Penrose Press is a book arts practice by Brianna Tosswill in collaboration with various creatives in Canada. Its mandate is to present storytelling in beautiful, physical detail, and to amplify marginalized voices and perspectives. Art feeds empathy.
In my new capacity as collaborative book artist, I am excited to take on projects without the hierarchy of publisher and author. I expect that clarity and equality throughout a project will improve the experience for both myself and my collaborators. In consideration of the world beyond the books I make, I am prioritizing fluidity and connectivity. The mandate above will grow and evolve as I do, and as I continue to learn what my community needs from me. Although I’m not sure I would have chosen this path knowing all that was between here and there, I am happy to be in this middle place, full of potential.
In the spirit of transparency, I have summarized the events of this previous year (Penrose Press’s third year in business) for any who wish to know them. Author names are omitted to keep this letter from appearing in the search results for their work. Thank you in advance for taking the time to read.
Until recently, Penrose Press was a small business partnership, intent on growth, and presenting itself as an Independent Publisher. We accepted writing submissions from emerging Canadian authors and poets for publishing, with a mandate to support and guide them through their first foray into the publishing industry. We produced limited editions of handmade books at first, later with the addition of “paperback” digitally printed editions for financial and wide-spread accessibility. My then-business partner Natalie Lythe and I had an abundance of skills in our niches: she is a talented fiction editor, and I made some beautiful books, but neither of us had any experience in the actual publishing industry.
Because we were ignorant of the industry we professed to be a part of we let some of our authors down. We gave them our energy, enthusiasm and presented their work in ways that they never would have been elsewhere, but we didn’t prepare them for their second book deal, didn’t teach them what to ask for, didn’t pay advances. We tried to compensate for our limited runs by paying our authors a higher portion of the sale of each book than they would traditionally receive. A dollar a book is standard, and we were paying between $4 and $20 per book depending on its sale price. Some of the writers we worked with were happy with their collaborative experience, and some were disappointed. Between the Fall of 2017 and the Fall of 2019 we published nine titles.
In the Summer of 2019 we took on and then let go of a project while it was still in the early editing phase. When Natalie decided that the project required more editing than she was capable of, I supported her decision to discontinue it. Because we publish so few books, I didn’t want to move forward on a project that we weren’t 100% confident in. I regret my role in hurting and embarrassing this author.
In the Spring of 2020 we were preparing to launch a book. It was the best work of everyone involved and we were really proud of it. We were a bit nervous/disappointed in the global climate that we were launching it into. Because of COVID delays we (and many others) were forced into a deeply introspective, and critical perspective. What went into COVID would not come out the same. I had always had more time to work on Penrose than Natalie did, and more time than the marketing partner who had started a 6-month trial with us. When I drafted and presented a proposal that would allow me to put all my available time into Penrose and treat my two business collaborators as first-refusal contract workers, it was positively received. The trial marketing partner decided that they could no longer commit to the role we had planned (which was exactly why we did the trial run). Natalie was pleased not to have the pressure of an equal partnership. She wanted to be as involved as I needed her to be in a slightly reduced capacity.
As I contemplated what it meant to be an individual business owner with various contracted support, I addressed the component of the business that caused me the most stress and the least joy. I talked to Natalie about the notion of phasing out the paperback editions (digitally printed duplicates) of our books. I didn’t want to be responsible for them in the long term but I didn’t want to force authors to fully eliminate them. I proposed to complete the production of them for the book we were currently working on, and launch it as planned (fine press edition alongside paperback edition). Then in 6 months, I would transfer the rights and distribution information wholly to the authors themselves, seeking no further payment. If they wanted to, they could treat it as a self-published book and continue to sell it however they liked. Natalie and I discussed which of our authors were most likely to be receptive to the idea, and Natalie encouraged me to talk to our current author immediately because this change would have the most severe impact on them.
The author of the book-to-be-launched was very hurt by the notion that the publishing support that they had signed on for would be for a much shorter term than was laid out in our contract. Penrose had pledged to be responsible for this book for 5 years, and we were breaking the contract. I told the author that I would do whatever they needed me to do. The author decided that since I had voided our contract, they no longer wished to continue our professional relationship, and the book was cancelled.
Out of respect for Natalie’s reduced capacity. I wrote to all of Penrose’s previously published authors to notify them of the situation. Because the cancellation of the aforementioned book had to be announced immediately, this conversation had less back and forth than I had hoped for and I know some authors felt blindsided. I offered all of the authors (not only those whose contracts were voided by the proposal to discontinue paperbacks) the opportunity to reassess, and evaluate whether they wished to continue their professional relationship with Penrose considering that our future format would likely be different than it was when they approached us. Several of them have decided to sever ties, which I respect. For those authors I issued formal rights reversal letters, evidence of their ISBN’s “out of print” status, and returned all unsold volumes (fine press and digitally printed) of their published work to them. At their requests I also removed images and text from social media posts and penrosepress.ca.
I also wrote an official statement from the Penrose Press to announce the cancellation of the book on social media. Before I released it, I gave both Natalie and the author the opportunity to review it and make changes if they wished, which they did. I refunded all preorder purchases. I packed up all of the printed illustrations, covers, and text that I had been about to begin binding. This was a devastating time for all of us.
In the wake of the cancellation, Natalie decided that she no longer wished to be associated with Penrose Press in any capacity and dismissed our work over the last three years as: a publishing business started with friends for fun. I respectfully disagree.
Creative work is work. I have given my heart and soul to every collaboration I have had the privilege to work on in the last 3 years. I know that I have made mistakes and the impact of those mistakes is twofold when the person affected by the mistake is from a marginalized community. I have tried to amplify the voices of diverse writers and I know that I can do it better now than before. I will continue to do better across the entirety of my future creative career. The flexibility of this fresh start allows me to put new systems of antiracism and anti-bigotry into practise. In speaking with future collaborators, and potential collaborators over the last couple of weeks I have lead with my intention to do right by them, followed by my recent professional history so that they are fully aware of what they are entering into.
Thank you for taking the time to read. I have tried to put my emotions aside to address recent events, with inconsistent success. I am a whole human who has never been particularly good at setting emotion aside. If anyone wants to know how I feel about the things I have told you, please do reach out and I will be happy to speak one-on-one.