White-knuckle publishing

What do you do when the ground shakes on press day?

At the beginning of this year, Sutherland House signed Mike Blanchfield and Fen Osler Hampson to write an account of China’s treatment of the two innocent Canadian nationals, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who were jailed in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

Blanchfield, who has covered the story for Canadian Press, and Hampson, a foreign affairs expert at Carleton and former director of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, worked away on the project through the spring and summer and delivered a manuscript to us in August.

Our intention was to get it out the door quickly. Meng, at the time, was under house arrest in Vancouver, fighting Canada’s efforts to extradite her to the US to face charges of violating American trade sanctions with Iran, among other offenses. As far as we could tell, the extradition case was going to drag on a year or two, and until she was free, there was little chance the Two Michaels would be sprung from their Chinese prison cells, notwithstanding the protests of the Western diplomatic community. That seemed to create an opening for the book.

We set our publication date as November 17. In order to get The Two Michaels in stores by then, we needed it printed and in our distribution warehouses by the third week in October. That required us to have the text of the book and our cover jacket file to the printer by last Friday, September 24.

We worked like demons through the end of August and the first weeks of September to get the manuscript in shape. The authors did a fantastic job. They had great stuff on the arrests and backgrounds of the Michaels and Meng, the legal battles in Vancouver, America’s war on Huawei, the East-West battle for control of the future of the Internet, and much more. The purpose of the book was to explain the context and underscore the injustice of the Michaels’ imprisonment. Or, as we said in the promotional copy:

In this timely and essential book, journalist Mike Blanchfield and international affairs expert Fen Hampson combine groundbreaking original reporting and keen analysis to tell a gripping and ongoing story of cyber espionage, life-and-death diplomacy, and global superpowers in conflict.

Obviously, we were publishing before the story was resolved, which is never ideal, but we believed the plight of the two Canadians, an international cause célèbre, was sufficient to carry the book. If the whole mess sorted itself out in a year or two, we’d publish an updated edition.

Just as we were making final corrections last Friday morning, word came over the wires that Meng was in court. She and Huawei had struck a deal with the Americans. She was being released. Before the day was out, we read in the New York Times that the Michaels were free and on their way home.

Oh shit.

It was clear we couldn’t go ahead and print the book as it was, with an unresolved, open-ended final chapter. Everyone in the world would know the ending by the time we hit the stores. We had a choice between trying to write a new final chapter in a matter of days, in hopes that we could still get books in stores for our November 17 publication date, or delaying publication until sometime early in 2022.

(It did cross my mind that we were lucky to have that choice. If the prisoner exchange had happened two weeks from now, we’d have been sitting with thousands of copies of a book with an outdated ending.)

We opted for the short-term solution. Mike and Fen were confident they could use their excellent contacts in Washington and Ottawa to find out how things were suddenly resolved, and they did. They wrote a brilliant finale in no time at all. Our extremely helpful printers, Houghton Boston in Saskatoon, gave us a few day’s grace and we managed to get our new files into them this week and keep everything on track.

It won’t be over until it’s over, given the many logistical challenges facing everyone in publishing right now, but we’re feeling pretty good about it. And relieved.

Watch the Toronto Star this Saturday for a big excerpt from The Two Michaels: Innocent Canadian Captives and High Stakes Espionage in the US-China Cyber War.

You can pre-order the book here or here.

Meanwhile, since this is a publishing newsletter, a brief tease of what the Two Michaels were reading in prison:

Kovrig subjected his mind to a rigorous discipline. Books are crucial to him. He tried to fill in some of the gaps in his understanding of literature by reading Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, The Long Walk to Freedom, as well as books on philosophy have been on his reading list. He was particularly drawn to the stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius. He drew strength from St. Paul’s “Letter to the Romans” in the New Testament…. He reread a favourite book from his life before imprisonment, Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, and found new meaning in it.


Spavor also had his own voracious reading list. He asked for large-print Chinese study guides, books on geography, politics, medicine, venture capital fundraising, entrepreneurial start-ups, prison biographies, biographies on the Beatles and former US president Bill Clinton, a copy of Gary Shteyngart’s novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. He also wanted books on “true and amazing stories,” books on “understanding” China and the Chinese people, and books on diplomatic history and “dealing with difficult people…”

Spavor also wanted a copy of Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, a book that emerged in 1946 after its author had survived imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust. It’s not known what specifically drew Spavor to Frankl, but there are plenty of clues. As Frankl wrote: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”

Spavor also wanted Korean comic books.

More on Logistucks

We wrote last week about how the publishing supply chain has been blown up. More evidence this week. Marquis (above), one of Canada’s two largest book printers, sent a memo to its customers advising them of price increases from two paper suppliers. The first, Domtar, has increased prices by six to nine percent across the board. The second, Rolland, is up by six to eight percent. Both are citing paper shortages as the reason for the increases.

Printers will pass these increases along to publishers, for whom printing is a big expense (it’s the biggest single line item at Sutherland House). Publishers will probably pass the increases along to consumers.

Justice for translators

An interesting mini-controversy from the UK this week. Bernardine Evaristo, Sebastian Faulks, and a number of other bestselling authors published an open letter demanding more recognition for translators:

The first step towards doing this seems an obvious one. From now on we will be asking, in our contracts and communications, that our publishers ensure, whenever our work is translated, that the name of the translator appears on the front cover.

I don’t have a hard opinion on this but I lean toward disagreement, not with the idea of translators receiving more credit, but that it belongs on the front cover.

I view covers primarily as marketing materials. They really do sell the book, and it’s in the interest of publishers and authors to make them as compelling as possible. Does mentioning the translator on the cover move any more copies? I doubt it.

Cover recognition for translators would also set a precedent. There are a lot of unsung heroes in the book trade. You could argue that editors and cover designers also deserve cover credit, and then we’d wind up with book covers reading like movie credits.

If the authors really believe recognition of translators is a priority, why not share a point or two of royalties with them?

(The illustration at the top of this item, btw, is a really interesting book about the many indispensable people who toil in the shadows—interpreters, piano tuners, anesthesiologists, etc.—so that high-profile workers can take their star turns.)

More on the non-fiction crisis

I’ve got another piece brewing on Canada’s non-fiction crisis, which I addressed with the help of Biblioasis’s Dan Wells a few weeks back. In the meantime, some heartening support from two important Canadian writers.

Mark Bourrie, who won the last Charles Taylor Prize for his Bush Runner: The Adventures of Pierre-Esprit Radisson, writes:

Thanks for this piece. I have been following your advocacy, and it's comforting to know you are not letting go of this, and are publishing researched Canadian non-fiction. I get the feeling the judges of the last Taylor Prize wanted to send a message. All the nominees were researched non-fiction, and not one of us was nominated for another literary prize. I can afford to subsidize Canadian culture. Most writers can't. But it's that kick in the nuts from the CanLit establishment, that clear message that what you do doesn't count, that really hurts. My shelves are full of Governor Generals Award non-fiction winners. Books by Karolyn Frost, Margaret MacMillan, Douglas Creighton, James Eayrs (my set has margin notes by Gen. Foulkes), Ramsay Cook, Pierre Berton, Marshall McLuhan, Mordecai Richler, J.M.S. Careless, Frank Underhill are important parts of my library. To say that none of these writers' works would count today—or even find a publisher and a market in this environment—shows CanLit's taken a turn down a strange road where facts are trumped by opinion and by self-interpretation of one's own lived experience. Canadians read almost nothing about their country. That makes them a rootless people living in the now, and in a place that means less than it could.

Meanwhile, Ken McGoogan, author of Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage among other fine books, had this to say on his blog:

Canada’s non-fiction crisis… is the absence of support in this country for research-based non-fiction—biography, history, and science. Whyte was spurred to comment by the recently announced five-book shortlist for the $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust prize for non-fiction. He laments, rightly in my view, that all five books are memoirs. Dan Wells, publisher and owner of Biblioasis, notes that writer Elaine Dewar worked solidly for more than a year to produce On the Origin of the Deadliest Pandemic in 100 Years, and he could afford to pay her only a modest four-figure advance. Few Canadian authors can afford to self-finance a research-heavy book. So countless books don’t get written. Canadians get swamped with biographies and histories from, ahem, other countries….

Funnily enough, or maybe not so funnily, the Writers’ Trust of Canada was once on track to solve this problem. I know because in 2001, my book Fatal Passage won the Writers’ Trust Drainie-Taylor Biography Prize. That award was discontinued after 2006 in favor of what is now the Hilary Weston Prize for Nonfiction. That was the fatal wrong turn. True, the Drainie-Taylor was awarded for works of biography, autobiography, or memoir. And, also true, in any given bookstore, you will find biography situated with autobiography. Still, the Drainie-Taylor pointed the way forward, and that is to split Nonfiction into the two streams Whyte and Wells have identified. An excellent place to begin would be to offer two different awards in nonfiction: one for Memoir and Autobiography, the other for Biography, History, and Science (research-heavy works). How hard can that be?

Our Newsletter Roll (suggestions welcome)

Lydia Perovic’s Long Play: literature and music.

Tim Carmody’s Amazon Chronicles: an eye on the monster.

Jason Logan’s Urban Color Report: adventures in ink (sign-up at bottom of page)

Anne Trubek’s Notes from a Small Press: like SHuSH, but different

Art Canada Institute: a reliable source of Canadian arts info/opinion

Kate McKean’s Agents & Books: an interesting angle on the literary world

Rebecca Eckler’s Re:Book: unpretentious recommendations

Anna Sproul Latimer’s How to Glow in the Dark: interesting advice

John Biggs Great Reads: strong recommendations


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