Married... With Books

Winnipeg book publishers Karen Haughian and Gordon Shillingford are competitors, but they also share a life and a son

Thu Nov 6 2003

IT was a moment that would test the strength of a lesser marriage.

Winnipeg book publisher Karen Haughian had just heard that her husband, Gordon Shillingford, also a publisher, had scored another Governor General's Literary Award nomination.

Needless to say, she was bursting with pride. But she was also a teensy bit jealous.

"I am happy for him," she said. "Although, of course, it's even better when we both have nominations."

There seems to be a healthy dose of competition between these two Winnipeg small-press barons, who between them have published the work of such local stalwarts as Catherine Hunter, Bruce McManus, Maureen Hunter, Diane Poulin, Alison Preston, Ian Ross and Melanie Cameron, among dozens of other Canadians.

Local playwright Brian Drader saw his 2001 play Prok published this year by the Shillingford imprint Scirocco. It recently received a G-G nomination in the drama category. If it wins a week from Saturday, it will be the third such award for a Shillingford, who also published Ross's play FareWel in 1997 and Torontonian Djanet Sears' Harlem Duet in 1998.

"It's a validation," said Shillingford, 43. "It's great for the author, who gets a real sense of accomplishment."

In 1995, the couple joined forces personally, and have even collaborated on a project -- a son, Griffin, 7 -- but they have kept their respective publishing interests apart.

"When we got married, several friends asked me when Gord was going to buy my business," said Haughian (pronounced High-an, in the Gaelic fashion), the prickly one of the pair.

"I couldn't believe it. These were people who knew me well, even women."

Publishers are to the book biz much as producers and directors combined are to movies. They come up with the money, find the writers, organize the material and shepherd through the printing process. Then they have to sell it.

Haughian, 46, got into publishing in 1986 in Montreal after she finished a master's in English at Concordia. She was one of a 16-person collective, Nuage Editions. The same year in Winnipeg, Shillingford formed Blizzard Publishing with Peter Atwood.

When Shillingford travelled east on business, he'd often run into Haughian at trade meetings.

"We both smoked," she said. "So we'd often find ourselves standing outside together in Toronto."

With so much in common, romance was the only option.

But Shillingford, an anglophone caught in the wake of the '95 language referendum, wasn't comfortable in Montreal. So he talked his bride into relocating to the Prairies.

"It was time to buy a house," said Shillingford, who was born on a farm in Saskatchewan and has a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg.

"It's easier to be a small publisher here. It's inexpensive to live and a couple of the printers we use are within walking distance."

They own a spacious two-and-a-half-storey brick house in Wolseley, where they are always entertaining visiting writers and where they maintain adjacent third-floor home offices, filled to the rafters with book shelves. (They still smoke and they still go outside, so as not to poison their son.)

Both prefer working independently. Haughian bought out her partners' interest in Nuage in 1992. In 2000, she renamed the company Signature Editions. She publishes seven titles a year in poetry, fiction and drama. They've won numerous nominations and awards, including G-G's and Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario prizes.

Shillingford also went on his own in 1992. He now puts out a dozen titles a year but on a series of imprints, Scirocco for theatre, The Muses' Company for poetry, Watson & Dwyer for Canadian social history and J. Gordon Shillingford for politics, religion, true crime and biography. His books have garnered 13 G-G nominations in 10 years.

"He's on his way to taking over the world," Haughian joked.

Friends describe them as equally ambitious and committed.

"The first word that comes to mind is energetic," said Catherine Hunter, a University of Winnipeg English professor who has published a novel and a poetry collection with Haughian and serves as poetry editor for The Muses Company.

"They're always working on a number of projects. It has been an education for me to see how many details are involved in publishing."

Lots of details. Little money.

Most of the their titles, especially the poetry and the drama, sell in the hundreds. Occasionally, one will reach 5,000, but that's usually over the course of many years and it must make it to high school or university course lists. They do well with the Canada Council and Manitoba Arts Council (whose juries have blessed them with significant grants over the years), but distributors and bookstores can cause headaches.

Returns from the chains and independents, who essentially sell books on consignment, are always a problem. The disastrous collapse two years ago of Toronto's General Distribution Services, which distributed their book across the country, cost them tens of thousands of dollars in lost income.

"We burned books to heat our house that winter," Haughian said. "Actually, we didn't. But we thought we were going to have to."

Despite the low pay, neither has any desire to work for a branch plant of an U.S. or German multinational. They love reading the books they publish and they feel their authors' stories deserve to be out in the world.

"All publishers are gamblers," Shillingford says. "You go with your judgment and your instincts. But in the end, it's always a crap shoot."