A Penrose Story

Meet the Press

​An in-progress Autobiography

Project by project, read the short, colourful history of Penrose Press. We've reflected on the content, production, press goals, turning points and particular achievements of the past 2 years. In hindsight, we've been so lucky to work this way.

Chapter 1: Caterpillar Portraits

Written by Joyce Jodie Kim and Illustrated by Brianna Tosswill
Caterpillar Portraits 1st Edition
"About the Press" then:

This publishing house was created by Brianna Tosswill and Natalie Lythe in 2017. Its first project is Caterpillar Portraits by Joyce Jodie Kim. We collaborate with emerging Canadian Authors and Poets to produce works of illustrated fiction that are also art-objects. We publish limited editions of 100 handmade books, released twice annually.
The inaugural publication was incredibly successful and set a really encouraging precedent. In hindsight, we attribute most of that success to a combination of beginner's luck and Joyce's networking skills. Sure, that first edition was a gorgeous book containing a compelling story but we've been learning since then that it takes more than those things to sell a book.
Brianna pitched the idea to Joyce first: let's make a book. You'll write. I'll illustrate and... make the book. It'll be awesome. And Joyce thought that that would be pretty okay. Then there was a grant available through the Ada Slaight Committee and things got serious. Brianna reached out to Egor to handle the digital design, luckily he was a pro and completely on board. The trio got their grant in excess of what they had requested. The stars were aligning and one piece was left to fall into place. The story was nearly finished and had oodles of potential. There was only one person to bring it out and make it shiny: enter Natalie, editor extraordinaire. 

Joyce and Natalie laughed and cried through numerous late-night editing sessions while Brianna got to work on the images. The production was very traditional. Brianna's arsenal consisted of a Vandercook Proof Press No. 4, a book press made by her wonderful father, and sheer obstinate determination to make something beautiful. It was a pretty good arsenal. The illustrations were all carved from linoleum and printed off the same blocks, one at a time. 16 images on 8 blocks x 2 layers each x an edition of 100 plus extras for misprints = roughly 1800 impressions split between OCADU and Open Studio Vandercooks. The book cover production was executed with the help of Working Title Press, a summer residency at OCADU. Each cover was marbled and dried, and torn and repaired, and printed, and embossed, and printed, and printed, and embossed again. 

In the meantime, Egor had taken Natalie and Joyce's carefully constructed sequence of words and poured it into a beautiful digital mould. He made sure the fonts for the English and Korean words were just right and made margins, page numbers, tables of contents as if by magic (never-mind the pagination).

Natalie printed out the polished manuscript and she, Brianna and Joyce inserted 452 illustrated pages into as many signatures. 3 616 awl punches and many yards of thread later. 113 books had been sewn (100 for the main edition and 13 extras for artist and studio proofs). Each book was then glued along the spine for support and was sealed with a one-of-a-kind cover. 
Brianna, Joyce, and Natalie at the Caterpillar Portraits Launch
Stages of Book Binding Caterpillar Portraits
Travel-book Caterpillar Portraits
The next day (or seven months later) was the launch. Our book team was welcomed into Crimson Teas, Toronto and we celebrated with everyone we knew and had met over the course of the project. It was a good thing that all of the books had been finished because they sold out half-way through the second day. We did something right. 

So Brianna and Natalie are taking their half of the profits and doing it all over again for as many times as we can. We're looking for more authors whose work is as inspiring as Joyce's because we're passionate about this and we just can't stop.

Chapter 2: A Wish & Letters to Frida

A Wish is written by Terry Abrahams and Letters to Frida is written by Rebecca Davison Mora. Both have cover designs by Brianna Tosswill.
"About the Press" then:

We're a micro-publishing press with the goal of producing two shortish novels per year and some poetry and short fiction in the gaps. Natalie does wonderful, invisible, plastic surgery on texts that brings out their better selves. And Brianna uses ancient letterpress voodoo to make everything beautiful. We're just starting out but we're taking ourselves pretty seriously and you should, too.

The sister book strategy worked well partly because it allowed us to have a visual catalogue of books which we would need in order to do pop-up shops, but also, in order to be respected even slightly as publishers. The problem with Caterpillar Portraits is that after we sold them all, we had none left. That doesn't look very impressive on a display table.

Natalie: During the mostly-Brianna-focused production portion of Caterpillar Portraits, I was thinking about next steps.  We knew we were enthusiastic about continuing to publish, and we knew we wanted to feature exclusively emerging, Canadian writers, but we needed to find said writers before we could make beautiful things with their work.  I leveraged the fact that I graduated from an English program and contacted everyone I knew who was in a creative writing program, and managed to convince our lovely Rebecca to submit work.  She gave us four short chapbooks, I combined and refined the selection into one slightly longer work that still fit within the chapbook format. At the same time, we were emailing with Terry, who had reached out to us. With Terry, we originally asked for one poem, and he provided a selection. One agonizing phone call later and we had narrowed it down to two poems, and we wanted both. Through beginning work with Rebecca, Terry’s work remained on our minds - the idea of a collaborative launch for these two shorter works was percolating, so we reached out to him again, asking for more work, and he obligingly provided it. 

Brianna: Terry’s and Rebecca’s writings are incredible. They’re both poets. Terry’s poems in “a wish” are crazy short, we’re talking 10 words or fewer most of the time. And he talks about the limits of empathy, or at what point do you have to stop imagining what it feels like to be someone else, and just trust them to tell you. Rebecca’s work “Letters to Frida” is written in response to feeling underrepresented as a Mixed, Mexican creative person in Canadian schools. She talks about feeling Mexican even though the Mexico that she loves lives in her grandmother’s kitchen and she can barely speak Spanish.
We held another book launch in January (at a bar called Tequila Bookworm, aptly). We did not sell out and that is a good thing. The books are moving slowly and steadily from our website ecommerce.

Active Forager by Renee Hayward

Canadian Fall Leaves
Drawing of partially peeled clementines by Brianna Tosswill
This was the first set of "sister publications" as we've taken to calling them. We realized that a book takes a certain amount of time to produce, no matter how short or how simple its construction. What we could do was publish multiple books in a single production period. 

Chapter 3: The Insomniac's Assistant & Sleep or Else

The Insomniac's Assistant is written by Sienna Tristen with illustrations by Brianna Tosswill
Sleep or Else is a non-fiction sleep guide edited by Natalie Lythe
"About the Press" then:

Penrose Press is a Toronto-based publishing house in its infancy. Creative Director Brianna Tosswill and Editor Natalie Lythe co-founded the imprint in 2017 and have since launched one successful children's novel, Caterpillar Portraits by Joyce Jodie Kim, as well as two poetry collections by Terry Abrahams and Rebecca Davison Mora. Penrose Press aims to collaborate with emerging Canadian authors and publish limited editions of hand-made illustrated books twice per year.
The Insomniac's Assistant was made to be a fine press book, like Caterpillar Portraits and it was priced a little higher to recognize that. It was a step in the direction that we're going in now with The Pink of the Seams but it lacked the component element and the paperback edition to continue catering to our existing audience. We are currently rectifying this with a paperback edition.
Natalie: Insomniac’s Assistant is a prose novel, so a novel comprised of poetry - think Ellen Hopkins’ Crank, for example. I was introduced to Sienna through one of our mutual friends, and Brianna and I only had to read the first three lines of her submission before we were hooked. Sienna is a dream to work with - her submission barely needed any editing at all, and her writing is so vividly descriptive that it is a joy to read.

Brianna: The Insomniac’s Assistant is a story that features a main character who sometimes seems like a regular person with regular problems like paying rent and wearing out shoes, but she also has a skill-set that seems downright supernatural and which she uses for her job of helping people go to sleep. 

We published an edition of 200, soft cover, square spine like Caterpillar Portraits. It has 20 illustrations and a double front, double back cover situation. Sleep or Else came into being because I wanted  a square book and we were printing the text digitally on 8.5 x 11. So we built 2 books, one on top of the other on the page, and when they were 95% complete, we chopped them apart into their separate components.
blue lino prints on a drying rack
stages of bookbinding
Sienna Tristen helping with pagination

Chapter 4: The Midnight Garden & The Size of Texas

The Midnight Garden is written by Gabrielle Crowley with illustrations and cover design by Brianna Tosswill
The Size of Texas is written by Kate Finegan with illustrations by Sydney Morrison and cover design by Brianna Tosswill
The Midnight Garden Gabrielle Crowley The Size of Texas by Kate Finegan
"About the Press" then:

Penrose Press is a Toronto-based publishing house in its infancy. Creative Director Brianna Tosswill and Editor Natalie Lythe co-founded the imprint in 2017 and have since launched 7 titles. We collaborate with a variety of authors, poets, and playwrights. We hope to help emerging arts-industry workers in Canada and in doing so, create a community of interconnected artists, writers, photographers, editors, designers and curators. We aim to publish limited editions of hand-mad, illustrated books twice per year, alongside open editions of previous titles.
These two books are among our most popular since they have a really clear entry point and reading direction. They're easier to process than poetry. Physically, they represent the top of our pendulum swing towards mass-production. Since The Pink of the Seams was next, the swing back was dramatic. 

It was also a lot of fun to have so many people working with Penrose at once. Usually it's Natalie, Brianna, Author, but we threw another author and and illustrator in the mix. The group chats were busy. 
Brianna: We held an editing workshop in the summer of 2018 as part of Art Book Week Toronto. It was completely open to the public. Natalie and I and all of our authors to that date (Joyce, Terry, Rebecca, Sienna) sat around a table and gave feedback to anyone who brought in a writing sample. It was a really wonderful day to reinforce this built Penrose community (which has been dubbed the Penrose Fam) and it was also particularly successful because we met Kate. Kate’s short fiction titled The Size of Texas was one of our next projects. It’s about the lengths that women will go to to help other women who may be essentially strangers to them.

Natalie: Along with The Size of Texas, we also got a submission that I was personally very excited about. Anyone who has heard me yell about books for more than two minutes knows that I absolutely love anything to do with mythology, and I’m very passionate about queer representation in literature. Lo and behold, in the Penrose inbox, was Gabby’s submission - The Midnight Garden, a queer retelling of the Hades and Persephone myth. It needed a little TLC in the form of editing, but Gabby was wonderful to work with, and it all came together. Gabby was also our first author who wasn’t living in Toronto - she was at school in Montreal through the entire time that we were working on The Midnight Garden. In fact, we met face-to-face for the first time during the launch of her book in December.

​Brianna: Speaking of the launch, it was the first one that we held at Open Studio in their Gallery space. The OS shop became our second retailer and currently stocks our entire catalogue. The OS launches are the lowest-stress launches we have ever experienced. Open Studio has a system in place for events and they handle the food and the alcohol, and the sales in exchange for a commission on the sold volumes. This gives Natalie and I a chance to socialize, check in with the author(s), make new connections, etc. without having to worry about our POS system and edition records.
Detail from The Midnight Garden (illustration by Brianna Tosswill)

Book cover Lino block penrose press

books and paintings on display at open studio toronto

Brianna: A note on the construction: They were the first of our books with digitally printed images. AW and LTF were entirely digitally printed on the inside, but had no images, CP and TIA had digitally printed text and letterpress printed linocut illustrations. Part of the reason we decided to go this route is because we brought on our first external illustrator: Sydney Morrison. She's a painter and her work matched immediately in my brain when I read Kate's submission. The covers are linocuts, as per tradition, and there are details in the inside cover that help to make the books really special. The binding is via a perfect binding machine, so heated glue instead of sewing. The advantage is speed of assembly, but also, these books have a spine that is visible when they're placed on a bookshelf, which LTF and AW do not. They're also really cute, size-wise: a literal pocket book.

Paperback interlude

If you've read up... down to this point you know that Caterpillar Portraits was so successful it hurt. The short term payoff was amazing: enough money to publish A Wish and Letters to Frida, but the long term goals were a little cramped; build retailer relationships, show at book and craft fairs, demonstrate a repertoire of completed work. People could see it online of course, but not in person, and in person is everything to us. We had said from the start that we were making limited editions, that we would only work with any author once, again, we needed a wider offering, not a deeper one. But people wanted Caterpillar Portraits. Several customers asked if they could pay us to make just one more, but our books don't work that way. All of the letterpress printed material was pulled from reduction lino blocks. In the process of carving them further, the first layer was destroyed, they would have to be completely redone. What we could do, what we realized we had to do, was release a digitally printed paperback 2nd edition. 

It's a bit misleading, the term "paperback", since all of our editions are softcover, but we thought it captured the spirit of the offering and rolled off the tongue better than "digitally printed 2nd edition". So when we say "paperback" that's what we mean. In order to make more books in an affordable way we purchased a perfect binding machine (read BIG INVESTMENT). I'm going to jump the line a bit and let you know that it worked, but not well enough. For slim volumes like The Midnight Garden and The Size of Texas, it was fine, but for Caterpillar Portraits it never worked perfectly. The very front page fell out on a few, and several came totally apart: cover from spine. (read DEVASTATION) 

We recalled them from our retailers and removed them from our website. We're in trial time now with a full-service book production company: Ingram Spark. Our first book with them has been The Pink of the Seams paperback. The fine press version of The Pink of the Seams is very special, read on to find out, and so it lives at our highest price point to date: $100. We knew this wasn't going to be feasible for a few of our most beloved regular customers and we decided to offer a paperback version from the word go. It's little, it has a different cover design, it's a book while the fine press version is an envelope. They are different reading experiences. And we love it. 

I say trial time because while Ingram's books hold together beautifully, and the paper quality is perfect for both the cover and interior, we've had some alignment issues, and we've had to trim them all ourselves to clean it up. Not ideal. We are confident that we'll be able to fix it up and excited because this spring we're working with our graphic designer to offer paperback versions of both Caterpillar Portraits again, AND The Insomniac's Assistant.

perfect binding machine Book Blocks
the pink of the seams paperback book binding desk penrose press


 The Pink of the Seams

Written by Sanna Wani with art by Brianna Tosswill

 "About the Press" then:

Penrose Press is an alternative Canadian publishing house with a mandate to treat emerging works of poetry and fiction like special releases of international bestsellers. Creative Director Brianna Tosswill and Editor Natalie Lythe co-founded the imprint in 2017 and have since launched eight titles.  We help emerging arts-industry workers in Canada and in doing so, create a community of interconnected artists, writers, photographers, editors, designers and curators. We publish limited editions of handmade illustrated books twice per year.

This is a bit early for hindsight, check back later <3

Natalie: The Pink of the Seams is this incredible work of poetry exploring the idea of what it means to be human, and what if you used to know what it was like to be a bird, but you found yourself stuck on the ground. Brianna decided she was going to go above and beyond - in true Brianna fashion - with the limited edition run of this one.

Brianna: I wanted to know what might be possible if we included every detail we wanted to without restricting ourselves by overvaluing efficiency. i wanted to work like I worked on Caterpillar Portraits: trying to identify what was even possible. The Pink of the Seams has mathematically satisfying art, precisely printed text, and little blind embossed chops on every page to acknowledge the poet and illustrator subtly. The envelope is blind embossed and riveted and painstakingly hand cut. The poems are printed in ink that matches one of the colours in the design on the reverse. We embraced the category "fine press" like never before.

Natalie: So in an effort to be able to sell these gorgeous envelopes of letterpress prints and hand typeset poems at a price that paid Brianna some semblance of a fair wage  - or… more fair than previous wages, at least, we decided to get a version of the book printed through a distributor in an open edition, rather than a limited edition. Think like, trade paperback that you would find in Chapters type of quality. There are a bunch of other benefits to doing this. Now we’re able to have our books be more accessible price wise without compromising quality - best of both worlds, literally - and we can also make smaller editions of the fine art versions of the books, allowing Brianna to put even more detail into their production. Also, by publishing through a distributor, it is way easier to get our books on Amazon and in any retailer that orders their stock through distributors. I think one of the main things I’ve learned over this two year adventure we’ve been having is that change is pretty much always a good thing. It’s almost always scary, too, but so far it’s been totally worth it.

patterned prints by penrose press on the drying rack

lead type set in a poem by Sanna Wani

pink patterned prints by penrose press

Brianna: That tiny blurb at the beginning of the "about the press" marks what I feel like is a significant shift, or maybe a truer alignment for Penrose. We always meant to work with emerging writers, the guidance and learning associated with this demographic is one of the most rewarding parts of what we do. And we make beautiful books, that's why I even started thinking about publishing; the beauty is a given. But I don't think we ever stopped to think about how weird and exciting and niche it is to put this amount of effort into a book that a regular publisher would view as a total gamble and maybe not even worth it. Why should special design attention be reserved for proven classics? It's possible that we're making a horrible business blunder, but for some reason I don't think so. 

Wow! Thanks for reading all the way to the end, or rather the present!

Check back every once in a while. We'll keep this story updated as it continues.
​I'm thinking we're not much past the inciting incident. The Penrose story keeps getting better!





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