LILLARD, HISTORY COLUMN, 1991, Issue 3




Author Tags: History

In 1974, after 12 years as B.C.'s firs; full-time book publisher, Gray Campbell of Saanich sold Gray's Publishing. He said it was time to retire. Campbell, a co-founder of the Association of Book Publishers of B. C., had produced approximately 50 titles from his backyard offices most notably the coastal cruising classic The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet (a memoir for which Campbell supplied a new introduction in a revised 30th anniversary edition now available from Whitecap Books). At 79, the indomitable Gray Campbell has become president of a new publishing venture, Porthole Press, working in tandem with sf author Michael Coney; Porthole most recently published a large format, limited edition of Snowbirds (1990), a tribute to Canada’s most famous fling team. Porthole's other titles are Forest Ranger, Ahoy by Michael Coney (1983); Lost in the Woods: Child Survival by Colleen Politano (1984); Forest Adventure by Gray Campbell (1985) and Flynns Cove by Bethine Flynn (1986). Like so many B.C. publishers, Campbell originally entered the publishing field as a writer. Gray Campbell's reflections on the early days of professional book publishing in British Columbia were recorded by Charles Lillard.

WHEN I CAME OUT OF THE WAR I'D been flying Lancs. My wife said to me, 'I don't want you to wear a uniform anymore.' So we went cattle ranching for 12 years in southern Alberta. It was a big ranch and neither of us had known anything about cattle, but we succeeded. The government wanted to write it up since we'd achieved something. They wanted a government magazine article to glorify the government land act. My wife, being smart, said to me, 'If there's a. story there, you write it.' I wrote the article before they came out to interview me and I sold it to Macleans. Then Macleans changed the title. I'd called it We Found Peace but it was changed to Happy Landing at Squaw Butte. I was annoyed by that. So I sat down and wrote We Found Peace as a book. It was picked up in Toronto by Thomas Allen in 1953. Because I'd sold that book I thought it would be easy to live the rest of the way with writing.

"For reasons of health, we sold the ranch and came out to the Coast with our four young children. I started writing articles and another book, a sequel to We Found Peace, but it never got off the ground. In those days, to keep the kids active, we got a little sailboat and rented a house at Curtis Point. That's where we met Capi (M. Wylie) Blanchet. Unknown to us at the time, our boat happened to be moored next to her Caprice.

"Then in 1962 I started helping John Windsor write his book, Blind Date.

"John Windsor had been in the Strathcona Horse. In the Battle of Melfa River in 1942 he got blown up in tanks and blinded. He went to St. Dunstan's in England to be trained to deal with his blindness. He came out here and worked in a mattress factory and different places where they were doing something for veterans. Then he thought he'd try to write. So I phoned him up and said, 'John, you're going to write your book!' 'Where will I start?' was his reply. I said, 'What's your first problem in the morning?' 'Finding my other sock,' he said. I told him, 'Start right there.'

"When he got it finished I sent it to Toronto, and it came back. They said it was a good little story, but they couldn't sell 10,000 copies at $3 a piece. John then sent it to somebody else, and it came right back with a rejection slip. So I got a little bit mad and I went into the local (Sidney) Review office, which was then run by Clair Rivers whom r d known when he worked for the Lethbridge Herald. "Let's sit down for a minute,' he said, and we got pencils out and started to work.’How many do you want to print?' 'Three or four thousand copies,' I guessed. We can do it on the little press at the Review.' And I said okay. Friends in Banff said they would do the illustrations. So that's how Gray's Publishing got started.

"Around this time I went on the TV programme Live a Borrowed Life with Victoria's historian, James Nesbitt, and won $250. With that money I went to Jim Wakefield, the printer at the Review, and said, 'How much does it take to get this thing started?' 'How much have you got?' he said. I said, '$250' and Wakefield said, 'That's exactly how much we need: "Then I went over to see Bill Duthie. I'd known him when he was a travelling sales rep for Macmillan in those days they travelled by train with trunks of books, and took a sample room in a hotel and invited in the librarians and bookstore owners. Bill had started his bookstore by this time.

"I'm going to publish this fellow Windsor's book,' I said. Windsor had been in the tanks and so had Bill. Bill said, 'Don't do that. I'll send it to Macmillan: 'It's too late, I've already got it started: Well,' said Bill, 'okay, if you've made that mistake I'll help you when I can: "How do I get a book out?' I asked. 'Don't bring it out except at Christmas or Easter. Bring it out about July or August to hit the Christmas trade and get reviews by September: He gave me the whole drill.

"I learned more about book publishing through Bill's kindness.’Don't be like Howard Mitchell,' Bill said, 'He brought out a dandy book about four days before Christmas. By then it's too late: In those days Mitchell had a printing outfit in Vancouver and he was just about the only one who was doing regional publishing in B.C. He used to do one or two hardcovers a year when his press wasn't busy. He was really a printer. 'We weren't do-gooders, but you could see the market. And I still had this awful burn about Toronto. Why should everybody who wants to be somebody have to go to Toronto like Pierre Berton? That’s why we wanted to get established out here, to attract western writers and give them a hearing. "In those early days my son rode the bus across B.C. and jumped off at each stop and sold books. He'd phone from some place like Nelson to say he'd run out of books so I'd mail him express them some. He went all the way to Calgary and back. It was quite fun. Then I filled our car with books and went up and down the Island. We drove into the Cariboo, too. If there wasn't a book store, we went to the drugstore.” "I can remember when I started that there was an old Scotsman in Vancouver; he was there long before Bill Duthie. He wouldn't see me. He was in the back office and he said, 'Who is it?' And I said, 'A publisher from Sidney.' 'No,' he said, 'we only buy books from Toronto.' Afterwards we became good friends and he bought everything we published. But the initial reaction was that if it didn't come from Toronto, it isn't any good. There was also a little lady down on Douglas Street in Victoria she's been gone a long time. And Molly Charles was at Eaton's. But I didn't get a large reaction there. Cornish had a little store here in Sidney. And there was Jim Munro; he and I started about the same time.

"Pretty soon I started getting letters from some ladies up in Ladysmith who had been school teachers. One of them kept saying I must look up this 'George Clutesi'. He's telling us these wonderful stories about the legends of Indian ways.' 'We were going out to Tofino a lot, so one time going by Sproat Lake I dropped in to see George Clutesi. He was a disappointed man and he had his back up; he'd been rudely turned down in Toronto, I think. He was up on his roof and he didn't want to talk to me. So I had to climb up and sit beside him. I told him what I'd done, and he said, 'Well, I'll think about it.' I went home figuring it was a dead loss.

"About the time of Expo in Montreal the phone rang. It was George Clutesi. The Indian Department had hired him to go down and paint the mural on the longhouse. I met him at the airport and he handed me his manuscript. So that's how we got Son of Raven, Son of Deer (1967). "It was quite the thing no one else had gotten an Indian into print and it raised our prestige. Clutesi bounced right back with another book, Potlatch (1969). But Son of Raven was our big breakthrough; the Department of Education bought it by the thousands. I think we printed 60,000 in our second printing. "I must say, though, that before all this, we had neighbours out here like R.M. Patterson. He and I were old friends. The second big book that Gray's did was R.M. Patterson's Far Pastures (1963); it was our first hard cover. Evergreen came over and I had to sign I didn't have any capital a
demand note for $7000 to get Far Pastures printed. That would have lost us the house we'd just bought and our car. Fortunately we sold that book on Patterson's reputation in about four months, which paid off the printers. It made me look very good to Evergreen Press. I couldn't make any mistakes.

"Later Patterson asked me if I'd consider reprinting his book Dangerous River (George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1954), that had been published in New York and London. He'd been told by his publishers that Dangerous River had gone all over the world, and they didn't think there was a future market for it. I disagreed. He got clearance so Gray's went ahead, but his New York publisher said they'd retain the right to bring out a deluxe edition. That's how I got into Charlie Morriss's hands. In 1966 Morriss Printing in Victoria published a beautiful, deluxe edition of our own that New York couldn't better.

"We had to have a contract with Patterson. He lent us some of his English and New York contracts and I took them to Louis Lindholm, and he gave us our own contract, which we applied back to the authors we started with.

"When I started I didn't know anything about bookkeeping. I kept track of our books with a running inventory on a piece of cardboard. When we had a profit, we gave John Windsor half until we got a system going."

[BCBW 1991] "History"