25th Trillium Award

Behind the Books, with Kitty Lewis

 
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Kitty Lewis

When we think of the people behind the books we love, we generally think of writers. But many people work in a variety of professions to get those books onto your shelves. In our new series, Behind the Books, Open Book speaks with the printers, publicists, book sellers, book bloggers, event programmers and many others who work in the publishing industry.

It's National Poetry Month, so it seems especially fitting to find out what goes on behind the scenes at Brick Books, one of Canada's finest publishers of poetry. We spoke with Kitty Lewis who has been the General Manager of Brick Books for over 20 years. Kitty's devotion to promoting Brick's poets and getting their books into the hands of readers is commendable. Speak with Kitty, and you will quickly understand that her work with Brick Books is truly a labour of love.

Open Book:

How long have you been at your current job?

Kitty Lewis:

Twenty-some years ago, my big brother Don McKay asked if I would like to help out at Brick Books — they were looking for a new person who would take care of filling orders and keeping the accounts. I did that for a few years, then Don moved away, and I eventually took over all the administrative work, doing the work evenings and weekends. This became full-time work for me in 2000.

Here?s what I do as general manager at Brick Books: I keep an overview of the editing and production activities and of the publishing industry as a whole and take care of the administration of the company (sending contracts, welcome letters and questionnaires to new authors; answering all correspondence; deciding on placement of ads; preparing grant applications; setting up the author launch and promotion tour for each book; consulting with editors, authors, production manager and printer as necessary; attending meetings of trade associations [Literary Press Group and Association of Canadian Publishers]; maintaining financial records and studying monthly sales reports).

OB:

What does an average workday look like for you?

KL:

There are no average work days for me. I might be working on a grant and that would take a few days; we receive grant funding from the Canada Council of the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, Ontario Book Publishing Tax Credit and the OMDC Book Fund. I might be recording an author in London, Ontario, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Kingston, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Whitehorse or Victoria for our poetry podcast archive — I am trying to finalize this project by travelling to record the last 20 or so authors who aren?t part of the project yet. Then going forward, we will record poems from the new books every year. The podcasts can be accessed on our YouTube channel. I post one podcast every day on our Facebook and Twitter pages.

Other days I will be setting up a reading tour for an author to travel to promote his or her book — this sometimes takes one or two emails to arrange but sometimes it takes much longer; recently, I arranged two readings in Vancouver for separate authors — Jan Conn and Susan Gillis — and contacted other Canadian publishers to line up three other authors to read with them for each event. That took a lot of back and forth messages.

I work from home which is very convenient and comfortable. But I do travel to display and sell our books at a number of book fairs or writers? festivals every year — Eden Mills Writers Festival in Eden Mills, Ontario; Word on the Street in Toronto; AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), which takes place each year in a different city in the United States — Boston, Washington, DC, Denver, New York City, Chicago; and the Congress of the Humanities, which takes place in Canada every year in a different city — Victoria, Waterloo, Fredericton, Montreal, Ottawa, Saskatoon. I spend a lot of time in my garage — our second warehouse apart from the distributor — choosing the books that I think will sell at those events. I might also be putting together free samples for high school, college and university classes and libraries — we have given away over 24,000 books in the past 12 years.

I keep an eye on the sales figures and decide how many books to have on hand at the distributor — not enough and the customer is kept waiting for a particular title; too many and we pay extra storage fees. People are buying the most recently published books, but it is amazing to me that they are also buying books from our whole publishing history, right back to 1975.

And most days, I am doing something on our Facebook and Twitter pages as well as maintaining our website, www.brickbooks.ca.

OB:

What's the best thing about your job?

KL:

Brick Books runs like a well-oiled machine. We have great people who are involved with Brick Books — Stan Dragland and Don McKay, the co-founders, are still very involved as editors. Barry Dempster is our acquisitions editor. He also edits and stays in touch with the other editors — Jan Zwicky, John Barton, John Donlan, Liz Philips, Alayna Munce, Sue Chenette, Sue Sinclair — one editor is assigned to one book a year. The editors are all published poets themselves and have great sensitivity and expertise when working with the new manuscripts. Our production team of Alayna Munce, production manager, and Cheryl Dipede, production & design coordinator, does an amazing job of shepherding the edited manuscripts through to the finished book. Everyone at Brick Books has a job to do and they just get on with it. (Cheryl is actually living in Germany with her husband for two years but is able to do her work remotely. In fact, Cheryl has now taken over the design and layout of all our books starting with the spring 2013 books and it?s great to have this capability in-house.) Our editors live in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland — thank goodness for email....

I have been around long enough that I know the best people to ask for advice. Three years ago I approached Julie Wilson, a specialist in publishing and social media, for advice on how to increase our profile — she created and produced our very successful poetry podcast archive project — we now have over 800 poems recorded of our authors reading their poems — these include poems from our most recent spring 2013 books right back to books published in 1975. There have been 6,600 views on our YouTube channel. I never thought we would have a YouTube channel!! And these podcasts are currently available through iTunes.

OB:

Tell us about a memorable work experience.

KL:

One of the things I really enjoy about my job at Brick Books is working with the authors┬áto plan launches and events to celebrate the publication of their books. These authors live all over Canada — from Lasqueti Island, British Columbia to St. John?s, Newfoundland. I am able to meet many of them in person and that is very fulfilling.

It makes me very happy when our authors? books are nominated for awards. It gives a bit more attention to the authors and their books and to Brick Books as their publisher.

One very exciting moment was when Margaret Avison won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2003 for her book Concrete and Wild Carrot. The other two nominees were P.K. Page and Dionne Brand so it was a very exciting evening. When Margaret won, she made her way to the microphone and said, "This is ridiculous... I don't see how anyone could pick a single winner. What makes you write a poem is so remote from this kind of occasion."

Another was when Randall Maggs was announced as the winner of the Kobzar Literary Award in 2010 for his book Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems. This award recognizes outstanding contributions to Canadian literary arts by authors who develop a Ukrainian Canadian theme with literary merit in one of several genres: literary non-fiction, fiction, poetry, young readers' literature, plays, screenplays and musicals. Terry Sawchuk was Ukrainian and therefore this book was eligible for the contest — but the win was a big surprise to me.

I have been privileged to visit Rideau Hall three times when Brick Books authors won the Governor General?s Award for Poetry — Jan Zwicky for Songs for Relinquishing the Earth in 1998, Don Domanski for All Our Wonder Unavenged in 2008 and Julie Bruck for Monkey Ranch in 2012.

Check back for more Behind the Books interviews with Ontario's publishing professionals.

1 comment

Recently had my first run-in with Kitty Lewis at Brick Books. I've never come across anyone who supported Canadian literature with such generous enthusiasm.

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