer want those colonial narratives. They demand stories that are more aware of the nuances of history and reveal greater sensitivity about the past.” Unfortunately, Lisa says, the stories that are coming in still need a lot of work in this area, and the reality is that small publishers in Canada cannot afford to pay editors to do the necessary developmental work that is required. Authors have to take on the work of ensuring their books deal with these issues appropriately before submitting.
Netta is blunt about the need for funding: “Without proper federal and provincial support, we cannot survive. We need that support to pay our bills.”
Publishers and writers can lobby governments, I say, but what can readers do to help? Readers can help, Lisa replies, by helping publishers and getting to know local books better. “If two books you’ve read resonate for you, or if you feel they complement each other well, put the covers and the publishers’ information up on social media and start a discussion about the books. Take a book that came out during the pandemic and pair it with a new book. Authors whose books came out during the pandemic did not get to go live readings or get the exposure that writers normally get. Help them by pairing their books with new titles.
“Get your book clubs to read Alberta books. Look inside the covers when you buy books. Who published the book? Be aware where your money is going: Is it coming back into Canada and Alberta, or is it going to the US?”
I take another look at the list of books on the Stonehouse website. Stonehouse have published many books that will do well with book clubs. Besides bestsellers like Censorettes, Humane, Kalyna, and Encountering Riel, there are books that continue to resonate. “I think of books like The Work and Something Unremembered. Something Unremembered is quite a slow, cerebral book, but it is not till you get till the end that you realize it is actually about abortion. We would love readers to get their book clubs to talk about these books,” says Johnson.
“Make conscious choices about the books you buy and the books you read,” Lisa keeps saying throughout our conversation. Netta points out that every book we buy from a small independent press like Stonehouse helps keep the industry afloat. It is true: Ninety-three percent of the books sold in Canada are published in the US. Imagine how that could change if we allocate even a percentage of our intended annual book buying to purchasing Canadian books.
Books mentioned in this article:
 More Canada: Increasing Canadians’ awareness and reading of Canadian books. Halifax, NS: Canadian Publishers Hosted Software Solutions, 2018), 16. The report can be downloaded at https://morecanada.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/More-Canada-Report-Release-date-13-Dec-2018.pdf.