Monday, November 04, 2013


I HAVE ALWAYS BEEN FASCINATED BY PEOPLE WHO DECIDE to get into the publishing business as small press publishers. I've wondered at what their initial motivations were, what prompted them to take on such responsibilities, and what the depth of their business acumen must be in order to ensure their house is a success. Over the next while, I plan to host a number of small press publishers on Suzenyms, to offer you their stories. Since Five Rivers Publishing represents my own work, it made sense to start with my publisher, the talented and formidable Lorina Stephens:

WHEN FIVE RIVERS LAUNCHED INTO PUBLISHING in 2008, it was with humble beginnings and a small catalog, primarily my own works. It was never my intention for Five Rivers to be a vanity house, yet in those first two years we were very embryonic, soliciting manuscripts and developing our mandate, which was to be a showcase of new and established Canadian voices. We tested the waters with two of my books: Shadow Song (August 2008), and And the Angels Sang (September 2008), also Elephant's Breath and London Smoke, by Deb Salisbury (February 2009). In July, 2009, we also published another one of my books, From Mountains of Ice.

Why publish these four books? Shadow Song had been the rounds of major publishers, often garnering positive comments, but always falling just short of that illusive publishing contract, mostly, it would seem, because of its hybrid nature. I decided to venture out on my own, given there was enough response to make me believe a small house and sufficient marketing could bring in a reasonable expectation of success. Turns out that decision was sound, and while Shadow Song has not hit bestseller, it has certainly performed better than the majority of self-published books which usually only see a maximum of 200 units sold.

Since I'd already decided to commit the, then, sin of self-publishing, I figured I'd publish a collection of my own short stories, And the Angels Sang. (For those of you who have or are reading Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda, you may find the title story of this collection of interest.) If nothing else, it would gain me experience in the publishing world, in all of its facets from creation to the business of distribution and accounts collection. 

Around about that time an old colleague of mine, Deb Salisbury—who researched and created historical sewing patterns under her business, The Mantua-Maker—told me about a dictionary of historic colour names on which she was working. That piqued my curiosity, and after several discussions with her I asked her to let me publish the book. I knew very well Elephant's Breath and London Smoke would be an ultra-niche market book. But for those who were after this kind of esoteric historical material, it would be invaluable. And given my life-long penchant for ignoring the status-quo—that became a recurring theme in the publishing house—the decision to publish the dictionary just seemed logical. It was impeccably researched, well-organized, an ease to layout and publish. During that time I also took on several books on the business of writing by freelancer, Paul Lima. Paul went on to take control of his own publishing. 

By 2010 the pattern for Five Rivers was cast; remember that statement about ignoring the status-quo? Yeah, pretty much. I found myself keeping company with blissful renegades who scoffed at the concept of warehousing inventory and print runs, who giggled at the accepted policy of book returns whenever and wherever, who mined the reality of online sales and marketing through the major online booksellers on a global scale. Small publishers, after all, stood an almost non-existent chance of gaining space on the expensive real estate of bricks and mortar store-shelves. So why compete? And why bleed funds into expensive distribution which would only target a limited market with limited success? Why not target online global booksellers amenable to the kind of guerrilla marketing we happy few employed? 

There was an attendant cost, however, to that new-age thinking; it meant we sank or succeeded on our own nickel, without the floatation devices offered through government arts grants and funding. It meant reviewers and awards jurors having a problem with a curling lip when our print-on-demand, micro-press books showed up for consideration. That’s fine. A problem is simply a solution waiting to happen. We went to grassroots reviews, rather than critical reviews. (Ask yourself, does the average reader ever open the pages of a critical review journal?) We mostly eschewed literary awards which required a fee or some proof of pedigree. Instead, we again went to the people. And therein lays another phenomenon: there is no such thing as bad publicity. So even when one reader trashes a book, another reader purchases that same book just to find out about the hype. 

By 2010 I’d acquired a few orphaned titles from authors with a backlist, broadening our base, and through them other manuscripts, both non-fiction and fiction, started appearing in my email. That all seemed a little weird somehow, and there were days I felt like the kid wearing the superhero costume playing Let’s Pretend. But through it all was an honest desire to create something unique, to build relationships of trust and common purpose, so that author and publisher could work together toward a greater ideal. 

I knew what it was to be the writer in the dark of the closet, stuffing pages under the door. I knew what it was to sit on the other side of a desk as an editor, and find an endless repeat of errors from authors, and how to wield that blue pencil with both compassion and uncompromising standards. And now, I knew what it was to be a publisher, balancing a writer’s dreams with the imperatives of profitability. I felt, and still do, as though I’d found my life’s work, that I could still be the writer, but I could also share and put to good use my experience as an editor, and now as a publisher. But I get ahead of myself. The most pivotal event of 2010 was when I made the acquaintance of Dr. Robert Runté, whom I met through SFCanada. Our relationship, and subsequent friendship, developed around a query he sent me for a review copy of that hybrid novel of mine, Shadow Song. I’m sure, if Robert’s honest, he was expecting to find some sort of drek. He didn’t. And so a relationship of mutual respect and trust developed, so much that by 2011, Robert’s name was on Five Rivers’ masthead as Editor in Chief. Robert brought with him an immense body of knowledge and editorial skills. He believed in the vision I had for this crazy publishing house, and was willing to work alongside me as my Wing Man. How great is that?  

After that, things grew exponentially. Manuscripts flooded in. The usual two week or less turn-around for reading submissions expanded into weeks, then months. We went from those initial two books in 2008 to 32 now in publication (34 by the close of 2013.) And the beauty of the business model we embraced ensured all titles remain in publication until the agreement is terminated by either the author or Five Rivers. So, in essence, our titles earn money while we all sleep. 

In 2012 Jeff Minkevics came aboard as Five Rivers’ Art Director. Jeff’s background as a graphic artist and his own extraordinary vision and skill, marked another evolution for the publishing house. He has an ability to take an author’s vision and translate it into some of the most dynamic cover art we feel we’ve ever seen. 

Our publishing docket now projects forward eight years, with approximately 50 titles scheduled and under contract. Late in 2012, I had to make the painful decision to close our doors to submissions, simply because it was unfair to authors to ask them to wait so long for a response to their queries and to push publication dates out so far. I never wanted to be one of those houses. But there are attendant responsibilities to success. I am toying, however, with the concept of opening to submissions for a brief window every year, perhaps a two week period, just to keep the literary gene pool fresh. If we do, our mandate, however, still remains: to give voice to Canadian writers. 

Should that happen, what would snag our attention? In non-fiction we’re always looking for well-researched and documented material in a conversational tone. We’d likely be quite partial to meticulously documented experimental archeology, biographies of forgotten (or otherwise) Canadian figures, and First Nations issues. We are very unlikely to be interested in self-help, how-to, or religious offerings. In fiction, we always gravitate toward strong characterization, and focused point of view, elegance and precision in the use of language, and quirky twists and fresh insights. Whether literary fiction, or genre, there should never be a compromise in the beauty of the written word. Just write the most honest, compelling tale you can. Put it all out there, the beauty and the beasts, the subtlety and sometimes vagary of life. Capture us. Compel us to read the next word, phrase, sentence, paragraph, page. Hold us willing prisoner to the skill of your story-telling. 

Tell us a story. It’s that simple. And that hard

If you’re at all curious about the kind of work Five Rivers publishes, simply visit our website at You'll find our catalogue there. You will also find a series of posts under the Why We Published tag; those posts will give you further insight as to why a particular title snagged our acceptance. We can also be found on Facebook as both a group and page, and on Twitter under the handle @5rivers. 

Lorina's Bio: In 2008, Lorina established her own indie publishing house in direct response to the changing face of publishing. She brings with her over 20 years of experience as a freelance writer, author, and editor, and a commitment to publishing new Canadian voices which might otherwise remain silent. She has worked as editor, freelance journalist for national and regional print media, is author of seven books both fiction and non-fiction, been a festival organizer, publicist, lectures on many topics from historical textiles and domestic technologies, to publishing and writing, teaches, and continues to work as a writer, artist, and publisher.  She has had several short fiction pieces published in Canada’s acclaimed On Spec magazine and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fantasy anthology Sword & Sorceress X. Her book credits include Stonehouse Cooks, Five Rivers Publishing 2011, From Mountains of Ice, Five Rivers Publishing 2009, And the Angels Sang, Five Rivers Publishing 2008, Shadow Song, Five Rivers Publishing 2008, Recipes of a Dumb Housewife, Lulu Publishing 2007, Credit River Valley, Boston Mills Press 1994, Touring the Giant's Rib: A Guide to the Niagara Escarpment, Boston Mills Press 1993. She is presently working on two new novels, The Rose Guardian and Caliban. She lives with her husband of nearly 40 years, and cat, in an historic stone house in Neustadt, Ontario. Lorina can be found at her website, Facebook and Twitter (@LorinaStephens).

(Thanks, Lorina. You're awesome!)

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:37 AM

    Thank-you for sharing, Lorina! It's insightful to read about how a publishing company starts from the bottom up. I've seen Rob in action on panels and he is amazing!