Homegrown publisher fends off multinationals

Halifax-based James Lorimer has worked in publishing for more than 40 years. He has spent his career warding off multinational companies and advocating for more Canadian content. It’s about time, he says, that the Canadian publishing industry stands on its own two feet.

By Samantha Delaney

Halifax-based James Lorimer has worked in publishing for more than 40 years. He has spent his career warding off multinational companies and advocating for more Canadian content. It’s about time, he says, for the Canadian publishing industry to stand on its own two feet.

James Lorimer proudly publishes Canadian content. (Samantha Delaney photo)

By Samantha Delaney

You can’t see him, but he’s in there. He’s inside the shabby two-storey building hiding in the ghostly shadow of the Halifax Grain Elevator. In this industrial city corner works James Lorimer, the man with the crinkled smile.

After 40 years Lorimer still survives on Canadian books. He runs two publishing houses, one in Halifax and one in Toronto, as well as his own book distribution company. After a few near-bankruptcies and changing markets, he’s still publishing. He’s still dreaming up ideas to invigorate the industry in Canada; still hoping it will grow up and stand up to the big bully of foreign-owned invaders on the market playground.

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And, of course, he’s still trying to change the world by publishing. He recently released a non-fiction book, Police in Canada, about “all these police who are out of control and beyond supervision. We all know it’s true… 70 per cent of the population, 80 per cent of the population would have that perception (of Canadian police forces). What’s the difference between me and everybody else with that perception? I have an opportunity to do something.”

“I can’t actually change the political system all by myself,” says Lorimer. “But the role of the publisher is to publish. In books, people get to have an understanding. Understanding leads people to understand what’s wrong.”

This mentality drove Lorimer into the business. It was the late 1960s. He was a young economics professor at York University living in a working-class Toronto neighbourhood. He wrote a column for the Globe and Mail, and turned these articles into a book: The Real World of City Politics.

When publishers refused to publish – or were too busy to even read – manuscripts written by Lorimer and his friends, they decided to publish the works themselves. This included Lorimer’s attack on property development corporations, The Developers, and a book about his neighbours in Toronto, Working People: Life in a Downtown Neighbourhood.

Radical Nationalists

It was a great time in Canadian publishing. A lot of other zealous newbies were entering the book biz, too, people like Mel Hurtig who would publish the Canadian Encyclopedia and become the leader of the nationalistic National Party. Self-Counsel Press made its debut with a do-it-yourself divorce guide. Fiddlehead, House of Anansi and New Press all started at this time. Each had their own focus, but shared this mandate: to publish Canadian-authored books.

He has a desire to educate and expose, and wants Canadians to know about Canada, especially the parts that get ignored.

Together they formed the Independent Publishers Association, now the Association of Canadian Publishers, to lobby the federal government for funding and policy change. Lorimer also became a founding member of the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association, after moving to Halifax in the 1980s.

Lorimer is “committed to the industry in general so that Canada is a leader, not just pulled along,” says the executive director of the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP), Carolyn Wood. “Two solitudes” exist in Canadian publishing, Wood says. The editorially independent, Canadian-owned publishing companies across the land work hard to keep up with the large, foreign-owned multi-nationals operating out of Toronto.

Through the ACP, locally-owned operations often work together to solve problems and pool resources for things they can’t individually afford or manage, like buying software for their offices. “They compete with each other intensely but are willing to share information that very few of their counterparts in the industry would,” says Wood. “Jim is a big proponent of that.”

Currently, Lorimer is driving the digital transition. He and four industry colleagues created an action plan to help their fellow independents compete in the growing e-book market. “I think there’s a great opportunity for more Canadian books to be more available and visible as e-books compared to print books,” says Lorimer.

Jim Lorimer writes and publishes Working People: Life in a Downtown Neighbourhood in 1971
Jim Lorimer writes and publishes Working People: Life in a Downtown Neighbourhood in 1971 (Samantha Delaney Photo)

The plan, which includes training and education sessions for publishers, is being carried out by staff at the Association of Canadian Publishers (ACP). Lorimer meets with the ACP at least once a month, either in-person or through conference calls, to discuss industry issues. “Nobody knows what percentage of reading is going to be e-books,” he says, “but it’s clear that it’s likely to be significant.” He has already converted about 600 of his titles into e-book form.

Lorimer has a large publishing repertoire, dabbling in a mix of genres. Over the years he has reinvented product lines to meet consumer demands and regional tastes. Halifax-based Formac publishes history, biographies, guidebooks, and anything Maritime-related while the Toronto house, in which Lorimer has less editorial control, specializes in children’s books.

Lorimer’s editorial stamp is always clear. He has a desire to educate and expose, and wants Canadians to know about Canada, especially the parts that get ignored. Consider the book about pro football’s first Chinese-Canadian player, Normie Kwong. Or the Deal With It series that offers advice on how to deal with issues like gender stereotyping, cliques, and authority figures.

One jacket cover from the fictional series for teens Sidestreets reads: “On the Game follows one ordinary girl on an extraordinary journey into the dark world of teenage prostitution.” Lorimer decided to publish the book after court trials in Quebec exposed organizers and clients of a juvenile prostitution ring. Pimps lured girls as young as twelve at shopping malls and innocuous hang-outs; Lorimer asked Montreal author Monique Polak to write a fictionalized story about it from the perspective of a fifteen-year-old girl. “If you read about it, you’re a lot more ready for the real life,” says Lorimer. “You’ve got some perspective that you wouldn’t get from your mother.”

“The people who run the multi-nationals in Canada would certainly tell everybody that I am difficult because I’m always trying to get them to leave the country.”
–James Lorimer

“There are more publishers than ever in Canada,” Patrick Crean of Thomas Allen Publishers wrote in April 2010 in Quill and Quire, Canada’s book industry magazine. “And more books being published that formerly would not have seen the light of day.”

Independent publishers make up the majority of publishers in Canada – the ACP has 125 members – and most wouldn’t survive without a slew of government grants doled out each year. In 2009, federal and provincial governments gave Lorimer’s publishing houses about $360,000.

On average, the ACP’s Wood says, Canadian-owned publishers receive between five and twenty per cent of total income from government funding; the amount depends on the type of publishing house. Some departments fund based on the literary and cultural merit of the books being publishes; others base funding on sales.

Lorimer is an outspoken advocate for government support. When Lorimer was president of the Independent Publishers Association in 1975, he and a gang of fellow publishers booed a federal bureaucrat off stage because the book promotion program the man was announcing was insufficient.

A timeline of James Lorimer’s life

Not always nice

“The word ‘arrogant’ has dogged” Lorimer for most of his career, Matthew Fraser wrote in a 1988 Globe and Mail article about Lorimer. Roy MacSkimming, in his book about English-language publishing in Canada, The Perilous Trade, said Lorimer has a “penchant for taking ad hominem verbal swipes at his adversaries.” MacSkimming also writes that Ivon Owen, former head of Oxford University Press’s Canadian office, was attending an Independent Publishers Association luncheon as a guest “when Lorimer suddenly rose and burst out, ‘You have no right to be here!’”

“Hard to get along with? Well, yeah,” says Lorimer, laughing. “The people who run the multinationals in Canada would certainly tell everybody that I am difficult because I’m always trying to get them to leave the country.”

“He’s always been somewhat of a radical,” says Lorimer’s younger brother Rowland. At Simon Fraser University, Rowland Lorimer is director of the master of publishing program and the Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing. His research on the Canadian publishing industry and Canadian mass media has been published in a multitude of journals and books.

James Lorimer started his publishing crusade in the 1960s (Samantha Delaney photo)
James Lorimer started his publishing crusade in the 1960s (Samantha Delaney photo)

Books were revered in their years growing up in Winnipeg – mom was a teacher, dad was Manitoba’s deputy minister of education – but it was only incidental that both brothers end up in publishing. Rowland got into the business after James asked him to do some research on school textbooks.

Lorimer is now tucked away in a far eastern corner of Canada, in an ignored and neglected corner of Halifax. He sprang from the Prairies to conquer Toronto, then tucked himself away.

As a publisher, Lorimer says his job is “crystallizing ideas and putting them out there in ways that people find interesting.”

Planning for tomorrow

In September, 2010, prominent Canadian publishing house Key Porter laid off 11 of 17 staff and closed its Toronto office because of low book sales. A depressed market and changing technology were factors too, according to Key Porter employees.

Rowland Lorimer offers another perspective on the Key Porter downsize: “Anna Porter was Key Porter,” he says. When she left in 2005 he couldn’t see how the company would survive – you can print good titles, he says, but it’s not the same.

This is a common issue in Canada. “Normally small presses close because (the owners) lose energy” says Karen Smith, a Dalhousie University librarian who specializes in Canadian small presses. That Lorimer has lasted so long is “amazing.”

Just a few years shy of 70, Lorimer is still passionate about his work. He’s also a practical businessman. “I have a succession consultant. That means I have somebody who’s helping me think about (how) to find a way of transferring the ownership and management of (the) company,” says Lorimer. This is needed, he says, or the company “will go defunct.”

He and his 15 employees are in the middle of “building a structure that’s resilient enough that it doesn’t depend on” one person. But he has not found a solution, or a replacement, yet.

“It’s a challenge that a lot of us are addressing,” Lorimer says. “There’s this certain generation of [publishers] who are more or less the same age as me. Different people have found different solutions.

“I don’t know if that’ll happen here.”

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