Who killed Coach House Press? A year ago this month, when the obituaries appeared, Canadian culture threw itself into a paroxysm of grief, guilt, and finger-pointing. Canadians involved in the arts enjoy nothing more than a good wake, and if the corpse was once an institution that we ignored when it was alive, that makes everything perfect.
As usual the air was filled with accusations, and as usual the government was to blame--in this case, the Ontario government, which failed to provide financial support. Another neoconservative atrocity! Premier Mike Harris reinforced that argument by making boneheaded public remarks on the management of culture, a subject he would be wise to avoid.
Coach House didn't stay dead for long, however. Last winter it was resuscitated by Stan Bevington, who founded it three decades ago, and Victor Coleman, an editor involved with it over many years. Back in business, scaled down but lively, it uses the familiar Coach House logo and sells (just as in old times) the late bp Nichol's The Martyrology, $110 for the multi-volume set. Nevertheless, something must have happened last summer--the news reports can't have been entirely fictional. Whatever it was, it has inspired nine articles in Open Letter, the literary journal edited by a long-time Coach House stalwart, Frank Davey.
The fall of Coach House, much more complicated than it seemed from a distance, was the result of clashing cultures and warring ambitions. Davey's own article in Open Letter is a 38-page essay in blame distribution, charged with careful anger. In his telling, Coach House sounds like an artistic enterprise ruined by the attempt to introduce competence, a matter of quirky amateurs being replaced by mediocre professionals.
Of course, Davey sees it from the position of an editor pushed aside during the company's transformation, or "reform." He oozes resentment, like a baron deposed by a revolution, and he affectionately recalls the glories of the ancien régime. From the 1960s to the early 1980s, Coach House published whatever books the editors wanted to publish; money to pay for them came from the printing jobs Bevington found, government grants, and occasional sales. Book designs looked eccentric (a book of baseball poems shaped like a diamond, for instance) and sometimes arrived in several pieces, intentionally. The poetry was the sort we were not supposed to understand, just appreciate. Editors, including Michael Ondaatje and Nichol, worked for nothing, office workers for next to nothing. No one expected to sell many copies. As Davey says, Coach House people believed the books were "too good, clever, important, or rarefied to be commercial." Booksellers agreed. Total annual revenues were under $100,000.
But in the 1980s the press became complicated and hard to run, a strain on Bevington's health. People began talking about a strategic plan, a board of directors, loan guarantees, professional management, a marketing program--the whole catastrophe. This would require more money, which in turn would require different books. Certain editors began looking, Davey says, for "manuscripts that could make money for the press if promoted and commodified by mainstream advertising methods." Davey wanted to stay outside the business of what he calls "consumerist texts and consumerist publishing." So did Nichol. But they began to lose the argument.
In December, 1986, Davey wrote an e-mail to George Bowering, a Coach House author in Vancouver, complaining about two editors: "David Young (& Sarah Sheard) are already talking like young Tories--`bottom line' and `real world' and abt the need to produce books to meet the needs of a new `market reality.'....I don't trust anyone who talks that way."
Davey says Coach House stopped being a place where friends gathered to publish books and became a place where strangers got together, as employees and directors, to run a business. Eventually gross income quadrupled, but costs went even higher. In October, 1988, Nichol died unexpectedly, and some people thought the old Coach House died with him. Davey felt increasingly isolated. He remained a stockholder and (in theory) an editor, but at the end he didn't even know who had become president until he received the letter that said Coach House was shutting down.
The company that failed last summer, Davey obviously believes, was not the authentic Coach House but a misguided attempt to turn it into something it could never be. Victor Coleman expresses the same opinion in another Open Letter article and in a poem, "The Day They Stole the Coach House Press." The poem ("greed had crept under the skin of the interlopers....these turkeys in suits sold the farm to maintain the system") can be found at the Web site (www.chbooks.com) where the new Bevington-Coleman enterprise advertises itself as "The Original Coach House Press, Established 1964" and publishes some books on paper, some electronically.
Internet readers can order books to be sent by mail or read them on their computer screens--and pay for the privilege by voluntarily tipping the authors. This idea is so magnificently innocent that it might even work. For some reason, Coach House tells us precisely what tip to leave behind, so on Saturday, using my credit card, I tipped Darren Wershler-Henry $3.50 after reading his tribute to Nichol, Nicholodeon: a book of lowerglyphs and tipped Patricia Seaman $3.20 for New Motor Queen City.
These works exhibit typographic eccentricity and elaborately obscure storytelling techniques, just like the Coach House books I first began seeing around 1970. "Welcome to the future of literary publishing in Canada," says the Web site. "You're here now. Yes, safe from scoundrels who would kill literary publishing if they only could."
So who did kill Coach House Press? No one. It's apparently indestructible. Even rational modern management couldn't destroy it.