Dan Wells (BA 1996) worked 11 years to become an overnight book publishing success. The owner of Windsor’s Biblioasis publishing house and bookstore, he can boast publishing two of the five books shortlisted for the 2015 Giller Prize.
Its cash award of $100,000 makes it Canada’s largest literary prize. The current shortlist includes the Biblioasis publications Arvida by Samuel Archibald and Martin John by Anakana Schofield; its Confidence, by Russell Smith, also made it to the longlist.
Wells says he is happy to combat the stereotype that publishers must locate in a large centre.
“Being told I can’t do something usually invigorates me and makes me all the more determined,” he says. “We can afford to do things in Windsor that we couldn’t do in Toronto and I believe that Windsor could brand itself as a livable community for cultural industries.”
After buying a pile of books at an auction house in 1998, Wells opened up the first incarnation of Biblioasis as a bookstore on Ouellette Avenue in downtown Windsor. While others—including his mother—told him his business would fail, it expanded into a small regional press.
Wells calls himself the accidental publisher because his original plan was to open a bookstore where he would sit, read and write, until he returned to university for PhD studies.
“First, I got a taste for literary promotion as one of the principal organizers in the early years of Bookfest Windsor,” he says. “Then it turned out one of my regular customers, Dennis Priebe, had just left a 30-year-long career in publishing, so I started drawing knowledge from him.”
Wells also attributes success to working with literary editor John Metcalf, who has edited award-winning Canadian authors like Mavis Gallant and Alice Munro. Aligning with Metcalf, says Wells, helped create a trust between Biblioasis and quality writers.
A rise in rents forced Wells to relocate his business to his kitchen table, where he sold books online, continued publishing and saw his first title get a Giller nomination: 2010’s Light Lifting, by Alexander MacLeod. That boosted the company’s business and by 2012, Biblioasis had reopened a storefront, this time in Windsor’s historical Walkerville neighbourhood.
Even if neither of the works is announced as the winner on November 10, the shortlisting already pays off for Wells and his authors. On average, books like these would be lucky to sell 600 copies, he says, but a Giller nomination means they could sell 6,000 copies.
“These books are brilliant, and our job as publishers is to find as many readers for our authors and their books as possible,” he says. “The Giller prize has made it that much easier for us to reach thousands.”
Well’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed by his alma mater. Resident writing professional Marty Gervais often has Wells speak to his classes and English professor André Narbonne designed a fourth-year seminar class devoted to Biblioasis press.
Dr. Narbonne says Biblioasis is a press that matters, predating the latest Giller nominations. He says the class explores how a small Canadian press can survive printing literature that is not necessarily written by household names.
“One of Dan’s editors, John Metcalf, wrote in An Aesthetic Underground that ‘a press lives fully only when it creates a personality and a mythology,’ and the class was in many ways an examination of that statement,” says Narbonne. “What made it particularly good was the access students had to Biblioasis writers and staff.”
Most of those Biblioasis staff members are also UWindsor graduates. A Globe and Mail feature article on Wells and his press can be found online.