Brick Books: Proving it Can Be Done














Brick Books: Proving it Can Be Done

Stephanie Toth

























John Maxwell

PUB 800: Text and Context





It won’t work because idealism.

It won’t work because foolishness.

It won’t work because nobody reads poetry

  • Don McKay, on Brick Books[1]


Brick Books was established in 1975 by publisher Dan Stragland and poet Don McKay[2]. It has since published some of Canada’s most beloved poets, including launching a number of successful and critically acclaimed poets. The press publishes seven new titles each year, as well as an average of nine reprints[3]. They publish well-respected and established poets as well as new voices in poetry, and in fact a core part of their mandate is to bring new writers to the fore[4]. The mystery at the center of the operation, however, is how do they actually do it? Poetry is widely heralded as being unprofitable, valuable for its cultural capital and prestige as opposed to actual economic payoff. Many publishers address this problem by offsetting the cost of their poetry programs with more lucrative titles, such as blockbuster fiction or cookbooks. Brick, however, publishes only poetry. They’ve only ever published only poetry. So—how do they do it?

In an interview with CV2, the publishing house’s general manager Kitty Lewis discussed the issue of funding an operation such as Brick. She nodded to the importance of federal funding such as Canada Council block grants, the Book Production Industry Development program (BPIDP, now the Canada Book Fund), provincial funding such as the Ontario Arts Council, as well as provincial tax credits from the Ontario Media Development Corporation[5]. In this paper I will explore the funding provided by these sources and others, as well as examine the ways in which Brick contributes to its own sustainability through publicity and marketing efforts.

Table 1 outlines the funding Brick has received over the last ten years. Due to each organization’s different reporting practices, information was not equally accessible and as a result there are only three years (2015-2017) which begin to approach a complete picture of the funding provided through these channels. To further complicate matters, information from the Canada Book Fund was unavailable. Funding provided through the Canada Council included funding disbursed from the Writing & Publishing program’s Book Publishing Support pool via the Block Grant and Author Promotion Tour streams, Supplementary Operating Funds Initiative, the Supporting Artistic Practice program’s Literary Publishers pool, as well as the prizes awarded to the publisher from the Governor General’s Literary Award in the years that Brick had winning titles (2014 and 2012, $3000 each year). Funding provided by the Ontario Arts Council was comprised of the Block Grants to Book Publishers program as well as the Publishing Organizations program through the Operating stream. Finally, funds provided by the Ontario Media Development Corporation (OMDC, now Ontario Creates) were furnished through the Book Fund as well as the Book Export Fund. Taken together, these numbers amount to roughly $150,000 per year, or roughly $20,000 for each new title published annually, which again is without considering the Canada Book Fund contribution. Clearly, Brick Books relies heavily on these funding channels and would not be able to exist without them.

Table 1. Funding provided to Brick Books 2008-2018

Canada Council

Ontario Arts Council Ontario Media Development Corporation  


2018 $31,982
2017 $119,600 $31,202 $21,700 $172,502
2016 $107,300 $28,711 $17,011 $153,022
2015 $102,700 $23,691 $18,100 $144,491
2014 $98,000 $15,000
2013 $100,800
2012 $83,900
2011 $81,300
2010 $93,400
2009 $96,800
2008 $103,625

Sources: Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, Ontario Creates.


In addition to federal and provincial funding, Brick Books is able to take advantage of provincial tax credits through the Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit (OBPTC). The OBPTC is articulated as a 30% refundable tax credit, calculated on pre-press, printing, and marketing new works of Canadian literature, as well as costs incurred in the process of digitizing such works[6]. The OBPTC credits a maximum of $30,000 per title[7]. Because of Taxation Act confidentiality laws, Ontario Creates does not publicize information pertaining to individual clients, however a review of total credits awarded over the last five years (see Table 2) illustrates that this is also a robust support mechanism for outfits such as Brick Books.


Table 2. OBPTC disbursements 2013-2017
Number of eligible projects certified Total estimated
tax credit value
2017 579 $3,523,737
2016 409 $2,477,681
2015 503 $2,916,513
2014 587 $3,279,733
2013 611 $3,450,009

Source: Ontario Creates


In forming a complete-as-possible (albeit speculative) picture of how Brick Books has thrived in Canada for over forty years, one must also take into account the publishing house’s operating practices, publicity, and marketing efforts. Manuscripts received by the house are[8]  thoroughly reviewed and finally filtered through Acquisitions Editor Barry Demptser[9], who is an accomplished poet and fiction author himself[10]. Though it’s impossible to quantify the benefit of having a keen editorial sense, clearly a significant portion of Brick’s success and longevity is owed to the fact that they are publishing quality work. It is Brick’s policy to spend two years preparing a manuscript for publication[11], which allows for ample time to edit the manuscript, design the final package, and complete sufficient budgeting work. As well as publishing seven new titles each year, Brick also issues an average of nine reprints from their backlist, which is an intelligent way of generating revenue since the front-end work for these titles has already been completed and their success proven. Along these same lines, in 2015, to celebrate forty years of publishing, Brick bought Brick Books Classics to market—a collection of six of their most beloved titles republished with new introductions provided by notable Canadian poets and author afterwords, as well as new cover designs by Robert Bringhurst[12]. In view of generating revenue and raising awareness of the house, this is another clever move—again, the front-end work for these titles has been done, their success proven, and relaunching titles with new titles as part of a series also presents the possibility of a collector’s effect merchandising situation.

Brick Books’ standard operating procedures represent some best practices in the industry, and according to general manager Kitty Lewis, this has contributed to their reputation and high profile in the Canadian literary community[13]. In addition to editorial strength, high production value, and intelligent merchandising choices, Brick Books is also supported by a healthy publicity and marketing effort. The success of Brick titles over the years (four Governor General’s Literary Award and two Griffin Poetry Prize winners, in addition to countless shortlists and provincial awards) has provided the house with numerous publicity opportunities, which they maximize through their website’s News[14] page as well as both their Facebook[15] and Twitter[16] pages. Additionally, they maintain a Youtube[17] account featuring videos of Brick Book authors reading their poetry.

An undeniable quality of Brick Books is that they care about Canadian poetry[18]. They are invested in supporting Canadian poets and poetry, and it shows in the community support initiatives they participate in, such as providing books to literary contests[19], and in assisting victims of the Calgary flood to replace damaged books[20]. Reading interviews with McKay and Lewis, it’s obvious that this comes from a genuine place, but everything nonetheless contributes to a healthy public image and a direct association between Canadian poetry and Brick Books.

Finally, Brick Books incorporates elements of content marketing into their overall publicity and marketing plan. In addition to hosting news regarding their authors, their website also features author portals[21] as well as educational resources[22]. Each author published by the house over the years has a page featuring the title published, interviews with and articles on that author, as well as links to books by that author published by other houses and to that author’s website. The educational resources hosted by Brick’s website include interviews, writing tips, and authors’ explanations of the ideas behind certain poems, creating what the OMDC calls a “one-stop educational resource for Canadian poetry”[23]. Each of these separate web pages create an opportunity for a fan, teacher, or student of poetry to land on the Brick Book website, giving the house as well as their titles exposure, and contributing to the likelihood of a future purchase.

Brick Books is a one-of-a-kind publishing enterprise in Canada. Not only do they consistently publish widely celebrated poetry, but they do this without the financial support of publishing in other, more profitable genres. Upon consideration of the federal and provincial support they receive, it is evident just how crucial these funding organizations are to Brick’s ongoing success, as well as to the health of the Canadian literary environment in general. With that in mind, the people behind Brick also work passionately and intelligently to maximize their own revenue streams by publishing reprints as well as making the most of their publicity and marketing efforts, using social media and their own website. They also give back to the communities they belong to and do what they can to support the Canadian literature, be that in retweeting or sharing a fellow publisher’s release or donating books to a good cause. For a lover of poetry, Brick Books is an inspiring case of hardworking individuals coming together to make things happen that, to some, would seem impossible. In the words of Kitty Lewis, general manager for the house, “We will continue this work into the future. Our goal is to get important and beautiful poetry collections into the marketplace for everyone to enjoy.”[24] Thank you, Brick.






Baldassi, Julie. “Publishers offering discounts to Calgary flood victims.” Quill & Quire. Last

modified July 15, 2013. https://quillandquire.com/book-news/2013/07/15/publishers-offering-discounts-to-calgary-flood-victims/.

Brick Books. “About.” Accessed October 18, 2018. https://www.brickbooks.ca/about/.

——. “Authors.” Accessed October 19, 2018. https://www.brickbooks.ca/authors/.

——. “News.” Accessed October 18, 2018. https://www.brickbooks.ca/news/.

——. “Students.” Accessed October 19, 2018. https://www.brickbooks.ca/students/.

Canada Council for the Arts. “Recipients – prior to 2017: Brick Books.” Last modified November

  1. https://canadacouncil.ca/about/public-accountability/proactive-disclosure/grant-recipients/recipients-prior-2017?form=submitted&page=1&year=all&discipline=all&


——. “Recipients, 2017 to Present: Brick Books.” Last modified November 2017.



Caseburg, Sharon. “An Interview with Kitty Lewis and Barry Dempster of Brick Books.” Last

modified June 10, 2007. Contemporary Verse 2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing. http://www.contemporaryverse2.ca/en/interviews/excerpt/an-interview-with-kitty-lewis-and-barry-dempster-of-brick-books.

Clare, Kerry. “Celebrating Canadian Poetry: Brick Books Turns 40.” Literary Press Group. Last

modified April 9, 2015, https://49thshelf.com/Blog/2015/04/09/Celebrating-Canadian-Poetry-Brick-Books-Turns-40.

Dempster, Barry. “Home.” Accessed October 18, 2018. http://www.barrydempster.ca/.

Facebook. “Brick Books.” Accessed October 19, 2018. https://www.facebook.com/brickbooks.

Literary Press Group. “Brick Books.” Accessed October 18, 2018.  http://www.lpg.ca/houses/


Ontario Arts Council. “Grant Results: Brick Books.” Last modified February 15, 2018.



Ontario Creates. “Book Fund 2014-15 Successful Recipients.” Accessed October 19, 2018.


Ontario Creates. “Book Fund 2015-16 Successful Recipients.” Accessed October 19, 2018.


Ontario Creates. “Book Fund 2016-17 Successful Recipients.” Accessed October 19, 2018.


Ontario Creates. “Book Fund 2017-18 Successful Recipients.” Accessed October 19, 2018.


Ontario Creates. “Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit.” Accessed October 18, 2018.


Ontario Creates. “Success Stories: Brick Books.” Last modified September 6, 2018.


Ontario Creates. “Tax Credit Applications Received and Certificates Issued” Retrieved from

Ontario Creates Open Data Page. http://www.ontariocreates.ca/about_us/

Open_Data.htm Last Modified June 4, 2018.

Open Book. “Contest! Win a Prize Pack of Original Works from Brick Books.” Last modified

October 15, 2018. http://open-book.ca/News/Contest!-Win-a-Prize-Pack-of-Original-Works-from-Brick-Books?fbclid=IwAR0xzwYAAcW8NBCBpd9dQI9hMU7q9mkzA-Wf67CUz6l_5ZBx25c19RwboZg.

Twitter. “Brick Books.” Accessed October 19, 2018. https://twitter.com/brickbooks.

Youtube. “Brick Books” Accessed October 19, 2018.




[1] Kerry Clare, “Celebrating Canadian Poetry: Brick Books Turns 40,” Literary Press Group, last modified April 9, 2015, https://49thshelf.com/Blog/2015/04/09/Celebrating-Canadian-Poetry-Brick-Books-Turns-40.

[2] Literary Press Group, “Brick Books,” accessed October 18, 2018,  http://www.lpg.ca/house-brick-books.

[3] Ontario Creates, “Success Stories: Brick Books,” last modified September 6, 2018, http://www.omdc.on.ca/WGIGO/Success_Stories/Book_Success_Stories/OMDC_SUCCESS_STORY__BRICK_BOOKS.htm.

[4] Sharon Caseburg, “An Interview with Kitty Lewis and Barry Dempster of Brick Books,” last modified June 10, 2007, Contemporary Verse 2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, http://www.contemporaryverse2.ca/en/interviews/excerpt/an-interview-with-kitty-lewis-and-barry-dempster-of-brick-books.

[5] Caseburg, “Brick Books.”

[6] Ontario Creates, “Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit,” accessed October 18, 2018, http://www.omdc.on.ca/book/tax_credits/OBPTC.htm.

[7] Ontario Creates, “Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit.”

[8] Caseburg, “Brick Books.”

[9] Brick Books, “About,” accessed October 18, 2018, https://www.brickbooks.ca/about/.

[10] Barry Dempster, “Home,” accessed October 18, 2018, http://www.barrydempster.ca/.

[11] Caseburg, “Brick Books.”

[12] Literary Press Group, “Brick Books.”

[13] Caseburg, “Brick Books.”

[14] Brick Books, “News,” accessed October 18, 2018, https://www.brickbooks.ca/news/.

[15] Facebook, “Brick Books,” accessed October 19, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/brickbooks.

[16] Twitter, “Brick Books,” accessed October 19, 2018, https://twitter.com/brickbooks.

[17] Youtube, “Brick Books,” accessed October 19, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/user/brickbooks.

[18] Clare, “Brick Books Turns 40.”

[19] Open Book, “Contest! Win a Prize Pack of Original Works from Brick Books,” last modified October 15, 2018,


[20] Julie Baldassi, “Publishers offering discounts to Calgary flood victims,” Quill & Quire, last modified July 15, 2013,


[21] Brick Books, “Authors,” accessed October 19, 2018, https://www.brickbooks.ca/authors/.

[22] Brick Books, “Students,” accessed October 19, 2018, https://www.brickbooks.ca/students/.

[23] Ontario Creates, “Success Stories: Brick Books.”

[24] Ontario Creates, “Success Stories: Brick Books.”

The moment I came across Milk and Honey was a definitive moment in my life; I realized how fascinated I was about the publishing industry. I read poetry in high school, analyzing form and meaning in Emily Dickinson poems or Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it was always so confusing to me. I often wondered why poets couldn’t just get to the point or describe their thoughts in metaphors that make some sort of sense within the first read. To my surprise, Rupi Kaur and this poetry book happened, the poetic phenomenon that changed the poetry community. The feeling was instant, ironic to what this new age in poetry publication is called: Instapoetry.


Instapoetry is an adaptation of traditional poetic ideals into a transformative Internet subgenre. Poets have turned to Instagram, a popular social media platform, to share excerpts of their work in hopes of publication. Instapoetry refutes traditional poetic forms, and instead, polarizes a new style that entwines art with literature. Molly McElwee, in an article for Gibraltar Magazine, shares that Instapoetry is the use of this “photo-sharing platform [giving] poetry a much-welcomed fresh feel… the poems are bite-size, they fit within the square Instagram frame; their font is carefully selected, an aesthetic extension of their work. And, when well done, the platform has skyrocketed amateur writers to the literary mainstream.” [1] Since Kaur’s arrival, it was as if poetry was culturally relevant again. According to Booknet Canada, Kaur continues to dominate all book sales across the world, where “for the second year in a row, unit sales in the poetry category increased significantly. [2] In 2016, poetry sales increases by 79% over 2015, and between 2016 and 2017 the units sold increased by another 154%.” [2] Andrews McMeel Publishing announced that Milk and Honey “sold more than one million copies in print after just over a year… and are currently in their 16th printing.” [3] In this age of new media revitalizing poetry, shaping the poetry publishing industry, what is the legitimacy of Instapoetry? Thus, in the scope of this essay, I strive to explore what Instapoetry means in publishing, and defend the relevancy of Instapoetry, analyzing how it saves the poetry community by counteracting conventional poetic norms.


Michael Warner, in his scholarly paper, “Publics and Counterpublics” foregrounds a crucial theory that helps explain how Instapoetry has been so successful and unstoppable. Warner explains that a public is self-organized, a “space of discourse organized by nothing other than discourse itself” and “the circularity is essential to the phenomenon.” [4] In order to create this circularity, there must be participants that contribute to the discourse, which in this case are the poets and the readers. Warner considers that “a public is never just a congeries of people… it must first of all have some way of organizing itself as a body, and of being addressed in discourse.” [4] To organize itself, the public is “a social place created by the reflexive circulation of discourse.” It is constantly interactive and linking social interpretation together because social networks are a collective effort and exists in relationships between all participants. Instapoets produce Instapoetry solely for the intention of the poems being read. Without the Instareader, the poems would mean nothing and would not be circulated. This has become an important criterion for the public sphere to function coherently. Moreover, Warner explains that “a public is poetic world-making.” The contributions to a public are often performative acts, that the engagement itself can transform and shape the public. A unique correlation exists between the public and the text. An example is the form in Instapoems that can be adapted and used in other discourses, like Kaur’s iconic line breaks inspiring the works of several new Instapoets: Atticus, Nikita Gill, Amanda Lovelace. Ultimately, it’s quite intriguing and comforting for Instapoets to put their work on 800 million and counting content- creator generated social network service as if a guarantee that there will be a certain readership if the right amount of tags and hashtags are used. Instapoetry will always be a public between the intersection of Instagram and the Poetry Community, and in order to have an “on-going life”, it must have the supporters that continue to produce and contribute to the discourse.


In midst of this digital technology storm, it is uncanny to believe that technology has no effect on books, reading, and publishing. Technology is a blessing and a curse. It strives to simplify our lives, making basic human tasks almost disappear by the robotic programming of completing a task within the touch of a button (i.e. meeting someone face to face versus a quick text). The introduction of eBooks led many people in the industry to believe that print publication would be dead; however, studies show that specifically in poetry, Canada had the greatest sales yet in 2016. [6] Accordingly, Andrews McNeel Publishing proves to be the most successful publishing house that understands the market of Instapoetry and uses it to their advantage, publishing “eleven of the top twenty best-selling poets last year.” [6]. Kirsty Melville, president of Andrews McNeel, explains that “as a publisher, we go with where the culture goes.” [6] She continues with stating that “the digital age has facilitated a connection between writers and readers. In addition, although these poets share their work online, publication in book form is also cherished. The book is one of the oldest, most successful, and most valued inventions for sharing ideas.” [6] It is as if Instapoetry acts as a complementary tool that revitalizes poetry genre in the publishing industry, where readers are compelled by these strong desires and interests after reading Instapoetry to do something about these feelings, to physically purchase the poetry book and contribute to the monetizing of poetry. Evidently, Instapoetry becomes a gateway drug that revives the public’s cultural interest in poetry, and by this inherent interest in poetry book sales, the poetry community lives on.


Why is Instapoetry hated on or seen as “a pop phenomenon with little connection to the literary world”? [7] Vinu Casper shares this fair and common critique on Instapoetry: “Poets who spend years honing their craft, carefully writing and rewriting every line, practicing their performance over and over before they take to stage, are being beaten to the punch by influencers with a steady social media presence and masses of followers. These so-called Instapoets get away with blanket statements and empty metaphors under the guise of poetry.” [5] She questions if these simple posts are more “for sake of engagement” as if a marketing ploy that schemes for likes or comment responses from Instagrammers instead of the poetry itself. Similarly, Tham Young, an English teacher critiques Instapoetry, calling it “fidget spinner poetry”, as if it demonstrates a millennial flaw. He suggests that millennials uphold short attention spans that make it harder to critically comprehend and analyze traditional works of poetry. [8] Instapoetry is then seen as laziness, that the incompetency to create a similar product of poetry based off of ancient standards is deemed as illegitimate or unworthy of the same value and praise. This furthers the generation gap within the poetic community, that the older traditionalist poets refuse to accept or learn to understand new styles of poetry. Instead, they turn this misunderstanding into hatred and exclusivity, a poetic culture war.


As a fellow Instapoet, I like to think that there are many reasons why Instapoetry is so favourable; an important one being that “they pack so much meaning into so little language.” [3]. They entwine “the internet’s love of an inspirational quote with artful typography and immediate share-ability.” [3]. One Instagram account called @Poets follow Kaur’s outburst of simplistic aesthetically pleasing visual/ phrases.  It features many poets that write one-liners/ one stanzas that sound like every day phrases or thoughts. An example is (insert image): “I aspire to be/ an old man/ with an old wife/ laughing at old jokes/ from a wild youth.” written by Atticus, a current popular Instapoet following the steps of Kaur. [9]

Or another that is simple: “you are in/ everything/ I see/” titled “six word poem – poets”. [10] As much as it sounds like everyday dialogue or thoughts, they are very relatable, shareable, “screenshot-able”, and “easy to recall if one is in need of an inspirational quote or late in the day mantra or an impulsive Saturday night tattoo.” [11]. They can be instantly felt and emoted, and if it is so easy to relate to them, it sparks the heavy desire to read more or read on; both that contribute to supporting poetry publishing. As well, Instapoetry becomes more accessible to the everyday reader as more contemporary themes are addressed: love, culture, feminism, gun violence, domestic violence, war, racism, LGBTQ, and other social justice topics. Perhaps it isn’t about replacing traditional works or forms, but using the current medium to foster the appropriate cultural relevance or representation to the era in which the new media poetry is produced. It’s an “innovative progression” [11], one that lures new readers into the inherent simple language in Instapoetry and understands deeper meanings about the life around them, all while using flowery language and poignant metaphors.


Whether it’s continuing to buy print poetry books in the store or reading online content, in the end, poetry is poetry; art is art. Who has the power to constitute what is right and what is wrong if arts and literature are subjective to the reader? In a world that becomes more and more complicated, isn’t it nice to come across poetry that can be simple yet make the reader feel an intense array of emotions? It’s not really different from older poets like Keats, Shakespeare, and Byron; Instapoets continue to “examine their present moment and turning that moment into art.” [11]. They lead a cultural revolution of introducing new, raw, emotional storytellers, while utilizing a simpler writing style, into the community. Sometimes I also find a hard time understanding how posts like “you are in/ everything/ I see.” can be seen as poetry, but perhaps there’s a poetic aesthetic to finding meaning in something so simple. It’s these wonders that continues our curiosities with poetry and makes us continue reading, scrolling.




[1] McElwee, Molly. “INSTAPOETRY – The Age of Scrolling Literature.” The Gibraltar    Magazine, 25 Oct. 2017, thegibraltarmagazine.com/instapoetry-age-scrolling-literature/.

[2] Canada, Booknet. “Poetry Sales Increase Again in 2017.” BookNet Canada, Mar. 2018, www.booknetcanada.ca/press-room/2018/3/7/poetry-sales-increase-again-in-2017.

[3] Flood, Alison. “Poet Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey Sells More than Half a Million Copies.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 13 Sept. 2016, www.theguardian.com/books/2016/sep/13/poet-rupi-kaurs-milk-and-honey-sells-more-than-half-a-million-copies.

[4] Warner, Michael. “Publics and Counterpublics (abbreviated version).” Quarterly Journal of Speech 88.4 (2002): 413-25. Web. 20 Jan. 2017. <http://knowledgepublic.pbworks.com/f/ warnerPubCounterP.pdf>.

[5] Casper, Vinu. “Challenging the Insta Poet Community.” PSU Vanguard, 13 Apr. 2018, psuvanguard.com/challenging-the-insta-poet-community/.

[6] Maher, John. “Can Instagram Make Poems Sell Again?” PublishersWeekly.com, Feb. 2018, www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/publisher-news/article/75976- can-Instagram-make-poems-sell-again.html.

[7] Millner, Maggie. “Instapoets Prove Powerful in Print.” Poets & Writers, 2 Aug. 2018, www.pw.org/content/instapoets_prove_powerful_in_print.

[8] Gurtis, Alex. “Instapoetry – the Polarizing New Poetry Style That Is Making Poetry Relevant Again.” The Odyssey Online, 10 Jan. 2018, www.theodysseyonline.com/instapoetry.

[9] https://www.instagram.com/p/Bni6ktpgki-/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[10] https://www.instagram.com/p/Bndd8SIg7Ei/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet

[11] Miller, E. Ce. “We Need To Talk About Why People Hate ‘InstaPoets’ So Much – And Why They’re Wrong.” Bustle, Bustle, 31 July 2018, www.bustle.com/p/are-instapoets- destroying-the-art-form-reviving-it-a-defense-of-social-media-poetry-8530426.