A quick look at the latest releases and acquisitions of Calgary’s Freehand Books does not reveal much of a pattern.
In January, the decade-old independent publisher released Seizure the Day: Living A Happy Life with Illness, certainly the only title in Freehand’s impressive catalogue that could be considered a self-help book.
Next up is The Student, a decades-spanning novel by Toronto author Cary Fagan, who may be best known for his award-winning books for children.
Meanwhile, Freehand’s Fall 2019 list will include Sarah Leavitt’s graphic novel Agnes, Murderess, which is inspired by the gruesome tale of Agnes McVee, a madam and serial killer who is believed to have murdered 50 people in late 19th-century British Columbia.
Also scheduled for the fall is Manitoba writer Lauren Carter’s This Has Nothing to Do With You, a fast-paced novel about murder and dysfunction in a northern Ontario family. Vancouver writer Michelle Kaeser’s Towers of Babylon is also on deck, a novel told in multiple and diverse voices that takes place in contemporary Toronto.
A self-help book. A very graphic graphic novel. Tales about northern Ontario murders and Toronto urbanites. These are just the latest entries in Freehand’s eclectic catalogue, which over the years has also included poetry, hard-hitting memoirs, experimental short-story collections, historical fiction and even a Giller shortlister. It was announced earlier this week that Abu Kakr al Rabeeah’s memoir, Homes: A Refugee Story, written with Winnie Yeung, has been shortlisted for CBC’s Canada Reads. Historically, landing on that list has proven to be a significant boon for both author and publisher alike and should only strengthen Freehand’s long-standing reputation as a little publisher that punches far above its weight.
Still, other than focusing solely on Canadian authors, it may seem on the surface as if Freehand doesn’t really have a recognizable niche. But that’s not really true.
“As a small independent press, we do have a lot more freedom than a lot of the bigger, more profit-focused publishers to be a little more experimental and take some risks,” says Freehand’s interim managing editor Anna Boyar, the only permanent staff member for Freehand other than a part-time submissions co-ordinator.
“We try to be cutting-edge. We do like books that push boundaries a little bit, whether it’s just purely in the style of the writing or addressing issues that are under-represented.”
Brian Orend’s Seizure the Day is a case in point. Not surprisingly, Freehand’s first foray into the ubiquitous self-help genre is far from ordinary, even if it ostensibly lands in the crowded “How-to-be-happy” subgenre. Orend is a respected philosophy professor at the University of Waterloo who has written extensively about human rights and war. He also suffers from mysterious seizures that his doctors can’t explain. His book focuses on how those who suffer from chronic health challenges can find happiness, mixing personal memoir and science.
While Freehand has always operated with determined independence, it became even more untethered in 2016 when it broke away from Broadview Press. Freehand began life in 2008 as the literary imprint of Broadview, a national academic press specializing in the humanities. It still shares an office with the publisher in downtown Calgary, but is now completely independent.
“We felt like we had our feet under us and we could take off alone,” Boyar says. “Academic publishing and trade publishing are so different in so many ways, that it made sense to make that split officially.”
But under Broadview, Freehand had an auspicious start in 2008 when one of its first titles, Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault, sold 30,000 copies after landing on the Giller shortlist.
Since then, it has continued compiling a list of unique books, both in presentation and subject matter. In 2010, it published Bitter Medicine: A Graphic Memoir of Mental Illness by Clem and Olivier Martini, which chronicled the latter’s harrowing 30-year battle with schizophrenia and experiences in the mental health-care system. That year, Freehand also published Sarah Leavitt’s Tangles: A Story about Alzheimer’s, My Mother and Me, which was the first graphic memoir to be shortlisted for the Writers Trust Non-Fiction Prize. Alison Watt’s Dazzle Patterns, historical fiction that uses the Halifax Explosion of 1917 as a backdrop for a love story, was shortlisted for the 2018 Amazon Canada First Novel Award.
Still, having Abu Bakr al Rabeeah and Winnie Yeung’s Homes: A Refugee Status land on CBC’s vaunted Canada Reads list for 2019 could be a game-changer. Since it began in 2002, the list has been proven to be a reliable attention-grabber in the world of Canadian publishing as Canuck celebs are chosen to champion one of the five shortlisted titles in a prolonged elimination-style public debate. The success of Homes is not the first time that Freehand has helped push a largely unknown author into a bigger playing field. After her book Good to a Fault was shortlisted for a Giller and won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Canada and the Caribbean, author Marina Endicott published her next two novels with Doubleday Canada, an imprint of Penguin Random House Canada. Ian Williams’s 2011 collection of experimental short stories, Not Anyone’s Anything, was fished out of a “slush pile” of unsolicited manuscripts by Freehand’s former submissions editor Robyn Read and would go on to win the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. His second book with Freehand, 2012’s poetry collection Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. But his first novel, Reproduction, will be published Random House Canada later this month and is already receiving considerable buzz, with high-profile back-cover blurbs by David Chariandy and Eden Robinson.
“It makes us happy, we’re so proud to be able to give a start to people,” Boyar says. “We can’t compete on the advances that big publishers offer. I’ve talked to authors who have published with big and small publishers and I think definitely our marketing and our editorial and actual production of the book is right up there with the big publishers, if not better. I think an author can get a lot more lost at a big publisher. We only have two or three books a season, so we can really devote a lot of time and resources to each of our authors.”
Which may be why Freehand also attracts established authors. Cary Fagan, whose book The Student will be released by Freehand in May, has written six novels and numerous books for children. His 2013 novel A Bird’s Eye, published by House of Anansi, was a finalist for the Rogers Trust Fiction Prize, while his 2012 Cormorant Books short-story collection, My Life Among the Apes, was longlisted for the Giller.
In 2018, Freehand published Twin Studies, author Keith Maillard’s 13th novel in a career that stretches back to his 1976 cult favourite Two Strand River, one of the first literary books to feature cross-gendered protagonists. His work has since been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Literary Prize and Governor General’s Literary Award.
Orend, whose “self-help with a twist” book Seizure the Day was released by Freehand on Jan. 1, has also had books published by bigger houses, including Oxford University Press. This is his first outing with Freehand, so he was impressed and happily surprised to see his book prominently displayed at Chapters stores in his home province of Ontario.
“In Ontario anyway, it’s in the front section of Chapters because I guess Chapters has a thing that January is self-help month because of all the New Year’s resolutions, which is why they chose to market it that way,” Orend says. “That such a small press could get a book located in the front, I mean that’s hard to do. So that was terrific.”
Beyond the savvy marketing, Orend said he felt that Freehand understood the book in a way that a bigger publisher may not have.
“I was up for and interested in just a different approach and someone who would understand the book and the potential of the book,” he says. “Because I’ve published before, I don’t have anything to prove in terms of being an author. It was finding the right fit. I think a lot of other publishers would have said ‘Well, we want a more general market. This is too niche a market.’”
The originality of that niche — a self-help book about happiness aimed at those with chronic health problems — was what attracted Freehand to it in the first place. Freehand’s titles are ultimately chosen after discussions — often heated discussions — by its board of directors, which can consist of four to seven readers. But, ultimately, the reason to get behind a book is fairly straightforward.
“A lot of the time in editorial meetings we talk about if the voice of an author really gets in your head,” Boyar says. “It’s a great responsibility to know whether that voices stay in people’s heads or not. (Seizure the Day) was just so well-written.”
“And,” she adds with a laugh,” … it made us happy.”