Canada’s Private Presses: On the Fringe

Canada’s Private Presses:
On the Fringe 

The publishing industry in Canada is comprised of hundreds of publishers that vary greatly in size and scope. On one end of the publishing spectrum there is the multinational “Big Five” publishers, including Harper Collins and Penguin Random House. In the middle sits publishers such as House of Anansi or ECW, who publish forty to seventy titles per year. Small publishers such as Anvil and Black Moss Press publish approximately ten to twenty books per year. Entirely on the outside of the mainstream publishing industry are the private presses. A private press is defined as “a printing press operated as an artistic or craft-based endeavour.” Because they operate with a focus on the craft of bookmaking instead of on the profit of book selling, these presses are typically much smaller than their commercial counterparts. The focus of this essay is specifically on private press publishers that employ letterpress printing. This essay will explore these letterpress publishers and their relation to the publishing industry, examining specifically why private presses are not publishers in the capitalist sense, but instead artisans. It will address why they are still inherently important despite their small size and their position on the fringe of the publishing market.

Private Presses in the Publishing Sphere

Publishing a book that has been printed using a letterpress machine takes an extensive amount of time. The typesetting and designing is done by hand, in contrast to the productivity allowed by InDesign’s ability to flow text through an entire book. Because each page must be laid out individually, all the printing is done sheet-by-sheet. In other words, if a hundred copies are to be produced, one page will be printed one-hundred times before the next page is printed. Furthermore, only one colour can be printed at a time, forcing printers to wait for the ink to dry on each page before moving on to accent colours. Some printers choose to print on damp paper, which adds an additional step and consideration to the process as they must maintain damp paper for the entirety of the page run. Following the printing is the binding, which is also often done by hand for fine press books. The outcome of this time-consuming process should be a beautiful physical book. However, the consequential result is also lower print runs and fewer books printed per year.

Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press, located in Mission, British Columbia, states that their print run is typically around 100 to 150 copies. In addition to selling individual copies, they utilize a subscription list in which each person agrees to pay for a copy of every book that Barbarian Press publishes at a thirty percent discount. This guarantees that the time and effort they put into each print run is paid for, and that serious collectors have access to a master printer’s work. They publish two to three books per year. Their prices range from hundreds of dollars to thousands, thus limiting their accessibility and readership but establishing a strong, dedicated audience for their books. A forthcoming title, Bordering on the Sublime: Ornamental Typography at Curwen Press will have three separate editions with a total print run of 160. These editions range from 850 to three thousand dollars at this time, but may increase upon completion of the project. They also have a crowd funding page for the book.

A Part Yet Apart

Nova Scotia’s Gaspereau Press sits at an in-between point, bridging the gap between commercial and letterpress publishers. Gaspereau Press prints some of their books with traditional letterpress techniques. However, many are laid out on InDesign, resulting in covers that are pressed, yet always maintaining consistency of style and design throughout the book. Their choice to print books in this way allows for a book with a high production value that is beautifully designed. However, at the core of Andrew Steeves’ ideology for Gaspereau Press is an emphasis on functionality. In a phone call, Steeves stated that beauty resides in “fitness to purpose.” In other words, books are meant to be read. Gaspereau’s choice to print in this way allows for more books to be produced per year and per print run. It also allows for reprints, which is not possible with hand-laid books. For Gaspereau Press, the goal is to get books to readers, which is reminiscent of a more traditional publishing stance. A twenty dollar book is “important and an act of rebellion” (Steeves). The rebellion lies in creating a book that has been created with design in mind from the moment a manuscript is attained, using letterpress skills and techniques both manually and digitally to lay out the book, overseeing the entirety of the design from typesetting to printing.

What is a Publication?

Ultimately, although the business models of private presses ensure their financial viability as publishers, they do not allow for grants from the Canada Council for the Arts. For both block grants and emerging publisher grants, restrictions require that print runs be at least 350 copies. Therefore, this expensive endeavour (for paper, binding, labour, and type are all costly) is not assisted by the Canada Council. The result is that the cost of letterpress books remains high, further promoting their niche readership.

Craftsmanship is the raison d’être for private presses; this is what differentiates them from small press publishers. The entire production of the book is done in-house, or is closely overseen by the printer in the case of wood engravings or binding. In an email, Elsted states, “It is a craft. It involves the constant physical attention of the designer, the compositor, the pressman, and — when the printing is finished — the binder.” Therefore, though they are producing books, letterpress publishers are not concerned with publishing as a commercial venture, but instead as a creative one, one embedded in the idea of the craftsmanship of creation. Letterpress publishers do not engage with the mainstream publishing industry in a substantial way and are concerned with the beauty, tactility, and craft involved in creating a book. Their print runs are low and they publish very few books per year. As a result of the hard work that goes into creating a fine press book, the prices are much higher which creates a smaller, dedicated readership. On the other hand, commercial publishers utilize the book primarily to make a profit, attempting to sell through high print runs and price books as affordably as possible. Their goal is to reach as wide a readership as possible. Because craftsmanship is at the core of why letterpress publishers exist, they do not publish in the commercial sense of the word.

Matthew Stadler calls a publication “the creation of a public, essentially a political act.” While private press publishing may not be considered commercial publishing, it is still publishing in the philosophical sense. Though print runs are low, there is a global interest in beautifully crafted books. The proof is that a niche press like Barbarian Press continues to operate off the enthusiasm of collectors everywhere. Furthermore, there exist not-for-profit organizations such as the Alcuin Society, which intend to illuminate “the entire range of interests relating to books: publishing, book design and production, bookselling, book buying and collecting, printing, binding, papermaking, calligraphy and illustration.” Letterpress publishers were given nine awards and/or honourable mentions in 2016’s Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design, signifying the recognition of letterpress in the sector of book design. Private presses have a public, it is simply smaller and on the fringe of commercial publishing. Without an audience, nothing could survive. The ongoing existence of private presses alone signifies that a readership exists and that there is recognition of the importance of letterpress publishers.

So Why are They Important? 

My initial task in choosing to write an essay on letterpress publishers was to discuss why they are important in 2016. I soon realized that private presses were hard to define in relation to publishing and that the reasons I initially had for why letterpress publishers are valuable were only a fraction of an answer. Part of my research for this essay involved emailing Heavenly Monkey (Vancouver, BC), Barbarian Press (Mission, BC), Greenboathouse Press (Vernon, BC), and Gaspereau Press (Kentville, NS) and asking, “Why is letterpress publishing important in 2016?” All of them acknowledged my first argument, which is that letterpress printing has informed the way books are now designed: “When practised at its best, letterpress publishing encompasses, sustains, demonstrates & continues the best traditions of the book crafts, from papermaking through binding (& including typography, paper decoration & fine printmaking). These aren’t just quaint techniques and materials, they’re examples of the state of the art/craft, perfected over centuries” (Milroy). Within my drafted notes, I then wrote that letterpress printers set the standard for well-made books. But I was missing the vital importance of any vocation: the connections and relationships it nurtures. Matthew Stadler’s final definition of a publication was “a lasting meaningful relationship to one another.” Andrew Steeves alluded to the connection Gaspereau Press has between commercial and letterpress publishers. Jan Elsted discussed the connection of work to quality of life: “We discovered the rhythm which comes from living with nature, rather than with man-made things; and we found a craft, a work to do with the hands, that provides a link between natural rhythms and intellect.” Crispin Elsted expressed the importance of integrity and human individuality in regards to one’s craft: “We need that connection between person and deed increasingly in an age becoming increasingly anonymous,” thus bestowing “the scent of humanity” on a letterpresses book. Jason Dewinetz of Greenboathouse Press said that letterpress is personally important because of the relationship he has with his trade, “To my mind, what IS important is the DOING, not the thing being done. And so, good old Marcus Aurelius: ‘Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it…’” The importance of letterpress is not to the publishing industry, so it becomes irrelevant if private presses are not considered market publishers. The value lies in the tactility and beauty of an art that has been perfected for over five-hundred years. The importance is in the connection to the book, to the craft, or to a public, whether that public is a collector or a Masters of Publishing student trying to provide her classmates with knowledge on a fringe microcosm of publishing. These publishers gave their time freely, embodying how the book is, at its core, a social device used to build relationships and connections whether through its physicality, the information it expels, or the ideology it represents. Well-made books can outlast lifetimes as a physical artifact and an information diffuser. Value is found in the enjoyment of every step involved in the creation of a book, as long as it is done with integrity and mindfulness, from the writing, to the typesetting, to the creation of meaning that comes with reading and experiencing it. In John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn” the appreciation for beauty and long-lasting craftsmanship is expressed: “When old age shall this generation waste, / Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe / Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st, / ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’”

Works Cited

Book Publishing Support: Block Grants.Canada Council for the Arts. Web. 28 March 2016.

Book Publishing Support: Emerging Publisher Grants.Canada Council for the Arts. Web.

       28 March 2016.

Books in Print from Barbarian Press.Barbarian Press. Web. 28 March 2016.

Books: Product Categories.Black Moss Press. Web. 28 March 2016.

Bordering on the Sublime: Ornamental Typography at the Curwen Press.Barbarian Press.

       Web. 28 March 2016.

Dewinetz, Jason. “RE: Letterpress in 2016.” Message to the author. 24 March 2016. Email.

Elsted, Crispin. “RE: Letterpress in 2016.” Message to the author. 22 March 2016. Email.

Elsted, Crispin and Jan. “The Barbarian Press Curwen Project.Indiegogo. 18 December

       2015. Web. 28 March 2016.

Glazer, Aaron. “Letterpress Printing Techniques from Boxcar Press.Boxcar Press. 24

       November 2009. Web 18 March 2016.

Gordon, Leah. “Alcuin Society Awards for Excellence in Book Design in Canada Winners

       Announced!Alcuin Society. 21 March 2016. Web. 28 March 2016.

Hörner, James and Iram Khan. “Publishers in Canada.Online Guide to Writing in Canada.

       Web. 28 March 2016.

Hudson, Andrew. “ECW Press bucking the trends in publishing industry.Beach Metro

       Community News. 5 November 2014. Web. 28 March 2016.

Keats, John. “Ode on a Grecian Urn.The Poetry Foundation. Web. 28 March 2016.

Library and Archives Canada. “Barbarian Press.Canadian Private Presses. 7 February 2002.

       Web. 28 March 2016.

Library and Archives Canada. Canadian Private Presses. 7 February 2002. Web. 28 March


Meet the Press.Gaspereau Press. 14 March 2016. Web. 28 March 2016.

Milroy, Rollin. “Re: A question & your book.” Message to the author. 22 March 2016.


Olson, Hanna Brooks. “3 Ways Letterpress Still Impacts Modern Life.CreativeLive Blog. 17

       March 2015. Web. 18 March 2016.

OMDC Success Story: House of Anansi Press.Ontario Media Distribution Company. Web.

       28 March 2016.

Prothero, John. “What is Letterpress? And Why are we Still Using it Today?The Prothero

       Press. 23 July 2015. Web. 18 March 2016.

Private press.Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 29 Mar. 2016.

Stadler, Matthew. “What is a Publication?” Finding Your Audience in the 21st Century.

       Hugo House, Seattle. 22 May 2010. Keynote.

Steeves, Andrew. Personal Interview. 24 March 2016.

The Alcuin Society. Web. 28 March 2016.

One Response to Canada’s Private Presses: On the Fringe

  1. ewhanson says:

    Gill, your essay gives a great overview of private presses, specifically letterpresses, and what their relevance is to the publishing industry today. The essay is laid out well and presents the points of your argument in a clear manner. I also thought the definition you gave of private presses at the beginning of the essay was very helpful as it helped frame private presses in the context of the publishing industry at large. The hyperlinks through the essay also made it easier to follow and see the context of the quotes and outside information you discuss.
    In the second section you mention how one of the private presses had used a crowdfunding campaign. In a revisit, it would be interesting to see what, if any, the trends are for private presses to use crowdfunding to finance their projects. You mention they are generally not eligible for grants, but are they at all dependent on outside source of financing or are they able to stay afloat just on the sales of the books. If the goals of letterpresses is not to “sell” books, it would be interesting to learn more on how they fund their publishing-craft venture.
    On a related note, it would be interesting to hear more about how the letterpresses grow their audience/readership for each title. Is it a built-in audience that is attached to the individual letterpress or are the audiences centered around each title? Because the focus is on the craftsmanship (which I thought was an excellent point in illustrating the differences between small presses like Anvil and private letterpresses), how do the letterpresses go about advertising? You made mention of one that always had presales for projects. Is that a standard method of ensuring profitability among all letterpresses?
    I also thought you raised an interesting point about the significance of letterpresses and their important role in how books are designed today. There is such a heavy focus on the artistic merits and effort put into each letterpress project. You make a convincing argument for why we need to keep letterpresses around. As you said, their importance is not to the publishing industry so whether they are market publishers is irrelevant. You say that one of the importances of letterpresses is in an appreciation for beauty. You evoke this throughout your essay and show that you really believe in this. Overall, you make a convincing argument in the defense of private letterpresses.

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